Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Self-Publishing Experience

In the comments section of our previous post, "The Times They Are a’Changin’" a reader, BK, said she’d like to hear from someone who has published both traditionally and by self publishing during the last two years.

Well, I’m the only NovelMatters author who has gone both routes in the last two years. I’m not comfortable doing dollars and cents, but I can tell you from my experience some things you might not have considered.

Two years ago Zondervan released my non-fiction, The Mormon Mirage, and Moody published my fiction, Latter-day Cipher. They both had given me advances against the royalties that the books would subsequently earn at the rate of over 10 percent (I'm being deliberately imprecise here) on each copy sold at full retail price. So—until the point of “earning out,” technically I earned more than that percentage. Meanwhile, the publishers took the financial risk and paid for typesetting, cover design, editing, my book trailer, advance copies sent to reviewers, print advertisement, contacting radio and television stations, and many other elements of my books.

All of those became my job when my agent concluded that there was no interest from publishers in another nonfiction, The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith. But I knew there was tremendous interest in this book because I spoke on it so often. So with my agent’s blessing I self-published it last fall through Amazon CreateSpace. My profit on the books I buy and resell is more like 70%. But, again—all the manuscript and cover preparation was my job. All the publicity is my job.

But you know what – I’m loving it. The sales on the initial printings (which all sold from two speaking appointments, one newsletter blast, and announcements on NovelMatters and Facebook) have given me the funds to create some neat promotional products I’ll sell/give away when I’ll speak next month before 900 women at the Women Walking With God conference in Wichita Kansas.

Here’s a picture. From the top going clockwise: the back of my book, the front of my book, a pen imprinted with my website address, two wristbands that read, “It’s a Contradiction!” and my website address, a pocket-sized notebook, a bookmark that has the cover image on the front and a list of my most popular speaking topics on the back. Center: a checkbook cover with the “hinge” image crossing from front to back (just as the book has.)

I’d like to give away some of these promotional products to a NovelMatters reader. I will choose from the people who make comments below. If you can answer any of the following questions (have read the book), you will be entered twice:

What is the "hinge" of the book title?

What are the four layers that span the spines of the book and the checkbook cover?

What are the three phases of faith?

What is the meaning of the phrase, "It's a Contradiction!"?


Monday, March 28, 2011

The Times They are a'Changin' - A Roundtable Discussion

For the last 25 years of his life, my dad was a self-employed business owner in the San Francisco Bay Area. He provided custom binders for businesses, such as banks that offer binders to their customers for bank statements, with the bank's name and logo printed/silk screened onto it; or a company that provides a syllabus for each employee or conference attendee designed specifically for that purpose. In his office, Dad had floor-to-ceiling samples of colors and fabrics for the binders, as well as style samples. His business earned him a comfortable living . . .

until . . .

the advent of desktop publishing. In just a few short years, not only his job but his industry had become obsolete. Dad was forced into a retirement he wasn't ready for, because companies large and small had in-house designers who could do the job more quickly and economically, especially with the help of businesses like Staples. His business went the way of the buggy whip, as my husband likes to say.

While traditional book publishing (hopefully) will never become obsolete, the publishing world is in the throes of massive change as we speak. Bookstore chains of the brick and mortar variety that were the big draw of shopping malls have gone bankrupt, and countless jobs have been lost within the industry. That puts writers on shaky ground. Even writers who've had no trouble in the past securing multi-book contracts are feeling the tsunami effect of the sweeping changes taking place. Authors you'd never expect to hear this from are seriously talking about self-publishing. While that once delegitimized an author -- with a few notable exceptions -- it's an idea that's catching on.

There are pros and cons to be sure, and I for one am testing the waters. In 2004, I self-published a Christmas novella through WinePress, and was extremely pleased with the product, but even as recently as 2004, self-publication required that I purchase a certain number of books, many of which are still in boxes in my garage. I chose to self-publish then, with that particular book, because of the "specialty" nature of a Christmas novella. I'm not sorry I did, though I would love to find myself woefully short of product. This time around, with the ease and quality of print-on-demand books and e-books, I'm hoping for a happier ending to my self-publishing story. So let's talk pros and cons, shall we?

I'm looking at self-publishing very seriously. With ebooks becoming more and more popular -- some estimate that 50% of book sales will be digital by 2015 -- self-publishing means no longer having to fill your garage with books. The scary part is taking on the risk that conventional publishers took on before, like editing and book cover design. I'm determined to turn out a superior product to what I've done with my publishers, as amazingly supportive and talented as they were. That means cash. Up front. Risk. I may have to sell off some assets. Anyone need a porcelain pig or one million writing books? I do love the idea of increased creative freedom and a broader market. What say you?

I don't have much to say about self-publishing. I've never done it, and I'm not in a place right now where I'm looking to self-publish. For my contribution to this roundtable, I'd like to point to the uber self-publisher Amanda Hocking whose self published YA books have sold over one million copies. Is that the end of her success story? Nope. She just signed a publishing deal with St. Martin Press. She's a smart, interesting young woman and you might enjoy her blog post about why she signed with a publisher AFTER her massive self-publishing success. Read Amanda's story in her own words.

Patti mentioned my main reservations about self-publishing. A book that runs the gauntlet of traditional publishing has so many gate-keepers who know -- are trained to know -- what they're doing when it comes to editing, book covers, titles, you name it, and have marketing contacts and money to put in place for all the above. I can only imagine how disappointing it would be to write a terrific story but package or edit it poorly, or have it flounder because I can't afford to market the book like I feel it deserves. Worse still would be for reviewers to point out these shortcomings and say that it was poorly done. So, I'm currently wading on the edge of the pool and waiting for someone to signal that the water is fine so I can dive in with confidence. Sounds chicken? Yes! But right now it seems like the prudent thing to do.

This is a thorny issue. I've been publishing books in the CBA market for over three decades. I feel tremendous loyalty, especially to Zondervan who took a risk on a young, unknown writer just three years out of a mind-bending cult. On the other hand, even the best and greatest of publishers in 2011 are not financially able to take the kinds of risks that they did years ago. Because they must turn down some good, solid books with less "star" potential doesn't mean that the books must remain unpublished. That's why I self-published a nonfiction last year; and, God willing, I'll re-release some previously successful and timeless OOP books (to which I've retained the rights) later this year. I realize the marketing and distribution will all be on my shoulders, but so far with Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith, I've been pleasantly surprised at the good results.

I'm on the side of the pool with Debbie, wondering if authors are having more fun in the water -- while also watching for sharks. But I've seen some fabulous manuscripts wait and wait and wait to find a publisher brave enough to court new markets in this economy, and I know I'd rather see their authors jump in than give up. Faced with that choice, I'd take the dive myself.

We know from previous comments that some of you have self-published. We'd so appreciate hearing from you regarding your experience with self-publication. Would you consider your efforts successful? Would you do it again? What were some of the benefits, and what were some of the drawbacks? If you would not self-publish, we'd love for you to share your reasons why. Thank you in advance for what we know will be a good discussion.

Friday, March 25, 2011

How to Dissect A Writer

The posts and comments this week made me cringe, knowing how it feels to have to tell someone, no I can't write your book for you, no I wouldn't presume to edit your work.

And of course, I've been on the other side, and I know that feeling just as well.

Before I was a published author, I hated admitting to people that I wanted to be one. Let the word get out - often from the lips of my dear, supportive husband - and near strangers would give me that look. If you're a writer, I'm sure you've seen it: the patronizing smile that verges on ridicule. (Remember the scene in "The King's Speech" where Lionel Logue auditions in vain for the role of King Richard II before a smirking panel of ... snots? That look.)

Let me recount a nightmare from those "before" days:

I served on a church committee with - among others - an accountant, and as a committee we were charged with - among other things - writing a skit for an upcoming event.

When the writing assignment came up in a meeting, all the members looked at the ceiling and sat on their hands. As much as I hated to expose my dream, I lifted my hand just to shoulder height, but with the quietest thrill of anticipation. Wait till everyone saw what I could do with a story.

I did mention the accountant, right?

Now understand, this was a one-person assignment. Other people had their jobs; this was mine. But when, after hours of love and labor I proudly turned in one doozey of a skit, the accountant took it home. And brought it back. With red ink splashed so thick you would think someone had been knifed to death on top of it.

Trust me when I tell you, he'd ruined my work. He'd put in fifty-cent words (the more obscure the better) where two bit words were just right. He'd made my down-home characters all talk like members of parliament. He'd drained the life right out of my darling, and when he handed it back, he gave me that look, and said, "Everybody thinks they can write, but you know, it actually takes a lot of work."

I did know.

And now that my name shows up on books you can buy, people think I can take their manuscripts to my agent and get them a contract.

I have to be gentle. I know how they feel. I know how wrong people - even writers - can be. And best of all, I know how dramatically, and how quickly a writer's work can improve. Because while my skit didn't need an accountant, I'm sure it did need a good editor. I was not then the writer I would become. For more on that story, you might want to look back on a previous post, "Everything Can Change."

For now, let me say how proud we are of all of you, how thrilled we are over your successes, and what hopes we have for each of you. Do keep writing, if that is your call. Do keep coming here. And do tell us about the "accountants" in your lives.

We love to read what you have to say.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Smile When you Say That.

I saw an advertisement once it read, “Make 100,000 a year as a writer”. The ad went on to explain how you could snag writing gigs all over the place: writing contracts for corporations, writing manuals, medical files, proofingadvertisements, you name it.
I thought, That’s not writing. That’s just putting words on paper. The idea of spending my days up to my eyeballs in lifeless words made me ill.
A little later, I read another advertisement that promised I could make a comfortable living writing articles for magazines. I have no doubt this is true, I know many writers who write almost exclusively for magazines. What rankled me was the next line: Anyone can earn a living writing for magazines! It’s just that easy! Aside from the fact that writing for magazines is not ‘just that easy,’ I had to wonder: why are we preoccupied with easy? What has easy every brought us except a consumer mentality and laziness? Do we earnestly believe that we deserve big dividends from little or no effort?
On Monday, Latayne shared her difficult experience with a friend who thought he’d like to write a book. I’ve had my share of encounters with novice writers (including being one myself), and I’ve discovered some ways to navigate the minefield discussion without exploding.

1. Say no to family and friends. I never read unpublished work from family or close friends. Here’s what I say, “I’m too crazy about you to read this. I’m not objective – I’ll love it and it won’t help you a bit. You need an unbiased reader who will be able to see the flaws, and offer real help.”

2. Say no to co-workers. Recently someone at work said, “I should get you to help me get an agent. I write fiction.” I asked my three diagnostic questions: what did he write? (fantasy) What did he read? (um, uh, well, it’s hard to find good fantasy novels) What classes, workshops, or conferences he had attended? (none so far). By the end of the third question he understood he wasn’t ready to talk to an agent. Just to be certain we wouldn’t have to repeat this conversation, I asked, “Would your writing blow me away? It is exquisite? Is the novel professionally polished?” The conversation was over.

3. Say no to strangers. I received an email recently from someone who knows my parents. I’ve never met the person. He wrote asking for help to become published. I suggested a number of steps that have helped me over the years, conferences, books, courses, associations. And. Nothing. More. I wished him well, and didn’t leave the door open for him to write for more hands on help. Was that unkind? No. He writes children’s book – something utterly outside my experience as a writer. I advised him to start meeting other children’s book writers. He’ll be happy when he does.

4. Say yes-but to colleagues, conference attendees and blog friends. There is a small group of writers I always say yes to. The Novel Matters women (in fact, I think I’ve begged to read some of their manuscripts pre-pub), and two or three others. I do this because reading their work is a joy – and my feedback is usually short an unnecessary.
I make myself available to writers at conferences, and through this blog. I love each encounter – partly because I set the ground rules early. I give these lovely people my ‘yes-but’. 99% of the time, I honestly cannot read full manuscripts for critique. I’m a wife, a mom, a writer, I work part-time, and my husband is a pastor. I make honest assessments of the time I can spend reading other people’s work, and I then I say “yes-but I can only offer to read the first three chapters”, or “I can help with the synopsis.”

Does this list work every time? Nah. I’ve been told I was a bad Christian because I said no to reading someone’s work. I’ve passed on reading someone’s work and regretted it because I would have loved to know more about the story they were writing. But it helps when I remind myself that knowing me and hearing my ideas isn’t anyone’s golden ticket. And that while most of the time I must say no, when I do say yes I mean it, go deep, give it my full attention, and only offer ideas I think will be helpful and constructive. In other words, I just do the best I can with what I have to give.
How have you managed to say no when you needed to? How hard was it? Share!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sadder but Wiser?

Years ago an old friend approached me. He was retired now, and wanted to write a book. Would I look it over and tell him what I thought?

It was very, very long. To say that it was painful to read would be too kind. It was a grammatical mess and a spelling bee where most of the words had to sit down. The thread-thin plot plodded, the characters had no characteristics, the descriptions – well, they didn’t describe.

I tried gently to tell him that it needed work. I advised a writing class, or joining a critique group. He pushed and pushed. If I would just mark the manuscript with the problem areas, he would work on it. Against my better judgment, I spent many hours correcting (only the first instances) of misspelled words, suggesting places to add description, giving some writing prompts. With his passion for his book, I thought he’d be grateful.

He wanted me to rewrite it. I declined. He took it to another mutual friend who was a schoolteacher and wore her out editing it. Along the way, I discovered that it had been 30 years since he had read a book in the genre he was attempting. And that he resented the heck out of me because I wouldn’t ghost write his book for him – after all, writing was easy, he knew that.

The more I gave, the more he demanded. And never once during that time did this man with limitless time and a comfortable income ever offer appreciation – not verbally, not even buying me a cup of coffee.

I hope this doesn’t sound bitter. I look back on that experience and see a reflection of something my mother once told me: Don’t ever give a handcrafted item you’ve made to someone who doesn’t make things—they won’t appreciate it.

I realize I could be treading on dangerous ground, writing a column dissing beginning writers. But I don’t think the people who read NovelMatters – whether pre-published or already-published--think writing is easy. They respect the craft, and respect the journey.

Do you have a horror story of trying to help someone with his or her writing?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Taming the Perfectionist Monster

Welcome to our book talk on Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott. We're discussing the chapter "Perfectionism" today. Even if you haven't read the chapter, we invite you to add your voice. We learn so much from what you offer.

"I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it." Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I. Am. Not. A. Perfectionist.

I just happen to be very, very, very conscientious.

Are you buying this?

You shouldn't. I'm a charter member of the Perfectionist Club of North America, a gold cardholder for decades. If they gave sky miles for perfectionism, I would be on my gazillionth trip around the world right now, sipping an espresso on the Rue de la Paix.

So how is it I've managed to write six first drafts and complete the novels?

It wasn't easy. It took over a year to move from the research stage of my first novel to the point where I was willing to put a few words on a blank page, which I fixed and fixed and fixed ad naseum. And then I read Bird by Bird.

I agree with Anne. It takes a belief in God to gain the "courage and stamina" to write that inglorious first draft. Like the children of Israel crossing into the Promised Land, we have to get our feet wet, or select the five polished stones from the stream to face a Goliath-like rough draft or cling to the hem of Jesus' garment and never ever let go. Paul's prayer in Ephesians hits the mark: "I ask the Father in His great glory to give you the power to be strong inwardly through His Spirit." Also, it doesn't hurt to keep compassionate company with yourself. If you're willing to smile at others when they get something all wrong, you should do the same for yourself as Geneen Roth suggests.

But chances are, if you're a perfectionist, you learned early in life that people value you for what you can do. You're comfortable with your perfectionism or you have reached an alliance that works for you. It's been a tool for success in many cases. You can't just turn your personality knob from perfectionist to reckless abandon, but perfectionism will not get you through a first draft, the draft meant to be nothing more than a framework for the beauty to come later. Yep, my throat tightens around those words, too.

Here's where I benefitted from the wisdom of two stellar writers. Early in my writing days I read something Jane Hamilton (A Map of the World) said in an interview. Here's the gist of what she said: "If I can't ride my horse every day and weed the garden and read to my children, I won't be much of a storyteller, so I only write two pages a day." Well, I decided to best her by 50% and write three pages a day. And I follow Anne's suggestion about first drafts, which allows me to write those poopy drafts, knowing I can come back the next day and tidy them up a bit before plugging ahead on the next three pages. This plan allows the perfectionist in me to loosen up a bit.

You're probably thinking, three pages a day? Yep, that's my limit. Just thinking about NaNoWriMo gives me hives. The thought of 50,000 words of dreck undoes me. Won't go there. My rough drafts are definitely pokier than most, but they happen. Like me, you'll have to negotiate with your perfectionistic tendencies to find your acceptable perameters.

Especially for the perfectionist, it's nice to hear how even the most talented and prolific among us struggle. This quote of Kurt Vonnegut's makes me want to take a dandelion-yellow crayon between my teeth: "When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth."

The very good news is that perfectionists are great at revision. Stay tuned!

Does perfectionism prevent you from pressing on while writing your first draft--or starting it? How do you tame your perfectionism? Are there ways you work at not looking at your feet as you run over the stepping stones?

I think we can pick up the pace by reading the next three chapters: "School Lunches," "Polaroids," and "Characters" for our book talk on April 1st.

Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best. ~Henry van Dyke

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Bridge of Words

One of my favorite books for contemplation is Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle. When I'm working, I tend to focus downward and inward - at my keyboard, my notes, my reference books, my experiences. Her thoughts draw my sight upward and outward, beyond my narrow boundaries. I am especially encouraged to know that after she was published, she experienced periods of disillusionment and rejection. These two bad boys can be paralyzing to creativity. They are a normal part of the process we all go through in our writing. So what is it that drives us to keep going when we encounter them? Ms. L'Engle would say that part of the driving force is the desire to communicate. All artists want to communicate, be they writers, painters, sculptors or composers. We want our works to be seen, read, heard and experienced to have life breathed into them.

"Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been stillborn." She goes on to affirm the vast importance of the reader, that without readers our stories will never truly live. Contrary to watching TV, where we are a passive audience, the reader partners as creator with the written word - imagining, hearing, and visualizing the story. "The author and the reader 'know' each other; they meet on the bridge of words."

The tangible elements of story such as a character's physical description, the way his shoes pinch, or the scent of flowers at his father's funeral are easier to communicate than his character and motives. He may not always react in expected ways. If we are careless or fail to communicate how we feel about these things, we break that tenuous bond between creators. It is imperative that we work diligently to perfect our art in order that the message is clear, yet winsome and not heavy-handed or contrived. The bridges we build lead to more than an afternoon's distraction. They serve an eternal, life-giving purpose.

In another quote, she states, "Jesus was not a theologian. He was God who told stories." When Jesus told parables, the masses (as 'reader-hearers') became creators, too. Jesus was able to communicate great truths by meeting them on the bridge of words. In actively listening and visualizing, they took steps toward him to cross the bridge. When we partner with Christ to share his truths through story, he empowers us. We become bridge builders.

God chooses to use us to communicate through art to people who are willing to meet us on the bridge. Who are we to be chosen, we may ask? I leave you with one last quote:
"In a very real sense not one of us is qualified...If we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there's no danger that we will confuse God's work with our own, or God's glory with our own."

Do you think of yourself as a bridge-builder and how does that impact your writing and ability to meet discouragement?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Buskers in the Marketplace - A She Reads Post by Ariel Allison

Today's post is a guest post by Ariel Allison from our sister blog, She Reads!

I think of an author as somebody who goes into the marketplace and puts down his rug and says, I will tell you a story, and then he passes the hat.”
– Robertson Davies

The above quote is scratched on a Post-It and pressed to the top of a notebook that I drag around the house. I am a writer in transit, my office moves depending on the needs of my family. One moment I’m banished to the bedroom, the next the dining room table. But the notebook moves with me, as does the reminder that as a writer I’m nothing more than a busker in the marketplace, hawking my wares to the passerby. Sort of like this fellow:

“I am a liar, see, and you’re not to believe a word of what I tells you.” The old man flicks a piece of straw from the edge of his rug. Grins. “Even if it is true.”

Off to the side, a crone plucks at the strings of a lyre. Her knuckles bulge with arthritis, but still the melody is hypnotic. The small crowd leans in to hear her music and his story.

“Most don’t believe me anyhow, sez my tale can’t be true what with the mermaid and all. But I knows what happened that day, just before the storm.” He pushes a tattered hat closer to the onlookers with one toe and continues in a sing-song voice, “Billy Gray took her by the milk-white hand, and he threw her in the main; since then a full-five-and-twenty-hundred ships have sunk along the coast of Spain.”

“Rubbish!” The voice rises from the back, a young man, not old enough for a proper beard. “That’s a fleet, old timer. Such a thing never happened in my lifetime. Or yours.”

“Get on with you, then. You’ve no knowledge of the times of my life. And no stomach to hear of Poseidon’s wrath upon losing his daughter. Run along home, little boy. These fine folk want to hear a story.”

A few scattered nods bob through the crowd and the old woman laughs, melodic, fingers never leaving her lyre. She sways to the rhythm of her own making, cords of silver hair dangling at her waist.

“See, this Billy was a shrewd one. The sea ran through his veins eight generations deep. Saltwater for blood. And he paid attention as a lad when the old men whispered over fires and too many pints, knew that when a white squall bears down on a ship, the only way to gain safe passage is with a mermaid on board. She’s duty bound to protect the ones in her care. If you can catch her.”

A tiny sprite of a girl inches from her mother’s side toward the rug where the old man sits cross-legged. Her voice little more than a whisper, “How do you catch a mermaid?”

“Ah, now, that’s a trade secret. Alls I can tell you is that to catch a mermaid you has the have the one thing she wants. And then she comes to you.”

“Surely no one believes this old codger? He’ll take your money and drink it at the pub. Mark my words.” The heckler pushes his way to the front and waves a finger in the storyteller’s face. “The merrow-folk are nothing more than legend.”

The old couple laughs, their voices blending like sea and sand. “Such are the words of the young and foolish. Isn’t that right, Maran?”

In answer she plucks a lonesome tune from the lyre while she sings:

I am the star that rises from the sea, the twilight sea.
I bring men dreams that rule their destiny.
I bring the dream-tides to the souls of men;
The tides that ebb and flow and ebb again –
These are my secrets, these belong to me
. *
Even before her song has faded, hands are thrust deep in pockets, searching for stray coins. They clink like tiny bells as they fall into the hat.

“Thank you kindly, but remember, I am a liar, and you’re not to believe a word of what I say.”

The child steps onto his rug and drops a single coin into the hat. “Even if it’s true?”

The old man retrieves it from the dark fold, winks, and presses it into her palm. He folds her little fingers around the coin. “Especially then.”

“And your name, sir? You never said.”

“I was born a William. But my friends call me Gray.”

* Lyrics by Dion Fortune (1890 – 1946)

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Art of Character Development

Before I get down to business I'd like to wish Latayne a very Happy Birthday!
Bonnie and Latayne knocked it out of the park with their posts this week, and on one of my very favorite topics. I love talking about character development. Bonnie brought the process alive in a very unique way by allowing her character Joan to tell us about character development from her point of view. An amazing bit of writing, Bonnie. I loved it. Then Latayne documented how a book can develop its own personality and take the reins from the author, often with an inspired outcome. That could be psychological---emanating from a deep place within the author---or it could be divine. I suspect it's a bit of both.
Joan (a very interesting character that I look forward to reading more about) told us that Bonnie "had to travel to that aching place to find me." Latayne wrote that her book "proved to have a mind of its own ... It has opened dark cupboards I had forgotten, and dragged out their contents." Judging from your comments, these statements spoke to you as they did me. I know a lot about characters finding that aching place, and dragging things out of cupboards that are best left forgotten, as I suspect you do. I'm about to finish a novel that has been most difficult to write. I'm on the final stretch and I can't wait to cross the finish line. This book has dug around in that aching place from page one. I relate to my POV character more than any other I've written. She and I have been one on this journey. I've looked for catharsis in the writing of this story, but what I've found is what I suspected all along: sometimes there is none. That in itself may be cathartic.
But isn't "story" all about dark cupboards and that aching place? Getting beyond surface issues to the heart of the struggles that make us human? And charting the growth that comes from the very worst circumstances? Don't we place our characters, by precise design, into those circumstances for the purpose of seeing them become someone better and stronger and more able to help others through their own challenges? It is for the fiction I love to read and the fiction I love to write. While I've known this for years, I'd never seen myself as a real-life POV character quite like I did after reading Lynn Dean's winning essay in our March Forth contest. She wrote, "Like a book, the story of our lives has an Author who perfects our faith---One who endured for the sake of a happy ending and emerged victorious. As in a novel, the divine Author writes struggle into our stories, shaping our character through conflict. Without challenges we have no story. Without obstacles we do not grow. And yet our Author paces our stories, interspersing times of trial with Sabbath sequels." What a beautiful portrayal of the life of the believer. What a beautiful portrayal of the Divine Author.
I truly love fleshing out characters in the writing process, who first come "mute" and "unfounded" as Bonnie wrote, then evolve into 3-dimensional people we know as well as we know ourselves. But getting to know them is like getting to know anyone, one layer at a time. The art of character development is letting our readers come to know them the very same way, a little at a time (because I for one don't trust people who bare it all too soon), until they're such close friends they don't want to say goodbye at the end of the book. That to me is the ultimate test in a story's success, when I close the cover and want to linger in the afterglow. When I don't even want to lay the book down for fear of losing the connection. That doesn't happen nearly often enough, but when it does I know the author has done her job. And I love it.
Right now I'm getting to know a brand new character, and all I can say is, "It's about time." For the past 20+ years, about 2/3 of the way through every novel I've written, a story-worthy idea has come to me, and every time it's resulted in a completed novel. Like most authors, I get ideas all the time, but it's the story-worthy idea I wait for, because not all ideas qualify. But here I am, nearing the end of my WIP, with no clear direction of where to go from here. Until a few nights ago, that is. I had just gone to bed and was giving my imagination a few more minutes to play when all of a sudden my very earliest memory came to mind. I know enough by now to know my thoughts at such times aren't random so, using the wonderful lighted notebook Debbie told us about a couple of years ago, I wrote down my thoughts. And waited. Because that's how it works with me. My imagination gives me one bite, then another. And I know the process can take a while, so I relax and go with the flow. What emerged was the face and name of a 15 or 16 year old girl. And then, as I lay there in the dark, I discovered her very earliest memory. It was even more traumatic than mine. And from that came the opening line of what I hope will be my next WIP. Now other characters are presenting themselves to me along with plot points. I write them down but, as I always do, keep everyone at bay until my current novel is finished. But how I love the process. How I look forward to getting to know them.
That's how it works with me. What about you? As a novelist how do you get acquainted with your characters? As a reader what was the last book you read that left you wanting to linger in the afterglow?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Marching Forth - We Have a Winner!

And it's Lynn Dean, who dares to flout the rules, and, so doing, finds courage to march forth.

Lynn dear, two things:
  1. Get a copy of Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen, and read the last chapter. I promise, once you've read it, you'll want to read the whole novel.
  2. Send us your address at novelmatters at gmail dot com.
Here's Lynn's entry:

Small nagging worries are like cockleburs that cling to us as we stumble through our uncharted days. Annoying, but a distraction too insignificant to impede progress. Real fear has talons. It rips and tears at our resolve. It dogs us late into the night and, when we finally collapse into our beds, leaves us frantic and panting as we imagine the worst.

We cower, convinced that risk is too risky—that we should never again venture far from what is known and certain.

Maybe that’s why I read the last chapter of a book immediately after reading the first. Once I know what the hero is up against, I crave the reassurance that all will end well. The unknown becomes known, uncertainties certain. I find strength in an ending that is happy, or at least satisfying, proving that whatever comes the risk was worth it. If only real life was like a book.

But isn’t it?

Like a book, the story of our lives has an Author who perfects our faith—One who endured for the sake of a happy ending and emerged victorious.

As in a novel, the divine Author writes struggle into our stories, shaping our character through conflict. Without challenges we have no story. Without obstacles we do not grow. And yet our Author paces our stories, interspersing times of trial with Sabbath sequels. Selah.

And so I will continue my quirky reading habit. My friends may laugh, but I’ve read the last chapter. We win! And so we march forth.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

When Your Book Acquires Personality

Our daughter is a lovely, intelligent, spiritual, healthy, well-rounded young woman. It’s hard to believe that she had some major health problems when she was a child. When she was eight years old, she developed a rare malignant tumor, an eosinophilic granuloma, that made a half-dollar-sized hole in her skull.


Three years later I began writing a book under contract to Zondervan about how to pray in a crisis, based on what I learned through that experience. Just as I was in the midst of writing the book, my daughter fell from a rope that broke, into a brick wall, and had a closed-head concussion on the other side of her skull. Then three weeks later my mother had a debilitating illness.

(My son asked me, “Mom, why do you think we’re having so many crisis things happen when you’re writing a book on crisis?” Me: “Maybe it’s on-the-job training.” Him: “Why don’t you start a book about getting rich?")

Sometimes a book develops differently because of outside circumstances, as this one undoubtedly did. But when Bonnie wrote her post that personified her protagonist-as-protagonist (can we call this a new literary device, protag as protag?), it reminded me of what I wrote in the last chapter of my own book, Crisis: Crucible of Praise:

From the beginning, writing this book has been like raising a child, a headstrong child at that. I originally planned for it to be well-behaved, an example for others.

But as it matured, it proved to have a mind of its own. It has run off into places I never intended it to go. It has opened dark cupboards I had forgotten, and dragged out their contents. Instead of it being the reflection of the good qualities I wanted to pass on, it has, like all children, shown its parent to be weak, vulnerable, and prone to mistakes.

Have you felt that a book you’re writing or have written developed personality? Can you share an example?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Creating Character - A different perspective

The following post is by the protagonist in my novel-in-progress titled, A Girl Named Fish. It is the creation of character from the character’s point of view.
I am Joan, though I’ve had other names. Some names I was called only for a moment, an identity that burst through the soil of my creator’s mind, only to shrivel under the heat of scrutiny. Those were difficult days. I was mute. Unfounded.

I’m not like you. I can recall my primordial. Can construct my world’s genesis with intact steps. Mine is a creation of misunderstanding. Of being known as much by what I am not as by what I am – have turned out to be.

My world shakes with violent change that sometimes swallows people whole. Sometimes spits other people up from the ground. I gather the ones I love most near me, as near as possible, trying to keep them safe from a wrath that seems intentional and arbitrary. I try, but my creator spreads us over the landscape of story, which rises up, and then caverns down, forming a strange topography only she understands – if she truly does understand. There is evidence she does not. I can only hold on and trust there is a plan.

Not only my surroundings change, but also the world that exists when I close my eyes. My inner world morphs, my own mind changes. My memory roughens. My demons grow teeth.

All of this takes too much time. It is too slow an upheaval to be bore. I am alone too much. When my creator isn’t looking, I flag in stillness. A glance from her, and I spurt like a summer vine. But she looks away too often. I know why. It’s because of where I come from. She had to travel to the aching place to find me. She had to journey to the cry in the spine in order to unearth me from under my cloak of strange grace.

I am glad she has persisted. I have my own skin now, and I like having form and substance. Spirit moves freely, but it is my bones that make me real. That give me voice. Ah voice. I speak to my creator now. She listens closely. Drops my words on a scale, measuring them is if they were her own idea. But I am naming the world now. I do this from a memory I carry with me from the aching place.

I speak to my creator in somatic impressions, which I press into the cells of her body. The smell, taste, and sound of all that I am, all that exists in the story in which I dwell. I bring these impressions to life in my creator’s organs and limbs, her bones as well as her brain. I crawl around inside her skin until she’s forced to scratch me out with her words.

Yes, I leave the words to her –the nouns, the verbs they are of no concern. What matters to me is that I am understood. That my story transfers into the mind of my creator. My real story is the one my creator did not create, but discovered within the aching place. I have become an invasion of terrible clarity.

She is responsible for the words. I am the one who brings the knife of whole truth and uses it to tear the temple veil, and reveal the holy of holies inside her mind. And Bonnie discovers I exist, not to change the world, but to change her.

Friday, March 4, 2011

March Forth! (And win a prize)

The way we see it at Novel Matters, any day with a name like this deserves commemoration. It should be announced with shoulders pressed back, heads high, and fists thrust in the direction to which we intend to--

You do intend to march forth, don't you?

Oh, I know. There are days when you crawl, creep, cringe and grovel. (I have a thesaurus and I'm not afraid to use it.)

If you're a writer, times are... well, publishing houses are corporations, and most corporations are dog-paddling, trying to stay afloat, laying aside every encumbrance. Authors rightly fear that they personally may be seen as encumbrances, laid aside, or never taken up in the first place.

You yourself may have been forced to view things once cherished or taken-for-granted as encumbrances. Things like spending money, free time, time to write. Do you stand with your knife over the altar, ready to make the sacrifice, or have you done the deed already?

We ladies at Novel Matters get it. We've been there. We are there. Things just don't work the way they used to, and perhaps they never will.

And yet:

Any writer who has ever written a sonnet or a cinquain or blank verse has a certain advantage at times like these.

Poetry can drive you nuts. All those limits. It has to have this many lines with this many syllables. Certain syllables have to rhyme. The stresses have to go here and here and here, but not there or there. You know what you want to say, but everywhere you turn you hit a wall.

You know about hitting walls. Fight them or give in too easily, just write the words that fit but not necessarily the words that work, and the poem fails. But if you submit to the limits, if you relax into them, then your mind begins to work in creative new ways that surprise and delight even you.

Isn't this a fine time to think in creative new ways?

Dr. Seuss knew something about this. in 1955, he was asked to create a book that a first-grader could read by himself, a book with a vocabulary of only 300 simple words. He accepted those limits and wrote The Cat in the Hat. Later, his publisher challenged him to write a book using a vocabulary of 50 words. He wrote Green Eggs and Ham. (Striped top-hat-tip to Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac.)

Creativity can go a long way, but we Christian authors have another advantage. We know there is a plan. It may resemble our plan, but - contrary God that we serve - it often doesn't. Nevertheless, we know that it is a good plan, and - let this sink in - we know it will not fail. As Timothy Keller said in a recent podcast titled "Does God Control Everything?," nothing we do or anyone else does can mess up God's plan. Nothing.

Doesn't that free us to be adventurers? To play like artists, to sleep like babies and wake up praying, "What's next, Papa?" And then to march forth? Things may work the way we hope or they may not, but either way, there's a plan and it will not fail. Whatever happens, we win.

Oh, and that reminds me: you can win a very helpful book for marching forth: The 2011 Christian Writers Market Guide.

And how can you win it? Simple:
  • write us a 300 word essay (that's three hundred words, no more) about how you intend to march forth in the coming days or weeks.
  • Don't post it in the comments. Send it in the body of an email to novelmatters at gmail dot com.
  • In the subject line write: March Forth!
We'll post the winning essay on Monday Thursday. (Sorry - the other ladies injected a bit of sanity here. You need time to write, and we need time to read.)

After you send the essay, please share your thoughts in the comments. We do love to read what you have to say.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Quiet Down!

Welcome to our book talk on Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, the perfect literary companion. Today, we'll be discussing the chapter on first drafts. We welcome all comments whether you've read the chapter or not.

Human Growth and Development was a required course for prospective teachers when I went back to school in my thirties. My sons were early teens by that time, so I used them as reference points. Ah yes, I would say to myself as I read about psycho-social development, that explains Matt to a T. And when I learned that teenagers grow from the hinter regions inward, I understood why Geoff tripped over his feet so often. They were enormous!

Here's something else I remembered learning about brain development in teenagers. It seems they have an invisible audience following them everywhere they go. The audience is not kind. They hurl insults like rotten tomatoes. Every flaw is held up for ridicule. Every step is questioned. Every word, well, every misspoken word is seared into long-term memory with a branding iron of contempt. The professor claimed this was all part of normal brain development.

In Anne Lamott's chapter--stay with me, now--"S****y First Drafts," I read about her "voices" with rapt attention. After all, my invisible audience still resides in my head, badmouthing every word I commit to the page. Either my brain hasn't developed beyond adolescence, or I've made it too comfortable for the invisible audience to stay. They show no signs of leaving soon. Or maybe, just maybe, the development specialists got it wrong. Those voices stay with us for a life-time.

Anne's too practical to send them off. Too much energy expended for that battle. No, she suggests ways to quiet them:

Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar...

Obviously, Anne never used a killing jar for an insect collection. My throat tightened just reading the words. This image did NOT quiet voices, but my heart rate when aerobic. After some experimentation, however, I discovered that a simple speech and a pat on my back was all I needed to soften the voices, something like this:

Lucky for you no one is ever going to see what you write today, Patti. You're framing an idea, something you can pretty up tomorrow or the next day. You won't write War and Peace in the time you have, but you'll write a small piece of something that has the potential to grow in beauty. Your job today is to have fun, lots and lots of fun. Now, put your heinie in the chair and start typing.

Here's your chance to address your snarky, invisible audience. Write out a speech in the comment section to quiet their voices, or comment on Anne's take of the first draft, what some of us call the sloppy copy. I confess, the myth of the author sitting down and writing flawlessly in one draft kept me from considering myself a writer for a long, long time. Oh, the wasted years. Was there anything else in this chapter that jumped out at you? We'll move onto perfectionism on the 18th, a topic I invented.