Friday, April 29, 2011

5 Things to Consider Before You Spend Time Editing

Congratulations to William & Kate on a beautiful wedding! Best wishes & God bless your marriage.

Sharon, thanks for that great link you posted on Wednesday for the ten mistakes writers don’t see. I’ve read a few of the books that were quoted and the author put names to the things that were vague or just didn’t settle well when I read them. Smart guy.

I would say that there are a few basic questions that need answering before a writer invests a lot of time line editing a manuscript. To begin, put the manuscript away. Let it cool off. A really long time. Resist the urge to peek. When so much time has passed that you hardly recognize it, take the manuscript to a neutral setting and read it through all at once. As you read, consider these questions:

  • Does the story begin in the right place? Back story has no place at the front. If the action begins too quickly, we may not know enough about the protagonist to care what is happening. Is there a good hook in the opening?
  • Are there too many characters? Does the reader have trouble keeping them straight? Are some characters too similar? Are any clichéd?
  • Did you use the best POV? Just to make sure, write a chapter from another character’s viewpoint. Is it an improvement? Does it add an interesting dimension to the story?
  • Is the setting real? Readers need to be grounded in the setting, both in the story overall and in each scene. Will readers ask if it’s a real place?
  • Is the story feasible or contrived? Is the story based on coincidence? Unless it’s a story about coincidence, it won’t have credibility. Does the hero/heroine solve the issue on his/her own or are they rescued?

When you’re certain these five questions have been answered, start work on the micro corrections like grammar, punctuation, spelling and word choice. When it is so polished that you can see your reflection in it (gosh, I look older – how long ago did this whole process begin?) put it away AGAIN. Let it cool.

Now it’s time for the last read-through. This time, you’re looking for any passage, sentence or word that causes you to stumble, even in your head voice. It could be an awkward sentence or an unfamiliar word or one that paints a dissonant word picture. Be dispassionate. Be ruthless. If something causes your reader to stop and consider, they may decide to put the book down and make tea. And making tea, they may realize they are hungry and get out a box of macaroni and cheese. And when they look for milk, they realize the carton has passed its expiration date and decide to make a grocery list. So they pull out the cookbook their daughter gave them and start perusing recipes so they can list ingredients on the grocery list, and – well, you get the picture. If you give a mouse a cookie… Don’t give the reader that cookie, or, er, whatever.

Eventually you have to stop editing and submit the manuscript. How do you know when it's time? Well, how about you?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Long Moments and Other Things that Drive Me Nuts

On Monday I wrote THE END on a novel I've been working on for two years. It was a difficult story to write, and I really rejoiced when I completed it. So what's next for this manuscript? Well, besides seeking expert input from some of my Novel Matters pals who have time enough to read it right now, I go back to the beginning and start my edits. Some of you love this part of the writing process. I don't happen to. But do I think it's necessary? Absolutely.

I came across an article more than a year ago titled "The Ten Mistakes" by Pat Holt that I thought would be a useful resource once I'd completed this (and future) manuscripts. I printed it out and filed it, then promptly forgot about it. But when I was looking for another resource yesterday, which I still can't find, I came across the article. (Really, I'm not as unorganized as I sound.) It's subtitled "Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do). So as I read the manuscript for the big picture things: characterization, conflict, scene evaluation, rising action, etc., I'll also be looking for some of the common mistakes that Holt writes about.

Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing (an absolute must for your writer's bookshelf), suggests the triage method of revision, which is dealing with the big picture items in your first read-through, and then dealing with "trivial corrections" with the next read-through. That's good advice I intend to follow. Besides, who am I to contradict Sol Stein??

But for the sake of this post, let's assume I've done my big picture revisions, and have returned to Page One for the trivial corrections. What are they? According to Stein it's excising every cliche, eliminating unessential adjectives, tightening dialogue. In short, making every word count. Here are a few more according to Pat Holt:

  • Repeats -- These are "crutch words" we unconsciously use -- over and over and over. Or they're really good words or phrases that are perfect when you use them once, but that become obnoxious and show-offy when used again. And again.

  • Phony Dialogue -- That's when characters talk to each other about things they already know purely for the benefit of the reader. Here's an example of a husband and wife having a Phony Dialogue conversation: "James, darling, my husband of fifteen years, our only son Edward, who attends John Muir Elementary School, needs to be picked up today at noon, because he has an appointment with Dr. Gums, the dentist we've gone to all of Edward's young life. Will you see he gets there, my love?" "Unfortunately, precious, my brother Woodrow, who is three years older than I am, needs me to take him to the airport since his wife Zelda, who took their only daughter Phoebe, and ran away with their accountant last week, is unavailable." Exaggerated yes, but we've all read books with this type of mistake.

  • No-Good Suffixes -- There are "ness," "ize," and "ingly" words, to name a few. Example: "He tackled the job with fearlessness." Much better and more straightforward to say, "He was fearless in his approach." "I territorialize my bathroom vanity" vs. "This half is mine, bud!" "I look adoringly at my granddaughter, Abbie" vs. "I adore my little Abi-girl."

  • Empty Adverbs -- This happens to be one of my pitfalls. I put them in when I write, then take them out when I edit, because they're (completely) unnecessary. Enough said.
To this list I add an item of my own: Search and Replace. I keep an ever-expanding list of words I use unconsciously that weaken my writing, but they're not quite the same as Holt's "Repeats." Using my list, I search them out and delete them. Sometimes I can do it with a touch of the Delete button, and sometimes I have to rewrite the sentence to strengthen it first. But bottom line, I get rid of them. Many are adverbs, but "got" is near the top of my list. For example, I'll write, "I have got" to do such and such, rather than "I have" to do such and such. The "got" adds nothing to the sentence, but makes the writer sound less articulate. I also search out verbs to which I've added "ing" making them nouns, and rewrite the sentence. Example: "There was a drawing of spectators to the scene of the crash" vs. "The accident drew a crowd."

Holt's article covers other topics such as Flat Writing; The "To Be" Words; Lists; Show, Don't Tell; Awkward Phrasing; and Commas. While I've only touched on a few of the mistakes, the article is worth printing out in its entirety and filing away where it won't be lost.

I'm excited to read through my newly completed manuscript. Unlike other novels I've written. I haven't saturated myself with this one by reading it over and over as I write. Instead, I've written this one with a minimum of looking back, which will make the work fresher as I begin my edits.

What resources do you use when you begin your revisions? What are some of the repeat words you use in your writing that you need to search out and annihilate as you revise? Do you have any particular pet peeves in the way of words or phrases? I do. "Long moment." I see it all the time and it drives me nuts. Honestly, a moment is a moment. If it's long, then it's something else. A writer should try to figure out what that is.

Monday, April 25, 2011

He is Risen Indeed

I hope all of you had a blessed Easter.
There was a time when Easter meant a good time with my family, a littletime off. And then there was that first time for me when I understood what had happened, what the resurrection meant for me. To this day, the words in the title above move me. The line from the disciples walking along the road that day can move me to tears. We should have known. "Didn't our hearts burn within us?"

I know the feeling. My conversion happened over the course of three years, but it began at a Catholic church camp when I was sixteen, when I first felt what I now know as the presence of the Holy Spirit. I was so overwhelmed that I told God, whoever he was, that I would do anything, if he would lead me. (I didn't assume it was Jesus. I'd grown up with him.)
When I was nineteen, he lead me to a Bible study, where I met him as I'd never done before. That's how it began for me.

As with Katy, my conversion was a lengthy process, which began when I was very young. My grandmother was a pastor for many years, and provided me a tremendous spiritual heritage. This pentecostal girl married a catholic boy, and, though we were both searching for God, we had a difficult time reconciling our different points of reference. We tried several churches, but none were a good fit for bothof us. A few years later, Rick began to work with a guy who continually invited him to church. By that time, Rick wasn't interested in going, and he held out for almost a year. Then Easter rolled around (1977) and that good catholic boy -- who knew to go to church on Easter -- decided to take his family to the church his friend invited him to. From the moment we walked in we both
had a difficult time controlling our emotions because there was such a presence of God there.They performed a beautiful Easter cantata that presented the message, that, yes, He is risen indeed! That church has been our home church for 34 years. Rick became an ordained minister with that denomination and served on staff at that church. He's led missions teams from that church (and many others) to work and minister all over the world. The continual invitation from that co-worker ultimately changed our lives. We're very close friends to this day. I worked for a number of years as a teacher's aide at the school our church has. Our children attended that school, they were baptized at that church,
were married there, have had their children dedicated there, and our son's funeral was there. The ministries we've been involved in there are wide and varied. I thank the Lord for a grandmother who planted the seed deep in this girl's heart, and for a man who didn't flinch
when it came to sharing his faith.

The Lord came to me, so to speak, and I submitted to His authority as soon as I realized Mormonism was false, and that its god did not exist. It was a situation in which an enemy submitted to a Conqueror. The part I'm ashamed of --- yet, I don't know what I could have done differently-- is that I didn't come to Him until ten years later. That was a period in which my soul dried up from the inside out. By the time a friend pulled me up out of that spiritual wasteland in which I was doing everything "right" and yet dying inside, I thought I was doomed to live the rest of my life that way. Thank God, thank God we made peace.

I don’t remember coming to Christ. What I do recall is when I was six years old I overheard my mother explaining the concept of hell to my older sisters (maybe they had done something terrible? The detail why is lost). When my mother was done, I went to my room and prayed the prayer my mother had told my sisters you must pray in order to go to heaven. I prayed to Jesus, and my prayer went like this, “Please come into my heart, Jesus. I don’t want to go to hell. I don’t want to go anywhere if you’re not there.” And the Lord spoke to me, “I’m already here.” A lovely beginning, don’t you think? It’s the sort of beginning that makes you think, everything’s going to be fine over here. She’s going to have a good life, stable, purposeful, focused, abundant.

Funny thing about abundant life. Jesus tells us He came that we might have abundant life – but it’s never the sort of life you think it should be – rather the abundance that Jesus brings turns out to be a very different kind of life than we think ought to be. And the sufficient grace that sustains that life He brings, turns out to be a very different sort of grace than we hoped it might be. But in the end, it saves our life. From the time I was six, I've been on the journey of losing my life in order to gain that which I cannot lose.

On the morning after my father died, my mother told me God had something
more important for Daddy to do in heaven. I know, not the best piece of wisdom for a 3-year-old, but she was 27 and mourning the loss of her husband. As you can imagine, this made God a bit of a boogie man for me. Hollywood depictions didn't help--my only exposure to things of a spiritual nature. I grew up fearful and feeling inadequate and NOT interested in anything God had to say.

At 14, we moved to a new town. I'd made the decision before the move to try drugs and sex, since being "good" hadn't brought me the sense of belonging I wanted, but the only people interested in pimply ol' me were the church people. Before long they had me going to Bible studies, only I didn't know they were Bible studies because they used the Good News for Modern Man version--with stick figures! Anyway, there was this hot shot summer intern--read that: Jesus freak--leading the study. I heard all about the love that compelled God to die for me. It took about a month of wooing, but I was his. I crawled into bed on night and asked him to be my Lord and Savior. The real joy came when I learned he'd always been my Abba, Daddy. He is risen indeed!

I gre
w up in church from the time I was old enough to stay in the church nursery. Ten years of Sunday School and Vacation Bible School led me to a relationship with a loving God who revealed himself in his Son, Jesus Christ. I remember the song "Have Thine Own Way, Lord" was playing when I walked down the long aisle and knelt at the altar. I don't think I actually said anything in my heart to God. The Bible says that sometimes we don't know what to pray but the Spirit speaks for us, and that's what happened for me, putting my desire into words God could hear. Of course, that was just the beginning of our relationship. I wish I could say that I have always made the right choices, but God never let me get very far from him, and even after all these years, he reveals himself in new ways all the time.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Good Friday Blind Spot

"Could not a book with just a masterful sliver of God in it carry the fullness of His message to the mind [. . .]?" Latayne asked on Wednesday.

My biggest mistakes as a writer have happened in the moments after I decided
I knew the whole story. When I thought I understood where the story must go and why. In those moments I relaxed into cliched phrases, pat answers, short cuts, and the easy way out. When I believed I knew what the story was "about", it was as if I had set a pot on the stove and simmered the contents to reduction. And in the dense mix there was no longer room for characters to speak and act their own truth. There was only slavish devotion to the singular point of my positive message. My desire to impart truth strangled the art of story, drained the mystery out of faith, and delivered a stillborn idea.

I'm learning to approach my writing with fear and trembling. I am a writer with faith, but I do not know the fullness of His mystery. Jesus came to earth, but I have no idea what it is like for God to slip into skin which sweats and burns and callouses. He was betrayed, but what is it to look into the eyes of the man who will sell you yet love him so intensely you will die for him? Jesus sweated blood in Gethsemane, but what is it like to teeter on the edge of spiritual and physical no-man's-land, to forge with your life a trail no one has walked before?
I'm learning to stop fooling myself into believing the life of faith is easily explained. That is can be summed up with a happy ending. That victory looks anything like we think it must.

I'm learning that the moment I believe I know the whole story - novel, or faith - is the moment I need to repent, and go a different way. The way where victory is not easily recognized, where success looks like losing your life, and the happy ending is no longer the point. I must abandon my pot of reductionist ideas, and embrace the vast wilderness of a love that costs us everything.

Let us get so lost as writers, as people, that we are willing to be led through the wilderness.

We at Novel Matters wish you a blessed Easter.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Trinity, a Hologram, and Christian Fiction

I know that one of the spiritual limps I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life is an aftereffect of believing in a god who didn’t exist. To this day I struggle with the concept of a triune God, and I know that many Christians without my cultic baggage do as well.

One graphic that has helped me is the time-honored ancient depiction of the Trinity, a simplified version of which appears below.

But while it might clarify some issues, it doesn’t come close to encompassing the incredible complexity of images that Ezekiel, for instance, experienced when he saw God: interdependent wheels and flashing lights and overlapping and multifaceted living beings no human could paint or even conceptualize simultaneously, but only in mental snapshots.

But recently a friend, Janis Hutchinson who like me is an ex-Mormon author, gave me another tool to understanding God, that of the concept of a hologram. As you might know, a hologram is a three-dimension image produced by a unique photographic process usually involving a laser.

But one extraordinary feature of a hologram is reminiscent of the Trinity. If you cut a holographic image into two, you don’t end up with two partial pieces. You end up with two complete images of the original. In this, a hologram is like the Trinity in that one of the Persons can be considered separately, so to speak, without diminishing the whole, as when Jesus left the Father and came to earth. The Godhead wasn’t reduced by this, even though Jesus brought with Him from eternity all the fullness of the Godhead.

What does this have to do with writing books from a Christian worldview? Some people criticize Christian fiction that only alludes to the gospel message without spelling out such elements as a complete conversion, for instance.

But if God is not diminished by considering or even imparting just one aspect of Himself – could it be that His message might have the same holographic capacity? If a book conveys eternal truth, with careful and responsible crafting by a writer who loves the word and The Word (and what a universe can reside in such Language!)—could not a book with just a masterful sliver of God in it carry the fullness of His message to the mind as well?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Giving Characters Their Emotional Acre

I meant to cover more ground each time I posted on our book talk about Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird, but there's so much in each chapter. Today, "Character." Let's flang some ideas around about developing characters and infusing hope into our stories. If you haven't read the book or chapter, no problem. We love hearing what you have to add.

Every single one of us at birth is given an emotional acre all our own…And as long as you don’t hurt anyone, you get to do with your acre as you please. Anne Lamott

I agree with all Anne Lamott says about creating characters. They have their acre, just like we do. In fact, they are us—sometimes a lot of us and sometimes just the fearful, ugly, and angry parts. This makes us love them all the more to the point we don’t mind spending months and years with them. And there are times to leave your character where “Jesus flang him.” Yes, characters do zig when you think they should zag. We’ve all had to run to keep up with our characters, but where they get flanged is usually better than where I can plot them. And so, we learn to trust our characters and Him who flangs them.

And we must know our characters better than we know our sisters and brothers, certainly better than the minds of our grown children (oops, another topic). I answer 50 questions—from what my characters carry in their wallets or purses to their physical and emotional scars. I search and search for a picture of them on the Internet, along with pictures of their houses and their dogs. I also give them a moral flaw that embarrasses me, and make sure their personality profile fits a Meyers-Briggs category. When that is done, they are no longer ephemeral, a mere shadow in my imagination, but flesh and blood. They frequently take showers with me and whisper to me in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep. I get very lonely between stories.

One step Anne leaves out that I’ve just started to include comes from my reading of John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story—I hope I’m not committing some sort of book-talk incest by bringing up another book. Please forgive. According to Truby, I must, must, must know why each character is in the story. Are they there to provide opposition, sage advice, or are they an ally who seems strangely sinister? Actually, this step comes before all the questions and Internet searches.

Before I knew to build characters around their roles, I’d invented Fred. I wrote four or five scenes with him and the protagonist. He was charming in a threatening sort of way. Good looking. Wise in the ways of the world. Best of all, he spoke snappy dialogue. Not good enough. I fired him because he didn’t move the story along. Worse, he detoured the story! I deleted 10,000-plus words that involved him. If he’d had a job to do, this never would have happened. Please note: Fred is still in my deleted scenes file. When he gets his story-world résumé in order, I might give him another chance.

Fred isn’t the only character I’ve had to excise from a story. My deleted files are full of interesting, quirky yet unnecessary characters. I don’t have time for such indulgences anymore. That’s why I’m adding this step to Anne’s chapter on character (I know, such hubris). You might want to add John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story to your reading list.

I can’t sign off on this post without adding my amen! to the importance of hope in novels. A novel must be hopeful. And the characters are the source of that hope. They’re the ones who face tough situations —from deep psychological scars to the destruction of all the love. They suffer for the sake of story, and come out of the gauntlet a better version of themselves. If this doesn’t happen, you might as well throw rocks at your reader. It hurts that much.

And don’t confuse a happy ending with hope. Tied-up-with-a-bow stories are false, not hopeful. Characters demonstrating growth, the evidence of redemption and renewal in the face of overwhelming destruction, that’s what I’m talking about. And that change can be subtle, a slight turning of the shoulders toward truth. That’s hope.

How do you build your characters? If you dare, tell us about a time you based your characters on someone you know. Having characters get flanged somewhere unexpected can be unsettling. Has this happened to you? How did you adapt?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Spring Cleaning the Writing Life

Spring has finally arrived in Northern California. We think. We hope. After record rainfall and cold, a small rise in the mercury has everyone dressed in tanks, shorts and flip flops, which don't hide the goosebumps.

As a child, I remember my mother's spring cleaning every year, though our house was already spotless. The furniture was moved for a thorough dusting and vacuuming, the wooden floors were waxed and polished, the windows cleaned with vinegar and newspaper, the cobwebs removed from attic to basement. She washed every rug, blanket and quilt and draped them on the clothesline to dry in the mottled sunshine. Cabinets were cleaned out and the Contac paper replaced, even under the kitchen sink. The broken, useless and out-of-date were tossed. By the end of the week, the house had a great freshness and exuberance after the long winter.

I would love to continue her tradition (I see merit in it) but I'm lucky to accomplish the basic weekly cleaning that keeps our house livable. If I were to choose one area to freshen, it would be my writing space, and I'm not just talking about my desk. I'm thinking that a good spring cleaning could extend to my writing life, as well.

I'm thinking of the box beneath my desk with the dusty files of just-begun stories I toyed with when I was trying to find my writer voice, as Sharon mentioned in her last post. Or the numerous revisions of the manuscripts that quietly and naturally expired before publication. Copies of revisions for books already published. The resources - now out of date - that I'd gathered for a series I wanted to write, but now realize isn't the direction I want to go.

Copies of old writing magazines. Shelves of books on writing, the writer's life, writer's devotionals, essays on the writing, how to get published, how to market, market guides, dictionaries, thesauruses, pocket dictionaries and thesauruses, word finders, synonym finders, baby names, and even more baby names. An old computer that died in the middle of my last manuscript. Tapes & CDs of writers conference sessions. Binders with worksheets for the tapes & CDs from writers conference sessions.

Why would a person keep all of this stuff, aside from the too-busy life that doesn't allow for much deep cleaning? Does the clutter define me as a writer? I've begun the task of cleaning this out several times, but the job turned out to be overwhelming and I ended by packing it all back in the tubs. Keeping a few indicators of the writer's journey makes great sense. We need to see the progress we've made. But at some point, this clutter can hold a person back. It can whisper, "This is you, now and forever. No freshness can penetrate." It can speak of failures and misguided attempts to define ourselves when we were just wandering and trying to discover who we are.

So, aside from ridding ourselves of the obvious junk, how do we spring clean the writing life? It could begin with something as simple as changing up a subscription from a writing magazine we no longer read cover to cover with something new. Perhaps we begin our writing time composing or reading a poem. Maybe we try submitting an article or personal experience piece to a magazine or story collection, something that has a beginning and end so we can see the results immediately, even if it's never published. Or we begin our autobiographies, keeping the bigger picture of our lives in mind.

We rid ourselves of the negative self-talk that keeps us in doubt of our calling and makes us question the time we sacrifice for it. We treat our writing as a job and reestablish our boundaries. We consider our writing time an appointment we keep with ourselves. No one else needs to know the reason.

With the changes in publishing, we may need to forgo the vision we had of publication and be open to something new, or be willing to change our trajectory altogether. We need to ask for a new vision of our futures as writers from the One who knows the best desired outcomes for us.

Can you think of more ways to spring clean your writing life? I would love to hear!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Coming Home as a Writer

In a comment to Bonnie's post, "Literary Fingerprints," Amy K. Sorrells said, "My current novel has a pretty unique voice, and I find my pen/fingers feel sluggish whenever I'm hesitant about speaking freely through her. It's when I open my heart unabashedly that my character is able to sing." That got me thinking about the difference between character's voice and author's voice in fiction. There are, or should be, as many "voices" in a novel as there are characters. The more distinct we make those voices -- without resorting to cliche -- the better our work is. That's not to say that conveying the voice of every character is an easy task; some will undoubtedly be more difficult than others to "get right." But getting it right is one of the most important jobs an author has. We talked recently about the voices in the best-selling novel The Help, about how you can "hear" each of the three POV characters as you read, and how you can easily distinguish between them. In fact, all the characters have strong, identifiable voices. I love to read novels like that, where the voices are so well executed that you feel a part of the story. That's not always the case, as anyone who reads much fiction can tell you.


But there's a difference between the voices of the characters we create or read about, and the author's voice. Bonnie cited word choice and sentence structure as things that add to the author's voice, and she's absolutely right. As part of the writer's syntax, they help make an author's voice unique. Added to that are diction, author's personality, education and locale. It's the use/non-use/over-use of adjectives and adverbs, or falling into patterns of passive voice. It's the way punctuation is used; the tight or flowing style in which an author writes; their preference for dialogue/action tags. An author's voice should be as individual and identifiable as his or her physical voice, because one is as unique as the other.


In Finding Your Author Voice, Michele Dunaway writes, "An author's voice is that mystical, interplanetary thing that you can't buy in Walgreen's or find on the Internet. But every best-selling author has it. So where did they get it? And better yet, where do you find it? Your author's voice is actually already with you. It's found deep inside you..." It's there in everything you write, from the first rough draft to the final spectacular one. It's part of your creative DNA. Even if you try to emulate another author, your own distinctions will inevitably shine through. Wendy Paine Miller, a frequent commentor on this blog, said, "I believe voice happens on the page when you lose yourself to the writing." William Brohaugh, in Write Tight (one of my favorite books on the craft of writing), agrees. He says, "Remember that voice and style should be quiet. They are not established with gimmick. When you strive for voice and style, you don't achieve it. You simply show off" (pg. 149).


I've experimented with a variety of genres in my years of writing, but it was when I began to write contemporary women's fiction that I found my true and best author's voice. That's the genre where the best I have to offer comes through, where all the elements I mentioned above come together in the best way possible for this writer. It gets to the heart of who I am and what matters most to me. That's important for many reasons, not the least of which is that editors are not just looking for a great and unique story; they also want a great and unique authorial voice -- someone to tell that story in the most engaging way possible.


I highly recommend that you experiment with different genres as you seek to find who you are as a writer. Write short stories to determine which genre is the "mystical" fit for you, to find where you shine, because not all genres are created equally for each and every author. If you find that you struggle with the work -- above and beyond what every writer experiences -- then maybe you haven't found your genre. Experiment! Experiment with tense and time and topic. If you're like me, you'll know when you've come home as a writer.


Can you define your author's voice, even if just to yourself? Have you experimented with genres to find if one is a better fit than another? If so, did you learn anything about yourself as a writer?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Intentional Celebrating- A She Reads Guest Post

We interrupt this blog for breaking news of adorableness:
Yesterday, Sharon celebrated a new addition to
her family. A sweet puppy named Boo. We wanted to share his puppy cuteness with you - So adorable, he makes Monday happy! Yay!

Now back to your regularly scheduled blogging.


The other day a friend emailed meaparagraph from a blog post she'd read. She thought I might like theconcept the author,Mandy Hubbard, was proposing. I've included it below so you can read it too: Someone once told me "Satisfaction is a dirty word." I always thought that was stupid. If you can't enjoy what you have, what's the point? But then I got into publishing, and then I understood. I understood what it was like to feel like it was never enough. I understood why
people became workaholics. I understood how hard it is to be satisified in this industry... So I bought a big glass vase, and whenever I have something to celebrate-- a new book deal, a foreign sale, etc--I pop champagne and I write on the bottom of the cork what I was celebrating, and drop it in the vase. Seeing that-- seeing that I've had things to celebrate in my career-- reminds me of my accomplishments.

The interesting thing about this is that my friend sent this paragraph to me moments after I had decided to start keeping a list of my writing victories. I took this as a confirmation that I was on the right track. I had reasoned that I needed to be intentional about celebrating my accomplishments instead of letting them get swept under the rug of striving. So I began my list, marking down the good things that had happened to me as a result of my writing. No moment was too insignificant. As more victories occurred tome, I added them. A theme began to emerge: losses and setbacks aside, I was onto something. This writing thing was worth pursuing.

However we choose to mark our victories, whether by saving champagne corks or buying ourselves flowers and snapping a picture to put in a simple photo album with the reason noted underneath, eating a piece of Godiva chocolate and jotting down the reason on the wrapper or simply beginning a list in a journal, in this industry we need to find reasons to celebrate and be intentional about doing so. It's too easy to get discouraged, too tempting to look around you at the other writers who seem to have good things undeservedly happen to them. By all means save those rejection letters, but also print those sweet emails from readers and save them too. We need touchstones, little altars everywhere that affirm our calling... and mark the confirmations that God sends along the way.

How do you celebrate your large and small victories as you move forward in your writingjourney? How would it help you to have a visual reminder of those victories?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Novel as Sacred Art

On Monday, when Debbie wondered aloud - well, in print - why a person would create anonymously, I thought of Michelangelo's Pieta. It is the only sculpture he ever signed. He was twenty-four, a new, lesser-known artist.

Look at it - surely this was the most brilliant thing he had yet created, the work that would make him famous.

Can you see him hanging back, anonymous among the viewers, not many days past its unveiling? He listens to the chattered exclamations: Brilliant! Astonishing! The flesh so real it breaths. The emotion in Mary's upturned hand.

He smiles to himself. The crowd loves it. Loves him.

He wants to hear them say his name. He asks a passerby, "Who made this masterpiece?"

"I'm not sure," comes the reply. "But I think it is Cristoforo Solari."

"Oh yes," says someone else. "It is certainly Solari."

Perhaps that very day Michelangelo adds one last touch, a signature on the sash across Mary's chest:


Later he feels ashamed for having done it. It's 1498, and typically, sacred art is not signed. It exists to bring glory not to its creator, but to The Creator. It is an act of worship, and the artist's dearest hope is that it is a contagious act of worship.

Want a modern example of how such art can function?

The other five authors of this blog gave me a gift of The Four Holy Gospels, published by Crossways, illumined by Makoto Fujimura. I can't tell you how lavish, how beautiful it is - or how happy I am for this breakthrough in the Christian world's attitude toward art that can't be fully grasped in a microsecond.

Neither can I express what an experience it is to read. In Matthew, where John cries out in the wilderness, "Make his paths straight," Fujimura has painted three parallel lines in red and gold and blue dotting down the page - a straight path. That path continues on the following spread, but on the next one, when the Pharisees complain that Jesus is healing on the Sabbath, the three lines get tangled and fade to gray. A page later that gray becomes a chain where Jesus confronts the Gadarene demoniac. But then the demoniac is delivered, and the chain unravels to three straight lines in red and gold and blue.

Imagine how I meditated, page after page, on the meaning of that path. It affected me in ways I can't put to words. It made me worship.

Could you do that with a novel? Can a story be considered sacred art? I think it has been done, in novels where the theme, or as I've heard it put in workshops, "the takeaway," is something that can't be grasped in a microsecond. It's not about what the reader can "take away," its more about what he longs to give. It's not that coming to Jesus will put your life in order. It's that he is beautiful. He is poetry. He is holy, and wholly astonishing. Didn't our hearts burn within us? Who wants him to tidy our small worlds if we can follow into his explosion of grace?

We Christian writers are often uncomfortable being labeled as such. After all, we don't talk about Christian plumbers as if they should have their own section of the phone book. (Perhaps its that separate section of the bookstore that irks us most.)

What if we thought of our work as sacred art? Not a job we do like any working-stiff author, but an act of worship that can spark an epidemic? Wouldn't that lend a meaning to the words, "Christian Fiction" that we can embrace?"

I so want to see a new Renaissance. Isn't this the time?

Care to be part of it?

Please talk. We love to read what you have to say.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Literary Fingerprints

On Monday, Debbie spoke about anonymous writing. A feeling most of us are familiar with, if for all the wrong reasons. In her post, she mentioned Don Foster’s idea of the literary fingerprint; the DNA from our pen that would convict any one of us of authoring a piece of writing. He was likely referring to habitual wording and phrasing, moldy metaphors we lean on. But, as I read Debbie’s post, I wondered if Foster was referring to voice – that ill defined, yet sought after attribute of writing no one understands but can only point to when it is present. If something of the writer sticks to everything he pens, certainly voice would be the glue. I’ve written and taught about voice in fiction. After several years of writing, I thought I might know something about the subject. Turns out I don’t. I’m not unhappy about the revelation. Writers are never bothered by being wrong. We know how to rewrite. And we know being absolutely right is the death of art.

Still, it surprised me when Roger Rosenblatt, in
Unless it Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing, dismissed the subject of voice with a metaphorical wave of his hand. “Voice is merely the latest cliché to signify good writing. Its predecessor was ‘authority’.”
One man’s opinion. So what? Except that it sat right with me. I understood what he meant and why there was no need to talk about it any further. Voice is simply a way of saying that writer believed in herself.
In theater we call it stage presence. In film it’s scene stealer. That actor who chews the scenery, and makes us believe he
is the character.

Voice is writing with an assurance that translates by osmosis to the reader. It has nothing to do with POV or which tense you tell the story in. It’s not about diphthongs or Irish accents. It’s plunging into story without timidity or throat clearing. By sheer perfection of word choice and sentence structure the author conveys her absolute confidence to the reader.
An elbow nudge and wink from the captain of the ship. Authorial authority. Rosenblatt says, “Voice is the knowledge of what you want to say. After that, it becomes any voice that serves your purpose.”
Maybe that’s why he swatted the topic aside. It’s simply an outcome of years of perfecting the craft and art of writing enough to allow yourself to write like you mean it. And there’s no talking about that. There is only doing.I like the thought that my literary fingerprint may one day be confidence, not that my story is perfect, or even right, but that I deserve the opportunity to tell it my way.

I recommend Rosenblatt’s book for reasons I can’t articulate. Not because it will teach you about writing a novel, but it presses the writer's consciousness into your grey matter and you come away with a heightened ability to express what you’ve always known.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Author Known

Yesterday I attended a memorial service for an acquaintance from church. While it was a sad occasion, it was also the celebration of a life well lived with the sure hope of living in the presence of her Savior. During the service, several of her friends shared meaningful verses and quotes, and I found it interesting that at least half of the quotes were attributed to 'anonymous' or 'author unknown.' The quotes weren't especially stellar prose, but listeners were touched, just the same. I'm sure the authors would have been pleased to know the encouragement their words afforded to the grieving friends and family in attendance, but they never will.

So I began to wonder why a person would write anonymously. How many of us would continue to write if we received no compensation or credit for our hard work, and would we write any differently knowing that our identities would remain secret?

The internet provides anonymity to writers every day, for good or ill. Did you follow the Bronx Zoo Cobra on Twitter? Whoever tweeted for 'her' had a ball while she was on the loose, and it was all in good fun. But anonymity should never be an excuse for abuse or become someone's 'super power'. With anonymity should come responsibility.

Writing without a byline could offer such freedom, if responsibility were present. A reader may argue that there is nothing she couldn't say without affixing her name to it, but it's easier said than done. I know of a few topics I would write about or different styles I might try if I were assured secrecy, and you might know some, too. Maybe those are the things that should make their way into our stories in one form or another.

It is becoming more common to hear about people writing anonymously from places of political unrest or other potentially dangerous situations. But some just have a heavy burden and need the promise of a shadowy corner and a voice changer to get the words out. A writer friend of mine once wrote anonymously about passing a young female hitchhiker on a California highway. He and his wife were advanced in years and had felt vulnerable to crime, so they didn't stop and they always regretted their inaction. They never knew what happened to the girl, but she haunted them. Writing the story was a form of confession and penance, and was also a charge to the reader not to overlook opportunities to help others where we could. It allowed him to be truthful about a situation that was painful and shameful to him, and while editors would not normally prefer it, the magazine editor was more willing to print it anonymously.

As for how many of us would continue to write without some sort of recognition, I suppose it depends on our motivation for writing and how we see ourselves as stewards of what God has invested in us. It would take true humility to do one's best work and not yearn for a byline. Thankfully, God doesn't usually demand that of us.

By the way, apparently, all writers have literary fingerprints - their own unique patterns of phrases, punctuation and combinations that can give their identities away to folks like literary super sleuth Don Foster, author of 'Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous'. As an expert in attributional theory, he has been able to attribute a new poem written by 'W.S.' to William Shakespeare, uncover the anonymous author of 'Primary Colors' (a fictionalized look inside the Clinton political campaign) and help to convict the Unabomber. He says, "Give anonymous offenders enough verbal rope and column inches, and they will hang themselves for you, every time."

It makes me wonder what my literary fingerprints look like. Don't you wonder the same?
If, years later, someone like Mr. Foster discovered something you'd written anonymously, what would it be? I think for me it would be poetry, because it's something I'm not very good at but I admire. What about you?

Friday, April 1, 2011

School Lunches & the Perfect Button, Maybe

Announcement! Our winner of The Hinge of Your History goodies, chosen by, is Susan Gregory! Susan, email us at with your mailing address. Congratulations!

Welcome to our book talk of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Although first published in 1974, the book remains influential and entertaining for burgeoning and seasoned writers. Anne is the kind of writing friend you want giving you advice. She's honest and practical. Join us in discussing the chapter "School Lunches" today. Remember, reading the chapter is not a prerequisite for adding to the conversation.

Okay, so this is my poopy first draft about school lunches as assigned in the chapter:
Lunchtime at Hudnall Elementary School was an orderly affair. Tables folded from the wall of the auditorium, where, besides eating our lunches, we watched the Dodgers play in the World Series and learned folk dances, which meant touching boys. Nothing so scintillating happened during lunch. Each grade was assigned a table, the boys sat on one side, the girls on the other. We didn't jockey for position to sit by our friends. We stepped into our seats in the order we stood in line.

Back in the classroom, the kids who bought hot lunches had lined up first. Because a 25-cent lunch was a luxury, I squirmed in my seat at the hot-lunch students seemed to have descended from Mount Olympus, so confident were they. On the days my harried mother pressed a quarter into my hand and I lined up with the privileged few, I stood taller, felt the inclusion. I bought my lunch maybe three times a year.

The rest of the time, I ate the very same thing every day. While my fellow students munched on
thick sandwiches of American cheese and deli meats with lettuce on white bread, I ate a bologna sandwich on wheat bread smothered with Miracle Whip, no lettuce. Also included, on the bottom of the bag to prevent my sandwich from being squished, were the requisite bag of celery and carrot sticks and a pithy apple. Mom used those plastic bags with the fold-over closure, so the sandwich was dry around the edges. Other students munched on Cheetos, Bugles, or cookies. I tried not to drool. Some kids carried 8 cents to buy ice cream for dessert. They sat on the patio, fully visible through a giant window, chasing rivilets of chocolate down their arms. I drank tepid milk from a plaid Thermos.

We raised our hands to be excused. Our plates and lunch bags were examined to see that we'd finished eating. We lined up silently to go out to noon recess. Who kept this order? Mrs. Zolatell, built like a pawn on a chess board. She carried a whistle and the power to make disruptive students sit on the bench during recess. I've always been a little chatty. That fact landed me on the bench--just once--where I cried for 30 minutes, and then threw up.

According to Anne, now that I've completed my poopy first draft, I have the
option to delete or revise, or to tip the memories over like a box of buttons. There might be something shiny and useful in there. I won't be writing about pithy apples soon, that's for sure. I ran into Mrs. Zolatell several years later, and she stood nearly a head shorter than me. By that time, the angst had drained out of me. I just found it creepy that they allowed her out during the day. Yes, yes, of course you're right. The interesting part is me losing my lunch. I missed a student council meeting. I hated being thought of as the kind of kid who would have to sit on the bench. I wanted to be good. Hmm. There's an interesting "button." How far would a character go to protect their reputation?

Is it too late to confess that I hate writing exercises like this? None of this dreck has anything to do with what I'm working on. And my writing time is so precious that a game like this seems foolhardy, wasteful. Okay, so it was fun to remember the lunchroom. The fresh faces of Nina and Ginny and Larry and Ivon are in front of me as I write this. And I feel downright lacsidazical. Maybe I do need to loosen up and play a little more.

Do you work this way? Do you do writing exercises, just follow the writing butterfly through a memory, to find something golden to enrich your writing? Can you convince me to give it a try?

So what did you carry in your lunch bag?