Wednesday, June 29, 2011

More on Naturally Beautiful Novels: A Roundtable Discussion

Thank you all for your comments on Monday's guest post by Athol Dickson. Debbie is on a well-earned vacation, but the rest of us have jotted down our thoughts on some of the points that Athol made, and we share them here.

One of the elements Athol mentioned was Symbolism. One great source of information about biblical symbolism is the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, whose subtitle is: An encyclopedic exploration of the images, symbols, motifs, metaphors, figures of speech and literary patterns of the Bible.

In order to provide what Athol also mentioned, Hope, an author needs to understand the theme of reversal as universal to good literature. A satisfying novel puts a character the reader cares about into a hopeless situation. (That's what the Bible is all about, right? Our hopeless situation without God.) Not sure how to use a theme like that? If you look up the theme of reversal in this dictionary, you can see how the best Author of all time, the Holy Spirit, demonstrated that divine theme in the lives of people like Adam and Eve, Abraham, Jacob, Esther, the Resurrection. Once an author sees how that pattern works, it's easier to emulate that satisfying pattern in one's own writing.

The Bible is fecund : ) with raw material for novels using its symbolism, as everyone from Faulkner to Francine Rivers has overtly demonstrated. I know that Bonnie has written an excellent book that uses the downfall of King Saul as her basis.

Beauty is many things to many people. As I read Athol's post, Ikeptthinking that perhaps "organic" would be a better word. Using "organic" wouldanswer the question of why such writing cannot be taught. Because it's already in you. It's defeating for a writer who is just starting out to believe he or she may be incapable of beautiful writing because of a lack of enigmatic gifting. Beautiful writing is honest. Stripped of pretense, it shines with naked humanity. Beautiful writing comes from the raw experience of life on the planet, and is tended to in the soil of the writer's soul. Organic writing can be harvested by anyone with the patience to bring it up a teaspoon at a time. You can only use a teaspoon because soul matter is dense with meaning, and complex in structure. One small measure at a time is all we can handle. Yes, we must all work hard on our craft. And when it comes to our art, we must practice organic writing -- hauling up the deepest truths -- and we will find our stories will be the beauty of bare honesty which touches the soul of everyone who reads them.

I love that Bonnie connected organic writing with beauty with truth. Perhaps the best part of good fiction is that it tells the truth -- not truisms, but something real we've scratched from our own soil, at cost to ourselves. That lovely feeling we get when we read great writing may be gratitude, that someone had the courage of bare honesty. It takes faith: the writer must believe that truth is always beautiful, no matter how it looks at first glance. I have a painting in my living room, painted by a Japanese artist my husband once knew, of a burnt tree in a snowbank on a winter day. It reflects an esthetic that finds beauty in sorrow and loss. In Brennan Manning's novel, Patched Together, the main character must walk through "the dazzling darkness of sheer trust," before he reaches the "Cave of Bright Darkness," where he meets . . . Well. The novel ends on "A good day. A very good day."

I've redoubled my reading since working at the library. One gift the library offers is the freedom to say no thanks to a less than beautiful piece of fiction, and while I've been as polite as possible, even favorite authors have been returned with pages unread. In my arrogance, I would add one more element to Mr. Dickson's essay: Truth. All of the other elements can be there, but without truth, the story structure collapses and the suspension of belief necessary to be immersed in a piece of fiction is broken.

In a novel, truth is honest emotion and justifiable motivations. I returned a book unread when a teen girl finds her mother dead in their home. Alas, the mother was a hoarder and an ill-tempered one at that, but the girl won't call for help until she cleans the house -- without the neighbors noticing. I understood the mortification factor for the girl, but what teenage girl do you know who would be comfortable with a dead body in the house? Not beautiful. Not true. Gone. I returned another book that resolved a horrific tragedy with simplistic, shallow really, answers. Books I loved this year for their beauty and truth were The Book Thief, Home, Half Broke Horses, and Mudbound.

When I first read Athol's post on Novel Journey, I was touched by his statement that, "Beautiful novels often take us deep into the darkest corner of the human condition, but in the end, they usually leave us with a sense of hope." I believe that as a reader and I believe that as a writer. There's no novel so satisfying to me, than a novel that does exactly what Athol described. It's that line that drew me to his post in the first place, but there was something in each of his points that spoke to me. In the paragraph on Simplicity, Athol concludes, "Beautiful novels are simple in the sense that they are easily read, but as every novelist knows, to write simply is anything but easy." That is so true. It happens when a writer is careful about every idea, every scene, and every word; the macro and the mirco of the work. Each part must count and carry its own weight. I love to happen upon a line in a novel that represents the idea that Athol put forth, when you know the author was careful to find the exact and unexpected word to make just the right point. I never pass by with pausing a moment in my appreciation.

In the paragraph on Rhythm Athol said, "The novelist who writes beautifully is constantly aware of how her words will 'sound' in her reader's mind" and will work to make sure the cadence is what it should be. By reading your work aloud, as Athol suggests, you'll find the glitches in your rhythm and cadence. A writer who led a critique group I belonged to years ago said if you read a passage aloud and subconsciously change the order of words or a word itself as you're reading, you should rewrite the sentence to read the way you spoke it. Because if you, the writer, stumble, so will your reader. That advice has stuck with me.

I could say something about each of the 7 points in Athol's article, but I've gone on long enough. I close by saying we hope you enjoyed this guest post as much as we did. It's one I'll print out and refer back to on a regular basis.

What one thing stood out to you in the article?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Naturally Beautiful Novels

We have the distinct pleasure of having acclaimed author Athol Dickson as our guest today. This post originally appeared on Novel Journey on June 16. We enjoyed it very much and thought you would too. Our special thanks to Athol and Novel Journey for allowing us to republish it.

IT'S EASIER TO WRITE ABOUT BEAUTY than it is to write beautifully, because the difference between good craftsmanship and beautiful writing is something like the difference between goodness and morality.

Consider C.S. Lewis on that topic:

"Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air of the summit, lacking those wings with which the rest of the journey has to be accomplished. For it is from there that the real ascent begins. The ropes and axes are 'done away' and the rest is a matter of flying" ("Man or Rabbit?" God in the Dock, p. 113, Eerdman's, 1970).

Beauty is goodness, and like the ability to be good, the ability to write beautifully is a gift which can't be earned, or learned. Some authors are able to take off from the summit of good craftsmanship and fly; it's as simple and mysterious as that.

But although there is an aspect to beautiful writing which we cannot teach, all beautiful novels share certain common qualities which are worth examination.
Following are seven characteristics of a beautiful novel:

Hope

Beautiful novels often take us deep into the darkest corners of the human condition, but in the end, they usually leave us with a sense of hope. This is only natural, because hope is one of the primary purposes of beauty.

In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard writes, ". . . roughly speaking, God relates to space as we do to our body. He occupies and overflows it but cannot be localized in it."
This means every beautiful sunset, every beautiful flower, every thing of beauty which exists is a manifestation of God's spirit in creation. As divine manifestation, natural beauty of every kind whispers the glorious truth, "We are not alone so be of good cheer; there is hope." And in one way or another, the most beautiful of novels all say it, too.

Symbolism

Our minds initially respond to beauty on a subliminal level. We sense the beauty of a sunset as a feeling before we become consciously aware of it as a fact. This is why beautiful novels always speak to us on levels deeper than our conscious thought.

The main way novels do this is through symbolism, because symbols are the language of the human mind. Everything processed by our brains is classified, memorized, and organized through symbols. Even the language that we use is composed of symbols (the words and letters I am writing now).

In beautiful novels, very little meaning is limited to the obvious. Characters stand for good or evil. Settings stand for peace or persecution. Events stand for destiny or chaos. When such things act, speak, or occur, or when the story passes through them, our subconscious attends to it with deep-seated emotions, which arise before we are aware of them as facts, exactly as we might respond to sunsets or any other manifestation of natural beauty.

Simplicity

Beauty demands our attention. How many times have you "missed" a beautiful sunset which was right there before your eyes, simply because you were distracted? This is why beautiful novels are inevitably simple.

I don't mean beautiful novels don't have complicated plots or complex characters. I mean the story is presented in a way the mind can follow without losing track of all the elements that make it beautiful.

Craftsmanship accounts for much of this simplicity. Extraneous adjectives and adverbs are shunned. Pointless repetition of ideas is avoided. Each new idea builds logically on what went before, and establishes a context for the ideas that follow in an unbroken chain which guides the mind effortlessly through the fictive dream.

Of course, there are dozens of other "rules" designed to simplify the reader's experience with good fiction. Beautiful novels are simple in the sense that they are easily read, but as every novelist knows, to write simply is anything but easy.

Rhythm

There is a rhythm to all that's beautiful in nature. Tides. Waves. Heartbeats. Seasons. Beautiful novels pay attention to the force of rhythm. They align themselves to it with cadenced syllables and words.

The novelist who writes beautifully is constantly aware of how her words will "sound" in her reader's mind. She reads her work aloud, and if it does not flow with poetic meter, she may insert a comma just to slow things down, even though the technical rules of craftsmanship might forbid it. She may select the longer of two synonyms just to add the extra syllable. She gives her mental "tongue" a moment's pause between her vowels by adding consonants or punctuation or a paragraph return.

Beautiful novels also align rhythms with ideas. If the action is dangerous or rapid, sentences are shorter. Often incomplete. Words are shorter. Syllables are shorter. Then the rhythm might be broken with something longer, just to put the reader off balance. No effort is given to similes.
Thus the reader senses urgency and haste. But if the time has come to slow the reader down and give a sense of peace, sentences and words and syllables may stretch out on and on with repetition, flowing one into another, each opening the way for what will follow like a river winding through the countryside. In these ways, a beautiful novel reflects the way rhythms speak to us in nature.

Intuition

As I mentioned earlier, natural beauty first approaches us subliminally, usually as a feeling of joy and delight. Only then do we think about a sunset rationally. And much as symbolism allows readers to tap into the subconscious nature of beauty without fully understanding what is happening, so authors who write beautiful novels make countless creative choices they cannot logically explain.

This is true on the macro level, with choices about characterization, plot direction, and so forth. It is equally true on the micro level, with particular word choices made to support a particular mood or atmosphere within the reader's imagination.

On what basis is one word chosen over another with the same meaning? Although logic often fails to explain the choices, the choices are effective. Consider for example the following synonyms:

Fecund versus fertile
Nude versus naked
Dank versus damp
Ruddy versus scarlet
Stout versus strong

A novelist capable of producing beauty will sense that the words listed on the left belong together in one group, and the ones listed on the right belong to another. The novelist knows this, but it is not a rational kind of knowing. That is why it cannot be taught. It is known tacitly, or intutitvely, and beauty in a novel comes in part from paying close attention to this intuition.

Variety

Everywhere we look in nature we see incredible diversity. No two snowflakes, stones or blades of grass are identical. This too is part of natural beauty, and this too is reflected in beautiful novels.
Tragedies have comic moments. Comedies have serious morals. Characters behave against type. Plots take minor detours. The noun precedes the verb in two sentences, followed with a verb before the noun in a third. A paragraph with three longish sentences is capped off tersely with one word. Paragraph and chapter lengths are unpredictable.

These choices are not practical. They don't improve the quality of communication. They save no time. They are done for one reason only: beauty demands variety.

Echoes

Humankind's first experience with natural beauty was in a garden. We were banished from that garden, and humanity's history is the story of our longing to return. These facts are imprinted in everyone's imagination, believer and unbeliever alike. The proof is in the way the pattern of returning reappears in every novel we call beautiful. (It's also found in all great music, but that's another story.)

We see this echo in the repetition of certain words throughout beautiful novels. We see it in the way some events are brought back to the surface through characters' memories or flashbacks. It is in the way symbols reappear over and over, and in the way the same descriptions are applied first to one thing, and then to another.

A question asked in the first scene is asked again three hundred pages later in the final paragraph. An image seen when we first met a character is seen again when that same character departs the stage forever. Words spoken in one situation are repeated verbatim in another, with the double power of a new meaning in the second situation, and the harkening back to what they meant before.

By echoing the beginning in the end, a novel can awaken memories of primordial beauty with a whisper to our subconscious mind, "Turn back. Turn back. Turn back to the garden."

Athol Dickson is a novelist, teacher, and publisher of the DailyCristo website. His novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher's Weekly) and Flannery O'Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite of Art is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Children's Noir

The other day I told my husband about a dream I'd had the night before:

Someone in the family had brought home from the Dollar Store a six pack of 4-ounce jars, and each jar appeared to hold a toy animal. I opened one and pulled out a tiny rabbit - a squirming, real tiny rabbit.

Startled, I dropped the critter back in its jar and capped the lid, but the jar immediately filled with urine. I fetched him out again and gave him a good shake, but then I dropped the poor thing. My family had similarly dropped two tiny dogs, and all the tiny animals had scurried under the furniture. We all got on our hands and knees to search for them, but the problem was, my two black cats were searching too, licking thier lips, hoping to find them first...

My husband has suggested I start a new literary genre. Are you ready? Tell me what you think:

Children's Noir.

It wasn't till Wednesday that I began to take him seriously, all because of Bonnie, and because of Megan. And because of Madeleine L'engle.

In Wednesday's post, Bonnie opined that writers never know the exact moment they began to write.

In the comments, Megan Sayer countered that she did indeed know when she began, and it was when she was five years old.

Emboldened by Megan's contradiction of the thing that Bonnie said, I added that I too had become a writer when I was five.

How strange then, to pick up my favorite writer's book, Walking on Water, and read that its author, Madeleine L'engle, had started to write at the age of... five.

Is there something signifigant about that time in our lives? Well yes, a few pages later, Madeleine quotes one Finley Eversole:

In our society, at the age of five, ninety percent of the population measures "high creativity." By the age of seven, the figure has dropped to ten percent. And the percentage of adults with high creativity is only two percent! Our creativity is destroyed not through the use of outside forces, but through criticism, innuendo...
Madeleine adds, "by the dirty devices of this world."

One might think, then, that all our stories, all our art should be created by five-year-olds, those pure, unsullied children at the zenith of their creative powers.

But there's a problem. The story I wrote when I was five was probably melodramatic, blithely simplistic - and short, very short. Besides, I couldn't write it down, because there was no kindergarten where I lived, and I wouldn't learn to actually write write until I was six.

Once I'd mastered the alphabet and scratched it a thousand times on triple-lined practice pads, I still had to live a life before I could write a novel worth reading. By that I mean I had to learn all the things that adults know about sorrow, and guilt, and the sad, sad world. Creativity isn't enough. An artist needs those life experiences which form the raw material for lasting art. She has to endure all those "dirty devices of this world," and still retain the lightness, the freedom of a five-year-old at play.

I think that sounds like faith, don't you? The ability to look deep into the eyes of the sad world without flinching. The assurance that even when things are dark, even if the story we write ends with Romeo dead, and Juliet dead, the happy ending is out there, just pages beyond the back cover.

Megan, you'll be interested to know that Madeleine caught flack too, for "telling a story" in school. They just didn't know she was Madeleine L'engle.

I hope you always make up stories in church. I hope all of you do.

Because we love to read what you have to say.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bad Advice, Writing, and Aimlessness

In the end, none of really knows when we started writing or why or what it was we first hoped to accomplish. We know it was a long time ago, and we never stopped, never saw a reason to. And we keep writing. Reading too. Maybe if we knew all the answers it would take the fun out of everything.

But it isn’t until we take up the mantle of writer (maybe even author) that the question of what we are writing (and reading) and why begins to be asked. By then it’s too late. We’ve already forgotten. Didn’t know it would be on the test. Happily, we’re storytellers, so we’re never left in wont of an answer.

Marilynne Robinson has been over-asked about the origins of her shattering debut (1980)
Housekeeping. She answers, "I was interested in writing extended metaphors. And so I kept writing these little things and just putting them in a drawer." And in time: "I took out this stack of things and they cohered. I could see what they implied, I could see where the voice was."

A wonderful answer that is hardly an answer at all. Is Ms. Robinson merely cagy? I doubt it. If she’s anything like me (and I have no reason to think she might be), she may simply be hedging because the idea of needing to explain the genesis and metamorphosis of idea into story is beside the point. Really a question of marketing more than art.

Latayne asked us to consider what we read and write and what we hope to gain from these stories—our aim in writing them. The only answer I could come up with is: completeness. It’s a terrible answer, but it holds a universe of meaning to me. It means the novel has heft and breath.

Recently, I was in conversation with a writer friend who shared a piece of advice she’d been given by another writer friend, “Write the story that costs you the most emotionally.” I think this is bad advice. Surprised? Here’s why: Emotion is a symptom of effective storytelling, not the cause. Yes, we connect emotionally with a story we love, but we don’t connect with it because it’s emotionally stirring, we connect with it because we are brought face to face with the human condition and THAT brings emotion to the surface.

So what is completeness in story for me? It’s the story that promises to change me. Not tickle me under the chin, not make me sigh over someone else’s romance, or contemplate the sinful nature of other people. The complete story, the ones I’m drawn to as a reader and the ones I aspire to write, are the stories that promise to leave a mark. The ones that say, Warning: This story is a compass to the culture, speaks to the individual, and will make you accountable for the knowledge contained herein.

I suppose there is a fear that this idea may come off as lofty, unrealistic, or, from a publisher’s point of view, unsellable. But if I were to come up with the most honest answer about why I started writing and what I hoped to achieve, I would have to say I started writing because I didn’t understand anything, and I wanted to, and story seemed the best way for me to do this. And I keep writing because there is so much I don’t understand about the world, and story is the best way I have of asking questions I don’t have answers for.

What piece of writing advice have you received that seemed like bad advice?
Do you like novels that promise to change you? Am I utterly delusional?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Aims

The first editor who accepted a proposal for one of my books was a man named Peter Gillquist, senior editor for Thomas Nelson. Under his guidance, my first nonfiction book took shape, and that book has stayed in print most of 32 years.


Gillquist was about as “evangelical” as you could get. His background was leadership with Campus Crusade for Christ, and Thomas Nelson prided itself on representing mainstream Protestant Christianity. In fact, after all of Gillquist’s careful mentoring, he called his colleague and old friend at Zondervan to publish The Mormon Mirage since Nelson risked losing its largest King James Bible customer—the Mormon Church – if Nelson published a book as controversial as mine.


While he was helping me shape the book about my spiritual journey, unbeknownst to me he was on a journey of his own. He and other prominent members of Campus Crusade for Christ sought a restoration or at least a renewal of a purer version of New Testament Christianity than they had previously experienced. First in house churches and then as a burgeoning movement, they became convinced that the Orthodox arm of Christianity was the only unchanged church throughout history, and that it aligned with their aims.


So Gillquist went from being a pastor to being a priest, and there is a universe of difference in those two. That's when Orthodox Christianity came onto my radar, so to speak. When I taught world religions and worldview at Trinity Southwest University, I emphasized that Orthodox churches don’t just have a different history, hierarchy, liturgy and worship style than Catholics and Evangelicals, they have a significantly different view of Jesus that is reflected in their art.


Now, it’s difficult to boil evangelical Christian art down to a definition. I’m not sure there’s even such category that could be efficiently defined. But theologians and sociologists of religion have noticed a distinct difference between most Catholic religious art and most Orthodox religious art. And it’s not just that much Catholic art is three-dimensional (as in statues) whereas most Orthodox art is two dimensional (as in icons.)


You see, when you go into a Catholic church, most images of Jesus are of Him suffering on the cross. The emphasis is on His passion, His identification with us to pay for our sins. These images induce a reaction, call for an emotional response.


However, most Orthodox images of Jesus emphasize either His authority and dignity (with a clear-eyed gaze at the beholder), or as a triumphant resurrected Conqueror of death. In both cases in Orthodoxy, He is serene.


So why did you get a religious history lesson today on Novel Matters? Did you come here for art instruction?


I am wondering if some of the wide divergence in the types of fiction that Christians read is similar? Do some of us write and buy fiction that calls the reader to emotion and action? And do others write and buy something more contemplative, with a very different aim?


Can you suggest pairs of Christian books, ones you’ve read, that reflect these two different aspects?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Getting Past What Your Characters Aren't

Welcome to our book talk on Bird by Bird. I know, the book has been out forever, but I missed the discussion group! Finally, this is my chance. I’m glad you’re here to discuss the chapter, “False Starts.” If you haven’t read the chapter, you must forget your groundless inhabitations and jump into the conversation. I learn so much from you.


“Brother Lawrence…saw all of us as trees in winter, with little to give, stripped of leaves and color and growth, whom God loves unconditionally anyway…When you write about your characters, we want to know all about their leaves and colors and growth. But we also want to know who they are when stripped of the surface show. So if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren’t.” Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

All I have in my writing pocket right now is a seed of an idea. The story is peopled by shadows of characters—a middle-aged woman, her mother and father, perhaps a child, and another older man. Keeping the analogy of bare trees in mind, my characters are mere sprouts, indistinguishable from a stalk of corn or an oak at the moment.

I definitely need to hang out with them. Won’t you sit in? I heard an author interview on my favorite podcast, Pen on Fire. The author—can’t remember her name—interviews her characters as if preparing to write their biographies. She fills notebooks with notes.

Here is my first interview with Barb, my protag. We’re sitting at a sidewalk cafĂ© in a small California beach town, because this is my interview, and I can do it anywhere I want. There's coffee and lots of chocolate on the table, so this should go well.

Me: You look nervous, Barb.

Barb: Shouldn’t I be? I won’t have a secret left when you’ve filled your notebook.

Me: We’ll start slow. There’s no rush. We’re both after the same thing, the truth.

Barb: Really? The truth? I’m not sure I’m all that familiar with the concept anymore. I thought I was, but in the last six months…

Me: You’ve had the rug pulled out from under you?

Barb: I’ve been swallowed by a whale. Which way is up, really?

Me: Perhaps we should start earlier. What is your earliest memory?

Barb: That would have been the Maple Street house, I suppose. Before Gary. That’s my younger brother. I don’t know…

Me: You’re thinking of something.

Barb: It’s silly.

Me: Go on.

Barb: Okay, if you insist. I was hiding in the broom closet. In fact, I was sitting on Mom’s Electrolux. She was calling for me from the kitchen. I should have gone to her. I knew I should have. I heard it in her voice. She was getting angry. But I stayed in the closet. I remember having to go to the bathroom. Number two. I’m sure there’s some deep meaning to that. I remember reading something.

Me: I’ll do some research.

Barb: You will?

Me: What happened next?

Barb: I was afraid of having an accident but more afraid of coming out. I’d waited too long. She would know I’d hidden from her. Our house was small, not a manor house where a little girl could get lost in her dreams. Mom wanted something from me. I don’t remember what.

That’s it. That’s my first memory. Your book is going to be awfully boring.

Me: Not at all. Besides, we aren’t finished yet. Was anyone else there, in the house?

Barb: I don’t think so. I remember other times, and, you know, they could have been before the closet thing or after, now that I think about it. Once I screamed my throat raw, trying to avoid a nap. My temper was legendary, the topic at many a family function. And another time, I remember eating tomatoes, still warm from the summer sun, with my dad under the apple tree.

Me: Tell me more about your father.

Barb: Dad? Well, he has his passions. Of late, he’s a bit delusional. I worry about his arteries hardening. That would affect his thinking, wouldn’t it? Anyway, he’s always been a bit of a showman.

Me: Is he a good father?

Barb: I love my father very much.

Me: Perhaps my question was too broad. Did you and your father get along?

Barb: Absolutely.

Me: Care to elaborate?

Barb: He’s not the man I thought he was. But then, I’m not sure I know my mother either.

Me: That’s quite a discovery to make at forty-eight. We’ll have to talk more about your parents, but I can see you’re about to bolt. Shall we set a time for tomorrow?

I’m not feeling great about the interview. Getting information out of Barb is like giving birth to a water buffalo…breach! I’m not even sure I like her name. Cynthia? Linda? Lady Gaga? Better? Not? Was this a false start? I’m not going to worry about it, much. After all, this was our first lunch. Once she trusts me, I’ll see her true colors. Her personality will bloom. She’ll tell me funny stories about her dog. Is she married? I’ll ask her tomorrow.

For now, all I know is she isn't all that close to her parents. She seems bitter. But she has nice memories of her father. Her mother, not so much. Chances are I'm completely wrong about her. More chocolate. Definitely more time.

How do you get beyond all the things your characters aren’t? Do you fill out an inventory? Use Meyers-Briggs personality types? Base your characters on people you know? When have you had your first impressions of a person changed by spending time with them? How much time are you willing to invest in getting to know your characters? How do you know when you know them well enough to start writing?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Word Play

It happens to all of us at some point. We sit before the blank computer screen, waiting for inspiration to strike. And we sit. And sit. Then we get up and grab some Double-stuff Oreos to dunk in milk to make the sitting more enjoyable. But it doesn't help us come up with an idea, not one little bit.

Sometimes we resort to idea-generating devices, and some work better than others. I return to Ray Bradbury's excellent Zen in the Art of Writing in the chapter titled, 'Run Fast, Stand Still, or, the Thing at the Top of the Stair, or, New Ghosts from Old Minds. He suggests using word association to "Be blown up , as it were, by your own delights and despairs." (pg. 15). He reflected on his past and made lists of nouns that surfaced in his memories - a sort of free-flowing association. From these he wrote authentic stories that were his alone.

I also found a website called The Thousand Word Project from Bates College Museum of Art which is an educational tool to use artwork to improve writing skills Here . On this site are interesting videos of artists who discuss the creative process and foster creativity in writing. It also offers this wonderful word list program called Wordle which makes my noun list even more inspiring and useful. You simply copy and paste a selection in the box or create your own random word list of your own. You can even adjust the font or color, or select 'randomize' for interesting variations. Then you can print the list or upload it to a forum. Here's mine.
Wordle: Childhood summer
Click on it to enlarge. It's titled 'Childhood Summer' and contains some of my memories of Maryland. The only glitch is that it does not distinguish phrases, so my 'Queen Anne's Lace' word was split up. Oh well. One of the artists said she chooses a topic and brainstorms words that are associated, then prints her list to ruminate on the project and see what ideas emerge. Sounds like a winner to me.

It's a fun tool, and delving into our past greatly enhances our writing. Mr. Bradbury moves on from pleasant childhood memories to what fears molded him. Our fears can powerfully affect the trajectory of our story. He tells of waking in the night with a powerful need to use the restroom but fearing to walk down the hall with the stairs that led to the attic where The Thing waited at the top. He ends the chapter: "I leave you now at the bottom of your own stair, at half after midnight, with a pad, a pen, and a list to be made." (pg. 28)

Is there anything you can share with us from your fears list? I, for one, would use these words about the basement: damp, musty, cool, workshop, sharp tools, scents of Tide and machinery oil, wall of canned vegetables and fruits, creepy, door that leads to coal bin which we were forbidden to open.
Have you made word lists to mine your life for topics? What works for you?

Monday, June 13, 2011

She Reads Guest Post: Book Club Blogger Melissa Hambrick on Shelter Me by Juliette Fay

Today's post is from the newest member of the She Reads team. We're happy to welcome her as a guest on Novel Matters. It's incredibly interesting for writers to be allowed to "sit in" with a book club as they discuss novels through the lens of real life.

Although still debating what she wants to be when she grows up, SheReads book club columnist Melissa Hambrick is a former entertainment industry PR exec, a full-time stay-at-home mom of two boys and a part-time volunteer for any school function that she didn’t scrunch down in her seat far enough to avoid. Having written for numerous publications, including Home Life and Today’s Christian Woman, and with chapter one of what is sure to be a bestselling novel stored in her laptop for the last year and a half, she blogs at WordMom.com less frequently than she probably should. Her book club, which she lovingly dubs ‘overachievers anonymous,’ actually has a strange preference for books they don’t really love, which they find leads to much more interesting conversation.



Tonight’s Book: Shelter Me by Juliette Fay

Tonight’s Menu:

Pasta Fagioli Soup*
Crusty br
ead
Chicken S
alad
Fresh
Fruit
Strawberry Sho
rtcake

Sigh. At 4 p.m., the Sunday night of our book club, our telephone rang. My husband’s best friend had gone out for a run that morning, had a heart attack, and died. At the
age of 41.

My husband and I were both rocked to the core. They’d just had lunch together 48 hours ago at a Chinese buffet. Neither of us completely believed it—and I’m not sure that even after the funeral—a Catholic high mass—we get it either. The service seemed so formal and so far removed from the Kansas Jayhawks-loving Southern boy with the dry wit that we knew, it was tough to reconcile the little pewter urn on the altar with this man who was so full of life.

My husband went for a drive—“Carefully!” I called out to him as he left the house. And when he came back, he insisted I go ahead to book club. It was so hard, leaving to be with my group of women who share and support each other, knowing that his best guy friend was gone. And you know how guys are with friends—they don’t usually have a big circle that chats and keeps up with what’s going on, unless it is the standings in their fantasy fo
otball league.

So eight of us girls got together over comfort food—an amazing Italian soup, crusty bread, chicken salad and strawberry shortcake—to talk books, life and death. The evening couldn’t have been more comforting if we were all sitting around in our Snuggies, which, actually, might no
t be a bad idea.

Juliette Fay gives a brilliant glimpse into the life of Janie, a young mother of an infant daughter (still nursing) and a preschool son, whose husband has just died in an accident. In the author insights and extras provided with my
copy of She
lter Me, Fay says:

“The story of Shelter Me has been in my head for a long time, in various forms. I think its first cell-divisions began when I got married. I had never loved anyone the way I loved my new husband, and had never felt so loved. I became quietly, privately terrified of losing him. I wonder if everyone doesn’t have these thoughts at some point. You love someone—your spouse, children, best friend, aunt, dog—so much, you know that if anything happens to them, you might not be able to put one foot in front of the other anymore. Nothing would make sense. You’d forget how to do simple things like mak
e toast or swallow.
Then we started having children and I thought, “Okay, now I’m really in trouble.” Not only did I worry that something might happen to them, I still had the fear of losing my husband, and I now had to worry on my kids’ behalf about losing their father. Making up stories about how I would manage was a way for me to process
my own fear.”

So, the good news is that for those other anxiety ridden folks like me (and quite a few of the girls in book club)—yes, you are apparently normal. One clubber calls it “going from 0 to 60 in ten seconds or less.” On 9/11, a dear friend of hers lost her husband in the Trade Centers. Counseling helped her friend and their family, but this clubber says that it was if she herself had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—while her friend had gone through therapy and begun to heal, she’d been fighting off her own rather severe case of the “What ifs.” She does it, I do it, and I’m betting you do it, too. This is why we women seem to
have a hotline to God.

Fear does crazy things to
us, and so does grief. Shelter Me is the journey that Janie takes from being a widowed mom whose milk has dried up and is afraid to get out of bed, back into real life.

It’s like that moment you slam your finger in a door and it hurts so bad, and happens so fast, that you say something that unfortunately the two-year-old decides to parrot for the next week. Except losing your husband—that’s like slamming your finger in a door
, every day, every minute.

I will conce
de that while we all enjoyed Shelter Me, it was not my personal favorite. It had a tendency to dangle its toes into Lifetime Movie waters a bit with her relationships with men—too convenient, too dramatic in one instance, too hunk-with-a-heart-of-gold-clad-in-plaid-flannel-and-tight-jeans in another. For some reason Valerie Bertinelli and Aiden Quinn keep coming to mind.

We loved her relationships with the other women in her life, especially given her mother’s reluctance to return and plug back in to a family relationship, even through the tragedy. Aunt Jude is a gem—everyone needs one. Her neighbor, the new friend she discovers through her son’s preschool, even the women in her self-defense class—these are wonderful examples of how women’s relationships can be
so foundational to each other.

Most of all, we loved Pology Cake. This should be mandatory in life—apologies should always be accompanied by cake. Of course her cousin Cormac helped her to pick out the exact Pology Cake for the appropriate “restorative justice,” as Fay calls it. Who knew that chocolate cake wasn’t a one-size-fits-all? One clubber mentioned that she took donuts to a friend when her dog died, to which I replied, “Of course. Nothing says, ‘I’m sorry your dog di
ed like a box of Krispy Kremes.”

Losing someone is painful and no amount of “what iffing” is going to prepare anyone for it. Fay reminds us that the process is debilitatingly ugly and refining, with glimpses of beauty
and a promise of a new beginning.

Our friend is gon
e. I drive down the road, thinking, He’s not here. He’s not on this earth anymore. How can that be? But I find pleasure that he got to laugh at the fact that Tennessee had yet another snow day for only one inch of snow. And that while his nieces and nephews won’t have their uncle’s hand to hold, he’s sure to still be at every baseball game. And I somehow think that he’s having the heavenly equivalent of chicken wings and w
atching the Jayhawks play basketball.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Have you ever mentally put yourself in Janie’s place? How do you comba
t those overwhelming “What if” feelings?

2. Do you have a version of Pology Cake? How have you restored yourself with som
eone when you realize you have messed up?

3. What did you think about Janie’s re
lationship with Jake? Was it inevitable?

4. Dylan spends a good deal
of time in this book wearing goggles. Why?

5. We thought Janie’s mom felt like she had “put in her time” and now it was her time to do what she wanted. How do you feel about the relationship between Janie and her mom? Do you think her mom was selfish, or j
ust unable to be who Janie needed her to be?

6. What symbolism did you see in the porch that her husband commissioned before his death being built, and all of the unknown little things that kept being fixed along the way?


Pasta Fagioli Soup *adapted from Family Circle Magazine (which a
dded Kale and 2 cans white beans, instead of one)

2 tablespoon
s olive oil

1 onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 can (
14.5 oz) diced tomatoes with basil, garlic and oregano

2 ca
ns (14.5 oz each) chicken broth

8 oz small pasta shells

1 teaspoon Ital
ian seasoning

1 can small
white beans, drained and rinsed

1 ta
blespoon tomato paste

1/2 teaspoon s
alt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Fresh shredded parmesan, for serving

1. Heat oil in lg. pot ov
er med. heat. Add onion, and cook 5 min. Add garlic, cook 1 min.

2. Stir in tomatoes, broth and 3 cups water. Bring to simmer over high heat. Add pasta and Italian seasoning. Cook, stirring 5 min.

3. Reduce heat to medi
um and stir in beans, tomato paste, salt and pepper. Heat through.

4. Ladle into bowls; garnish with Parmesan.

Friday, June 10, 2011

". . . the beautiful un-beautiful"

This has been a good week at Novel Matters. It started with beautiful Bonnie producing our first-ever video post, talking about the Cruciformity of Story-Telling and the beloved outcast; and was followed by Katy's moving post about Eyes to See and the beautiful un-beautiful.

I put together a Novel Matters calendar for us every year that shows who's to post on what day, and on each month's page I include a quote from well-known and obscure authors. Some of the quotes are humorous, some are profound. This is the quote from January: "We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out" (Ray Bradbury).

Well, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, and as Bonnie and Katy so poignantly pointed out, it's not always what seems beautiful on the surface. Personally, I relate deeply to the outcast, but have never, ever related to the Beautiful Blonde. Or the Beautiful Brunette. Or the beautiful anything in between. I wrote in a post some time ago that "At Seventeen" by Janis Ian is one of my all-time favorite songs. The lyrics still move me as much as they did the first time I heard it: "I learned the truth at seventeen, that love was meant for beauty queens . . ." (I do hope you'll listen).

I've always been drawn to the beautiful un-beautiful that Katy wrote about on Wednesday. I used to draw and paint before I turned to writing, and one of my favorite paintings that I did was of an old Oriental woman sitting at a window, looking out on the world through eyes all-too-familiar with pain. If I manage at any time as a writer to "tip myself over and let the beautiful stuff out," it will look a lot like that woman. It will be richly layered with things that aren't so beaufiful at first glance. The novel I just completed is that kind of story. It was difficult to write, and took a lot out of me. There were days I'd rather do anything than write, anything but put myself back into that story, where I had to mine the deepest parts of myself to put a word on the page, parts I'd rather keep hidden away; parts I'd rather weren't there at all. But then, isn't that where redemption comes from? From the broken places? From a Savior who was "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief?" But the thing is, I can't see myself writing any other kind of story. I worry sometimes that, by its very nature, what I write will fall through the cracks, but I learned a long time ago that it's my job to be faithful to my call; the results belong to the Lord.

What about you? Do you more easily relate to the beautiful un-beautiful, to the beloved outcast? If so, what is your favorite example of the beautiful un-beautiful in literature?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Eyes to See

Call me chicken. Would you want to follow Bonnie's beautiful, beautiful video blog of Monday morning? What can I possibly add to that? But bless her, she gave me an out, by quoting a post I recently wrote for our sister blog, SheReads. So I'm going to re-print that post here.


But first, let me call to your attention an unheard-of opportunity to get two of Patti's novels for almost nothing: Amazon is running a "Sunshine Deals" sale on over 600 books, and at least two of them are delightful, beautifully rich up-market fiction. From now through June 15, you can buy Kindle editions of "Seeing Things" and "The Queen of Sleepy Eye" for only $.99! I wouldn't be your friend if I didn't tell you.

|
And now to the post:


Do you ever play this game? Fill in the blank: “Please Lord, don’t let me die, and don’t let the rapture come until I have…”

What?

Gotten married? Had children? Written a book? Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro?

The first three were on my list, once upon a time. The fourth never was - but I love that word, Kilimanjaro, and it seems worth saying.

The one thing that’s been on my list longest and will be there for a long time to come is this: “Please Lord, I don’t want to go until I learn to see.”

After all, I’m a writer, and the quality of my writing will never rise above the quality of my vision.

Even more, I am a Christian, and the quality of my faith, I truly believe, will never rise above the quality of my vision. Jesus himself spoke again and again of those who had eyes to see, and those who didn’t. One of my favorite stories in the Bible is in Genesis 16, where Hagar, that poor sad story of a woman finally meets “El Roi,” or “The God who sees me.” What a stunning gift she was given. Had anybody ever seen her before?

Consider Jesus’ utter frustration at the Pharisees who saw their rules and not the blind man in need of healing. (Don’t miss the irony here.)

Consider it all: the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the angels we entertain unaware, Jesus walking on the road to Emmaus (“Didn’t our hearts burn within us?”).

Consider String Theory (look it up: the universe might be made of music), the Fibonacci Sequence (look it up: the universe is definiately made of poetry), the faces of beautiful un-beautiful people, the world outside your window.

It’s this drive to see, I think, that has filled my bookshelves to overflowing. I like to read stories, and the kind I like best are those that help me see through eyes different from my own. It’s so easy for Christians to get myopic. We like to hang out together. We find our friends in church and pray for jobs in Christian-filled offices. We like books about people like… well, like us.

But I want to know the outcast Boo Radley, so I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee. I want to understand black maids in the 60′s-era South, so I read “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. I want to know what the Angel of Death finds beautiful in humans, so I read “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak.

And then when I feel very brave, I want to find one friend who doesn’t believe what I believe, doesn’t think like I think, doesn’t know my lingo. I want to know her story, and understand.

I want to see her, like El Roi.

Please God, I want to see.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Cruciformity of Storytelling- A Novel Matters Video


Video text:
Preachy. An explication the storyteller strives to avoid. But how to circumvent “preachiness” while simultaneously weaving a strong moral argument into the fabric of the story?

Katy wrote an article posted on our sister blog, She Reads entitled
Eyes to See. In it she points to the storytellers need to consider broad and deep the life teaming around us in order to become arrested by things previously unknown or misunderstood. This, I think is an excellent first step: the action of willfully putting aside our own way of understanding the world in order to truly see the world as others do. Only when the storyteller confesses her blind ignorance can she begin to see the heart of the story she is trying to tell.

Out of this step come neat things begin to pour out of imagination. The storyteller finds a new hero. A broken one. Oh, not the pretty blonde with a winning smile and a broken heart. Not her. Rather, the storyteller whose eyes are open finds the outcast. The ignored. The powerless. The reviled. And in these dark places sees startling beauty. Not the need for redemption, instead she sees the tendrils of glory already present. The places where redemption has already broken in and found a miniscule toehold. Inside this dark-bright crawl space, the storyteller sees the hard nugget of true story.

Pouring from this step, comes the next, where the storyteller abandons her message in order to explore the message God has already written into the life of the beloved outcast. The story is no longer what the writer thinks it must be, but is transformed into the story that is the one the teller has no power over. The story that will not bend to an outside agenda—r egardless of how benevolent that agenda seems.

From here, the story populates with characters who swirl around the beloved outcast. Each of these characters, regardless of their role in the story’s structure, live out (model) a different aspect of the beloved outcast’s story. Together they fill out the complexities of their dark redemption-in-progress. They link together in surprising ways in order to demonstrate all the moral choices available. The storyteller does not pluck out those who embrace darkness, rather she seeks to understand the choice in order to bring its fullness to the page.

And, after this tapestry of character and story are in place and the story emerges, the teller sees herself staring back from the pages. She sees the plumbed depth of her own humanity, need, weakness, and desire. And having seen this, understands the story she will tell is one that makes room for everyone to find themselves. It is a story of inclusiveness and humanity. It is an act of love.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Library That Saved My Childhood

Patti's post about the importance of libraries brought to my mind the essential nature of my own childhood library, the Ernie Pyle Memorial Library in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico.


A newly-discovered portrait of the famous WWII journalist Ernie Pyle is his last: a photograph taken just moments after his death. The body that housed all those words lies still and immortalized in black and white.


Ernie Pyle housed other words in a very literal way – words that meant survival to me, long after he was gunned down by a Japanese machine gun on a Pacific Island in 1945.


When I moved to Albuquerque as a ten-year-old girl in 1962, I devoured the written word. From the time I was a toddler I had wondered at the magic of black marks on white paper and determined I would solve those mysteries; and once I learned to read I was voracious. Previously living in the raw-boned boomtown of Farmington New Mexico, I never went to a library. One Christmas my mother gave me six cheaply-bound books: Alice in Wonderland, The Five Little Peppers, Black Beauty, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Little Women, and Treasure Island. I read each of them seven times.


But once we moved to Albuquerque I discovered to my delight that there was a library just ten blocks away, down the Chinese-elm-lined street of Girard Avenue. I discovered the Olive Book of Fairy Tales (and the Red, and the Blue, and the Yellow, and the Brown…) I delighted in every Oz book Frank Baum ever wrote. I found a whole collection of books about American Indians, and read every one in the little library, even the adult and scholarly ones. (I once even read a book called the Chisel-Tooth Tribe, thinking that the author would stop talking about beavers and other mammals and get around to talking about Indians.) Then I discovered the books about ancient Egypt, and I adopted another culture.


The walls of wonder in that library were a cosmography for my young mind.


Every few days I would bicycle furiously down the street with my wire basketful of books secured with a belt. On the way home, I would often stop pedaling altogether as the strapped-down open book on top snagged my attention. I would scramble off the bicycle just before it toppled. The books and I would sit under a stranger’s tree until I finished a chapter, and I would pedal home.


I didn’t want to return there, to where I lived. It was a place of fits of rage, of crazed threats and screams in the night. It was a place where the emotions of adults ambushed children. I didn’t have the language to express it then. Now I would speak of mental illness, of schizophrenia.


The only refuge was high in the weeping willow tree, or hiding on the cool flagstone beneath the lilac bush. The only insulation was the world of books.


I survived that world, outlasted it, really. I went away from it to college, deliberately forged my own sturdy and loving family.


I write my own books now, sixteen of them published so far. I have written books of faith, to help other women have hope. I have written a book about a child who has bad dreams and is helped by a multi-colored quilt and dreams of escape to wondrous worlds. My newest books explore mysteries -- mysteries of plot, mysteries of the human soul.


I go back to that little library sometimes. What once seemed a kaleidoscope of ideas I now see as a tiny residence, where books, up until recently, were even shelved in the bathtub. It is the modest “little white house and picket fence” that Ernie Pyle often wrote about, the one he and his wife built, made into a public library after his death. His dog Cheetah’s grave is still there. Ernie built that very picket fence. It is a library that demands also to be seen still as a home.


I look at the photograph, the serenity of Ernie Pyle’s face in death.


I thank him for his home, the safe haven for my young mind.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Lessons for Writers from the Library

Pardon me. I've allowed myself to get a tad distracted for this post. We won't be discussing Bird by Bird today. I had my last day at the library on Friday (to be a full-time writer again). Working at the library gave me a fresh perspective on readers and the book industry. I wrote earlier about working at Barnes & Noble at Christmas. This was very, very different. More relational. A whole new breed of reader for me. Loved it.


Keep in mind that I worked at a branch located in a blue-collar area hit especially hard by the recession. Our patrons don't fit any stereotypes. We serve college professors, teachers, homeschoolers, high-school dropouts, the mentally disabled, and everything in between. In general, they abhor eReaders, either because of the cost or for reasons of principle.

So here's what I learned at the Clifton Branch of the Mesa County Public Library District:

1. Old cowboys never die. They read westerns, exclusively.

They check out tall piles of books by Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, and Max Brand. When I suggest newer titles, they are polite but resolute. "No, thank you. I prefer the old stories." One man systematically works his way through our western collection, and when he comes to the end, he starts over again. What he and his compadres prefer are stories set in a society organized around codes of honor and justice. The heroes are semi-nomadic wanderers, usually a cowboy or a gunfighter, never a farmer (sodbuster).

Since I'm not an avid reader of this genre, I'm not sure how true-to-mid-19th-century life they are, but westerns probably satisfy a need in the older male reader as romances serve the female reader--a suspension from present reality and pure entertainment, some better than others. If you're thinking about writing for this under-served reader group, hurry up! From my observations they're an aging group. I hope I'm wrong about that.

Next time you're in the library, open a western to the inside cover. Cowboy readers will "brand" books they've read. Yes, it's vandalism, but it's the code of the west.
2. Genre fiction rules!

Library patrons do not pass go. They do not peruse general fiction. They go directly to the mystery, romance, horror, and science fiction/fantasy shelves. They can be distracted by the new book display but only to find books in their favorite genre. It is my unscientific observation that mysteries are at the top of the heap with the widest range of readers. In fact, you'd be surprised what some grandmas will snuggle up to at night. When asked, they say that it's figuring out whodunit that keeps them coming back for more.

Most of us rely on cover art to identify genre, but this can be unreliable. A book that oozes romantic images may be shelved in general fiction. A book's genre designation depends on how the publisher registers the book with the Library of Congress. Look on the copyright page of a book. If it's nonfiction, the Library of Congress assigns it a Dewey Decimal number. If fiction, it will say "Dewey Decimal Classification: F" At least, sometimes it does. Then come the subject headings. These are what the library catalogers use to decide which genre a book will be in their system. Sometimes they get it right; sometimes they get it wrong. Pictured here is Seaside Letters. The subtitle is "A Nantucket Love Story," and yet it's not considered a romance in our system. But you can bet that if a man with impressive abs is on the cover, that's romance. Go figure.

3. People who frequent libraries seldom purchase books.

Patrons who ravenously read library books have beat the system, and they're quite proud of themselves. They pay taxes and they read all the books they want. Is there a better use of tax dollars? I think not.Our little library saw a 16% rise in circulation last year. For those who are saavy with the Internet, there's no limit--almost--to what they can acquire to read, watch, or listen to. Our patrons go online to reserve materials from all over the state of Colorado (a fantastic service to a largely rural state) and have them sent to their home libraries. And we feature downloadable eBooks, eAudiobooks, eMusic, and eVideo as well as conventional materials. One Young Adult reader assured me she saved $1200 the previous year on her entertainment. She comes into the library several times a week to check out books, DVDs, and CDs. I think her estimate is low.

How does this help authors increase their sales? First and most importantly, libraries buy a lot of books and usually multiple copies. Plainly put, libraries are good customers. In some cases, they base their purchases on a book's circulation numbers. If a book is popular, the buyers are more likely to purchase more books from that author. Also, patrons use their library cards to try on a book, sometimes purchasing a particularly good read for themselves. More often, patrons let their reading experience influence their gift-buying. If you're not marketing to libraries, you should be. And I just came across a patron who doesn't buy books for ecological reasons. There's probably more of her kind out there.

4. Electronics are a magnet.

True confession time: Not all patrons care that there are books in the library. In fact, those pesky books make getting to the computers a bit like running a maze. These patrons sit at the computers, sometimes for hours, to use the computers or to check out their limit in DVDs, which at our library is ten. This isn't all bad. Yes, the computers are used to play computer
games and to access social media sites, but they're also used to fill out job applications (increasingly exclusive to the Internet), communicate with faraway loved ones, research ancestry, and so much more. And many families are forgoing the expense and intrusion of cable or dish television for the chance to choose more deliberately what is available to watch. That's what I keep telling myself, anyway. One of our die-hard video gamers did check out a SciFi book last week.

5. Readers can be a tad unforgiving.

I've heard something like this many times: "I won't be reading that author again." The offense? The author had the audacity to write a different type of story. This drives me insane.
I really, really hope I'm attracting the intolerant patrons to my check-out station. Egads. It's tough to hear, but I thought you should know all that talk about branding might be grounded in truth. Grr.

6. Readers love, love, LOVE series.
Writing a series full of relateable characters is a sure-fire way to make readers happy. I spend a lot of time each day helping patrons find the next book in a series. I rely heavily on What's Next, a search engine that finds nothing but series. Here's the link:
http://ww2.kdl.org/libcat/whatsnext.asp

This is getting too long. Thanks for hanging in there with me. I learned a few other things that may pop up in future posts. For now, I'm asking myself what there is to learn from my experience. Basically, will I write differently? If I wanted to make a lot of money, I would learn how to write mysteries with a love-her-to-death main character. I wouldn't mind making a lot of money, but I don't particularly like mysteries, so that's out. Will I write a series? If I come up with a concept and characters that rock my world, sure. Otherwise, probably not. Will I be careful to stick within my brand? I'm trying. According to my agent, I write about complex issues with tenderness and humor with a touch of quirkiness. I think I can come up with a few stories that fit inside those perameters. I don't want readers mad at me, but the artist in me bristles at this a bit. On the other hand, mention a successful (monetarily) author and you will have, at least, a general idea about what s/he writes. There's always a psuedonym, I suppose. Sigh.

Let me end by saying that I've loved my time at the library. The staff love the patrons. They go to extraordinary lengths to meet their needs. And the patrons have rekindled my hope. The best? I issued a 26-year-old mother her FIRST library card. Now, she comes in regularly to check out books for her daughter, and she asks me for recommendations. That's good stuff.

Do you have memories of your library? What role did it play in you becoming a reader and/or a writer? What do you like about libraries today? What would you change? Do you believe libraries have a continuing role in our society? How often do you avail yourself of library services? Any questions? Do you think libraries will endure the digital revolution?

We'll return to our book talk of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott on the 17th. Unless I get distracted again. It happens.