Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Quieting Opposing Voices

Be our 300th follower and win our cookbook, Novel Matters on Rice: What to Cook When You Would Rather Be Writing (or Vise Versa). Yes, you can download it for free, but this is a hard copy. Such a treasure! For the other 299 members, we love you to death, too!

Grab a cup of coffee and let's sit for a spell. I'm so proud of myself for finally recording a vlog for you. Oh, the angst of it all! Well, here it is. A bit long. Make that a tall cup of coffee. I promise to be less verbose in the future, but I was so relieved to get the thing done, well, I hope you don't mind.

We're continuing our discussion of Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird. I look forward to your comments. So, on with "Radio Station KFKD."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Learning to Hate Novels

We are approaching our 300th follower! Sharon Souza is watching for that person -- who will win a copy of our NovelMatters cookbook, Novel Tips On Rice: What to Cook when You'd Rather Be Writing (and Vice Versa) So sign up!

Wall Street Journal book reviewer Joseph Epstein in a recent article, "What Killed American Lit." absolutely scours the editors and authors of recently-published The Cambridge History of the American Novel.

Most notably, Epstein says that those who composed and compiled this 1,244-page book abuse the English language itself by such confusing and trendy language that no one can understand them:

". . .through the magic of dull and faulty prose, the contributors to "The Cambridge History of the American Novel" have been able to make these presumably worldly subjects seem parochial in the extreme—of concern only to one another, which is certainly one derogatory definition of the academic. These scholars may teach English, but they do not always write it, at least not quite. A novelist, we are told, "tasks himself" with this or that; things tend to get "problematized"; the adjectives "global" and "post"-this-or-that receive a good workout; "alterity" and "intertexuality" pop up their homely heads; the "poetics of ineffability" come into play; and "agency" is used in ways one hadn't hitherto noticed, so that "readers in groups demonstrate agency." About the term "non-heteronormativity" let us not speak.These dopey words and others like them are inserted into stiffly mechanical sentences of dubious meaning.

The book itself, says Epstein, is a symbol of all the reasons why people who started out loving novels had all such love drummed out of them by narcissistic and cliquish teachers.

Tell me, what book did you once love, then grow to hate, because of a teacher?

Or, what novel did you once hate when studying it in school, then rediscovered it later and now love it?

Friday, August 26, 2011

How to Write a Great Villain

Good villains aren’t born they’re created. Chilling as this sounds, it’s nice folks like you and me who are responsible for some of the most heinous characters in fiction. If you’re looking to write a story with staying power, a tome to remember, you need a great villain.

Iago from
Moby-Dick from Moby-Dick
Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca

What do these characters have in common? They’re more than mere bad boys and girls. More than the simple villain of old who tied innocent girls to the railroad tracks while twirling a long black moustache. Each of these characters is a
symbol for a force that exists inside a dominant culture.

When you are beginning to craft your villain, it’s best not to think of that character as a villain at all. In John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story, he understands the antagonist (or villain) as “opponent”. He says, “[. . .] don’t think of the opponent as someone the hero hates. He may be, or he may not be. The opponent is simply the person on the other side. He can be a nicer person than the hero, more moral, or even the hero’s lover or friend.”

Opponents aren’t trapped into being the bad guy; instead they are free to express other facets of the same issue the hero is exploring—but in a very different fashion, and for a specific reason. A good opponent is the personification of a base human state and/or a cultural system (and good protagonists, too).

Let’s look at that list of villains again:

Iago from
Othello. For centuries literary critics have pondered the slightness of Iago’s reasons for wanting to destroy Othello and everything he loves. He is a character that stalks the souls of everyone who reads or sees the play. He is honest, yet pure deceit. When I read this play, I see not a man consumed with human envy, but the personification of Lucifer standing before the throne and refusing to bend the knee. He is the pride of life that every child of Eve wrestles.

Moby-Dick from
Moby-Dick. That great white whale is so much more that a defiant fish. "The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them." Here is the story of a man made to confront his own actions when faced with a foe as large (speaking in a literary sense only) as God. He is all that is wild and unpredictable about life.

Mrs. Danvers from
Rebecca. This woman drives a young bride nearly to suicide, and is consumed by flames in the end (or is she?). She is the personification of the establishment that leave no room for the dreams of the young and that imprisons us within our own doubts and try to keep us from rising above our circumstances.

I recently saw a staging of Wicked: The True Story of the Witches of Oz. In it, we discover that the Wicked Witch (Elphaba) isn’t wicked at all. In fact, she is a brave, deeply principled young woman who is fighting the forces of the Wizard and his minions. That makes the Wizard the villain. But he’s no ordinary run of the mill bad guy whose mother didn’t love him. If he were, the story would be ho-hum, a passing distraction instead of one of the most enduring and successful musicals in modern history. The Wizard is the personification of racism. He is the force in our dominant culture that smothers voices of smaller groups within the culture. He stands for something that is as real and powerful as what Elphaba stands for. And when he falls, every member of the audience prays that this piece of hatred they carry within has died a little more too.

That’s why it isn’t enough to have a character that is mean, petty, vindictive, or murderous just for the sake of needing a bad guy. And that’s why it isn’t enough to have an excuse or reason for why your opponent is “bad”. A writer understands that ‘evil’ is a descriptive, not a character type. It can describe an action, but it is never a trait for a character. It must be more layered than simply saying, “He is evil.” The opponent must be intricately connected to a large construct that exists in the human psyche and/or the dominant culture.

Who is your favorite villain? What does she or he personify? Or what about a character you’ve created?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Love Your Villain As Yourself

It's become the fashion, among authors in Christian circles, to say, "I'm not a Christian Writer; I'm a writer who is a Christian." There's good enough reason for this: to pin the label on an author changes the way people view his book. Correctly or not, it alters expectations. In some ways it raises them: this book will likely uphold Christian Values. In other ways, it lowers them: the writing will likely display weaknesses common to Christian fiction. One can draw a short line from the first expectation to the second: the felt obligation to present a positive witness so easily stifles a writer's abilily to paint the darkness dark, to draw three dimensional heroes with real faults and three dimensional villains with real virtues.

But I set myself one rule when I first began to write fiction, that actually improved my writing, though my purpose at first had more to do with behaving Christianly toward my readers. Or rather, toward my reader: at first, I thought only of the one woman whose story had provided the outline for Dara, my main character in To Dance In the Desert. Would this woman recognize herself in Dara? And if so, would she feel that I'd treated her badly, by misjudging her motivations, or minimizing the experiences that had led her to act as she had done?

As I progressed, I realized that Dara had changed enough in the writing that the woman on whom she was based would never recognize herself in the story, but by this time I understood that other woman or men might well see themselves in my characters. When I held that mirror up to show them their faces, I wanted to do it kindly, with love.

That went for Finis too, that legalistic, worst-nightmare of a self-help preacher. If some minister heard his own voice in the cadence of Finis' sales pitch, he must sense the same understanding and grace that each one of us needs.

This morning I discussed with a friend the rare insight a parent has into the core personality of her grown child, because she was there early to see what caused him joy, what made his eyes tear and his shoulders curl in around his heart.

I believe we should have that same insight into our characters - especially the less positive ones. Not only does that uphold the golden rule, but it rounds out the writing as well, adds a complexity that both rings true and offers insight to the reader.

To illustrate, here is a picture that has fascinated and troubled me since I first saw it several years ago. A beautiful, sweet-faced boy, who loved to play cowboys and Indians, whose childhood ambition was to be a priest. What was his name? Adolf Hitler.

What happened to this child? What was he thinking, as the photographer took his picture? What was done to him as he grew, and why did it affect him one way, and not another?

We all come out of the box as children, beautiful, with joys and vulnerabilities. To quote Marcus Zusak in The Book Thief, "I am haunted by humans."

Please Lord, let my readers be, as well.

Monday, August 22, 2011

To Read or Not To Read: A Roundtable Discussion

My husband and I are avid readers, and so are our daughters. Our son was too. I'm delighted to have both my daughters as members of the book club I started 2 1/2 years ago. We enjoy the same types of novels, so when my
youngest, Deanne, recommended Room, I borrowed her copy and dove in.
The best I can say about it, is that it's disturbing. I wanted to give up on it a dozen times, but hung in because Deanne assured me it would be worth it to keep going. After three long nights of reading, I reached the "Aha!" moment, when I was indeed glad I'd stuck it out. I called Deanne the next day to tell her exactly what I just said here, adding, "It's a lot of pages to wade through to get to that all-important revelation." "But,
Mom," she said, "didn't you read the back cover copy?" This from a reader who will never, ever read the back cover copy; who wants to know absolutely nothing about a book she intends to read. "No," I said, though I usually do. "I went solely on your recommendation." She laughed and said, "I bet it's on the back cover copy." "No way," I said. "They'd never give that away. It's a stunner! It just comes too far into the book. She and her editor took a huge risk of losing lots of readers by at least not hinting that there was a stunner on the way." "Go get the book," she said. "I bet it's there." So I did ... and it was. I was blown away. "Well, didn't you feel like I did, wading through the first quarter of the book?" I asked. "No," she said, "I knew it from the start." "No way. You did not figure that out in the first few pages." She confessed that she knew because her daughter Katelyn had to read it this summer in advance of her sophomore English class -- which I also find disturbing -- and Deanne read Katie's report.

So, here's my question: Say you're like my daughter, and you go into a novel knowing absolutely nothing about it. How willing are you to stick with a novel that is disturbing, dark,
grim, oppressive -- you fill in the adjective. Does it make a difference if someone you trust recommends it?

Perhaps you're like me. I have my trusted restaurant friends. If they recommend a restaurant, it moves to the top of my must-try list. From listening to the wrong people, I've also scratched some restaurants off my list. Movies are the same way. And, of course, so are books.

I recently read a book on the recommendation of a highly regarded friend. I read and read and read. I didn't like any of the characters. The plotline was comatose. The author certainly has a gift for description, so she describes the same thing three different ways, repeatedly. And then something happened in the story that was like stubbing my toe in the dark. I like surprises, the kind that give you an "A-ha!" moment, but this was a sucker punch, as if her editor said, "Something has to happen here!" And it did, and I put the book down. I'm reading another book recommended by the
same person. We all deserve a second chance. It's fascinating! Title? The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

It greatly depends on whether the story gives me bad dreams or not. I've put down a few for that reason. (The Historian, for one - and I'd bought it in hardback - grrrr) If an acquaintance gives me the heads up about a slow beginning or "just get past the blah-blah-blah" then I'm more likely to stick with it. But I feel cheated if it never improves. I'm willing to go along for the ride if I'm promised a satisfying resolution of some kind, but that doesn't always materialized. I don't need a Pollyanna ending, but there has to be some redemption or character growth.

My latest brush with the dark side of fiction was when I picked up a YA novel by Robert Cormier, entitled In the Middle of the Night. The low page count and the fact that it was a YA made me think it would be a quick read.

So quick that I never finished it. It had an interesting premise (a young boy is the son of a man who unintentionally caused the death of some 20 people and is contacted by someone who wants revenge). Halfway through the novel I read a Cormier bio which spoke of his pessimism and the fact that his protags don't "win" -- and I tossed the book.

I must must admit I can't handle dark YAs. I tried to read Catcher in the Rye and couldn't stand the protag there. Sorry.

There are places I know I don't go when it comes to story--not simply because they are dark, but because they are dark in a specific way or on a specific topic. For example, I don't read novels about children dying. Fiction is personal. When I recommend a novel to a friend I do so with trepidation; love me, love the books I love, right? Some of my favorite books were handed to me by a friend: The Bean Trees, Cold Sassy Tree, In the Skin of a Lion, Life of Pi to name a few. Other books I have grown to love were recommended to me by the women on this blog: The Book Thief being among the top recommendations.

When it comes to 'dark' subject matter, I find the lines are not easily drawn. A story can be dark in a human sort of way and I will find the novel un-put-downable (I recommended Canadian writer Ann-Marie MacDonald's novel Fall on Your Knees to the Novel Matters women because of it's rich and brilliant writing even though the subject matter was so dark the reader is often tempted to look away while a scene plays out). My personal rule is thus- if it is dark in a "humans can be so dark" sort of way, I'll give it a look. If it's a dark "there's a man with a knife in the closet" sort of way, I pass.

I'm certainly with Latayne on that one. I can't handle dark YAs either. And I've never read Catcher in the Rye. I don't feel like I've missed much. What about you? Where do you find yourself in this discussion? We'd love to hear.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Curiouser and Curiouser

My husband and I have reservations at a bed and breakfast in the near future. We have visited several different B and Bs in the past and we have found them much more enjoyable than staying in hotels (when we can afford it). Sigh. They can be pricey. People either love them or love their privacy too much to share a bathroom or the breakfast table with strangers. Some people won't even consider it. It's probably cultural.

Our favorite B and B is The Jabberwock Inn, based on Alice in Wonderland, with quotes from the story and bits of whimsy in unexpected places. A converted convent, it sits perched on a steep street directly up from Cannery Row in Monterey, California. You can see it here, if you'd like. It's been quite a few years since we've been there - way back before the economy took a nosedive.

What is it about invading the home of strangers and eating at their breakfast table that is so appealing? I think it brings out the voyeur in me. Of course, I don't invade their privacy or wander out of proper bounds. I simply wonder what it would be like to live there, to sit on the porch overlooking the bay every morning and smell the old-house scents and hear the wooden stairs creak and the clock ticking in the hall. To be awakened by barking sea lions and surf, with the fog lacing through the branches of a craggy cypress outside the window. It makes me want to crawl into someone's skin and write. I want to know the past inhabitants, their stories of happiness and loss, of sacrifice and devotion. To witness them marching through their days of monotony and tragedy and miracles. Curiouser and curiouser.

I think it's a sad fact that if you want to sell your house you are advised to 'stage' your home by putting away any and all personal items. Prospective buyers need to imagine their own possessions in your living space and not be distracted (or put off) by yours. I understand the concept, and I know it works. But haven't you walked through an open house and caught glimpses of family life, despite their best efforts? You can't hide the stories. There might be a little handprint pressed in the cement patio or a giant bag of 'large breed' dogfood in the garage. The scent of Old Spice in the bathroom or Youth Dew in the master bedroom. Perhaps one side of the closet is empty. Maybe the upholstered chair shows claw marks or an outline of a child's drawing has bled through the paint on the bedroom door. Are they selling the house to move closer to relatives or have they lost their home to foreclosure? Are they expecting a new addition to the family and need more room, and would that be a baby or an elderly grandparent? Very different stories with different endings.

If you look around your home, even without any personal items displayed, what would it say about you? Consider the general appearance. Are you a fastidious neat-nick or do you have different priorities? Possibly you're dealing with poor health in yourself or a family member and it's just too low on your list to worry about. It would be easy to tell the difference with a little bit more sleuthing. Is the garage full of ceramics waiting to be fired or do you have a spare room filled with scrapbooking materials that keeps you preoccupied? Are there copious medical supplies beneath your bathroom sink and the scent of Betadine in the air?

Maybe your laptop is open to a project you are responsible to complete and had to bring home from work. Are the books on your shelves classics or romances? The movies on your shelves comedies or adventures? The car in your driveway plugged in or up on blocks?

If you staged your home for an open house, what is it about your life that would unwittingly tell a story?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Listen to Your Broccoli!

Oh dear, Latayne wrote eloquently on Monday about getting snagged by the little things that lead to a sumptuous poem or novel, and I'm here to talk about broccoli. Now you see what I'm up against around here. I'll try to make this the best discussion on broccoli you've had today, because we've come to Anne Lamott's chapter in Bird by Bird, "Broccoli." I wasn't quite sure what a chapter titled "Broccoli" would offer about the writing craft, but Anne never disappoints. For one thing, I'm now very good at spelling broccoli . Please join in our discussion. You are my best teachers.

Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it. "2,000-Year-Old-Man," Mel Brooks, a quote from Bird by Bird

There are two things you don't want to go bad in your refrigerator--refried beans or broccoli. If that happens, freeze the container with its contents intact and throw the whole mess away on trash day. Do. not. Open. The. Container. Otherwise, the odor will ruin your hearing. I know this to be true from personal experience.

It's been over a year since my agent called to say my publisher had canceled my contract for a third book (stinky broccoli!). Sales weren't good enough to justify the investment in another Patti Hill book. How did that feel? Think of being hit by a Mack truck that backs up and hits you again and again. That's pretty much how it felt.

Today, I am a stronger woman. I write for totally different reasons, but the stink of the broccoli remains. I was about 2/3rds of the way through my WIP when I got the news. I toyed, seriously, with the idea of burying the manuscript in the backyard and turning my office into a craft room. I prayed for direction and God spoke to me--no kidding!--through someone who didn't even know I'd asked God whether I should keep writing or not. She said, "Keep doing what you're doing. Don't get discouraged."

So I sat down at the computer with the odiferous broccoli wafting around me.

According to Anne Lamott, the wisdom of listening to your broccoli to know how to eat it means this:

It means, of course, that when you don't know what to do, when you don't know whether your character would do this or that, you get quiet and try to hear that still small voice inside. It will tell you what to do. The problem is that so many of us lost access to our broccoli when we were children.

Or had our contracts canceled. Ouch!

You need your broccoli in order to write well. Otherwise you're going to sit down in the morning and have only your rational mind to guide you.

That will not do. We need to trust our intuitions to write something that is honest and true--and fun. So, how do we get our broccoli back. Here are Anne's suggestions:

You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side.

I'm starting a new WIP , so I'm working at regaining my sense of trust. How in the world am I
going to do that? This kind of confidence doesn't come from believing what others say about you or your writing. It's something that comes from within. I've set some toys on my desk to remind me that, first and foremost, storytelling is play. I never worried about the quality of my play or my daydreams as a child, I simply indulged. Must do that again.

You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind.

As much as I'm able, I'm going to keep my new story to myself until it's written. I never told anyone about my daydreams when I was a child, because I would have heard, "Where are you going to get an Arabian horse? How will you feed it? Where will you keep it? How will you get a horse to Arabia? Do you speak Arabic? How can you race Seabiscuit? I think he's dead." This monologue may seem silly to you, but it's not far off from the uptight writer I've been for the last year. These kinds of questions can and should be answered of our writing, but not until the rough draft is written.

Sometimes, intuition needs coaxing.

My outline will be much looser this time around. I have plot points and an ending in mind. I'll jot these down on Post-it notes and start writing. This will demonstrate, at least to me, a new kind of trust in the gift God has given me, my story intuition. This should be fun...and terrifying but not boring.

I think a major step in learning to rely on your intuition is to find a usable metaphor for it...whatever you come up with needs to suggest a voice that you are not trying to control.

Cute Puppy

Oh boy. I need something a little more candid and active than broccoli, but not as general as "animal," as one of Anne's friends uses. How about that Arabian stallion I loved as a kid? His hooves are too hard. How about a monkey? They're expressive. Playful. They fling poo. Sorry, no. A puppy? They're playful and spontaneous, plus you can put them in a crate when their play or piddling gets out of hand. Okay, a puppy it is. Now, when I sit down to write, I'll let the "puppy" out to play. Release the hounds!

I know the whole discussion about intuition can be a bit esoteric. Weird. Out there. But trusting your intuition and/or imagination is vitally important for fresh writing. And I want to be known for my fresh writing. Don't you?

Do you struggle to trust your intuition? So how do you release your intuition? What's your metaphor for your intuition? Come clean!

Monday, August 15, 2011


I was presenting a poetry program last month and the seminar’s organizer asked me to read a list she provided of ways to more effectively promote conversation about poems.

So I read the list. And could go along with all the suggestions. But right in the middle of the list was, “Think about the poet’s big idea: why he or she might have written this poem.” And that’s where I disagreed.

I’ve written and published a good number of poems. But never once did I start out with a “big idea” to write a poem. I never sat down and said, “Today I’ll write about world peace.” Or true love. Or justice. Or any other big idea.

Instead, it was a very little thing that always got me started writing a poem. It may have been an arresting visual image. Or a phrase that got itself twisted into my hair and I couldn’t get it out. Or a word percolating up through my consciousness: a delicious, wonderful word.

Actually, the best image to describe how that happens to me – and I shared this with the teachers, who looked at me out of the sides of their eyes and nodded slowly – is to compare the process to looking at a stream. The stream is like my awareness of my surroundings. It flows around obstacles like rocks, with some considerable amount of spuming and spattering. Once in a while something large and floating bobs down and past me.

But – then—

Something small in the stream snags onto the bank, right in front of me. I look at it and it becomes the only thing in the world. It won’t let go, as if it has barbs, and those barbs reach up the bank and attach themselves to me and –even more wondrous – it begins to accumulate other things. Soon it has dammed the entire stream and even if everything starts piling up behind it, it won’t let go of me until I pull it and all its tendrils up and look at it.

And write it down.

Now, I realize that this is a blog about writing novels, but I wonder: Do you start a novel with a “big idea”? Or with something that snags on to you and won’t let go?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Today's post comes from Melissa Hambrick, our book club contributor from our sister blog She Reads. This is the writer's opportunity to listen in on what is important to a book club, what gets readers hooked, keeps the reading, or turns them off. Enjoy!

A fine mist still blanketed the land in the early hours of that morning. A nearly palpable wave of bittersweet excitement passed over the group that had gathered, as last hugs and kisses were bestowed. Six women waved goodbye to their children, to their husbands, and climbed into the enormous vehicle that would take them away. The men exchanged uneasy laughter, the children running amongst them, still in pajamas. Four days. For some, those days would be long; for others, much too short. The doors closed, and an audible sigh escaped the lips of each of the six contained inside.

s. Absolute bliss. Six moms, one Suburban and four days on the Gulf in Florida. The only rule was no McDonald’s; the only decisions were pool or beach, white or red? T his was our first ever book club girls’ getaway, and specifically a dream I’d had since walking into Sundog Books in Seaside, FL , a little over a year ago. After walking into this wonderful little bookstore in May of last year, I looked at my husband and said, “This is what I want for my 40th birthday. No party. I just want to come back here with my book club.”

So we celebrated for four days. We read. And talked. And sunbathed. And ate dark chocolate covered almonds for breakfast. Sometimes dreams do come true, even if you aren’t a Disney princess.

This month we had two books on our docket. W e chose State of Wonder by Ann Patchett as our regular monthly pick, but since we had an extra half a month in there before our trip, we also selected Before I Go to Sleep by first-time novelist SJ Watson. Two very different, but equally exciting and enjoyable reads.
If you haven’t yet read Nashville-based author Ann Patchett, you’re missing out. Put her on your ‘to read’ list, especially this one and her accla imed work Bel Canto. Those of you near us here in Nashville may have heard that she is actually opening an independent bookstore here at the end of the year, dubbed Parnassus Books. The demise of Borders, as well as our favorite indie bookstore Davis-Kidd Booksellers, has left our area lacking, and there’s no doubt that Patchett will come through for us bibliophiles with flying colors.

te of Wonder actually owes some plot points to another well-known novella, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, but Patchett’s literary talents give the tale a whole new dimension. She also adds a decidedly feminist slant to the story, as well as more than a few twists, turns and subplots that leave the reader in awe by the end of the book. One of our bookies hadn’t yet had the chance to read it, and another clubber attempted to describe the story. But there was just no simple way to tell the plot, and we realized how Patchett had managed to seamlessly tell an amazingly complex story.
Marina Singh is a doctor working for a pharmaceutical company which is doing research in the Amazon. But the doctor in charge of this research, the nearly mythological Dr. Annika Swenson, has ceased communication. A turn of events leads Marina to the jungle to find out what has happened to Dr. Swenson, colleague Anders Eckman, and the research that has been nearly a decade in the making with no results. We all agreed that the beginning of State of Wonder was a bit slow, but as soon as Marina arrives in this foreign land, the layered plot builds and builds into an intricate, thoughtful and suspenseful novel.

We were all fascinated by Dr. Swenson, an artful piece of writing that has created a stunning character, thought-provoking and memorable. Easter is another precious character, and a powerful thread who ties the story together. We loved this book—but past that, I can’t tell you much more because there would just be too many spoilers.
And for a change of pace, we read a thriller—a suspenseful novel where not only do we as readers not know what is going on, neither does the main character. What would you do if you woke up one morning and found out that you had lost 25 years of your life? You couldn’t trust your memories, and maybe not even your husband, who you don’t recognize. You don’t remember your own child. In fact, every day when you wake up, you don’t remember the day before. (Interestingly, the author did not know about the Drew Barrymore/ Adam Sandler film 50 First Dates, but the daily amnesia is really the only plot similarity.)

SJ Watson (who most of our club totally thought was a wom an until we went to his blog, has created a fascinating first novel with Before I Go to Sleep, which has landed in the top ten of the New York Times bestseller list and is finding international acclaim. Watson’s main character, Christine, wakes up every day with no memory of the last, and only the journal she is keeping (and keeping secret from her husband, Ben) to remind her of who she is. She is able to unravel her past bit by bit, but we are always left wondering who to trust. The opening words in her journal proclaim “Don’t trust Ben.” But can we trust Christine?

Before I Go to Sleep
kept us hanging on every page—a true testament to the author’s storytelling ability when you realize that with nearly every chapter, he has to retell Christine’s story, as she wakes up with no memory and has to rediscover it, yet again. As all of the details come together, it is surprising to find out exactly who she could trust—and in the end, the reader is left to decide: When Christine wakes up tomorrow, will she remember that this all happened?
As for us six ladies, we are thankful for our memories—especially those that we made together, sitting in the sun in Florida, and doubly so, now that school is starting, sport seasons are starting back up, and the “lazy” days of summer are drawing to a close. And you’d better bet that we’re already planning a trip back next year…if we can just hang on to our happy place until then!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Rejection Schmection

On Monday Bonnie gave us some great advice on handling rejection. Important stuff, because the only way to escape rejection is too sad to consider. Ask nothing of life and it won't tell you no.

I especially liked Bonnie's suggestion number 6: "Have a concrete plan for improving as a writer." There is such hope, such stubborn faith in that: like praying for rain, and taking your umbrella though the sky is sunny blue.

But I'd like to add a seventh tip:

While you wait, write for someone, somewhere. Publication will be nice when it comes, but it won't make you rich or perfect or erudite. It will make you lovely new friends in unexpected places, but you can make friends now. I suggest you make art, and offer it as a gift.

Write a play for your church. Write a story to read to the children. Write anything for anyone, and get your work out into the world. Just be sure to first follow's Bonnie's advice, and make your best work better.

There are important matters at stake.

I recently ordered a new book by Gregory Wolfe, publisher and editor of Image Journal. Its title is, "Beauty Will Save the World." (Just the sort of title to make me don my beads and sandles and cry out for "truth, beauty, freedom and love!"*)

The reason I want to read this book - besides its title - is that its description hits on the sorts of things that keep me up nights:

We live in a politicized time. Culture wars and increasingly partisan conflicts have reduced public discourse to shouting matches between ideologues. But rather than merely bemoaning the vulgarity and sloganeering of this era, says acclaimed author and editor Gregory Wolfe, we should seek to enrich the language of civil discourse. And the best way to do that, Wolfe believes, is to draw nourishment from the deepest sources of culture: art and religious faith.

Impatient for the book to arrive, today I tracked down an interview in ISI Books, in which Wolfe reveals more of his thinking. He refers to a book that sparked his imagination: "Four Cultures of the West," by John W. O'Malley. As he explains it, O'Malley's book lays out four "languages" we speak as westerners. (I had to read the paragraph a few times to understand, so I'm paraphrasing for you here, but please do read the whole interview.):

  • The religious
  • The academic
  • The literary arts
  • The visual arts

Wolfe goes on:

The first two—the religious and academic cultures—are extremely powerful but they tend toward abstraction and ideology unless they are balanced by the second two—the literary and visual arts—which clothe ideas with concrete metaphors and lived experience.

Do you see what he's saying here? It is your work as an artist to put flesh and bone to the abstractions with which we struggle, day to day, thus making the struggle more human, more eye to eye than fist to fist.

The interviewer asks:

You’ve been a critic of the “culture wars.” Why?

To which Wolfe replies:

Because in the end they have become more about each side preaching to its own choir than a real political struggle over real issues. Cultural change occurs not because of the arguments we win but because the stories we tell are more compelling, more human than those told by others.

Could you tell a more compelling, more human story? Could you try with all your heart and soul?

If so, then what you do is too important to let a little rejection still your voice.

Make beauty. Give it as a gift.

*Moulin Rouge

Monday, August 8, 2011

Six Tips for When Rejection Happens

Rejection happens. To everyone.
You interview for a job you’re perfect for only to find it went to the boss's nephew.
That dreamy guy you've been obsessing about starts dating your best friend.
The agent you're pinning your future hopes on turns you down.
The editor who asked for a full manuscript decides to pass.
Rejection happens. To everyone.

A writer needs to come to terms with fact as quickly as possible. It’s a matter of survival in this industry. I was in conversation with a well known writer, who is married to another well known writer. I mentioned a recent rejection. The response? Rejections don't stop when you get well known. They just get more humiliating.
Oh. Goody.
Have the six of us on Novel Matters suffered rejection?
Will you?

Here is a quick reference list to refer to when literary rejection rears its big, hairy, ugly face.

1) Repeat this mantra: It isn't personal.
Sure, it feels personal. Rejection stings, sometimes hurts a great deal. You spend countless hours, days, weeks, years crafting a novel, and to have someone read it and say no hurts. But agent or editor said no to the project, they did not reject you as a person. Agents and editors derive no joy from knowing the people they say no to feel rejected and hurt. The reasons for saying no to a project are legion: The economy, the agent’s present workload, a shift in the kinds of books the house is looking for, personal taste, resources available, a dynamic market always in flux. Notice how none of these reasons are aimed at you and me - the writers?

2) It doesn't mean you are a bad writer
Not all rejections are created equal. If you are getting feedback from editors and agents who praise your work, yet are still rejecting it, try to understand that this industry is all about two things: Fit and timing. Your book could be fantastic, but that doesn't mean that every publisher is the right fit for your book. There are many reasons why a good book isn't a fit for a specific publisher, or agent. Agents and editors ensure they take on projects they are passionate about. They want the opportunity to go to bat for a book they love. It needs to be the whole meal deal in order for them to throw themselves into the fray to represent it. And remember, an editor is one voice in a publishing house. An editor might LOVE you and your work, but still be unable to sell it to the committee.

3) This is no time to panic
The way you handle today's rejection will play a part in tomorrows acceptance. If you lash out in an angry letter or blog post because you feel certain the agent, editor, or publisher will benefit from a piece of your mind, your actions will be remembered. Not in a good way. That negative impression will be difficult, maybe even impossible to overcome. You are entitled to your feelings, but keep your choice words and opinions to your most private places. Kick some boxes, scream into a paper bag - then get a hold of yourself as soon as possible.

4) Get support
Still feel too depressed to get out of bed even after you've kicked a box and screamed into a paper bag? Time to enlist some support from your inner circle. The small, close group of people in your life who understand and care about you. The people who won't go blabbing about how badly you handled being rejected.

5) Have a plan B, C, D, E, F and G.
Most writers have a dream team - a list of the industry professionals they would sell their little brother for a chance to work with. The only problem with these lists is they often include the names of industry pros who are also on everyone else's list. But, your book may not be a fit for that dream agent – but is for another, equally fantastic agent. It pays to create an open and flexible plan when submitting to agents and editors. The person you think would be best, may not be the best fit for you and your work.

6) Have a concrete plan for improving as a writer.
The best writers are the ones who understand the road of craft is never ending. But improving as a writer happens by taking specific, purposeful steps. I understood my need to improve most strongly after I became published. At the moment, I'm reading one book on literature as art, and another on reading with purpose. I'm studying deeply and at length. Rejection happens, but I can buoy myself with the knowledge that I am engaged in concrete steps to improve as a writer. That my dedication to my craft will, in time, pay off. As long as I hang on.

Do you have a plan for dealing with the sting of rejection? Felt the power of an editor's furious red pen? Dish!

Friday, August 5, 2011

What is True and Right

First things first! We'd like to wish our bonnie Bonnie a very happy birthday! Hope it's the best ever!

I especially like the chapter in Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird that Patti wrote about on Monday, "The Moral Point of View." Anne -- I love that we're on a first-name basis with her on this blog -- stated, "You need to put yourself at [the] center [of your stories], you and what you believe to be true or right. The core ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing ... Telling these truths is your job" (pg. 103).

Ayn Rand, in The Art of Fiction, concurs. In the chapter, "How to Develop a Plot Ability," she writes: "You must start with the abstract idea of a conflict, but thereafter your own values (emphasis mine) and your personal imagination will be a reliable dramatic selector ... do not censor yourself or check yourself against your moral code. Simply tap your emotions; you can judge later whether they are right or wrong" (pg. 58).

Those quotes spoke to me on two levels: the micro and the macro. In the micro, I thought about some of the issues I've written about in my individual novels, all from the perspective of my moral center. For it's impossible for me to separate what I write from what I believe. I can write about characters who are my polar opposites, and about situations I hope never to find myself in. What I can't do is condone a type of morality that I don't believe in.

Anne Lamott says, "I'm not suggesting that you want to be an author who tells a story in order to teach a moral ... but we feel morally certain of some things ... and we need to communicate these things" (pg. 104). I completely agree. No one wants to read fiction that's written with a heavy hand, and I'm no exception. As I wrote in my previous NM post, Paying Attention to Detail, the novel I just finished reading was "nothing more than a treatise on the author's pet issues." I don't enjoy that any more than most readers. No matter how intense or deep the plot, I still read fiction for pleasure.

The key, then, is how we address our moral certainties in our writing. I think this is something Christian authors in particular struggle with, because we do believe so passionately in our values. We understand the implications of sharing truth from Scripture. But what we need to remember is that the blank page onto which we pour our words is not our bully pulpit.

Consider the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee didn't beat her readers over the head with the moral issues plaguing the South. She simply told a story -- an excellent story -- and let the story speak for itself.

So, does "writing what I believe to be true or right" apply to not only the ethics of what I write, but to the style and genre of what I write as well? I believe it does. It's what I mean by the macro. If a writer of CBA fiction based her writing choices on what sells best in CBA, her selection would be ... ahem ... somewhat limited. That's a topic the six of us discuss among ourselves, because, alas, none of us writes in those best-selling genres. All I can say about that is, DANG! Seriously -- oh, wait, that was seriously. Bottom line is we each have to write what we "believe to be true or right."

As I've mentioned before, I just finished a novel that took two years to write, and I have no idea if a publisher will ever pick it up. But it's a story I had to write, and I don't regret one minute of those two years. The few who have read it have said some remarkable things about it, and one way or another it will see the light of day.

A few days ago I received an email from a woman who won Lying on Sunday in a drawing. She liked it well enough that she ordered and read Every Good & Perfect Gift. This is what this woman -- who is battling pancreatic cancer -- wrote to me: "I saw my own health situation in Gabby and DeeDee. I have bent pages and written down passages for recall. The way you handled this illness between friends inspired me and broke my heart at the same time ... Suffice it to say this novel hit several notes just beautifully. My theme of late has been tears ... for pain, sorrow, grief, and the occasional pity party. People call me strong and admire how I am handling my cancer. I'm not, but He is. Thank you again, Sharon."

As you can imagine, I shed a few tears of my own after reading her words. Hitting notes with my readers is the exact reason I write, and the exact reason I write what I write. It's what is true and right for me. And comments like this are what keep me going.

How have you found what is true and right for you as a writer? How does that affect your work?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Making The List

I have a confession to make. At 10:30 last night, I was curled up in bed with The Help, trying to finish before our book club met at church, and I read this sentence: "Copy's due on Thursdays. And if I don't like your style, I'm not printing it or paying you squat." Like a thunderbolt, the realization struck: Copy's due tomorrow. Tomorrow is my turn to post on Novel Matters.

It was no use. By that time of night my brain was fried. I hope you won't stone me for sharing my last post from She Reads (our sister blog) with you instead. I'm wearing my hardhat, just in case. Here goes:

Occasionally I make the mistake of walking into a Michael’s store without a list. Inevitable sensory overload and the lure of cute scrapbooking doodads and glittery beads overwhelm me with possibilities. When I come out of my fog I’m wandering the seasonal aisle with pumpkins and scarecrows and fall leaves. In July. I’ve learned to make a list or at least stop at the entrance to drill myself on why I’m there before crossing the threshold.

I made a similar mistake yesterday when I walked into my local library without a book list. Now, you could put it down to ADHD (which I’m not) or chemo-brain fade (that was 13 years ago) or age (hey, I’m not that old) but I’ll bet you’ve done the same thing. I stood before the tall stacks of books ad infinitum and I couldn’t think of a single author or title I was looking for.

If you are a regular visitor of She Reads, you’ve discovered a way to find great books in the genres or markets that appeal to you. But if you happen to find yourself in a bookstore or library without your list, or if you like to read widely in both fiction and non-fiction or discover hidden gems, what do you do? How does a book make the list?

The book’s cover may be where you’d start. Publishers invest a lot of time and money in designing book covers to catch your eye and draw you in. The color, font and design send messages about the story. An Amish cap is unmistakable. Soft colors and a sweet font could be romance or cozy mystery. Historicals are dressed in period costume, and dark images are probably suspense or science fiction. But I checked out a book yesterday (based on the cover & title) that was none of the above. The bright yellow cover with a sweetly framed photo of a car driving down a country lane with two golden retrievers looking on seemed like a nice summer read. Wow. The language was – offensive. And I don’t offend that easily. Unfortunately, this didn’t become manifest until the third chapter in and I felt duped.

Unless the book is on an endcap or facing out, chances are the cover isn’t what you’ll see first. Most books are stacked side-by-side with the title running down the length of the spine. The publisher has about one inch of space to catch your eye. The font and color are important here, but the title and/or the author’s name carry the weight. I thought the (offensive) book I’d chosen had a cute title, but I’ll keep it to myself because I’m not recommending it. (Or finishing it either, for that matter.) If the book is part of a series, there will probably be a clue in the title and you might want to begin with the first one, although it’s usually not imperative.

When a book interests you and you pull it from the shelf, you’ll look first at the cover. Then you’ll probably flip it over to read the back copy. Sometimes, there are only endorsements from other authors or critics, and you have to look at the inside flap to get an idea of the story. Sometimes, not even then. At some point, you’ll flip open the book to the first chapter and read the opening sentence. This can make or break your decision to buy it or check it out. Here are a few opening sentences that convinced me to give these books a try:

“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.” The Glass Castle

“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.” Gilead

“I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.” Water for Elephants

“It’s hard being left behind.” The Time Traveler’s Wife

By reading the first sentence, you’ll also get an idea of who is telling the story and what tense is being used, but it’s a good idea to flip through if you have a preference. I found one book which began in a perfectly normal viewpoint and multiplied exponentially – every other paragraph was in a different character’s viewpoint. I felt exhausted, just looking at it.

I have a small notepad in my purse now with titles listed that I can refer to the next time I’m cruising for a good book. Or craft supplies. Have you ever been fooled by a book cover or title that misrepresented the content? Do you have an opening sentence that you fell in love with and made you buy (or check out) the book? I’d love to hear.

Monday, August 1, 2011

To Bowl or to Write, That is the Question

I'd planned on doing a video blog today--a vlog?--for our book talk today, but filming did not go well. Alas, we're reading and writing today as per our usual. You're good with that, right? I thought so. So, here we are to discuss the chapter, "The Moral Point of View" in Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird. If you haven't joined our book chat before, we discuss this new classic from time to time, and you are invited to join in if you've read the book or not.

But you have to believe in your position, or nothing will be driving your work. If you don't believe in what you are saying, there is no point in your saying it. You might as well call it a day and go bowling. Anne Lamott

This is such an interesting chapter.

Talking about morals seems so old-fashioned. And preachy. If we're honest, we don't want to be either of those things. But writing from a moral position isn't being archaic or dogmatic. It's being honest, passionate, caring. I'm good with that.

I'm not suggesting that you want to be an author who tells a story in order to teach a moral or deliver a message.

There are plenty of stories around that do teach morals and deliver messages. These sorts of stories were read to us as fables and fairy tales as children. They definitely have their place. Who hasn't worried about crying wolf or touching a tar baby? Contemporary equivilents are--many times--memoirs: This is how I did it; I don't recommend it; go this way instead.

Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park came out when I had a junior paleontologist under my care, my son Matt. I had to read it. What a premise! What a story! Until Crichton stops to explain what he wants his readers to "get" out of the book. It was like being thumped over the head with an apatosaurus bone. I didn't like the Left Behind series for the same reason. Too much explanation! The premise was there. Moral dilemma abounded. And readers, however affirmed they felt, were robbed of the power of story. We must expect our readers to step willingly into our shoes to see how we view the world's machinations. And grow or not.

As we live, we begin to discover what helps in life and what hurts, and our characters act this out dramatically. This is moral material.

In my first book, Like a Watered Garden, the heroine is suffocating under grief. And yet she has a son depending on her to do motherlike things. Enter my belief that what helps in life is to do the things that are right and justified before I feel like doing them, and, sometimes, my heart follows. So, in the story, Mibby prepares microwaved lasagna and shakes salad out of a bag for her son. One foot in front of the other. This is moral material.

When a more or less ordinary character, someone who is both kind and self-serving, somehow finds that place within where he or she is still capable of courage and goodness, we get to see something true that we long for.

Yes, yes, YES! As Lamott mentions in this chapter, we already know that the sky has fallen. We don't need anymore Henny Pennys. What we need to see is how people care for one another among all the broken pieces.

I just finished a junior fiction book, Crunch by Leslie Connor. The United States has run out of fuel for cars, so there is a huge demand for bicycles and bicycle repair. No problem, our hero and his family own the Bike Barn. There is one problem, maybe two: The parents are stuck hundreds of miles away and five siblings must take care of each other and the shop. Connor wrote out of moral certainty that families who are nurtured to care for one another in good times will fare better in bad. I was all teary-eyed when the parents returned and so very pleased at how the kids conducted themselves. Very reassuring.

So moral position is not a message. A moral position is a passionate caring inside you.

Here are some examples:

In The Help, Kathryn Stockett is morally certain that the black maids are worthy of love, respect, and a voice.
In Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks is morally certain that a classic education should empower equally.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee is morally certain that justice should be attainable for all.
In my latest, Seeing Things, I wrote with moral certainty that our faith is most eloquently voiced by surrender.

Christians write from a very strong moral center, and I'm not talking about writing against certain behaviors. I'm talking about the Christ follower so intimately knowing him and being known by him that s/he can't help but write passionately about redemption, forgiveness, and unconditional love--sometimes using those words and sometimes not.

What passionate caring do you write from? What examples of moral certainty have you gleaned from recent reads? What obstacles do you anticipate to writing from your passionate caring? Let's not be catty, but who does this badly?