Thursday, September 29, 2011

Is There an App for That? Index Cards

My lovely co-writers at NovelMatters have touched on elevated and challenging topics this week. Me? I’m writing about index cards, sort of. This is a continuing conversation—jump on in!—of Anne Lamott’s writing-craft classic, Bird by Bird.

I happen to adore index cards. They don’t ask much of the writer, just a few words, an idea, a recipe. That’s all. Honestly, I get a little nervous if my stockpile wanes.

I have a long history with index cards. I used them to make flash cards and flip books in elementary school. When marriage seemed like a reachable goal, I wrote out recipes like prayers, learned all the abbreviations, practiced my best printing.

Index cards have always been my choice for to-do lists. If I can fit my list on an index card—and I write really big—I can get it all done in one day, guaranteed!

In college, I made my first planner by stapling seven index cards together and labeling them Monday through Sunday. Crossing out completed tasks made my heart beat a little faster. Yep, I invented the planner. I also invented Jazzercize about this time, but I forgot to tell people about that, too.

I went through pallets of index cards in college--both times--for all the usual uses. I carried them in a special holder. It was yellow.

My most fiendish use of index cards came as a fifth-grade teacher. I tired of reading 12-page summaries of my student’s reading. My eager students—despite repeated lessons on main ideas—included every detail of even the most modest story twist. The index card came to the rescue.

I gave each student a 5X7 index card for their book report. At first, they tried writing 12 pages of summary, only with much, much smaller printing. When I reminded them about main events and sent them back to their seats, their frustration grew. Fifth graders are large by the end of the year, and I started feared for my life, until one of them—God bless ‘em!— finally succeeded. I was beginning to think I’d asked too much. (Note: This was long before texting…and they all progressed to 6th grade knowing how to write concise summaries.)

As a writer, I’ve used index cards to record scene ideas and then shuffled them into a sense of plot. I have 163 index cards for one book. My husband made a special holder, so I could page through the cards. (Note: If you do this, be sure to number the index cards once you have them in order. Learned this the hard way.)

Although this chapter is titled “Index Cards,” it’s not really about lined pieces of cardstock. No, this is a chapter about collecting what we see in the world, recording it for use in our novels, and then remembering where that stinkin’ card went.

I used to think that if something was important enough, I’d remember it until I got home, where I could simply write it down in my notebook like some normal functioning member of society…But then I wouldn’t.

Anne uses index cards as portable journals. The quickest way to stop a conversation is to whip out a fat journal and start taking notes. A black curtain of silence falls over the room. Index cards are small, firm, and easy to stow—perfect for clandestine note-taking. Simply jot a few words or several lines of dialogue. As Anne mentions, they fit in a pocket and won’t make your bum look lumpy. See, there are no excuses for letting a great idea evaporate.

… unbidden, seemingly out of nowhere, a thought or image arrives. Some will float into your head like goldfish, lovely, bright orange, and weightless, and you follow them like a child looking at an aquarium that was thought to be without fish.

These ideas come to us so vividly, so precisely, and oh so cleverly that we are tempted to believe they cannot be forgotten, but that is fairy dust, my dear writing friend. A Pulitzer Prize-winning idea will flit into your head and right back out again...unless you write it down. That’s what index cards are for.

My index-card life is not efficient or well organized.

Hey howdy! My question while reading this chapter was this: Anne, how in the world do you find that one brilliant idea when you need it? Who’s to say it hasn’t stuck to the bottom of someone’s shoe and gone on its own adventure or slipped into the fifth dimension via the portal under the couch?

Anne doesn’t say, but she basically comes down to using index cards as a mnemonic device. For most of us, our visual memory is the most enduring, especially for converting short-term memory to long-term memory. That’s why so many of us take notes during lectures or sermons. Taking notes is turning auditory information into visual information. And if we're younger than 30 and very, very lucky, we won't have to look at that card again.

Still, the idea of hefting around a bale of index cards in my purse and then relying on my aging brain to remember what a few obscure words might mean, doesn’t fill me with confidence. I throw notes like that away every day.

We talked about journaling earlier in the year to capture ideas that alight on our overtaxed minds. Maybe the most ideal way to hold ideas is a marriage of index cards and a journal that is divided into categories: description, dialogue, titles, story ideas, in the news, etc. And then taping the cards in place, like a hinge so you can read both sides, in the journal.

Is it too late in this post to ask if index cards are passé? Is there an index card app? There should be. Did I just invent an app? At least I’m telling you about it.

I have some practical questions for you: How do you capture ideas at inconvenient moments? A recorder? Journal? Camera? The tried-and-true index card? How do you organize what you’ve plucked from an orchard of ideas?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Linking Readers to the Eternal

Our congratulations to Melissa Hambrick! You are the winner of the Teeth and Bones contest. Contact Bonnie Grrrrrrove. (Smile.)

My cousin had a remarkable experience this week as her elderly mother was dying. She left the room for a moment, and the hospice workers came running to get her.

“You have to see this,” they said, and led her back into the hospital room. There my frail aunt lay, her arms up in the air. “She’s reaching up to heaven,” one of them said.

My sister in law recounts a sudden “great big grin” on the face of her elderly mother as she passed from life to eternity.

And my best friend witnessed the sudden passing of a good friend in college, who fell prey to a virulent infection. Just before the young man passed, he sat upright in the bed in the presence of several people, pointed to the sky and said, “Look! I see the Lord!”

These are stories told to me by people I know well, and trust. I think they illustrate the permeability of the thin veil between the seen and the unseen, between the temporal and the eternal. For just those moments, people on the cusp of eternity straddled two worlds.

Although these stories are true, the telling of them reminds me of good fiction. When Bonnie posted on Monday about beginnings of novels, and invited you to enter your opening paragraphs, I believe she was asking you how you introduce someone’s mind to the eternal, to ideas beyond themselves, to concepts that will tie them to their God.

We are the lifting of arms to heaven, so people can see that we are sure of an eternal reward. Through our writing, we are that great big grin of recognition of the One we love the most.

And we say it, either with words or with stories, “Look! I see the Lord!”

Monday, September 26, 2011

Grand Openings

There are as many ways to begin a story as there are stories to begin. But they are tricky things. Where to begin? Where best to focus the reader's attention? What needs to be accomplished? Today's Novel Matters Roundtable is about opening paragraphs. What do we each look for in an opening, and we will each share the openings from our books.
The bonus of this roundtable is that we are holding a mini-contest! In the comments section, post the opening paragraph from ONE of your novels. All six of us will read the comments and offer our thoughts as we are able. One winner will be chosen to receive a Teeth and Bones edit of their first chapter. The winner will be drawn randomly from the comments section. Please ensure you post ONLY the opening PARAGRAPH of your novel.

For me, there are three things I look for in a beginning (things that capture my attention), 1) Story world--you could call this setting. But it's the way the writer was able to plant my feet
inside the place and time where the story takes place. 2) Narrator--Who is telling this story and why does it need to be told now? and 3) Movement and/or promise of plot--I like to see a little something up front that tells me this story is going somewhere, it has movement. I don't read much genre fiction, so I don't need my plot served hot in the first lines, but I do like some inkling of plot near the beginning.
Here are openings from two of my works:

1) Talking to the Dead:
Kevin was dead and the people in my house wouldn't go home. They mingled after the funeral, eating sandwiches, drinking tea, and spoke in muffled tones. I didn't feel grateful for their presence. I felt exactly nothing.

2) A Gi
rl Named Fish (the novel I completed a week ago):
The population of Picture Island, Maine is arranged in a horseshoe configuration around the open grave, one in back of the other four or five deep. It’s raining hard and they’re frozen to the bone under the black awning of umbrellas. Why does it always rain at funerals? It’s spring but the rain is as cold as if the clouds had scooped the freezing ocean waters and dumped it down their backs. The wind howls up the cliffs to where they are gathered—a cemetery on a high cliff overlooking the sea. The rain slants so it drives sideways into their faces. People try to look reverently miserable, as if it’s mortality they’re contemplating and not their warm houses and maybe some buttered toast with tea and the weekly paper by the fireplace.

If you find it striking that both these novels open with a funeral, well, so do I. My approach is to create miniatu
res inside the scenes and paragraphs of the novel, so that each piece tells part of the whole, and also tells a mini-story of it's own that explores a theme found in other places in the novel.

Let's hear from the others:

What I look for in an opening paragraph is A) Voice -- which tells me right off the bat how I'm going to feel about the character. I want to feel an affinity with either the words or thoughts of the speaker; B) Promise -- what the story holds in store for me. I'll invest several hours in reading the book, so I want to know it will be worth my while; and C) Tone -- is this a serious read or will there be some humor weaved in. I love a touch of humor, even in a serious novel.

Here is the opening from my novel, Unraveled, which I hope will be released in November:
I lost my faith at twenty-four. Well, that isn't true. I didn't lose it, I left it. On a mission field in Moldova, amidst the sunflowers. Just took it off like a vesture discarded. Not outgrown. Discarded. It left me feeling exposed, I'll admit, but I figure if God isn't capable of protecting the weakest among us, well I'd just reather work for someone else. Oh sure, he makes it plain as day that pure and undefiled religion is caring for the widows and orphans, as if it's my job and not his. and that was the thing, he let us down in the worst way. So, I tipped my hat and shook the dust off my feet.

And this is from my most recently completed novel, The Color of Sorrow Isn't Blue:
Grief, it is said, is a sea that ebbs and flows. Comes in waves that roll over the shore, then recedes in a dizzying, lose-your-footing-in-the-sand sensation, leaving you unsettled but standing. Well. Whoever said that never felt the tsunami effect, the drowing, sucking, tidal wave of grief. I know, because I haven't come up for air in five days short
of a year. A suffocating, black hole of a year, each day collapsing in on itself like sand too long unwatered.

As per my usual, I'm going to cheat. Stylistically, I usually start my novels with a one-sentence paragraph, a grabber. L
ike the others, I'm looking to establish voice and a tone. Here's my first paragraph+ for Like a Watered Garden:

I received a box of flowers from my dead husband.
That's a stretch. They weren't flowers at all but a dozen montbretia bulbs. They looked like
hazelnuts with ponytails. Blooms wouldn't show up until July, I figured, if they showed up at all. The UPS man had hidden the box under the welcome mat. His clumsy attempt at security amused me until I remembered I hadn’t ordered anything from a seed catalog last fall. Far from it. Within a heartbeat, I knew the flowers—because that was what he had intended them to be—were from Scott.

Here's an example of a very different voice from my novel, Seeing Things:

You’re talking to the queen of skepticism right here.
I roll my eyes over newspaper stories where teary-eyed folks report they’ve seen Jesus in a potato chip. That sort of hogwash sends me straight to the comics for a dose of reality. You don’t have to worry about me. I know Alley Oop doesn’t slide through time, but the inhabitants of Moo remind me of my friends in Ouray with their common sense and heave-ho attitudes, something sorely missing among the potato chip crowd. Honestly, someone isn’t rowing
with both oars in the water.

I look for deliciousness - a hard to define quality of voice or mood that tells me I'm going to lovespending time inthe three hundred pages or so to come. Here's my two:

The woman stood atop the cinnamon bluff, her arms stretched to the horizons, her face dry as sandstone, her silver hair blowing like the grass at her feet. "She thinks she's Moses," muttered Data, peering through a gap between drawn blinds.- From To Dance In the Desert

They're just decorations, these candles. You don't need anything to pray. Truly, it is best to come with nothing-only yourself. Just one of the things I've learned.
- From The Feast of Saint Bertie

When I open to the first chapter of a book, I hope to find something fresh - some indication that the story is different than others I've read. I also look for the tone in the first paragraph and for some indication of the plot. But, truthfully, what strikes me as promising can change with how I'm feeling when I pick up a book, whether I'm in the mood for a light, entertaining read or a more engrossing story.

Here is the first paragraph from Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon:
"We weren't strangers to this courtroom. The first time we came, it was to petition to have Ginger's hospital birth records opened. When you lose a child to a genetic disease that doesn't haunt your family, you want to know why."

Here is the first paragraph of an untitled WIP I'm toying around with right now:
"Grover is an ink blot on a Google map - a Rorschach's splatter of asphalt and advertising tucked into a fold of brown hills. At least, from May through September, between the rains. Otherwise, the hills are fuzzy and green as moldy bread."

Maybe because I love mysteries, I want an opening paragraph to create a big question mark in my mind, one that forces me to keep reading.

I've attempted to do that in the following opening to my first attempt at a type of Biblical speculative fiction:
Last night I dreamed the dream again, and for the only time I dreamed it, of all the times I dreamed it, it brought me the least fear last night.

Now it's your turn: All comments are allowed, of course. If you want to enter the Teeth and Bones contest for a chance to have your first chapter read and commented on by one of us, then enter your opening paragraph in the comments section. Otherwise: What kinds of things capture your attention in an opening? Have you flipped open a novel, read the first bit and felt, ahhh THIS is what I'm looking for! Tell us!

Friday, September 23, 2011

At the Bottom of the Stair

First, I must wish a happy birthday to two of my favorite literary characters: Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. So convenient that it's also the first day of autumn. It's only fitting to celebrate with a chocolate hazelnut cupcake from Esther's Cupcakes (voted Best of Sacramento). That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

What a great discussion this week! Katy was knocked flat with the idea, then got up, brushed herself off and wrote about it. And Sharon's post reminded me of my favorite go-to book, Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing. In it, Mr. Bradbury tells about the fear he had as a child having to go upstairs to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Things waited up there in the dark for him. Fears he'd collected throughout childhood. Wild imaginings from his fertile mind. And he issues a challenge: "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." What fears are waiting for us, and can we dispel their power over us with a pen?

His fears were common everyday childhood anxieties and terrors that paraded as skeletons, martians and carnival oddities. From those, he conjured a deathly chase on All Hallows Eve, familiar faces plotting evil deception and a man's tattoos that illustrated impending death. What a rich imagination! Our fears may be different, but they can still keep us doing the wiggle dance at the bottom of the stair, glancing at them through the side of our eye, unable to look them squarely in the face.

It could be something we did or didn't do when we knew the right course of action. Or maybe it's the thing we figured out too late to do anything about. Is it still our fault? We never intended bad to happen, but our lack of intuition made us slow on the uptake and we live with regrets. Sometimes, bad regrets. We wouldn't clothe them in skeletons or fantastical creatures, but in more everyday attire that makes our fears even more insidious because they can hide in our natural responses and we're left to wonder, "Where did that come from? What was the origin of that?"

We may feel we don't have fears, but if we have regrets, we usually fear exposure. We imagine, perhaps wrongly, that others will finger point. We worry (fear) our children will turn out differently than us, or that they will become just like us. We feel anxiety (fear) that others will know we've experienced bankruptcy, or were abandoned by the ones who knew us best and found us unlovable or that we couldn't keep ourselves or our loved ones from substance abuse. Sometimes, it's a sense of unworthiness or insecurity about whether God loves us. We read that He does, but do we believe it when we experience failure or that old dread lifts its head and gives us the evil eye?

There are many books written today that expose the character's (author's) desires and fears, which result in messed-up situations that escalate until there seems to be no way out. Someone is pushed out onto the ledge and they don't find a way back. I recently read about halfway through The House of Sand and Fog and I'm glad I only paid $1 for it. The writing is excellent and the characterization is insightful, but the story leaves me cold. I can't root for either character to 'win.' Neither deserves the house, and perhaps that's the point. But even if Oprah liked it, I'm sticking the book in my upcoming garage sale.

From the bottom of the stair, we call down our fears one by one and look them full in the face. We have at our disposal the hope of genuine redemption, not a Pollyanna resolution but a drawing of swords with our shadowy adversaries and keeping them at bay, if not completely dispatching them. Readers need to hear the truth about the stuff at the top of our stairs, that we wrestle with it daily and that we know there will eventually be resolution, even if it's not found within the pages of the book.

I won't ask you to name your fears. Save them for your list. Instead, I will ask if you know of stories with satisfying, realistic resolutions even if they have no complete sense of closure. And have a cupcake to celebrate.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Writing from the Attic: Therapy or Lunacy?

Katy's excellent post on Monday about things in the attic -- like her humming yellow jackets and naughty 'possum -- reminded me of an incident that happened last November when my husband was on one of his frequent missions trips. It's funny now, but it sure wasn't then. I wrote about it in my 11/15/10 NM post, A Week in the Life of . . . This is what I said in part:

Where is a man when you need one? Mine could be anywhere in the world, but I can pretty much guarantee if something's going to go wrong, it will go wrong when he's out of the country ... (This particular time he was in Cuba.) A week ago Sunday night I was in my bedroom watching TV and addressing Christmas cards when a racket shattered the relative quiet -- and it came from right above my head. Startled, I jumped up and tried to assess the what and the where as I speed dialed my daughter, because, as we all know, misery loves company. I had no idea what was going on, I just knew it was LOUD. It sounded like a whole family of something had moved into our attic space. With my daughter on the phone, I went outside, hoping against hope that whatever it was was on the roof, and not somewhere INSIDE my house. Alas, it was not to be. I declined my daughter's invitation to spend the night/week on her sofa, and listened in fear and trembling as this thing moved around upstairs above my head till after 3:00 a.m. At one point it sounded like it was dragging something across the floor up there. I kid you not.

I called Clark Exterminators first thing Monday morning. A young man -- who was my new favorite hero -- came within the hour, but alas yet again, he could open the access to the attic space, but he couldn't actually go in and do anything about what might be up there. It seems they have rules, and that, in my opinion, was the stupidest. What he could do was set a mega-mouse trap just inside the attic space, which he could reach while standing on the very top of my 6-foot ladder, without actually being in the space. Well fine. But let me tell you, A: this was no mouse, mega or otherwise! And B: out of 3,100 square feet of living space, the 16 x 20 inch opening in the ceiling that goes into the attic space happens to be right above the chair I sit in at my computer. So now not only was I afraid of whatever had moved in, I was terrified I'd hear a SNAP! while sitting here trying to write.

So this ... whatever it is ... had me on edge all week. I'd hear its nocturnal wanderings after the sun went down, and was jerked awake at 2:00 in the morning Wednesday, while it carried on above my head till after 4:00. Elizabeth Berg, bless her heart, kept me company.

Well, wouldn't you know there hasn't been a peep from the attic, lo, these many months? But in a few weeks Rick goes back to Cuba. I'm willing to bet something will go amiss.

There are things in my "other" attic that are nearly as difficult and troublesome to identify, and when it comes right down to it, who wants to?!? Like Katy said, the attic can be a wild place. But it truly is chock full of material for a writer willing to go there. It's probably true that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, but I pull on the rope that lets down those hidden stairs, climb up, and root around in that dark and creepy place every time I get ready to start a new novel. I've been somewhat surprised at the themes that have emerged in my writing over the past number of years, all issuing from what I've stored up there in the attic. For example, each of my novels -- published and unpublished -- have dealt with extreme loss of one type or another. And most explore that most complex of all relationships: mothers and daughters. I have a very close relationship with my daughters, and I had a close relationship with my mom, but it was definitely difficult at times. I'm sorry to say the problem was mostly with me -- because of things I had a hard time letting go of. I've said more than once that Mom is the first person I want to see when I get to Heaven; I have some apologies to make. A lot of apologies, in fact. I don't mean to make this my confessional; I'm just keepin' it real.

I'm getting ready to start a new novel, rubbing my hands together and eager to begin. I love discovering new characters and delving into their stories. I'm looking right now at the faces I've compiled on my Character sheet for this new work, and I can tell just by looking at them that my themes will hold true. At least this time around, the loss will be less intense, and to that I say, "Whew!" But I reiterate the profound conclusion Katy came to in her post on Monday: "If we want to write stories that mean something to people with attics of their own, we have to climb to that shadowy place in our heads full of strange noises and wild animals. If you're a storyteller, you must go there."

What about you? How willing are you to climb through that trap door, and if you do, what themes emerge for you?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Attic Stories and Parlor Stories

You may have noticed: the things that get said on this blog continue to speak to you long after you've left the computer.

So it was that after reading Ariel's post last week, I went on a country drive with my husband, and found myself thinking of attics and parlors.

I live in a good place for a country drive, because I am surrounded by beautiful places, and the wilderness is never more than a five minute drive in any direction.

But once upon a time I lived in California's Silicon Valley, in a mature housing development surrounded by strip-malls, fast-food restaurants, and other mature housing developments.

So it seems strange that it was in this place that nature invaded the attic - repeatedly - but that's the truth.

We had a nest of yellow jackets - in the wall, but they got in through the vent in the attic. (I read the first page of Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, and know exactly the static radio sound she describes, though it didn't make me think of honey.)

After the yellow jackets were gone, my husband lifted the trap door one night to investigate a strange noise, and found himself nose to nose with a raccoon.

But the varmint we referred to as "the neighbor upstairs" was a female possum who took up residence, and stayed for quite some time, because we feared to repair and lock the broken vent, lest we inadvertantly trap her inside. We didn't wish to deal with a frightened, cornered animal with sharp teeth, nor did we want to fetch a dead one out. So for the several months it took us to devise a clever plan, she stayed.

The ceiling was thin plywood. We knew she slept directly above our heads when we were in bed, because she snored, and we could hear her loud and clear. We also heard - everything - when she brought her boyfriends home...

All to establish that an attic can be a wild place. And the critters are just the beginning. It's us humans after all, who stuff them with boxes and boxes of things we don't want to see but can't throw away: old love letters from people we didn't marry, journals filled with melodramatic ramblings of our youth, photographs and momentos that remind us of things that cause us sorrow or shame.

Stuff writers refer to as material.

Which brings me to the parlor.

It's a different sort of place. We try to keep it tidy, and more than any other room, we decorate this one. We read the magazines, tour the model homes, compare fabrics and paint chips, and spend money and time to make it nice. Brocade and mirrors? Leather and paisley? We bring our company to the parlor, after all, so we take control of the story it tells, to reflect the life we want to believe we are living, the life we want others to see.

Some writers get their material here.

I'll bet you can see the mistake, but it's an easy one to make - especially for Christians. Other writers may project an image, but that image is for their benefit alone, and the one they wish us to see may even be enhanced by the darker, grittier material found in the attic.

We Christians are unique in that we consider the image of Christ we present, even more than our own. Who else in the world worries that something they say or do may knock another's doctrine askew, and lead to serious eternal consequences? Wow man, that's heavy.

And laudable.

But please, listen to me:

That prettied up, surface part of our mind is a terrible place from which to draw a story. People's parlors tend to look the same as other people's parlors (we all read the same magazines), and the stories that come from there all read the same.

If we want to write stories that mean something to people with attics of their own, we have to climb to that shadowy place in our heads full of strange noises and wild animals. If you're a storyteller, you must go there.

Ever notice how little faith you need in the parlor? David didn't write, "though I walk through the valley of gingham and stripes." It's the valley of the shadow of death that forces us to reach for God.

But we fear ourselves. We are human and fallible. Experience has taught us our viewpoints and even our doctrines will change as we study and pray and listen and grow over time, so how can we open our mouths about the things we will find up there? What if we say the wrong thing?

I'd like to submit that you can say the wrong thing in the parlor. It may be pretty, but it will still be wrong.

Even more, I'd like to submit that there is Someone in the attic besides the possum and her boyfriends. He is wise and good, and He can handle you. He filled His Bible with stories. At night He fills your head not with graphs and facts but with stories from the attic. He cherishes those photographs and love letters and journals, and He works all things together for good. Even - especially - inside of you.

You can trust him.


Friday, September 16, 2011

For Writers Only: Is Jealousy Rotting Your Bones?

What a perfect week to talk about jealousy. Ariel's brilliantly constructed post on Monday about fear of fiction and Latayne's heartbreakingly beautiful poetry on Wednesday set this topic up perfectly. I'm so jealous! What amazing writers! I totally understand how Anne Lamott feels when she talks about jealousy in the writing world. And why are we talking about jealousy? Because we're still chatting up Bird by Bird, and today's chapter is creatively titled "Jealousy."

Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer, and most degrading. And I, who have been the Leona Helmsley of jealousy, have come to believe that the only things that hlp ease or transform it are (a) getting older, (b) talking about it until the fever breaks, and (c) using it as material. Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

Jealousy has only gotten worse in the seventeen years since Bird by Bird was published. After all, we have the Internet now. With our smart phones, we can compare numbers of Facebook fans wherever we go, be alerted when our agents announce a yowza contract for another client, know who our publisher is taking to a conference, get weekly updates on the top ten bestsellers, know how many followers a certain author has on his or her blog, click into a storm of congratulations when someone else wins an award.

But then, Cain and Abel didn't have the Internet, and, well, that story didn't end well either.

A heart at peace gives life to the body,
but envy rots the bones. Proverbs 14:30

As someone who deals with rotting bones from time to time (don't ask how often, please), I have to disagree with Anne's advice in this chapter. Getting older may help some writers put things in perspective, but I'm not willing to wait until my death bed to see just how old is older. For me, talking about jealousy only seems to empower it. And as for using it as material? Perhaps, but this can simply be an excuse to give jealousy a place to grow in the dark until it's needed. And it will grow.

For me, jealousy is a God-Patti relationship issue. When I forget God's sovereignty, His perfect love, that He must become greater and I become less, the green-eyed monster gains momentum. Here are some of the ways I've battled and will battle jealousy as a writer:
  • Keep my relationship with Jesus vital and intimate. For me, that means almost daily (daily IS my goal) personal bible study and an ongoing conversation with him. Nothing else convinces me of his love and sovereignty, the source of peace.
  • Be part of a writing community that promotes love over publishing, like Novel Matters. Don't get me wrong, we all want to be published, to bring our art out into the light, but being published is not the measure of God's goodness to us. His Son is that.
  • Look for ways to bless others who are living the writer's life. Those we envy experience good days and bad, tiramisu and hardtack, tsunamis of inspiration and a cold, white computer screens of doubt. Pray for them. Encourage them. They probably have hemorrhoids.
  • Celebrate the "success" of others.
  • Set my heart on what God wants for me, not on what God wants for others.
  • Be grateful, for heaven's sake. God is using my writing. He is good in all things. The writing life is amazing.
  • Use the Internet to build relationships, not as a tool for self promotion. Give your "friends" and readers a gift with your wit and wisdom.

Am I the only one who spurs the green-eyed monster into a gallop? Please say no. How do you deal with jealousy? Have you noticed times when you are more vulnerable to jealousy?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Poems for Lovers

I loved Ariel's post on Monday, about risks and dangers. Is it possible to pry into subjects "forbidden" in Christian publishing?

I think so. And I believe that sometimes the less said, the more intriguing.
With that in mind, I offer you what are in my mind four of the most sensuous poems I have ever written.


Its source:

The hidden trees, the lost lakes

Shrouded in perpetual snows;

Remotest peaks unseen by human eyes

Swathed in cirrus and cumulus

(The distant roar of

A thousand, thousand cataracts)

And as it rushes toward an infinite sea

Just its overflow is gift,

Is life

And am I not

Your Egypt,

The numberless humming chants

Of incense-wreathed priests

The shake of the sistrum, the breath of

Papyrus bloom;

The still-heard echo of those

Thousand, thousand years?


Last night again I saw the horses

Outlined gray against a charcoal sky,

Their manes flying behind them,

Their hooves spark-stricken on black rocks.

When they slowed to drink

At a spring of shimmering water

Their sides heaved and glistened.

I can't say I caught them unawares.

From the corners of their eyes they saw me approach.

But the water was so cool and satisfying

That they drank, and drank, and drank.

Now they are refreshed, and I--

I ride close to them

Bent against the velocity

On a collision course with forever.


Though I have traveled away from,

My heart turns toward

There remains no name in my soul's lexicon

For this ache;

A hurting that is dulled only by

The constant mining of the

Riches of memory.

The baring of myself continues

And reproduces itself like mindless amoeba.

It cannot exist without

Its own confession of itself

To you, the object of all,

The point of my nakedness.

What I have traveled away from,

My heart turns toward;

I am breaking all the rules of

My childhood's dearly-held autonomy;

Giving you that which could not be

Bought or beaten from me before.

In anguish, I traveled away from.

Now, my heart turns toward


Your eyes, my mecca,

Your touch, my home.


You are the mellow-muted sounds

Of a deep-throated clarinet

Playing alone

In a resonant hall

My young-girl ears heard the melody

So long ago

I dared not believe in

The coming crescendo

Because the music was so distant

And I,

So unworthy.

And yet

When I heard it again

I knew it

As if time had never passed:

You alone are the concert

That satisfies my soul

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fear of Fiction? A guest post by She Reads co-creator Ariel Allison

Lately I've been thinking about fear as it relates to fiction: both the writing and the reading. A
note showed up in my inbox two weeks ago from a

woman who wanted to know how She Reads could recommend a novel that wasn’t published in the Christian marketplace (this month’s selection, THE VIOLETS OF MARCH by Sarah Jio). She was appalled that the author (a Christian) chose to take

her work to the general market, appalled that there is mild language in the story, appalled that it has steamy content. It bothered this woman to no end that we would put our stamp of approval on a book that depicted the ugliness of human behavior. How could we encourage readers to “be entertained by sin?" She ended her note by saying that she would not read this novel, that she would encourage every Christian she knows to avoid it, and she prays that God will forgive us for what we have done. First I laughed. Then I groaned. Then I closed my e-mail and wandered away. I eventually responded (a post for another day) as graciously as I could. The truth is this woman has never read the book. She does not understand the power of story. She is afraid. I get that. What I don't understand is why we as believers nurture this kind of fear

in ourselves and in our readers. Why we seek out only those books that are safe. Or, in many cases, why we write them. (All the while, I might add, touting the merits of Lewis and his unsafe Lion)

About twenty years ago my father handed me a novel by an old Scottish storyteller named
George MacDonald. In the years since I've collected many of his books. He reminds me of my father (the blue eyes and the wild beard and the high Scottish nose), now dead eight years. MacDonald posed a question in his novel that has stayed with me since that first reading:

"Do you love your faith so little that you have never battled a single fear lest your faith should not be true?"

Do we love our faith so little? As readers? As writers?

"Where there are no doubts, no questions, no perplexities, there can be no growth into the regions where he would have us walk," MacDonald goes on to say. Fear is not unique to readers it seems, but writers as well - particularly those of faith. Fear that if we tell our stories with unflinching courage they won’t get published. Fear that if we use strong language we will offend a reader. Fear of telling the truth. Fear of asking hard questions that we can’t answer.

Better to play it safe, right? Take the easy route? Slap a bonnet on it?

Writing honest fiction is a messy job. Flannery O’Conner says in her classic, Mystery and Manners:

The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”

I wonder what would happen if every writer of faith battled her “doubts, questions, and perplexities” right there on the page? Would we not produce fiction that is brave and true and terrifying? Flannery O’Conner did this very thing on her deathbed, as she wrote PARKER’S BACK, the story of a man tattooed on every part of his body except his back. In reality it is her story of questioning God’s sovereignty as she died of lupus. We see her surrender in the character of Parker, a man who first stands barefoot before a burning tree profaning the name of God (hello symbolism!) to a man who has a picture of Jesus tattooed on his back. Painful,

dirty, human stuff right there. Terribly unsafe.

The world needs us to take our fear by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Take Sarah Jio for example. She had the courage to tell her story in the wild and unsafe way it deserved. And because she did not pull her punches she later got an email from a reader who ended an emotional affair with an old boyfriend after finishing THE VIOLETS OF MARCH. This woman didn’t want to live with the same regrets and heartbreak as one of the characters in the novel. Would she have felt so compelled had she not witnessed that “ugliness of human behavior” on the page in front of her? I doubt it very much

My question for you today: as writers of faith what are you afraid of? And will you have the courage to battle that fear in story form? We very much need you to.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Beauty in Exile

Sharon and Katy have set a graceful stage this week. And the discussion has been empowering. I’ve read every comment with interest and I’m impressed by the energy and verve behind each one. Clearly writing is an art of passion for each one of you.

Many of you know, I like to dig around behind ideas and the thoughts that generate them (I bet you do too), and so the Friday wrap up of the topics of sweet spots, literary writing, and beauty will focus on some thoughts about the kind of knowledge, understanding, and chutzpah a writer might need to dive headfirst into beauty.

Katy referred to the terrifying state of ‘noble exile’, and while this sounds romantic on paper, in reality it looks a great deal like loneliness. Like your work being passed over while another writer excels. It might look like you ranting in your underwear at a computer screen because you haven’t got an agent to rant at. But lets hope it doesn’t come to that. Before you pitch the fit of the underappreciated in your under-roos, consider the benefit of this exile: the time and freedom to find out who you truly are. A truism: Writer know thyself.

The literary writer is the one who understands just enough about his or her own nature to be leery. They don’t trust easy answers because they can’t find any inside themselves. And they’ve looked. Everywhere. Beautiful writers don’t spin gold; they dance with dross until the gold shakes out. Exile gives you the time and perspective to learn the steps.

Exile gives you time to discover your true inspirations. Everyone can get behind a sure winner, that bestseller that’s just been made into a movie, that book everyone is buying. But given enough time and honesty (see above), a writer can begin to develop his or her taste. Alone with your thoughts, you can examine books that inspire you to experience beauty and why. The goal? It’s not to emulate the writers you admire; rather it is to strive to be as fully impacting as they are.

One of the comments left on Katy’s post: “I’m among you wrestling this angel.” Exile teaches you how to throw a solid right hook. Through experience, it teaches you the power of the struggle. Of why you struggle and don’t give up. Or, it teaches you that this struggle isn’t for you—that you were made for other things. Because sooner or later, the writer who strives for beauty comes to understand that the struggle never ends. And somehow makes peace with it.

Noble exile means you take the time (we’re talking years here) to learn how to ask the right questions. The ones everyone else wishes they could ask aloud. It gives you courage to stand up and say, “Excuse me, is any one as afraid as I am?”

There is courage inside that questioning fear. The courage to giggle when people talk about “branding” themselves as an author. They tinker with a catch phrase while you, the exiled one, understand what branding truly is: having a clear vision of who you are and what you care about enough to write about.

Exile is difficult. Many throw on their sun hats and run back to sweet civilization. Those who remain watch the trails of dust kicked up on the road and envy the comfort that awaits that writer. But, if they stay in exile long enough, they begin to hear the rhythmic beat, the music of beauty. Until one day it sings: Be fearless in your writing, in your vision, and when you have done all else, stand. Don’t back down. Don’t listen to the voices that come against the deep knowing you have about your vision as an artist. No market for your writing? So what. Write anyway. And let your feet begin to dance.

What about you? How's your dancing coming? Or does it look more like a wrestling match? We'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Still Point

Shelly Troup come on down! We promised to send a copy of Novel Tips on Rice to our 300th follower, and Ms. Troup, that would be you. Please send your snail mail address to novelmatters at gmail dot com, would you? We're delighted you're here, and very pleased to give you this gift!

I think I've learned the cause of all (or most) of my neuroses. In reading Beauty Will Save the World by Gregory Wolfe, I found this:

The believing writer in America has always faced the same dilemma: how to find a way to heal the divisions running throughout the national psyche, including the community of faith itself. 

Gosh. I feel sort of tired just reading that - you? Do you want to spring to your computer and ask Mr. Wolfe, Isn't it enough to just write a nice story, without having to change the world? 

Don't bother. The disturbing truth is, no, it's not enough for me, and if you are a writer and you read this blog, it's probably not enough for you either. The reason we seek, as Sharon said on Monday, to find that sweet spot between the literary fiction we love and the commercial fiction that gets read, is that literary fiction is not just beautiful writing. It is writing that works through beauty to change the way we see. Other authors can write great stories. We want to do that, and so much more.

The trouble is that few within our churches will get the point. We have the Ten Commandments and the Epistles, the sensible books of the Bible tucked between those strange and troubling stories. Give us sermons with four logical points or give us stories to entertain, but don't lets get artsy, please.

So we find ourselves in an awkward position. Wolfe continues the passage:

Nathaniel Hawthorne may have had an anguished relationship with Christianity but that was in part because his imagination hungered for a deeper faith than was available in his time. He confronted many of the same divisions that plague us today. To his right were the descendants of his Puritan ancestors, whose lack of imagination pushed them in the direction of philistinism and fundamentalism; to his left were Ralph Waldo Emerson and his followers, whose religious commitments had evaporated into a pantheistic liberalism. 

This middle position reminds me of stories my step-father used to tell of growing up half Irish and half Cherokee in a racially devided Oklahoma: if you wanted friends, you had to pretend to be one or the other.

But go that route, and you'll end up writing something other than the story you've been given. I hesitate to romanticize your position and sound the call to a noble exile, but I do think that as a writer of faith you must accept a level of friendlessness: many may love you, but few will really get your vibe.

You know?

But vibe you must. Whatever hunger you  have for a deeper faith must be leaned into. What keeps you separate must be cherished for the gift that it is. There is a voice calling through that separateness, and you're meant to follow till you find what T.S. Elliot sought, that "still point of the turning world."

And meantime, those friends you have who share your dilemma must be honored and looked after and, most of all, prayed for.

As we pray for you.

Now it's your turn. Wrap your paisley sash around your hips and tell us (as much as you can on the internet in front of everybody) your tales of artistic exile and wonder.

We love to read what you have to say. And we will pray for your pilgrim souls.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Sweet Spot

We're keeping a sharp eye out for that person who becomes our 300th follower. If that's you, you'll win our delightful recipe book: Novel Tips on Rice: What to cook when you'd rather be writing. And vice versa. We appreciate all of you who follow Novel Matters and especially those of you who comment on our posts. This would be a dull place without you!

Seth Godin is a guru. He, of course, is the author of a dozen international bestselling non-fiction books, from Tribes to The Dip. His books have been translated into more than 30 languages. There are blogs -- dozens of them -- devoted to "memorable quotes by Seth Godin." Who knew? My confession is that until a few weeks ago if given a quiz where I had to link the name of the author with the title of one of his books, unless I'd come up with a very good guess I'd have failed the quiz. I obviously haven't read Seth Godin, though I probably should.

This all came up because a writer I know recently mentioned that one of the key elements of one of Seth's books (I don't even know which) is this: if you don't identify and write to your niche, it may mean that you satisfy no one. That in itself is an intriguing concept, but on that very same day our own Karen Shravemade wrote the following comment to my post, What is True and Right:

"What I'm most interested in ... is the "sweet spot" between literary and
commercial. You know -- books that are beautifully written, but have such a big
premise and/or gripping plot that they hit a note with a broad audience.

I wonder, though, if in trying to find some middle ground between
literary and commercial, I'll end up hitting neither. That I'll write a book
nobody knows what to do with."

The coincidence was too large to ignore. So let's talk about this. Let's talk about boxes, because it seems to me both Seth and Karen are alluding to firm boundaries that we should keep in the forefront as we write. To maintain those boundaries, does that mean we must always create the same type of protagonist? Always write in first person or third, and in the same tense? Must our plot points be comparable? Is there no room for experimentation?

You hear a lot about branding at writers' conferences these days, which is sort of a new term for an old concept. It just means that you should be very identifiable as an author. For example, if I say John Grisham, you think legal suspense. If I say Elizabeth Berg, you think women's fiction that includes subtle humor and an in-depth look at relationships that are vital to women. Jamie Langston Turner has a unique style of writing that includes lots and lots of narrative. Though her novels are short on that all-important "white space," she is one of my favorite authors. We could talk all day about writers who have done an exceptional job of branding themselves. But I'd like to focus on Karen's comment.

As I read the first part, I found myself asking, "Is Karen saying that literary fiction is the "beautifully written" novel, while the commercial one has the plot and appeal that literary fiction doesn't have? Is it that well defined, or is it possible to blend the lines between the two? Can literary fiction have a dynamic plot, or commercial fiction be thought of as beautiful? Does anyone do that, and do it well? With all my heart, I hope the answer is yes.

As I read the second part of Karen's comment, I asked myself, are those of us who are trying to blend the two wasting our time? Are we writing books that, indeed, no one knows what to do with? Funny, but I just pulled a Jodi Picoult novel off my shelf -- Handle with Care -- and this is what a reviewer from Entertainment Weekly wrote: "Picoult is a rare writer who delivers book after book, a winning combination of the literary and the commercial." I could have searched a month for a suitable quote and not found one, but there this was, right at my fingertips, when I wasn't even looking. So the answer is yes, the two can be blended -- and perhaps that in itself defines Jodi Picoult's brand. But as the reviewer said, it's the rare writer who can pull it off.

Now please understand, I'm not comparing myself, or anyone else, to Jodi Picoult. She truly is an exceptional writer. What I am saying is that it's not only possible to find that "middle ground" that Karen talked about, but there's a huge audience for it. Ms. Picoult, Elizabeth Berg, Anne Tyler, Charles Martin and others have bridged the gap, and done so very convincingly. So those of us pursuing literary ficton can take hope in that. But we must hone our skills until we're the best we can be; and we must find our own unique place within the industry. I don't believe in luck; I do believe that God guides us with a steady hand. If we follow what we consider to be the call He's placed on our lives, then we'll fulfill the purposes He has for us. The results are His. Always His. And that's the bottom line for those who call themselves Christians.

What is your opinion of literary fiction, either as a writer or a reader? Who else would you add to the list of authors who have successfully bridged the gulf between literary and commercial fiction, whether in CBA or ABA?

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Book Club Phenomenon

Tuesday night is bargain night at our local Regal Cinema. For just five dollars you can see first-run movies, so our book club decided we would read The Help and go to see the movie the following week. Other book clubs had the same idea, apparently. A friend told me that her book club read the book and arrived at the movie theater to find that the showing was sold out. We quickly spread the word to "purchase your tickets early."

That night, I arrived thirty minutes before the 7:05 showing and saw whole groups being turned away. I sneaked past them, glad I'd stopped by that afternoon for my ticket. Inside was pandemonium. A friend flagged me down and I sank into a seat beside her. There were coats and sweaters draped over rows of seats, reserving them for friends, people calling and motioning to friends who entered and stood bewildered at the happy chaos. Our book club was scattered all over the stadium seating. There were single seats here and there, but it didn't really matter whether or not you sat with your book club because you were sitting near somebody in a book club that night.

What an incredible phenomenon book clubs are! Twenty or thirty years ago, who would have thought that people would be excited to get together and discuss what they'd read? Since our club is new, I thought you might share suggestions about what works and what doesn't, and things to watch out for to ensure a healthy, long association. Here are a few suggestions of my own:

1. If possible, serve snacks that go along with the story. On the evening we discussed The Help, our hostess served pecan pie and peach cobbler. Southern desserts. Minnie would 've been proud. Just make sure it's not a hardship on the host/hostess and that the responsibility doesn't fall to the same people every time.

2. Remember that you're a book club first, and a group of friends second. Stay focused or the group will eventually lose direction and just become a social gathering. People who are serious about reading will drop away. Have plenty of fun, but make sure you read the book and come prepared to share your insights and opinions.

3. Most books include discussion questions. Use them. If the book you're reading is general fiction include the question, "What spiritual insights, if any, do you see. Do you think the author intended it?" Is there redemption, self-sacrifice or unconditional love? It is my humble opinion that the Creator of all talents, art and skills uses different forms of art to speak to people, whether or not the author/painter/sculptor/etc. realizes it. He's God and He can choose how to reveal Himself to us, and I have been touched by books and art that are not overtly spiritual.

4. Choose a variety of books. Broadening our horizons is good for us and you may be pleasantly surprised by a book in a genre you don't normally read.

5. If your group is too large break into smaller discussion groups and come back together at the close. With a larger group, you will get many differing opinions. In any event, the facilitators must be open and accepting, and able to keep the discussion on track.

6. Contact the author. Send a friendly letter or email (if it's a more approachable author) to introduce your group and say that you look forward to reading the author's book. Would they be willing and available to Skype a book club meeting, even if it is only for an introduction, or to be on speakerphone? It doesn't hurt to ask. If you feel comfortable, ask if the author would be willing to send bookmarks or a signed book for a giveaway or for your church library. Don't take it personally if they say no. They may receive many such requests.

7. Agree that if you didn't read the book, you remain silent during discussions. It's self-explanatory. Stay on topic.

8. Consider donating your books (as a whole) to a women's shelter or other group that otherwise could not afford them but would benefit greatly from the gesture.

9. Connect with an online group that specializes in book clubs such as or for interesting suggestions and great recommendations.

10. Post positive feedback on social sites but if you don't like a book, don't be critical. Keep it to yourself. Remember, it's somebody's baby.

These are only suggestions, and they will shift and change over the life of our book club. What suggestions do you have? What works for your club? What should a book club avoid or include? We'd love to hear from you!