Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Writing Authentically from This Thing Called Life

I thoroughly enjoyed Latayne's post on Monday about what makes fiction authentic. Our readers added their wisdom and craft to the conversation:

Megan found that a contrived character with a designated "job" killed the authenticity of a story she was reading. Marian blamed "whitewashed and superficial characters." Vonda wants to see characters that "grow and struggle and learn and fail in their faith." Henrietta mentioned pacing in relationship to a character's arc of change.

See a pattern here? We want to meet real people in our stories. I know that's a contradiction, but it's true. Latayne traveled thousands of miles--many of them on foot!--on her adventure where she encountered the power of authenticity. I'm going through quite a different journey, one that demonstrates what it means to allow characters to live and change and walk through turbulent waters.

My mother has cancer for the 7th time, the third diagnosis this year. One week earlier, her oncologist had wished her well. Now, she has brain cancer, a two-inch tumor just above her right eye. This thing is more than a lesion, it's changing the way my mom thinks and acts, pressing against brain tissue and causing swelling. Thinking back, she's manifested personality symptoms for over a year, but the changes were gradual, and who sees their aging mother's personality bloom and thinks tumor? I wasn't supposed to, was I? And then, just over a week ago, she couldn't speak when she experienced the least amount of emotion. Nothing. Nada. No words. Her speech has improved with steroids to reduce the swelling, but she still gets her words mixed up. She called me a fallen angel at the doctor today. I sure hope..

Anyway, this is all very disconcerting. My mom was the first measure of consistency in my life--the thump, thump, thump of her heart as I squirmed in her womb. Later, in her daffodil-yellow kitchen, I put my ear to her heart each morning, drank in the scent of her sleep, coffee, and cigarettes--believing this was my normal, my eternity, my heaven of comfort and goodness. I could also count on her not to like my storytelling. For that, I tasted soap, lots of it, less as I got better at turning a tale.

From grade school to college, I woke each morning to find a partially completed dress hanging in the doorway to Mom's bedroom. She'd been up since four--pinning, cutting, stitching. The thrum of her sewing machine was my waking-up music. The work of her hands, pure magic. As an adult, I saw my mom more realistically. Good grief, did she have to be the center of attention, always? Could she, please, let one thought go unsaid? But always the willingness to jump in and help, always approval and pride at my accomplishments, always love, love, love.

Now, she looks at me with palms upturned, unable to tell me that she's enjoying her salad. Now, she has shrunken back to the border of our family. Now, she is very afraid, because she's hearing over and over for the first time that she has a brain tumor that needs to be excised.

Life is hard. We live in a fallen place that only echoes the Father's pleasure, but it's only an echo. This is a theological truth that's gotten very personal with my mom's illnesses. I'm doing what Vonda likes to see characters do in books--I'm struggling, learning, and failing in my faith, only to be buoyed by the Word, my faith family, and the Spirit, and then I fall on my face again. I am wrestling with God! It's dramatic, sweaty stuff. It's deep living and unexpected grace. What's up isn't so clearly up and down has its hidden delights. To portray life any other way in my stories would be disingenuous.

Will this journey change my writing?

I sure hope so.

Will my readers recognize themselves in the struggles of my characters?

Why else would I write?

Will my readers leave my story world with a sense of hope and redemption?

Call me a Naugahyde writer if they don't.

If we're going to walk in the shadow of death (debt, depression, betrayal, disease, loss), let's come back from the experience with a deeper understanding of redemption and grace...and use this knowledge in our writing. It can be scary, but we can do it.

How has your real life changed the way you write?

Monday, November 28, 2011


I just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Israel and Jordan. It was not your typical tour of the Holy Land because the emphasis was on history and archaeology. The forty-two of us on the tour tromped around the major excavations including Hazor, Tell Dan, and Tell El Hammam (the newly-discovered site of Sodom.)

One day in Jerusalem we went to the site that people traditionally identify with the tomb of Jesus. Now, I’m staking my eternal soul on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, emerged from some tomb outside Jerusalem. But from an archaeologist’s point of view, the tomb I visited is in the right place but probably several hundred years off on the dating of it. I suppose for that reason I felt reverent there, but not emotional at all.

Where did I become emotional? At the synagogue in Capernaum, first excavated early last century. When I realized that it was built by one of my personal heroes (the centurion of “astonishing” great faith in Matthew 8:5-13), and that Jesus had taught in the very synagogue this Roman man built for his Jewish neighbors, I trembled. I took a picture of the actual floor tiles where Jesus once stood to teach. I had someone take my photograph standing right next to where Jesus did.

I let myself yield to emotion there because I knew my feelings could rest securely on an authentic foundation. I could enter that story. In fact, I knew I must enter that story as I stood there.

I wondered about why some Christian fiction rings true, and is helpful and nourishing—and why other books that may mention religious things leave us feeling uneasy and dissatisfied. Could it be because we don’t feel we have a reason to believe the story? Like me respectfully standing before an open tomb and thinking, “This cave is like where Jesus was laid, but almost certainly is not the actual place,” I wonder if sometimes readers think similarly:

“This is like real life, and the characters are very close to authentic, but I’m not buying into their situations because both author and reader know it’s just a story.”

Now, a good book doesn’t have to re-tell a Bible account to be true. But if there were a formula for writing authentic Christian literature, it would be a priceless commodity indeed. And yet we know it when we see it, the story that has a foundation as solid as two-thousand-year old stone pavement.

What are some of the characteristics of such authenticity? Can you share with me any books you’ve read recently that were authentic in just the way I’ve described?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Storyworld: An Introduction

Like all elements of fiction writing, storyworld is multifarious. It isn’t a stand alone concept but is a composite of components that are, in and of themselves multifaceted.

Storyworld is exactly what it says it is: the world in which your characters live, breathe, and have their meaning. It goes beyond setting. It is the expression of your characters. Storyworld “shows” your hero’s personal growth as it morphs and changes throughout the story.

In this way, writing fiction is the opposite of real life. John Truby puts it this way, “In good stories, the characters come first, and the writer designs the world to be an infinitely detailed manifestation of those characters.”

The key here is “manifestation of those characters.” Storyworld isn’t separate from your characters. It isn’t a rigid space that existed before your characters came into existence. The space your story takes place in (a house, a town, a city, a jungle) represents your characters. And it changes as your characters change.

Where do you begin building your storyworld for your characters? It starts by knowing exactly what kind of story you are writing. I’m not referring to genre. I’m talking about story structure, the bones of the kind or type of story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.

This is a difficult step that will take a great deal of time to work out. I’m against formulas in fiction writing as a rule, but I will offer you this “formula” for puzzling out how to decide story structure because it is an organic one rather than paint by numbers.

Story process + original execution = Story structure

Here are some examples of this formula:

The Time Traveler’s Wife: A time traveler learns to love his wife and leave a legacy for his child knowing he will die at age 43. (Story process: love story. Original execution: he is a time traveler, plus the ticking clock of his approaching death)

The fact that The Time Traveler’s Wife is a love story means that the storyworld is largely made up of man-made, indoor spaces where people are thrown together in intimate ways. Apartment, house, crowded bars, even the library where he worked. He moves from man-made space to man-made space and each move is more claustrophobic than the last. Only the sprawling meadow (a natural arena that juxtaposes the man-made arenas in the rest of the book) by Clair’s childhood home provides a utopia for Henry. There, he falls in love and becomes a man. This made it all the more poignant when Henry meets his demise in the meadow.

Notice the amount of detail that went into creating this shifting, intimate, and yet menacing world? The storyworld expressed Henry, not the other way around.

Here’s and example from John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story:

It’s a Wonderful Life: Express the power of the individual by showing what a town, and a nation, would be like if one man had never been born. (Story process: dystopia to utopia = fairy tale. Original execution: An angel shows George two versions of his small town.)

Storyworld: Two different versions of the same small town in America.

Because the structure of It’s a Wonderful Life is a fairy tale, it requires a kingdom in which the characters live and our hero rules over (in this case a small town). And, because the original execution is two towns, every element of the first kingdom had to have a contrasting element in the second version (which also had a different “king” the banker, Mr. Potter). No detail could be missed from the buildings, to the town’s name, to the weather, to the moon overhead.

Your storyworld is no less detailed.

The good news is, your storyworld has set boundaries which you erect around it. The drama of your novel will take place inside of these walls. When you think of your novel, you need to think in terms of contained space. Where are the boundaries of your story? Is it a town, a city, an island, a house, a boat, a shoreline, a hut, a jungle, etc.?

If your story structure requires multiple worlds (for example: Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Pleasantville, etc.) you must connect the worlds in some fashion. My newly completed manuscript takes place on an island off the East coast, but I have a man-made space on the mainland that I need to include in my storyworld (it symbolizes futile attempts to attain wellbeing outside of the character’s organic storyworld); therefore I used the system of ferry service as a bridge between the two worlds. That meant that I needed scenes on the ferry, and that the ferry itself be organically part of the larger storyworld.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, a brief introduction to the topic of storyworld. There is a great deal more to consider based on the specific story structure you will use, and the original execution you will employ.

The key is to remember that the world your characters live in is a manifestation of those characters.

Thoughts? Also, feel free to ask any questions or for clarification. I’ll do my best to engage with your ideas and ponderings and together, we might come up with something helpful.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mitigating Circumstances

mitigating circumstances:
n. in criminal law, conditions or happenings which do not excuse or justify criminal conduct, but are considered out of mercy or fairness in deciding the degree of the offense the prosecutor charges or influencing reduction of the penalty upon conviction. Example: a young man shoots his father after years of being beaten, belittled, sworn at and treated without love. "Heat of passion" or "diminished capacity" are forms of such mitigating circumstances.
See also: diminished capacity  heat of passion  Twinkie defense  ~from

I once worked at an incarceration facility for juveniles. More recently, I sat on the jury for a criminal trial that was major enough to make headlines in my small county. From these experiences and so many more, I've come to the opinion that there are always mitigating circumstances.

That's not to say that criminals should be excused - the needs of real and potential victims must be considered first. I'm saying that people have reasons for the things they do,  that those reasons come to them from the world in which they've been placed, and when we understand that world, their actions can be utterly, and sometimes tragically logical.

To state it from a writer's perspective: Story emerges from character, but character emerges from a world.

Two novels have left me muttering "story world" in my sleep of late: One is Bonnie's new, as-yet unpublished manuscript. (I know, I'm so blessed!) I want this story to be bound into a beautiful cover and delivered to your eager hands, so I can't reveal much about it. But Bonnie has done a masterful job of showing the reader something more than a setting - not just a context or environment designed to serve the story, but a community which is part of - effected by and in return, effecting - a larger world.

Okay, that's all I'm going to tell you, for Bonnie's sake, and for yours. I'll talk instead about another remarkable novel I listened to this week: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See.

In the first few paragraphs, the narrator, Lily, gives us our first clues about the societal influences we must understand if her story is to make sense to us:

For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me—as a girl and later as a woman—to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.

Many people you and I know feel themselves to be unloved, and their experiences are echoed in countless characters in countless novels. What sets Lily apart is the assumption that her need for love is unjustified - because she is a girl.

Hoping they would show me even the most simple kindness, I tried to fulfill their expectations for me—to attain the smallest bound feet in the county—so I let my bones be broken and molded into a better shape.

I listened for even five minutes, and already I hurt for a child born into such a culture, and wondered what would become of her. As I learned the answer, I also learned more about the culture that produced the woman Lily became, and about the greater world that produced the culture.

I learned about the political and economic events that formed and later changed my character's assumptions, and the way those changes within her would help to form a new world that would change other characters.

I also learned to see my own culture through new eyes. Values parents taught their children in Snow Flower that were so appallingly foreign at first (a little girl's feet must be forcedly broken and stunted to resemble a chili pepper in shape and size ...) became disturbingly familiar at the last (... so that she will appear delicate and beautiful and attractive to men).

Because both novels, Bonnie's new manuscript and Lisa See's Snow Flower revealed such rich story worlds,  their characters were painted more vividly, their stories made richer, more haunting and full of meaning.

How about you? Read any stories lately that showed you something more than setting, that showed you a world? Please tell us all about it. We love to read what you have to say.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The whole truth, and nothing but the truth

It's Thanksgiving. Hard to believe! Christmas is only five weeks away! And I haven't even begun my shopping . . . except for the copies of Novel Tips on Rice I purchased for some special friends. Consider giving a copy of this fun and useful compilation of some of our favorite recipes to that hard-to-shop-for friend or colleague on your shopping list. The graphics are amazing, and the quality is excellent. But, trust me, you'll want one for yourself as well.

I proofread for a friend who is a court reporter. It's an interesting job most of the time. But since the court proceedings take place in a state I don't live in, and I wouldn't be in the courtroom in any case, I'm a completely objective reader. I have nothing but words to go on. No physical attributes, no endearing or exasperating expressions or behavior. No first impressions as far as looks, clothing, jewelry, hair style, nothing to pull them into favor or disfavor. The result is that at times I'm unsympathetic to a particular person when my friend the court reporter is inclined to be otherwise -- because all I have to go on are the words out of the mouth of the witness, attorney, judge, etc. Nothing but their words.

That got me thinking that a reader who picks up one of my novels -- or yours -- is in the exact position that I am as a proofreader of court transcripts. They know nothing about these people or their stories until they hear them speak. It's my job as a writer to make my characters come alive, and the best and most important way is through the words I put in their mouths. I can pile on the description and attributes, and to a certain extent that's important, but that won't make my characters or story resonate with the reader. So what will?

My daughter Deanne would tell you character affiliation begins with the name. If the name doesn't fit or otherwise isn't right, it jars her out of the story before she even gets into it. I completely agree. I spend a good deal of time selecting names for my characters when I begin writing a novel. I find that I can't get the momentum going if I don't have the names right. I may give a character a name at the start of my WIP, but it will pester me and interfere with the writing if the name is wrong. So I try to get it right from the start. And I always know when it's right. And when it's wrong. One major regret I have is that I allowed my agent and editor to talk me into changing the name of my protagonist in Every Good & Perfect Gift. The name I first gave her was the right name, and I wish I had stuck with it. But it is what it is.

Here's an example I ran into a couple of years ago of a name that just didn't work. A young female writer I knew, early 20s, very attractive, was writing a supernatural suspense novel, kind of a cross between Peretti and Dekker. I knew nothing about the story she was writing as she began to read from a chapter, but it drew me in immediately with its tone and action until I realized the protagonist, who I perceived was a young woman much like the author, was named Mabel. Mabel. For a 20-something, cutting-edge protagonist in a supernatural suspense novel.

Time. Out.

I talked to her about it on several occasions. I told her the name jarred me out of the story. I had visions of a woman my grandmother's age the moment I heard it, and I was confused. Wait, Mabel? Then who's the protag, because I thought . . . ? I said it was completely wrong for the character she had created, particularly given the genre, but for some reason she was married to the name. I told her about the prejudice of my daughter, who would put the book right back on the shelf and that would be that. To no avail.

A more important element that will cause our characters to resonate with readers is the depth with which we write them. Superficial doesn't cut it. Neither does white hat/black hat. By that I mean, good guys are not all good, all the time; and bad guys are not all bad, all the time. Characters and stories written with a white hat/black hat mentality fall into the category of melodrama. It's our job to plumb the depths of the characters we create, and present them to our readers as fully formed and three-dimensional as possible. They have foibles and failings and we have to let them show. We have to know them as well as we know ourselves. We must know what they'd say or do in any given situation, and why they'd say or do it. They can surprise us in many ways, but they must stay true to the nature we've given them.

And the most important element of all is dialogue. Words and how they're spoken mean everything. I can forgive less-than-stellar elements in the novels I read, but if the dialogue is forced, shallow, unnatural, uncharacteristic of the speaker, or doesn't measure up in any number of ways, that's usually what will cause me to give up on a novel. And believe me, it takes a lot for me to put down a book that I've begun.

Let's try an exercise. I'm going to write a scene using nothing but dialogue. No dialogue tags, no speaker attributes, no description, no setting, nothing but dialogue. Can I draw you into the scene? Can I cause you to be sympathetic to one party or the other, and the right party at that? Let's see.

"I said I don't want to go."
"That's what you said, but I know what you meant."
"No. That's what I meant. I don't want to go."
"I can change your mind, you know."
"I wouldn't count on it."
"He'll be there."
"I, I don't know who you mean."
"Really? Just how many guys do you know who'd subject themselves to that kind of torture, all in the hopes of seeing you, even from a distance? Besides me, of course."
"You're twisted, you know that?"
"Yeah, I'm twisted. Right around your finger."

Now it's your turn. Write a brief scene using nothing but dialogue.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Keepers

The weekend before Thanksgiving may be one of the worst times to hold a garage sale, but that's what we're doing on Saturday. We spent the last weekend digging and sorting and piling stuff into boxes. It's amazing the things we kept for years 'just because.' I emptied a five shelf unit that was piled with books two rows deep and plugged in all catty-whompas to make them fit. Now there are three boxes of great books that will hopefully get snatched up and treasured.

Of course, I kept several shelves of favorites which contain a mixture of both CBA (Christian) and ABA (mainstream) trade paperbacks. In light of our great discussions this week, I considered why I chose these particular ABA books and whether they demonstrated elements of hopefulness and transformation, which the CBA books did naturally.

Here is a selection of the ABA books I kept:
Peace Like a River, Shadow of the Wind, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Time Traveler's Wife, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Seabiscuit, Snow Falling on Cedars, Gilead, Pride and Prejudice, Water for Elephants, Jewel, The Miracles of Santo Fico, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Cold Sassy Tree

In these books I found characters who persevered, who revealed characteristics of God, who gave sacrificially, who gained new perspectives, who developed tolerance for others, who believed in a dream, whose faith was restored, who kept their word when it hurt, who didn't back down from a righteous fight, who protected what was good, who found the best in others, who never stopped loving.

Did I love each and every one of the characters? No, but they either redeemed themselves in some way or got their comeuppance. No unsatisfying, ambiguous endings here. In contrast, there are many books that I've begun and put down again. While I believe we should give a book a chance once we've started reading, we need to fine tune our discernment. I'm not referring to violence, language or sexuality, I mean when the book impacts your outlook on life in a negative way, it's time to listen to that inner voice saying 'enough!' Step away from the book.

BTW, right now I'm just getting into Marilyn Robinson's Home which takes place in the same town as Gilead during the same time period. I'm just now acquainted with the elderly pastor, his spinster daughter and her blacksheep brother. Their relationships are complicated, and I have a good feeling that they will come to an understanding and find closure in the end. They are the kind of folks I enjoy acquainting myself with. And one of them is vaguely familiar...

We know that CBA books include elements of hopefulness and transformation, but what ABA book has made an impact on you in this way? We'd love to hear!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thinking Out Loud About What is and isn't Christian Fiction

I have two hours until 16 dinner guests arrive for a pre-Thanksgiving potluck. I spent too much time playing Martha Stewart. Truthfully, the last week's posts have truly challenged me to rethink the whole Christian fiction thing, and some of my thoughts aren't very comfortable or clear. So here I am in a swirl of thought. If you're willing, here's one little idea that keeps rising to the surface. I would love to hear what you think.

As a part-time librarian, I regularly come home with an armful of new fiction (my assigned section to weed and read). I read, almost exclusively, mainstream fiction. Within the last few months, I've happened upon several books that don't offer the sense of transformation that Bonnie talked about. And the reading wasn't very satisfying. Oh, the prose is poetic, the images strong and visceral, and the characters wildly conflicted, but they never lift their heads to find meaning in what happens to them. Ugh.

A question: Could they be Christian novels?

"What?" you say. "I thought these were mainstream novels and unsatisfying."

Yes, but can a story that shows what life is like without God, and does so accurately, be Christian in its portrayal of a fallen world?

Consider the Bible. Which of the Old or New Testament writers pooh-poohed rebellion and sin? Which of them shrank away from showing what life was like for the rebellious? How many times did Israel get carried away into captivity after forgetting their God? Did God mock the "righteous" by finding a faithful harlot at Jericho and then placing her in the lineage of our Redeemer? Yes! And why are there prophets? Because God's people kept forgetting about him and getting caught up in horrendous idolatry--asherah poles and child sacrifices, for instance. What about Lot's daughters? They slept with their father when their own marital futures were dashed. Eew! But the story shows what depravity comes from a viewpoint that is void of God. The Bible tells all! Man away from God is a bleak picture, one that has the power to make us run home to the Father. Counter examples of what a God-honoring life looks like abound in Scripture. If God's inspired writers aren't afraid of showing life without God in real terms, should I be afraid to do so?

Just so you know, I have no plans to write a novel that brings the reader to a point of hopelessness. I pray that I can write something with Bonnie's element of transformation. I do NOT want to write a novel that is cobbled together and considered readable by Christians because a few Scripture verses are thrown into the plotline. I AM saying that our definition of what is Christian may be too narrow. God is really, really big and able to redeem anything. Anything.

Thanks for letting me think aloud. So, am I completely off my rocker? Have you read anything lately that qualifies as truly hopeless? What have you read lately, while not being overtly Christian, left you with a sense of redemption?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tell the Truth: Guest Post by Ariel Allison of She Reads

During the last few weeks I’ve been privy to several robust conversations concerning the role of Christian storytellers. At the heart of these debates is always the question of what we allow our characters to experience, and the responsibility writers of faith have in redeeming them.

Last Wednesday, Bonnie wrote in her post Transformation and Redemption in Story, “…redemption isn’t what we think it is. It’s better than that. It is a state of being that allows us to experience our fully aliveness. People don’t want to transform into churchgoers, they want to transform into wholly alive human beings with the courage to face difficult, even impossible odds…”

How often do we rush to redeem our characters? To make them into “churchgoers” as Bonnie phrased it. As authors (and readers) I wonder if we are so obsessed with seeing good come from bad that we sacrifice the terrifying and honest process that creates redemption.

Frederick Buechner gives a glimpse of that transformation in his book Wishful Thinking:

Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

I wonder what that would look like if applied to a character? What courage a writer must show to allow their Hero to savor his anger! And how deliciously uncomfortable for the reader to witness that self-cannibalism. Oh but what a revelation for every person who touches a novel like that!

So what about that responsibility of the Christian writer? Must we connect each dot and hold the hand of our reader as we lead them toward that redemptive revelation? Explain it with flow charts and the four spiritual laws? Isn’t that what “religious fiction” is supposed to do?

Frederick Buechner didn’t think so and neither do I. This from a lecture he gave to a Book of the Month Club:

"Maybe it's all utterly meaningless. Maybe it's all unutterably meaningful. If you want to know which, pay attention to what it means to be truly human in a world that half the time we're in love with and half the time scares the hell out of us. Any fiction that helps us pay attention to that is religious fiction. The unexpected sound of your name on somebody's lips. The good dream. The strange coincidence. The moment that brings tears to your eyes. The person who brings life to your life. Even the smallest events hold the greatest clues." (emphasis mine)

That, I believe, is the responsibility of a novelist. Not to guarantee redemption, but to tell the truth. To show what it means to be “truly human.” Consequences and all.

Question for you: as writers do you find yourself tempted to redeem all of your characters? Or are you willing to let them fall for the greater good?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Those Essential First Lines

Recently I had the privilege of sitting in an excellent workshop at the Breathe Conference in Grand Rapids Michigan where Cynthia Beach, author and professor at Cornerstone University, gave some practical tips on “Creating the Best First Line.”

Here are four of her suggestions:

1) Attend to Grammar. Using subject-verb-direct object structure creates a fast pace and expectations, whereas an introductory phrase-main subject structure sets the tone for a slower pace. Use of the words were, was, and are set the tone for boredom. You don’t want that.

2) Attend to Length. An opening sentence of fewer than 17 words sets a face pace, research shows. Anything longer than that will be processed by the brain as more complex or difficult. Of course a literary or thought-provoking work doesn’t usually introduce itself with mini-sentences, right?

3) Attend to Specifics. The more specific the words you use, the more likely they will create in the reader’s mind a mental image with impact. You want impact, don’t you?

4) Attend to Theme. Many very famous books capture their themes in their first sentences, such as Out of Africa: “I had a farm in Africa. . .” We understand the weight of the past tense. We feel the exotic story coming.

Take the first line of your WIP. Put it through the Beach grinder. What do you end up with? (And we've invited Professor Beach to respond to you, here on the blog. You'll love her!)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Transformation and Redemption in Story

Back in the day, I took an English course at the University of Alberta. The professor was young, passionate about literature, and a wholly likeable guy. He was also passionate about preaching the dictums of postmodernism. He told us that postmodernism is the way of the future.
I wasn’t convinced.
One day he raised a finger to the ceiling and declared that most popular of postmodern edicts: “There is no ultimate truth!”
I cleared the earwax out of my ear and said, “Come again?”
He passionately re-exclaimed, “There is no ultimate truth!”
I liked the guy so I refrained from rolling my eyes. “Except,” I said. “That by proclaiming that there is no ultimate truth, you are in fact proclaiming an ultimate truth.”
He reddened.
I said, “Don’t you really mean to say that there is no ultimate truth except this one, that there is no ultimate truth?”
He stuttered.
“Except,” I went on, “If you believed that, then you would be soundly in the camp of the religious who would declare that they too hold to one ultimate truth. And in doing so, does that not unmask the whole thing as simply looking for another way to redeem ourselves?”
His surprising answer was that he began to cry.
In that moment I understood two things: 1) I was so going to fail this course, and 2) I had grown weary of the cultural meat grinder of postmodern deconstructionism.

On Monday, Katy pointed us to a video called The Arc of Storytelling by Bobette Buster. The whole video is interesting, but I’m focusing on the content from around the nine-minute mark to the end, which is where she talks about story as the vehicle by which we understand by “seeing” that transformation is possible, and redemption is attainable.

Every one of us has come through that meat grinder of postmodern thought. We’ve focused our questions and attention on deconstructing the notions of what it means to be human, and of pretty much everything we see, touch, think, hope for, and believe. But what I have noticed is that entire generations of people are weary, frightened, and hopeless. And these deconstructed people are looking for stories that show them they are more than the sum of their parts.

Transformation and redemption

Bobette Buster focused on transformation as the key story element that captures audience (reader) imagination and elevates that story to the position of “success” or “worth keeping”. I like how she phrases this by pointing out the transformation brings the character fully alive. It’s more than proving we are capable of change, it’s the hope that we can (will) become people who meet life head on with gusto, verve, purpose, and passion. Yes, purpose. Not mindlessly wandering from home to work to the TV set, to bed, and then start all over again the next day. But to know what it is we’re here to do, and then have the guts to go out and do it. Fully alive.

Buster ties the concept of transformation to redemption, which she means not in the theological sense per se, but in a more general sense. Still, redemption is more than the second chance; it’s a state of being in which transformed, fully alive live. The place where we understand that regardless of circumstances we are supported by someone or something greater than our self.

The generations who grew up inside of postmodern deconstructionism are still looking for the redemption story their guts tells them is out there. Even after been weened on the notion that such a thing doesn't exist. Stumbling, getting lost, losing hope, finding it again, they are searching.

For these people, ultimate truth is an answer they must be left to discover on their own (hence their distain for preachy stories with an agenda), but they are looking to story to remind them they are more than the sum of their parts, they have purpose, and a hopeful future. That they can be the heroes of their own lives.

Writers who are people of faith need to keep two things in mind: transformation is a journey that cannot and should not be summed up in a single prayer. It is a journey, and that fact must be respected in our story. Secondly, redemption isn’t what we think it is. It’s better than that. It is a state of being that allows us to experience our fully aliveness. People don’t want to transform into churchgoers, they want to transform into wholly alive human beings with the courage to face difficult, even impossible odds, with courage, knowing there is “an inexorable force in the universe there to support you if you keep going, you will discover the faith, the courage to move on.”

Until we can approach the concepts of transformation and redemption sensitively, and understand the journey that they entail, rather than racing to the finish line, we will be stuck in the postmodern meat grinder, proclaiming that our ultimate truth is better than that guy’s ultimate truth.

To put it another way, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Monday, November 7, 2011


Okay, it's a bit late for scary stories, but we're not quite to Thanksgiving yet. We're still only days past Halloween, the time for cobwebs, costumes and creepy stories.

I'll spill a secret: I love creepy stories. I was the kid who watched every B-level vampire film that came around - back when all vampire films were B-level, full of delightful cliches like hungry glances toward bared throats, women running through foggy moors, and spot-lit tooth reveals.

What was better than B-level was Rasputin the Mad Monk, with Christopher Lee. That one really scared me, and I haven't gotten over it yet.

But I do draw lines. I don't like on-screen violence. I don't like blood-spattered camera lenses. And especially, I don't like exorcist movies. I like to be scared by mythologies, by suggestion and atmosphere. I'm not fond of genuine, unfiltered evil.

So it came as a surprise one recent (Sunday!) afternoon, when I opened my latest envelope from Netflix, and found an exorcist film titled The Rite. I'd forgotten it was in my queue, and I couldn't remember why I'd put it there.

A quick read of the description provided the explanation: Anthony Hopkins had a starring role. Enough said.

So I slipped it in the player, and told my husband we could turn it off if things got too bad.

To my surprise, they didn't. In fact, when the film was over, I walked with a lighter step, and praised my Lord with a truer voice.

I don't go around watching these things, so I can't explain when or how I became so jaded to all the cliches: There's the sweet young thing talking in a male voice while twisting herself in two. Ah, of course, she's coughing up nails. No surprises here.

What saved it, of course (apart from much in the story that was not cliched), was Anthony Hopkins. I'm amazed the same man can play someone deeply good one moment and deeply evil the next, but in so doing he manages to expose the dirty devices of the devil for the weak things they are, and reveals that their chief strength lies in deceiving us to think that everything depends on us.

We are weak, you see, but Jesus is strong.

I recently discovered a short talk titled The Arc of Storytelling by Bobette Buster, and in that film she brings up a book, The Uses of Enchantment by Holocaust survivor and leading child therapist, Bruno Bettelheim.

Ms. Buster paraphrases the seeds for Bettelheim's thought as follows: 

"Children who had been in the death camps, who had been read the true Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, these children had been taught that someday you may be thrown into an oven; someday a wolf may come to the door. But guess what? There is an inexorable force in the universe there to support you. If you will keep going, you will discover the faith, the courage to move on."

Put differently, there's no use hiding from your fears. Much that you fear will come your way. But there is more, much more. There is an inexorable force in the universe. We are weak, but he is strong.

How about you? Have scary stories ever been a source for truth for you in the way Ms. Buster put it?

Please do chime in. We love to read what you have to say.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Benefits of Partnerships

I joined my first critique group a number of years ago as a fairly new writer. There were six or seven other writers, all much more seasoned than I was, and several who were published. I was scared to death to read my work out loud to the group. But by the 2nd or 3rd meeting, they had bolstered my confidence and convinced me I might actually have some talent. I stayed with The Write Bunch for three years, and learned some invaluable things about writing. I'm still in touch with the woman who led the group. She acted like a proud mama when I gave her copies of my published novels three years ago.

I wasn't in another critique group for 18 years or so. That's when I joined a group headed by my agent, who lived just an hour away from me. Her group was composed of writers who were very good at their craft, and I very much enjoyed the time I was with them. I was always reminded of the Scripture, "iron sharpens iron" whenever we met.

Here are a couple of important suggestions to help you manage a successful critique group. When you start a group, be sure to establish the rules and stick to them. Whether you submit your work to each other in advance, or read aloud at each meeting, it's important that everyone participates. It's equally important that everyone has equal opportunity to be critiqued. That means it's important to keep the group to a manageable number. I recommend no more than eight, and even that number would necessitate a lengthy meeting. So make sure the membership is commensurate to the time you are able to allot to the meeting.

While I benefitted from the groups I participated in, what has been most beneficial to me as a writer has been having Katy Popa as a critique partner for the past seven years. We met at a writers' conference and were drawn to each other initially by our work. Our writing styles were similar, as was our level of ability. That united us professionally, but getting to know each other and discovering the similarities we share on many levels united us personally. I haven't written anything these past seven years that Katy hasn't critiqued, and vice versa. We are critique partners in the truest sense, but more than that, we are close, close friends. And it all came about because of our writing.

The same type of relationship -- professional and personal -- is now enjoyed by the six of us who co-write this blog. We're separated by states, and even countries, but that hasn't hampered the deep friendship that's developed amongst us. We're all available as critique partners to one another; and we have the privilege of being "first readers" of each other's work. Believe me, that is a thrill. We're also prayer partners, and we continually encourage one another.

You may find yourself without a writing friend who lives next door, down the street, or across town, but that should never keep you from finding a kindred soul who shares your passion, who writes at a similar level as you, and who desires the kind of relationship I've described in this post. If you are able to, attend a writers' conference, if for no other reason than to put yourself in a position to find a critique partner/writing friend. It's worth the price of the conference. If you're unable to do that, or don't want to wait for the next conference, reach out to someone in the Novel Matters writing community, or another writing blog you may follow. We've seen relationships build between our followers and it delights us to no end. Take a risk and take advantage of this community. It's a win/win for everyone.

BK, I understand your reticence to join or create an online critique group, but a critique partner is a bit different. A one-on-one partnership is harder to flake on, and easier to maintain.

Megan, I hear your frustration. I truly hope you find a writing partner within this community like I found with Katy.

Please share your experiences with either a critique group or a critique partner. How have you benefitted? What has worked, and what hasn't?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Recipe for the Perfect Writers Group

Patti started a great discussion about the importance of critique groups, or writing groups, and I have to admit that the only writing group I am in at this time is Novel Matters. I have been in three different critique groups in the past 20 years, and they all deteriorated into social gatherings or dwindled in numbers. The reasons:
  • No one had time to read the manuscripts ahead of time
  • No one had time to write in general
  • Members dropped out because it wasn't a priority
  • Members dropped out because they were highly sensitive & wanted to hear that their writing was perfect
  • The writing levels were at different ends of the spectrum
  • Personalities got in the way
I met a wonderful lady on the plane trip back from a family reunion this weekend in Tennessee. She commented on my current read, How To Be An American Wife, and showed me her Nook. The conversation branched off into a discussion of her book club and she gave me some great suggestions for the new book club just starting at our church. She mentioned, as with a writers group, that her book club had become an extended family - providing dinners for her when she went through chemo and providing support when she had to find a care home for her husband with Alzheimer's. I began to put together my own recipe for my idea of a perfect writer's group:

  1. Start with really good coffee. Add dark chocolate.
  2. Gather the freshest ingredients of time, sensitivity and skill for each member to do a proper manuscript critique
  3. Stir gently so feelings will never be hurt nor their hopes fall after processing
  4. Fold members in to provide support for each other, even outside of writing
  5. Stick to the recipe so that the group will stay focused on the purpose for meeting and not digress
  6. Do not omit any ingredients. Each member should contribute and not become spectators or feel intimidated by the quality of writing of others in the group
  7. Treat this unique recipe as a treasured family secret: What happens in the group, stays in the group
  8. Research new recipes: Each member would read and report on a book on writing OR the group would read a book on writing together and discuss it
  9. Follow the proper baking time, making adjustments for success: Consider the needs of the whole group in setting and date. Every member should respect the time and date of the meetings and be faithful in attendance.
What would you add to this description of the perfect writing group? What negatives or positives have you experienced? If you're not in a group at the present, what would make you set aside time for it? We would love to hear!