Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More than Publication: Writing as Gift

JOY ALERT!!! Life has gotten a little sweeter. We just noticed: today (and we don't know how much longer) you can download the eBook of Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan Lake FOR FREE!  Here are the places you can get it: 
Amazon (For Kindle)
Barnes & Noble (For Nook) (For just about any e-reader)

We've nearly reached the end of Anne Lamott's writing-book wonder, Bird by Bird. If you haven't been reading along with us, don't be shy about jumping into the conversation. Lamott has a way of jumpstarting a good conversation on the craft of writing. And this is a very good chapter.

The chapter "Writing a Present" is all too timely for me. Lamott tells of writing the story of her father's life and death and about the last days of her friend, Pammy. Lamott is the consumate observer and recorder. In the midst of her family's interactions and a tsunami of emotions, she took copious notes on index cards. And then, she actually presented her father and Pammy with completed manuscripts of their stories before their deaths. She considered her manuscripts love letters, artifacts that would keep memories fresh and in a sense validate the people she loved.

When my mom discovered my modest talent for writing--long, long ago--she suggested I write her story. It's a dramatic story to be sure. At sixteen and the oldest of seven children, her parents took off in opposite directions. Mom dropped out of school to take care of her siblings, but the state stepped in and her siblings younger than 14 were adopted out. My mom made sure they remained a family, even when a lawyer wrote a threatening letter over a birthday card she'd sent to the youngest. You have a admire that kind of tenacity. And a woman with that kind of tenacity, produces lots and lots of material.

As a teenager, I wasn't interested in writing my mother's story. I set my eyes on more exotic tales--which never got written. And then babies were born. Houses were built and remodeled. Careers blossomed and faded and reignited. Directions changed. Life didn't leave much room for reminiscing. If I'm to be honest, I wasn't eager to write my mother's story as an adult either. She's been battling cancer for 23 years, and, well, the thought of reliving all that nearly flattened me. Besides cancer, there are questions nobody wants to ask their mother and answers she most definitely wouldn't want to articulate. So when she would say, "You should write about my life," I would smile and say, "We should do that."

I'm deeply regretting my hesitancy now. We admitted Mom into a hospice program this week, and the disease isn't waiting for a memoir to be written. This writer is steeped in regret. That doesn't mean we've given up on the idea. We're chatting into a digital recorder, and because she is so generous, she's okay with that. Ugh.

People do not have to die for your writing to be a gift. I heard a story on "This American Life," an NPR production, last week. A 13-year-old Columbian girl had been waiting for her kidnapped father to come home for eleven years. When the Columbian military finally formed a rescue mission, they found her father tied to a tree and executed. Among his belongings was a fat journal of letters to the daughter, letters that recounted his youth and his treasured memories of her. He left a piece of his heart for her, but I promised that writing as a gift doesn't have to be about death, didn't I?

Is someone you love having a birthday? Write out a shared memory. Is a friend moving to another city? Write a story set in that city. For your children, keep a journal! Write about your everyday lives but also write about memories from your own childhood.

Toni Morrison said, "The function of freedom is to free someone else, " and if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else. Not every will be glad that you did.--Lamott

There's nothing so powerful as a good testimony. Think of Moses and the children of Israel. Lots of bondage and injustice. An evil captor. A mighty Deliverer! There's a story! But maybe your story isn't very dramatic. Maybe you asked Jesus into your heart as a child, and you've been living in a state of seamless grace ever since. That's a story! The keeping love of God is a very powerful story indeed. If you haven't written down your story of redemption, this may be the sweetest gift you ever pen, and a great place to start thinking of your writing as a present to be given in love.

How do you use your writing as a present to those you love? Was everyone glad you did? Please offer other ideas for how you use your gift to connect, love, and validate.

Monday, February 27, 2012

An Interview with Joy Jordan-Lake, author of Blue Hole Back Home.

This year Novel Matters is seeking answers to the question Why does the novel matter?
We have hand picked ten novelists who will help us answer than question this year. Once a month from now until November, we will introduce you to a writer we love and hope you love, or will come to love too.

Our first feature author is Joy Jordan-Lake. Joy is the author of five books, including Blue Hole Back Home, winner of the Christy Award for Best First Novel and chosen as Baylor University’s Common Book for 2009.
Joy’s other works include a collection of short stories and reflections, Grit and Grace: Portraits of a Woman’s Life; an academic text, Whitewashing Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and two other nonfiction works, Working Families and Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous: Ten Alarming Words of Faith. Her current project is a novel, Tangled Mercy, set in Charleston, South Carolina.
Joy holds a Ph.D. and masters in English and American Literature, as well as a masters from a theological seminary. She has served as the associate pastor of a multi-ethnic church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was a Baptist chaplain at Harvard.
With her husband and their three children, she lives just south of Nashville, where she continues writing fiction and nonfiction, as well as the blog “Writing in the Midst of Real Life.” In addition to leading seminars and workshops, Joy teaches as an adjunct professor at Belmont University. For more information, please see

You’ve heard us talk about Joy’s novel so many times in our blog, and now we’re so happy to offer you the chance to get to know the author behind the great work. She is as engaging in person as she is on the page. Grab a cuppa, and relax as Bonnie chats with Joy about writing, teaching, being iconoclastic, patience, and Hobbits.

Novel Matters: Joy, as an adjunct professor of creative writing and literature, you see students who are taking a real stab at writing a novel. Give us a peek inside your class.

Joy Jordan-Lake: I see students of all ages, and some of the most dedicated ones seem to be the older students who are returning to education after a time away. I think it’s a combination of determination and life experience, but it is often these students, in their late 20’s, 30’s and even into their 50’s who seem to be able to bring a greater depth to their writing.

Very often, these older students are making their first attempt to write a novel length story. At Belmont I developed a class that we ended up calling Beginning the Novel You Always Wanted to Write. It isn’t realistic to think students will be able to complete a novel within the three months the class runs, so the focus of that class is to write the first three chapters—good chapters, strong, well developed—and then to create the outline for the rest of the novel so when the course ends, they are able to go on with their story and complete it.

NM: Tell us about some of the strong positive trends you have seen with beginner writers you have taught.

JJL: One thing I’ve seen my students bring to writing is the opposite of what I struggle with. When I was very young, I fell in love with 19th-century novels, Austen, the Brontë sisters, all those lush books with lots of description and ambience. That’s not what modern readers seem to be looking for today. Many of my students understand this well and are able to approach their story with a sort of cut-to-the-chase approach that I have trouble producing in my own work. They totally get that part. Today’s novels are so much about movement and action. They are easily able to embrace brevity and the 21st-century pace. Another thing I’ve seen (and I wonder if it’s the influence of TV and film) is that many of my students have a natural affinity for writing good dialogue. I love dialogue, and when it is done well, it can accomplish so much.

NM: Tell us about some of the trends you’ve seen in new writers that may not be the best of habits to fall into.

JJL: I think what I see as the biggest barrier for new writers is impatience. This manifests in a few ways, for example thinking that you should be able to write something compelling, absorbing, and good without the self-discipline of writing every day. Writers who want to continue to write must be consistent with their writing time. It’s a big part of the craft. Also, many new writers fall in love with their first draft. Again, this is impatience at work. Students will think they can quickly write a first draft, tweak it a bit, and believe it should be done. Writing well takes patience and it takes time. There are no short cuts. As much as I, when I’m sitting at my desk late at night or early in the morning before my family awakes, would love there to be one, there isn’t.

NM: You said you fell in love with 19th century novels. Have they informed you as a writer over the years? Are there other novels that have influenced your writing?

JJL: Remember Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” the wonderful line “I am a part of all that I have met”? I think every novel I’ve ever finished (emphasis on finished, since I’ve put plenty down on the first page) has informed how I write. Sometimes it’s my thinking, “What an original voice” or “THAT character will be with me all of my days.” Sometimes it’s just “Well, there wasn’t much attention to craftsmanship here, but, geez, how—structurally, specifically how— did this writer’s skill keep me spellbound to the point that I ignored email, phone calls, need for sleep, everything in my life that wasn’t currently bleeding on the carpet or physically, forcefully, yanking my sleeve?” If I’m drawn into a book, then there’s something—or lots of somethings— I want to learn from its author.

That was the early fear, you know—when the novel form was just being born in Western literature—that good, dutiful citizens, especially women, would neglect their children and household duties and just sit reading all day. There are some priceless late 18th-century cartoons warning against the evils of novel-reading by showing a woman engrossed in a novel while naked children wail at her feet and the roof caves in around her. She’s oblivious to it all. Which is, of course, what every novelist wants to achieve.

The 19th-century British novelists were my first love: Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Dickens…. That’s where I fell in love with the novel: how it can make us laugh or muse at ourselves and our culture, how it can move us to want to change the way things are in an unfair world. Perhaps the first character I remember jumping off the page and walking around in m head was Anne (with an “e”!) from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. And not insignificantly, Anne wanted to be a writer (who later struggled in her adult life, if you read the last of the sequels, with how to keep writing when faced with the demands of motherhood—but that’s another conversation.)

The Great Gatsby and Peace Like a River are two of many novels I go back to frequently just to admire the originality of the language and images. Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg is one I examine for multiple points of view beautifully woven into a page-turning plot that integrates intricate historical detail without feeling bogged down or pedantic. There’s so much to learn from other writers every, single day. I’m feeling exhausted right now just thinking about it.

NM: I can see people’s to-be-read list of books growing by the second, Joy. I know I’ll be looking up Follett’s work. With such a rich reading history, if you could sit down with any writer alive or dead, who would it be and why?

JJL: Could I pick a small group? I’d love to sit down with Harriet Beecher Stowe, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Flannery O’Connor and talk about the novel, faith and social reform. If you’re forcing me to choose only one, then I’d have to pick O’Connor, since she’s so utterly unapologetic about her vision as a novelist, but always stops short of preachiness. I’d be intimidated by her extraordinary confidence in her calling as a writer. (One of my favorite writer stories is her “Why, because I’m good at it!” answer to being asked why she writes). But I’d soak up her sense of humor and feistiness. And maybe some of the confidence would be contagious, you think…?

NM: O’Connor always sounded like she knew exactly what she was doing every second of the day. But we know it’s not always so easy to be sure of where a story is going. Do you outline your novels before you write, or are you a feel your way through writer?

JJL: I’ve done it both ways. And if you’ll allow me to generalize, literary writers tend to feel compelled by a scene or a character and then just launch in, following that character through his or her journey. J.R.R. Tolkien spoke of this when he first envisioned a hobbit—and had no clue what a hobbit was.
By contrast, writers of suspense novels, thrillers, mysteries, etc. rely on outlines early on, since the plot must be carefully constructed in order for the suspense to work.

My first novel, Blue Hole Back Home, grew out of personal experience, so it wasn’t difficult to begin fictionalizing from there. The plot grew organically and gradually, with little outlining. (Although my beloved editor would likely tell you I might have avoided the early plot sags—hammocks, I call them—that slowed down the plot in early drafts.)

In the novel I’m currently completing, (working title, A Tangled Mercy), there’s a who-done-it murder mystery element, a love story, and the intertwining of an historical story involving slave revolt, escapes, a hanging, a curse…. So outlining in lots of detail, and being willing to move things around many times, has been essential. At the same time, I’ve often had to go ahead and write scenes even when I didn’t know just where they’d end up in the chronology, but just needed to get more of the story down.

I admire novelists who have one set way of, say, outlining meticulously and then writing, but my experience to this point is that every book, like every child in my own family (I have three kids), will demand different things from you, will have different needs, different ways you need to shape and guide and bop into line, and areas you need to let go some control and step back.

NM: I like the analogy of different books being like different children. They’re similar, but not the same. You need to stay limber. So, what is the one non-writing thing you do that helps you stay limber, to be a better writer?

JJL: Reading. Voracious and obsessive and wide-ranging reading would be Number One in making us better writers. But everyone says that, of course.
So let me also add as Number Two: NOT reading. How’s that for iconoclastic? For periods, at least, and in a life of prolific reading, we writers need times to pause and let our own voices form apart from the voices we’re “hearing.”

Here’s the thing: those of us who love to write tend to adore words and stories and images, right? So we’re easily pulled into Story and kept there. If you appreciate the artistry of a great novelist in the way you ought, you may also become paralyzed with the thought that you’ll never, ever, ever be that good. So why bother? Which, of course, is self-defeating—total death to a good, productive day of writing.

I find I need sometimes to step away from the fabulous classics, or even the latest dazzling book club sensation, and give myself the freedom simply to do what I can do the best way I know how. And then try to do better than that.

Oh, let me add a Third thing that helps immeasurably: exercise. I’m not the world’s most fit specimen of a human being for sure, but I do find that my creative mind kicks in more fully during or just after I’ve taken a long walk or hike or jog—or even just trotted from my upstairs office down to the pantry to scarf some chocolate.

Ah, and there would be the Number Four thing that helps: chocolate. Lots of it.
In other words, always take your writer’s notebook and chocolate along on that hike.

NM: Perfect! Nothing can stop a well appointed writer. Okay, you’ve got me thinking about agility. It’s rough out there in publishingland. How are you navigating the changing tides of publishing?

JJL: I live in Nashville, among music industry people who’ve lost their jobs or had to re-create what they do in order to adjust to the new world of technology. Book publishing is now facing the same sorts of challenges, and publishing houses that aren’t thinking creatively and innovatively about how to embrace the changes will go under. And lots of us as writers along with them.

That said, I’m trying to think as I finish up this current novel about what might accompany this story in e-book form. What music do I hear as the soundtrack? What links could be provided to give historical background, more information on the region, photos of specific places in certain scenes, recipes of cuisine that appears in the story…. What in this novel would be enriched by the new world of multi-platform technology?

And—confession time—since I tend to be a really verbose, love-those-excessive-descriptions kind of writer, it’s an important challenge for me to try to picture each scene as it would play out in film format. Most readers don’t share my taste for the 50 pages telling us how a tree looks—and the truth is, my own tastes have changed on this. So I’ve had to learn to speed things up, be ruthless in cutting.
I listen closely and well to agents and editors and writer friends whom I trust when they tell me if my writing drags in places. Modern readers, most of whom watch 100 or more movies for every book they read, won’t put up with that. Novels can obviously give us these holy moments of clarity and insight and interior monologue that films can’t, but we as novelists had better learn to make our scenes count just as if a producer were deciding whether to spend, say, $30,000 a piece to film them, or else cut.

NM: I love the soundtrack idea. And it’s important to listen to our advance readers, keep an eye on what’s popular, but remain true to the vision of what we’re writing. With all those plates spinning, what keeps you writing despite setbacks?

JJL: Obsession and self-delusion. Truly. Why else wouldn’t we writers devote our energies to pursuits that would offer better odds of fame and fortune?

There’s also the sense of where you feel “called” or “gifted,” what you feel most passionate about, what you feel God set you down in this world to do. If that involves writing, well, then, you have to write. That may be just a few minutes a day before your paying job. It may be in a corner of your attic, or at the kitchen table after the kids are in bed. But you have to write.
The truth is that I’m just not a very nice person when I’m not writing. I feel neurotic and angry at the whole world. Oh, and sorry for myself.

So it’s in everyone’s best interest that I’m writing at least five days a week for whatever time I can beg, borrow or steal. If that’s only a few minutes snatched early in the morning or late at night, that’s still helpful in keeping at bay all those voices that try to tell us writers that we’re kidding ourselves, that this work will never see the light of day, that we’re wasting our time….

NM: Every single writer reading this is nodding in silent agreement. We write because we must write. I’ve been thinking about what you said a minute ago about listening to lots of voices while working on a novel, and how helpful it is. But have you ever gotten bad writing advice?

JJL: How about the best and worst advice together? P.J. O’Rourke has said that we should not rest until every writing instructor who has ever insisted that students “write what you know” be rounded up and beaten soundly about the head and neck—which cracks me up. And there’s truth to this, you know.

Of course we should write what we know in terms of how we’ve experienced the human condition: forgiveness, betrayal, mercy, rage…. But also, part of the fun of being a novelist is getting to enter other people’s worlds and experiences, writing we sure as heck don’t know, but want to.

I don’t “know,” for example, what it feels like to be a conspirator in an 1822 slave revolt in South Carolina, or a white twenty-something single guy in 2012, a fairly self-centered musician who’s promised to care for his best friend’s child if anything befalls the friend. But I can imagine these things based on my own selfishness and compassion and anger and fear. I can research the details. And, potentially, at least, I could weave these into a journey the reader and I get to take together.
So we need to write out of what we know into what we don’t.

NM: I love how your brain works, Joy. That really is the worst and best writing advice. If you could sit down with each aspiring writer who is reading this today, what one piece of writing advice would you offer?

JJL: Make sure you have emotionally stable people in your life. Daphne Du Maurier said that writers as a rule should be read, but neither seen nor heard. The more I hang around writers, the more I chuckle, and think of this quote.

As a group of people, we certainly tend toward the extremes of life: lots of alcoholism, relationship disasters, depression…maybe because so much of producing a novel is just flat out a hideously lonely process—and not one in which there’s much guarantee of the end sales results, even for established writers. In some other professions, there’s a high correlation between hard work and success. In novel writing, well, you’d better be doing it because you love it, and have no other choice but to write.

Writers need steady, even-tempered, non-artistically inclined people in our lives, I’m convinced. We need to pay attention to international news and other people’s problems to keep perspective outside these insulated little worlds we build (and, by the way, to give us story ideas).

We have to be able to laugh at ourselves and hear criticism from well-meaning, well-read and trusted sorts (ignore the petty, the small-minded and the jealous) as a way of making us stronger and better at what we do. The many writer friends I’ve had along the way who were abundantly gifted but very thin-skinned simply haven’t continued to write. The rejection tore them to shreds, and they gave up. Limped away. Never came back.

Which suggests the last piece of advice: among the writer friends you do have—and you need these—be able to exchange war stories. Knowing that other writers doing excellent work are often struggling, too, helps keep you sane.

Try to find these writer friends in far-flung places, by the way, so you can’t waste time over coffee bemoaning how little time you have to write. Two of my favorite writer friends are in Texas and Canada. Just a two-line email or text from these people lets me know I’m not alone in the daily slog.

NM: Aw, shucks. Ahem. Let’s talk specifically about what you’re working on right now. Your story in this next novel, A Tangled Mercy, is set in Charleston, South Carolina. What role does setting play in your story?

JJL: This next novel is set primarily in modern-day Charleston, South Carolina, though to a lesser extent in 1822 Charleston, and in modern-day Boston, Massachusetts. The Low Country Carolina setting—exotic, haunting, gorgeous, a bit gothic, full of potential for horror and humor-- is enormously important for the kind of past-bleeding-into present story that this has become.

NM: What was the seed of your story idea for this novel?

JJL: Strangely enough, my research for my doctoral work. I kept stealing time from working on the dissertation and began writing an historical novel. The historical (which turned out to be pretty over-the-top dull) morphed over the years into a contemporary novel interweaving bits of the history as part of the suspense and mystery.

NM: I can’t imagine the historical falling flat like that. You were so successful at weaving a historical spell in your first novel. Let’s talk about that for a moment. What do you want your readers to carry away from reading your first novel Blue Hole Back Home, and what did you gain from writing it?

JJL: I want readers of Blue Hole Back Home to come away not only still thinking about the characters and conflicts from this story, but also musing back over the pivotal, coming-of-age moments in their own lives. One of the best rewards of writing a novel, particularly one like this that touches on racial violence and reconciliation, American culture, etc., is that readers give back their own stories from their own lives. I treasure getting to go to book clubs or conferences and hear readers begin with talking about my novel, and then launch into memories they have that have come back to the surface, stories of the moments that changed them forever.

A good story begets a good story, you know? It’s a gift we give each other.

NM: Changed forever. Okay, that gives me an idea of how you’re going to answer the last question. On the blog this year we’re exploring the basic yet somehow elusive question: why does the novel matter. Obviously, writers still believe that the novel is an important art form. From your perspective, why does the novel matter?

JJL: Oh, the novel matters more than ever in our fast-paced world. It’s that chance to slow down and step away and look deep into what makes us tick as human beings, what really matters, what really doesn’t--to allow ourselves to be transported to a different world, to see things from someone else’s perspective, to allow ourselves to be moved and frightened and inspired and entertained---and changed.

In our world of access to so many art forms available to us—often bombarding us—the best song lyrics, the best YouTube features, the best films all hook into our basic human craving for Story. As novelists, we have to figure out how to spin our stories for the modern, harried, distracted reader so that the old-fashioned words-on-page print form makes sense, is worth the time and trouble because the reader comes away changed—becomes a part of the Story, and the Story, a part of them.

NM: Joy, thank you for being our guest today. I’ve personally enjoyed this time and I’ve learned so much from you. A bit like sitting in your class and taking it all in. You’re so generous with your time and ideas. We’re very grateful.

Dear reader, do you have a comment or question for Joy? There’s so much here to talk about!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Melting Stars and Dancing Bears

A favorite truism I heard somewhere says:
"God gave us time so that everything wouldn't happen all at once."  

It's clever, but like many truisms, not entirely true. You've noticed, right? Sometimes, everything does happen all at once.

I write this post at the end of a two week period bracketed by a traffic accident on one end (everyone's okay) and the death of a loved uncle on the other. Yes, technically, there are fourteen or so days in between, but there were other things in the middle, and to quibble over the true meaning of "all at once"...

Okay, I'm not going to win this one, am I?

Under my breath, I repeat: "I hold this treasure in an earthen vessel. His strength is made perfect in my weakness."

I suspect you've whispered the same, because everything seems to be happening all at once, everywhere I look, and my all-at-onces are lighter than some.  A favorite teacher once told me that for the writer, traffic accidents and bereavement and all such things are material for the work, and in that way they are good.

Of course, he was right. So between the tears, I've carefully noted the physical feeling of disbelief (a sensation of distance, like a head cold), and how my body recoils each time another car comes close enough to hit.

The other day, Megan Sayer emailed a comment on Monday's Roundtable post, about the humility of, as Bonnie said, "admitting that my best ideas are always tinged with uncertainty."

Megan shared something wise, about the need to put our work out there, knowing it will never be finished, because we as artists are never finished. I thought that was very real and good. Not what I most wish for as a writer, but real and good.

I'm in the dismal camp of Madame Bovary, who once said:

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

Except that Madame Bovary blamed the language. So did Stephen King:

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish your feelings -- words shrink things that seem timeless when they are in your head to no more than living size when they are brought out. 

I don't think, however, that the problem lies in our words. I think the difference in the grand size of our timeless thoughts and the tiny size of our words on paper is the difference between aspiration and reality. Star melting music and earthen vessels.

As Megan noted, the temptation is to wait to produce until enlightenment beams out our fingertips. Wouldn't that make sense for those of us who wish to infuse our work with meaning? Shouldn't we wait to get the meaning right?

My uncle now has the meaning right. But no one can publish him.

On Monday I said something about being at odds with my younger self. It's true that I now disagree with many opinions I once thought un-recantable. What I have never recanted are the moments of empathy, and the moments of wonder. The veiw through another human's eyes, and the discovery of incandescent beauty when all around things are happening all at once - these are the things that are timeless. These are the things I find in the books I love best.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Clubs Matter: Guest post from She Reads: Melissa Hambrick

Every month, we tie a blindfold on one of our book club members. Then we spin her around in circles until she cries uncle, and send her topsy-turvy around the bookstore in a drunken stagger to pin the bookmark on the title. Wherever it lands is the book we choose.

Perhaps a bit extreme and slightly off the wall? Maybe. But choosing the perfect book for your club isn’t really a science, even though it feels that way sometimes. Everyone wants to get a turn—different people like different genres, and what is deeply literary to one may feel like slogging through mud to another. When one person loves a fun read, another might think it’s fluff. So an old-fashioned party game could do the trick in a pinch.

How do you discover those amazing reads that become book club classics, especially with Oprah now off network television? Here are a few things we’ve tried—maybe some will help your club come together:

Goodreads: A great website that connects you with fellow bibliophiles, Goodreads is the online equivalent of a friend pressing a book into your hot hands and saying, “You have GOT to read this.” On this site, I’m friends with several people who are in my book club, as well as friends from all over the country.  I’m even friends with a couple of authors now, after reading their books and giving them a nice review and rating. I can see what my friends are reading, and pick and choose from books they’ve read that look interesting. I’ve also been able to offer out questions to some of my favorite authors who come to Goodreads to do online chats…but so far, Ann Patchett has not taken me up on an offer to come join our book club here in Nashville, although I think we made a pressing case for it.

Online Book Clubs: Sites like and (home of The Pulpwood Queens book club) are fantastic repositories for previously undiscovered authors and novels. Often, they offer author interviews and background about the book or author you might not read anywhere else. There are usually great giveaways and sometimes, as with, getaways as well—like their annual Girlfriend Weekend. And couldn’t we all use that?

Other Books: For a while, we had a couple of rules for picking our monthly reads. First we said it had to be in paperback, because hardbacks were kind of pricey—and then that went by the wayside when everyone in our club ended up getting Kindles and Nooks. Another one of our rules that carried on for a while is that our next book had to, in some way, be a jumping off point from a previous book—either in theme, or setting. It makes for an interesting progression and great comparisons from month to month.

Food: Ah yes, part of the holy trinity of book club—the written word, inspiring conversation and amazing food. Although a book may inspire a menu, it’s possible to let your favorite foods inspire the choice of book, too. I’d also recommend The Book Club Cookbook ( that pulls together two of my personal favorite things seamlessly. I think our club may soon have a themed dinner with recipes from some of our best-loved novels from the past few years using this book!

Bookstores: Our book club has been known to wrap up a wonderful evening by going to the bookstore as a group and wandering around. No one gets blindfolded. But once we get going, it’s hard to stop, of course—all of us girls and all of those books. It feels decadent. We’re like kids in a candy store. You might also consider signing up for newsletters or social media feeds from retailers big and small. For those of us here in Nashville, Parnassus Books (Ann Patchett’s new bookstore) sends out some great recommendations on their Facebook page, while I’ve also discovered some great new releases from Barnes & Noble’s emails.

Resign yourself to this: you’ll never make everyone happy. Few and far between are those books, like The Help, that everyone seems to love equally. More often than not, you’ll be a club divided—but isn’t that what makes for a great conversation? I’ve discovered some great authors and some of my favorite books by stretching myself beyond what I would have chosen on my own.

How does your book club make their reading picks?

As an added bonus of booky goodness, we've included a video of Ann Patchett on the Colbert Report (a nice American friend explained to our Canadian who doesn't watch TV what the Colbert Report is, but she still couldn't view the video because she lives in Canada. If you aren't in the US, likely you won't be able to view the video.) Enjoy!

Monday, February 20, 2012

What's the Point? -- A Roundtable Discussion

CONTEST REMINDER: Write a compelling essay on Why the Novel Matters, and you just might win a Kindle Touch. Read the rules and submission guidelines here.

In keeping with our theme this year, Why the Novel Matters, I'm curious where we as individuals fit into the grand scheme of the world of fiction. Speaking first as a reader, I always have a novel on my night stand. If I read non-fiction I read it during the day. But fiction, well, that is my favorite nightcap. I savor it, usually reading two hours before turning out the light. I love a variety of fiction, though there are a few genres that just don't appeal to me, historical fiction being one of them. However, I recently surprised myself by reading and loving a 1,200 page historical novel titled And Ladies of the Club. (I'll post a review of it in March.) But when I read fiction, I read first and foremost for the purpose of entertainment. I don't read to be indoctrinated, enlightened, or wowed by an author's style -- though I love it when I am. I don't read for the sake of dogma or propoganda, or even as research for my own style of writing. I want to be entertained, even if in a macabre way. I want to be drawn into the story world and engaged by the characters. I want to put myself in someone else's shoes and hang out where they hang out for just a little while. In the past couple of months, I've been aboard the Pequod and smelled the blood of whales. I've rubbed shoulders for the first time ever with Hercule Poirot, just for the fun of it. I've lived in post-Civil War Ohio for more than half a century under the stringent rules imposed on women of that era. I've lived a very dysfunctional fifteen years at St. Elizabeth's Home for Unwed Mothers in Habit, Kentucky. I don't object to finding a moral to the stories I read; I mean, there has to be a point, right? But I want that moral to emerge from the story, and not the story to emerge from the moral. I don't want The Point to be what drives the author. It nearly always comes across as contrived when The Point is the point.

Oddly, I find that very thing is my main challenge as a writer. Because our novels almost always begin with a premise, it's easy to let the premise lead the way. But it works so much better when the characters or the plot are the driving force, and the premise is only a gossamer thread that gingerly holds the story world together.

I recently took my children to an art gallery in our city. The gallery is set up as a series of large rooms, each one dedicated to a single artist. One room was dedicated to the art of a young man who primarily focused on photography. His work was fragmented, often pictures of piles of garbage he had found on his travels. There were never any people in the pictures. There were thousands of images, some tiny, others huge, some were negative images on a spool of film. It was difficult to make sense of it all. I spent a great deal of time studying one portion (one wall) of the bombardment of art until I could finally see the pattern in his work, and, having discovered the pattern, I was able to "hear" what he was saying. In many ways he was talking about what everyone is talking about these days, having eyes to notice the poor, of caring for the environment. Except that wasn't his real message. Under the veneer of social issues was a cry for a specific kind of social justice for a specific people group. What made me walk away from the display was that his message wasn't come and see us, but rather: this is your fault. You are bad and you should shoulder the blame for the mess we are in. The artist was angry, perhaps justifiably so, but his sneaky anger rankled me. I felt like it jumped me, and I walked away quickly into the next room. I don't begrudge this young man his art and his vision, but I learned a valuable lesson as a writer. Bait and switch, even with a worthy, justifiable message, isn't honest. And it offends. Being honest is always best, and for me, being honest means admitting that my best ideas are always tinged with uncertainty.

I love Bonnie's last point, that honesty necessitates a level of humility. Might the angry photographer have been a man too inexperienced to know how many of his cherished convictions will change, that he will one day find himself at odds with his younger self? You'd think a Christian might be exempt from such, but I'm a Christian, and I'm not exempt.

I love authors who are honest above all else. When I read a passage that makes me think, yes, yes yes, that's exactly how it is, but I've always been afraid to see it - then that author is my friend for life. Truth is wondrous, even hard truth.

When I write, I tend to focus on questions I have no answers for. That helps assure that the writing will mean something to me at least, and it's the best way I know to avoid giving easy answers in my story.

I once read a novel for an ABA book club that pulled me along with interesting characters and a fly-on-the-wall look at an American culture totally foreign to me. In the last chapter, the hero happens to go to a Christian Science meeting and proceeds to include a three-point sermon on the supremacy of that group and their uniquely correct view of the Word. Huh? Where did that come from? No one in the story had gone to church before this. No questing after truth, just survival. I got the feeling that the author wanted this material in the book but didn't make the effort to do so organically. I hated it. On the other hand, I've read lots of books embedded in belief systems and cultures that would seemingly counter mine, and I enjoyed the experience. Books like that are journeys. To answer your question: No, I don't want to read books that sermonize about religion, global warming, or politics. I do want to be entertained, first and foremost. But keep in mind, every story is based on how the author believes the world should work.

The last time I sat on the floor and cried over a book was about six months ago. (I was cleaning the pantry and listening to a book on tape: about the only way I read fiction lately.) The author portrayed a mother's last look at her son's body in such a way that I sobbed and sobbed.

That's the end of the story. Let me tell you the beginning. If you had told me the book I'd selected was the author's "impassioned plea" for a cause, I would

never have chosen it. Those kinds of descriptions on the back of a book cover make me slide it back onto the shelf. Touching it only with my fingertips. Saying, "ick, ick, ick" under my breath.

Or if you'd said it would take a stand that's opposite one I've held for many years, with biblically-based convictions, I wouldn't have selected the book. (Believe me, someone is always trying to change my mind about something.)

The book was John Grisham's The Confession, and it made me think about capital punishment in a way I've never before considered it. Maybe it's changing my mind.

But here's the point: Only when I read some reader reviews after I'd finished the book did I find that other people thought it was contrived and manipulative. I was very surprised to hear that. I figured that if he could make me think, he could make anyone think. I salute his skill and thank him from the bottom of my heart for such a moving story.

This discussion got me thinking about books that get the point across without being preachy or manipulative, creating fiction that matters. I think the last book I read that did this successfully was The Help. It certainly has a message, but relationships are the force that pull the story along and convince you that the cause is right. The author put faces on the problem. When we can 'see' their faces we care about the problem without being told that we should. I haven't read many stories that accomplish this so well.

Reading for pure pleasure is therapy. Sharon, I only wish I could stay up and read for 2 hours before bed. It's more like 10 minutes before the book hits the floor, and it's not for lack of interest.

What about you? As a reader do you mind if the author has a heavy hand? If you're also a writer, what approach do you take in order to get your point across, assuming you have a point?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Tinkering With the Rules

A few years back, I posted about a book written by Paul Harding titled tinkers (little 't'). It's a Pulitzer-winning, rule-breaking, fearless little book with an endorsement by Marilynne Robinson and a starred review by Publishers Weekly. It's the best example I've ever found of successful rule-bending. Here are some of his 'infractions':

  1. Multiple POV & tense changes. The kind that have you backtracking to figure out whose head you are in at the moment.
  2. Long sentences. I mean long. Stream-of-consciousness long. One sentence had 386 words and 30 commas. And two question marks, which did little to impede the sentence, since it did not actually come to a stop at either one.
  3. Lack of punctuation. I finally realized that the capitalized word in the sentence meant someone was speaking at that point, sans those helpful quotation marks.
  4. Sentence structure. Some had so many clauses that I forgot the point before the end.
  5. Non-sequential time travel. At least, it felt that way, with the main character's hallucinations transporting him back to his childhood and further, and back again.
  6. Long passages from a manual on clock repair. I understand that these were important to the story and paralleled his father's writings, but they began without warning. Just a slight indent of the paragraph.
  7. Slight overuse of a few favorite words. The words 'sibilant' and 'boreal' and 'arboreal' were used several times. I didn't have a problem with them (they are ethereal and slightly sensual) but they stood out because the words were distinctive, and most editors would have requested a word change.
Basically, I'm tickled pink that an author who was allowed to defy so many rules was awarded the Pulitzer, but I do see the wisdom in those rules. More than once, I had to step back from the story to orient myself. If the story's not compelling enough, a reader may feel it's too much like work and use the book as a doorstop.

Susie Finkbeiner raised a good point in her comments this week (thanks, Susie!). It is easier and more natural to break the rules when you're writing dialogue and when writing in first person. When you're in a character's head, you enter into a contract with him or her. There's an implied intimacy that allows for a natural flow of story. If the telling is stilted and proper, the story will not seem genuine, unless, of course, it's in keeping with the character's personality. I think this is why I prefer writing in first person. Short phrases, run-on sentences, dropped conjunctions - isn't this how we think in our heads? It's how we speak to intimate friends. At least, occasionally these are allowed in literature. Unless you have a Pulitzer on your hands, and then, anything goes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Just Because It’s Not Wrong Doesn’t Make It Right

Bonnie’s post on Monday made me want to stretch my literary wings. I guess as I grow older I’m beginning to think there is no reason why I shouldn’t wear the colors I want to wear and cut my own hair and make my own yogurt and write recklessly.

But you have to take the consequences of navy blue and brown; you have to live (at least temporarily) with your own scissors’ results; you have to respect the sensibilities of active cultures.

And in order to take literary risks, you have to know where the boundaries are. What you’re going to push up against before you start shoving.

I had a friend who wrote a hilarious weekly column for a small local newspaper called “Chronicles of a Married Man.” He was married to a loveable nut case so it wasn’t hard to come up with material. And he managed, with the help of an editor and his own “secret weapon,” to write articulately.

An English teacher at a nearby high school invited him to speak to her writing class. Since he was published, she reasoned, he would tell the kids that what she was teaching them was going to pay off eventually. Grammar could turn into greenbacks. That’ll motivate them, she thought. (And I think she had starry-eyed visions of kids writing her “if only I’d known I would have honored you sooner” testimonial letters. Or repenting publicly. Or something.)

I fictionalized the incident, calling my friend Al, in my novel, Latter-day Cipher:
He would be treated as an alumnus dignitary, the teacher promised. He could regale them with stories about writing. They’d have cookies. He could autograph copies of his articles they would have printed.
Despite Al’s protests to the teacher that his writing methods were unorthodox and that she wouldn’t really want him teaching her class, the teacher cajoled, threatened and guilted him into coming.
“How to write.” Al began his presentation to a group of lounging bodies strung like drying seaweed across the desks.“I start typing in whatever I think. Then I go get a drink. Then I come back.”
Eyelids opened a bit.
“I type some more. Then I do my editing with the colors, then I’m done.”
The teacher waved an arm from the back of the class. “Edit with the colors? That sounds interesting, right, class?”
Al could hear the soft snore of a teenager whose face was buried in his arms atop a desk.
“Yeah. With the colors. You know, when you use a word processing program, all the misspelled words have red lines under them. I fix those first.”
“But what about the structure? Topic sentence and supports?”
Heads turned toward the teacher who took this revival as signs of interest. “We learned about topic sentences, right class? And grammar?”
She looked again at Al. “Do you use an outline?”
The class became small undulations across the room.
“You don’t use an outline?”
The teacher’s voice had a crease of irritation in it.
“Nope.”“Okay, go on about the colors.”
“Well, anything that’s not grammatically correct shows up with a green line under it. I just keep typing in stuff or taking out stuff until the green lines go away.”
“Cookies anyone?”
You see the problem, don’t you? I mean, we’re novelists. We know that just because you get rid of all the grammatical errors doesn’t mean you will end up with compelling writing. My friend had such a kooky wife that all he had to do was just relate her escapades. But as he’s the first to admit after trying for years to crank out book-length fiction, just having a grammatically-correct story doesn’t mean you can sustain a novel.

We know, don’t we? That’s why we keep looking for shades of navy blue that will go with brown. That’s why we take the haircutting – and self-editing – risks. And that’s why we have learned to respect the incubation of time, why we don’t send off a novel until we’ve let it sit and culture --or curdle.

I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. What rule-bending risks do you take?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Writing Rules Don't Matter.

CONTEST REMINDER: We think pretty highly of the novel around here, and from your devotion to reading and developing craft, it's clear you do too. We're dedicating this year to answering the question: Why does the novel matter? Answer that question with panache and you just might win a Kindle Touch. Read rules here.
Writing is words rather than paint on the canvas. Art created with pen rather than brush (oh, okay with computer). It is the burden of the artist-writer to be clear about meaning.

And there are rules for how to do that. Rules of writing. Rules of expressing the human condition with clarity and depth of meaning.

Writers sometimes complain about these rules. How they are too rigid and interfere with the creative process.

Maybe. But, honestly, I don’t think so. How do we get away from the fact that the art of writing is governed by the rules of language? And the really funny thing about these rules—they change.

Oh fickle finger of fate. Okay, not fate so much as us and our fickle way of talking. We change and our language changes with us, sometimes in spite of our best efforts. Have you read Dickens lately? Austen? Oh so very different from today. Multiple POV, sometimes within the same sentence. Tsk tsk. Modern no-nos, but back then it was the norm.

I suspect one of the reasons writers squirm under the pressure of writing rules is because they are so shifting, so uncertain.

So, what if we decided to forget about rules and focus instead on tools?

This is more than a semantic difference.

Rules tell you that you can't run in the hallways. Tools suggest that, should you find yourself in a hallway, there are numerous and various way in which you can choose to travel it. Rules set the boundaries (the hallway is this wide, this long), tools help you decide if you will take on its length on foot, in a canoe, or riding a giant ice cube sliding down a plastic tarp.
The more writing tools you own, the less the constraints of rules matter to you.
Your job then becomes to get to know your tools intimately so that you are able to choose which is the best one for any given job.

In Roy Peter Clark’s book on writing called Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, he outlines four basic sets of tools every writer should master:

1. Nuts and bolts: working at the word, sentence, and paragraph levels.
2. Special effects: tools of economy (a cherished commodity in the world of modern publishing), clarity, originality, and persuasion.
3. Blueprints: organizing and building stories.
4. Useful habits: routines for productive writing.

What I like about these tools is while they suggest a need to respect the rules, they are more focused on keeping the creative juices flowing and producing a work of excellence than on ensuring the writer adheres to a checklist.

Art isn’t close your eyes and create. We know this. Art is hard work, dedicated time, and great effort. Having a full toolbox helps us in everyway. Sure, we know the rules. Now, which tool do we have at our disposal that will set the rule on fire? That can blaze a trail so deep and wide that the rules are rewritten? (Insert evil grin here).

Is there a writing rule that imprisons your writing in some way? Are you sensing it’s time for a trip to the metaphorical hardware store? Have you found a tool that helps you “put the screws” to the rules? Share! As always, we love to hear from you.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Buggy Pleasures or Draw a Sword?

CONTEST REMINDER: We think pretty highly of the novel around here, and from your devotion to reading and developing craft, it's clear you do too. We're dedicating this year to answering the question: Why does the novel matter? Answer that question with panache and you just might win a Kindle Touch. Read rules here.

I did not forget. Honest! I've been waiting for the right moment to continue our book talk of Anne Lamott's contemporary classic, Bird by Bird. And wouldn't you know it, Anne comes along with a chapter on writers block? While I don't have an official diagnosis, I suspect I may be experiencing the dreaded WB. This description from Lamott's book comes pretty close to how I've been feeling lately:

A blissfully productive manic stage may come to a screeching halt, and all of a sudden you realize you're Wile E. Coyote and you've run off the cliff and are a second away from having to look down. Or else you haven't been able to write anything at all for a while. The fear that you'll never write again is going to hit you when you feel not only lost and unable to find a few little bread crumbs that would identify the path you were on but also when you're at your lowest ebb of energy and faith.--Lamott

So I read the rest of the chapter, looking for something to transform me back into the roadrunner. Beep! Beep!

Lamott's advice rings true enough: Write one page of ANYTHING per day. Do grocery lists count? Make a commitment to the characters rather than the novel. I like my characters. No problem. And "just take in the buggy pleasures" of everyday life to refill what must be running on empty. Really? How many legs do these bugs have?

Overall, however, I did not feel better or energized after reading this chapter. I. Want. To. Write. So I reached for another book on my shelf, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. This guy takes no prisoners in the battle of Resistence, that inevitable battle when creating art. He's kicked me in the bum before. I think I even wrote about it here.

There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing part that's hard. (Patti here: Well, it's a little hard, wouldn't you say?) What's hard is sitting down to write. (Yes!)--Pressfield

What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

Resistance can best be defined by what it keeps us from doing, like starting and finishing anything worthwhile--diets, exercise, and writing among those listed. And Pressfield characterizes Resistance with ominous adjectives: invisible, internal, insidious, implacable, impersonal, and infallible. All true.

If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius. --Pressfield

This puts writers block in a new light, doesn't it? Evil? A little like burying our Master's talents? Hmm.

I've allowed Resistance to put my latest WIP on hold for a few months. I have my excuses, thank you very much. And it's not like I haven't been bubbling and stewing and mulling, even had a few false starts. But I do find myself wearing that "Writer" tee shirt Katy talked about. Truth is, I've been miserable not writing.

If I'm going to be honest here, time and/or exhaustion isn't my problem. Fear of failure is. Like Lamott, my last manuscript didn't evoke the love of editors or agents or anyone. I don't even think my mother liked it. Pressfield addresses that problem, and I'm going to copy the whole chapter for you. Here goes:

Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five. In other words, fear doesn't go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day. --Pressfield

The battle goes on. Either that fact makes you reach for your sword or sends you to the bomb shelter. I'm off to war!

Whether Lamott's approach or Pressfield's makes more sense to you may be a matter of personality. Know this about me, I cannot wait to mount up and follow the Lord back to earth at the Second Coming. Yep, there's a warrior behind this mild-manner facade. It's time to wake her up. Writing novels is too important. I offer another view of how the world should look. I offer hope! I entertain! I like to think that I add a respite of beauty, too. So do you.

How do you wake up the warrior within? How do you write when everything is saying no? Is Resistance evil or just maddening?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Writer's Fashion Quiz

I loved Bonnie's quiz so much on Monday, I decided to try one of my own. We've never really broached the subject of fashion on this blog, so today we're going to examine what we writers wear when we sit down to write, and what our choices reveal about us. I'm sure this is as accurate as any quiz you'd take in Writer's Digest. So please, choose one item from each picture to complete an ensemble, and then locate your results below.







If you chose: Hat: A; Top: C; Pants: D; Shoes: D; Inspiration: C

Oh, you sweet thing. You are a new writer (or at least still fresh), in love with words and life and everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes. You are like Winona Ryder (Jo) in Little Women, scribbling away in her leather journal. Do all you can to stay in love - your best writing will come from your deepest feelings. Just remember to get your writing out of the journal and onto a manuscript. And don't forget to edit!

If you chose: Hat:B; Top: D; Pants: C; Shoes: B; Inspiration: B

Uh oh! You are blocked.  Like Emma Thompson in Stranger Than Fiction or Johnny Depp in Secret Window, your confidence is so low you've thought of wearing clothes that say "Writer" to prove - at least to yourself - that you are one. You need to snap out of it, and then relax. Right this minute, go put some real clothes on. No more slippers and pajamas. Comb your hair and put the slinky away. Then get back to your desk, take a deep breath, and write drivel for an hour without once pressing delete. Sooner or later, if you don't smoke yourself to death, you'll write something you love. I promise.

If you chose: Hat: C; Top: A; Pants: A; Shoes: C; Inspiration: D

Oh no! You're worse than blocked - you are (in alphabetical order) aggravated, exacerbated, exasperated, frustrated, and in tears. You're afraid you'll never get to the promised land, and you're tempted to take it by force. Please don't do anything I'll regret. Nobody stole your story. Perhaps it's buried under too many words, or half-starved by too few.  The benefit of being a Christian writer is that you know that frustration is normal and triumph a miracle. But miracles do happen if you keep on.

If you chose: Hat: D; Top: B; Pants: B; Shoes: A; Inspiration: A

Hooray! You've arrived - or at least relaxed - as an author. You iron your shirts and polish your shoes, because you never know when you might give an interview or receive an award.  Like Christopher Reeve in Somewhere In Time, you allow yourself a diversion - now and then. Just be careful, won't you? Don't forget to come back to us.

If you chose: Hat: A; Top: B; Pants: D; Shoes: B; Inspiration: D

You're confusing me to pieces. Are you playing with my brains? Please put the gun down.

The Fine Print:

Okay, all those pictures came from nice places that should recieve credit. You can even buy most of this stuff:

Velvet beret:
Writer cap:,14847632
10-galoon hat:
Fedora: CMSeter

Flannel shirt:
Button down shirt:
Writer shirt:,440590342
Poets shirt:

Suede bellbottoms:
Pajama pants:
Dress slacks:

Cowboy boots:


How'd you do? 

Come on, you can tell us. We love to read what you have to say. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Why the Novel Matters Contest Announcement (And a Groovy Quiz!)

Why the Novel Matters Contest:

We’re excited to announce a new contest for readers and writers alike. Here is the skinny:

Why the Novel Matters Essay Contest.

What you do: Write an essay on the topic Why the Novel Matters. Send it to us by the closing date of midnight, March 2, 2012.
Three winners will be chosen.

Third place wins a copy of Sally Stuart’s 2012 Christian Market Guide.
Second place wins a copy of Sally Stuart’s 2012 Christian Market Guide and a copy of Novel Matters Tips on Rice Cookbook.

First place wins: A NEW KINDLE TOUCH!

Plus, the winning essay will appear on the Novel Matters blog.

Winners will be announced April 2, 2012.

Here are the specifics about the essay:

            Entry  Guidelines:
·     Maximum 750 words
·     Header:  Name top left;   page # top right
·     1” margins, double-spaced, 12 pt. font
·     submitted as a Word doc attachment

            Essay Criteria:
·     You can write about a specific novel, or about novels in general.
·     Need good supporting evidence
·     Clarity
·     Good conclusion
·     Will be critiqued for punctuation, spelling, grammar etc.

Type in the subject line of your email: Why the Novel Matters Essay.
Send your entry to:

Remember to “like” Novel Matters on Facebook. It’s not a requirement of the contest, but when you connect on Facebook, you have access to lots of immediate conversations and ideas from the Novel Matters community. It’s like family that you don’t have to clean your house for!
Your Writing Personality Quiz
On Friday, Sharon posted a wonderful article that helped us draw parallels between our personalities and our writing style. It got me thinking that, as a former program developer, I should create a highly scientific, accurate, and iron clad test writers can take to discover their true writing style. Below is that test. Guaranteed to be as accurate as any Cosmo magazine quiz you’ve ever taken, this test will reveal for all eternity your exact writing style. Get a pencil and get ready to uncover the truth about your writing to the power of three. Discover the truth about how you plan, write, and edit! It’s totally fake neat-o and keen! 

1) When I get an idea for a novel, I:      
    a) Jot down the basic idea and go for a long walk.
    b) Grab a pen and paper and write until I go blind.

2) When it comes to describing my characters:
    c) The more the reader knows the better: Eye color, favorite movies, moles, birth weight.
    d) It’s more important to know how my characters think and feel.

3) I know if a scene I wrote doesn’t belong in the book because:
    e) Easy. I don’t write stuff that doesn’t belong in my books.
    f) Six trusted friends and my Mom told me so.

4) To me novel structure is:
    a) A complex web.
    b) A fun puzzle.

5) I know I’m on a writing roll when:
    c) I write 25,000 words in one marathon writing day (or is it night?)
    d) I write 2,500 words in one week.

6) When I edit a chapter of my work, I always ask myself:
    e) Is the opening sentence strong?
    f) How does this chapter effect the rest of the novel?

7) When I start planning a new novel, I buy:
    a) The entire left half of Office Depot.
    b) A notebook and some pencils.

8) If I were to describe my writing in one word it would be:
    c) One word? Are you kidding me? I’m a writer! I have LOTS of words that describe my writing.
    d) Verbose.

9) When I can’t make a section of my novel work, I:
    e) Look for weak verbs, flabby nouns, and overused words that are dragging the writing down.
    f) Read further down, looking to see if there is a better place to start the scene.

10) When I’m writing, my work space looks like:
    a) The War Room.
    b) The battlefield.

11) When I finish writing an important, emotionally charged scene, I:
    c) Ride the momentum straight into the next scene.
    d) Nap.

12) When I get critique feedback from others about my work, I:
    e) Freak out, get upset, calm down, and start making the needed changes.
    f) Freak out, get upset, calm down, and go for a long walk.

13) I get my best character descriptions from:
    a) Pouring over magazines and celebrity web sites until I find the right face.
    b) Waiting until my characters visit me in a dream.

14) When I print out the first draft of my novel:
    c) I remind myself to lift with my knees. Or invite a friend over to help me lift it onto the table.
    d) Lay it out on my living room floor, so I can see my whole story all at once.

15) When my editor tells me to cut 10,000 words, I:
    e) Light candles, dress in black, and weep with each press of the delete button.
    f) Chop out that scene I was on the fence about anyway.

How to find out your score:
There are three parts to this quiz. Planning, writing, and editing. You will discover a score for all three areas! After you add up your scores, there are definitions for each type below.

Look at questions 1, 4, 7, 10, and 13. These are questions related to planning a novel, or fixing to get ready. Add up how many A’s you scored, and how many B’s.
If you scored more A’s you are a: PLANNER.
If you scored more B’s you are a: PANTSER (one who writes by the seat of the pants).

Next, look at questions 2, 5, 8, 11 and 14. These are questions about writing a novel. Add up how many C’s and D’s you scored.
If you scored more C’s then you are a: Proser.
If you scored more D’s then you are a: Poet.

Lastly, look at questions 3, 6, 9, 12 and 15. These are questions about editing your work. Add up how many E’s and F’s you scored.
If you scored more E’s, you are a: Picker.
If you scored more F’s, you are a Plopper.

Now you know if you are a Planner/Poet/Picker, or perhaps a Pantser/Proser/Plopper.
So what does that mean?
Here are the definitions!

Starting a novel.
PLANNER. You love structure and find inspiration in thinking things through. You take time to plan each move before you write the novel. You start writing at the beginning of the story and write in order to the end. Your novels are complex, brimming with metaphor and reflection.

PANTSER. You love to write by the seat of your pants. It’s an adventure! You are inspired by rich characters who act unpredictably. You jump in and write what’s in your heart, often writing scenes out of order so you don’t miss a single moment of sudden inspiration. Your novels are full of the unexpected, overflowing with larger than life characters.

Writing a novel.
PROSER: You have an exceptional vocabulary and love for rich descriptions of people, places, and situations. You aren’t afraid to fully explore an idea and you ensure the reader is never unclear about what is happening in the story. You think in pictures, often playing a scene out in your mind like a movie. Danger for Prosers: Sometimes forget to give the story white spaces where the reader can rest.

POET: You have an exceptional vocabulary and weigh out each word you choose to ensure every verb and noun is infused with purpose. Brevity is golden, and you leave plenty of white space in your stories where readers can ponder what they’ve just read. You manage to say a great deal in only a few words. Danger for Poets: Too brief and readers can miss your meaning, or over look important events.

Editing your novel.
PICKER: For you, editing is word weeding work. You love hunting down adverbs and killing them off. You beef up your work with strong verbs and meaningful nouns. You are always on the lookout for overused words and phrases that drag the writing down. You especially enjoy digging into dialogue, polishing until you make the banter sparkle. When you are finished editing, the whole thing gleams so bright you gotta wear shades. Danger for Pickers: Excessive editing might mean there are larger issues. Take a step back and look at the larger picture.

PLOPPERS. You can pick up scenes and even whole chapters and plop them here or there, moving them around to create a strong story arc. You can know when to keep a scene and when to cut it out. Even characters can be cut or created to better serve the overall story. You’ve been known to re-write entire sections of your novels. When you are done editing the story snaps with energy, pacing, and can’t-put-it-down excitement. Danger for Ploppers: Zoom in close every so often to ensure a close up shine on that lovely shape.
What were your results?? Do share! And after, we can braid each other's hair.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Musings of a Minimalist

I am not a packrat. Okay, let me try that again. I am not a packrat, except when it comes to books. I never have been, never will be. As I look back over the years, there are things I wish I'd kept for their sentimental value, but for the most part I'm not sorry that I regularly cull my possessions.

If you walked into my home, you'd see immediately that I'm a minimalist. The rooms in my house aren't cluttered. My walls aren't cluttered. The furniture in every room is evenly centered, aligned, arranged to everything else in that room, and kept as neat as possible at all times. Pictures are centered on the wall and straightened on a regular basis. I call that good housekeeping; my kids call it anal (although both our daughters are just like me now. Ha! I love it!).

A funny aside to this revealing info about me: My daughter Mindy's mother-in-law is the exact opposite of me. The 100-year-old Victorian home she and her husband have lived in for more than 40 years is chock-full of collectibles and ... stuff, from the basement to the upstairs bedrooms. There's a path that leads from the kitchen and goes through the dining room, into the living room, to the front door. Every other inch of floor space is filled up, and there's hardly an inch of wall space left to hang another picture or Gone With the Wind collectible plate. They were in town visiting Mindy & Corey when Jayden, now 5, was about 2. We all took a drive to Sutter Creek, a quaint little town in the foothills known for its antique shops. We entered the first little shop, which was wall-to-wall merchandise with little room for walking. Jayden took one look around and said, "Grandma? Is this your house?" I couldn't stop laughing.

I'm also a minimalist when it comes to talking. I know people who use 1,000 words to my one, and it boggles my mind that someone could talk that much. Boggles. My. Mind. I'm not the best conversationalist, but I am a good listener, I will say that. I'm not anti-social by any means. I just tend to be quiet.

So it's not surprising that I'm also a minimalist when it comes to my writing. I tend to write novels with just a handful of characters, and only a few plot lines. I'm always impressed with complex novels and wish I could pull off that kind of writing, but my story worlds tend to be small and anything but epic. Maybe that's because I so love to become emotionally intimate with my characters. I want to get inside their heads. Literally. I tend to write in first person, and especially love first person, present tense. In order to pull that off, there's a lot of internal dialogue on my pages. I find that reflective of me, internal dialogue going on inside my head all the time. I'm sure that's true of most writers.

The novel I'm reading now, And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer, is one of those epics I could never see myself writing. It's historical fiction and spans six decades, with a large enough cast of characters that a family tree or two would have been helpful in keeping everyone straight after the 2nd or 3rd generation. It's typically NOT the type of novel I read, because I much prefer contemporary to historical. But it was on my TBR list for the longest time (not sure how it got there). It took me months to locate it. Finally, my library was able to borrow it from another library so with that much effort I felt obligated to read the almost 1,200 page behemoth. I have about 100 pages to go, and I have loved every word. I plan to write a review about it before long.

What matters most to me in the novels I read, no matter the genre, is being able to truly connect with one or more of the characters. It's so much more important to me than the plot. That doesn't mean I must be able to empathize with a character's situation. I may never experience anything like what they're going through -- for instance, Katniss in The Hunger Games Trilogy. But I want to be able to draw near just the same. Like Debbie, I'm a fan of Stein on Writing (read her She Reads post on Everyday People). I remember reading the quote Debbie cites as I made my way through his book the first time: "I have seen talented writers hurt their chances of publication because they persist in writing about 'perfectly ordinary people' ... characters who are seemingly no different from the run of people we meet who do not seem in any way distinctive." I took exception with it. Because most novels I read and enjoy are stories about perfectly ordinary people ... who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, doing extraordinary things. I think of characters like Turtle in Joy Jordan Lake's Blue Hole Back Home, Ginny Young in Elizabeth Berg's What We Keep, Dara Brogan in Katy Popa's exceptional To Dance in the Desert. Ordinary people, caught in extraordinary circumstances. How else could I relate to them if that weren't so?

Reading preferences are so subjective that is seems rash to make such a sweeping statement as Stein's. I actually thought it arrogant, though that one statement doesn't alter my opinion of Stein on Writing. It's one of those books I read, re-read and refer back to as I write. But as my daughter Deanne would say, I chew the meat and spit out the bones, and there's a lot of good meat within its pages.

So what about you? If you're a writer, are you minimalist or epic when it comes to your story world? As a reader, which do you prefer? What matters most to you about the novels you read?