Monday, April 30, 2012

Swatting the Monkey

Last Thursday Bonnie and I discussed in conversation certain changes she was making to the manuscript of her not-yet published novel, Fish.  I begged, “please, don’t change your protagonist.”

“What do you like about her?” Bonnie asked.

I explained that I like those times when I strongly suspect the character is clinically insane, but also suspect, just as strongly, that she may be God, himself. Something she says or does suggests a kind of wild love, and a profound knowing that gives me shivers.

Bonnie observed, “You like thin places.”

And I thought , “Of course. Don’t we all?”

Don’t you?

You know what thin places are, right? The ancient Celts used the term to describe places that were both one thing and another, and neither. The slope between the plane and the mountain is not mountain or plane,  and it is both. The shore between the land and the sea. The age between childhood and adulthood.  It was thought that these locations and times were holy places, where the veil between the physical and the spiritual was so thin, you could touch hand to hand with God through the cloth.  I’ve always wanted to touch hand to hand.

And after talking to Bonnie, it came to me that yes, this was exactly why I read.  The books I love are full of thin places, and the ones I don’t love… well, they aren’t.

There’s a book on my shelf, Christian Mythmakers by Roland Hein, that puts a name to this kind of writing. The name - you may have guessed – is “Myth,” and the definition Hein gives to myths is “stories which confront us with something transcendent and eternal.” Thin places, those stories that offer, as J.R.R. Tolkien said in On Fairy Stories, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the Walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Joy poignant as grief. Couldn’t you spend a week thinking on that one?

One definition my dictionary gives for the word, “poignant” is “Keenly distressing to the mind or feelings.” I’ll admit, it’s the second definition, the first being simply, “arousing affect,” with little or no negative implications. But the kind of stories I like arouse a kind of joy that is heart-breakingly close to grief. I think that’s why I like the faith aspects of novels to stray into the unexpected. We expect God to peek out through the eyes of Father Flanagan. But when he reaches through the hands of the mentally ill, he touches me in the places of my own neuroses. When he descends on a cloud, that’s impressive, but when he calls through the voice of a broken minister (see Leaving Ruin, by Jeff Berryman), my own broken shards  become puzzle pieces, with at least a hope of wholeness.

It’s why crazyness and brokenness are so vital to a story. As GK Chesterton put it, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

We are all children in the inner layers, and we all have our dragons.

I think of a favorite scene in Pirates of the Caribbean, (the first one). Do you remember? A moonlit night, and Elizabeth (Keira Knightly) climbs a rope ladder to board The Black Pearl, even though the ship is overrun with cursed pirates that look like rotting corpses. Just when things are really tense, Jack the monkey confronts her full on, looking like the picture here. You can see what a terrible moment it is. But then it dawns on Elizabeth that this is just a monkey, after all. She gives the creature a look that says as much, swats at him, and he ducks his head and skulks away.

The new testament tells us of a devil defanged, defeated already, no matter what he tries. Oh Hell, where is your victory? Resist him and he will flee from you.

It’s like the story about Martin Luther – which may or may not have happened:  Luther awakes to find the devil himself seated on the end of his bed. He springs upright, prepared to scramble, till he takes a good look and says, “Oh, it’s only you,” and goes back to sleep.

What a story that is! Even if it isn't factual, it's true.

Just as thin places are true. We touch our hand to the veil, and another touches back.

What books are thin places for you? What about the story places your hand on the veil?

Do tell. We love to read what you have to say.

Friday, April 27, 2012


In a comment to John Blase's article Monday, Katy said, "... there's a certain value in a novel ... and that is a window into the author's subconscious ... the reader almost gets to read the author's dreams."

That's exactly what fiction is all about -- the (hopefully) vivid imagination of the author beckoning to the reader to take a giant step over the threshold, because as readers of fiction, we aren't, or shouldn't be, observers, but participants.

When I open a novel, especially one I'm excited to read (which, sadly, isn't always the case), it becomes a three-dimensional experience. I don't stand at arm's length as with non-fiction. As Steve Grove pointed out, "A novel allows you to enter into an experience like nothing else." Rather, I do indeed step over the threshold into the author's fictional world and become a participant.

I quickly develop an affinity with one of the characters, and experience the story as he or she experiences it. And unlike in real life, in fiction there needs to be a lot to experience, particularly in the way of trials and tribulations. We want to go through the crucible with a character so that victory, when it comes, is all the more sweet. Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing, says, "... because touchy subjects arouse emotion, they are especially useful for the writer who knows that arousing the emotions of his audience is the test of his skill" (pg. 74). So don't be afraid to bring controversy to your story. Controversy is your friend, and it comes in many forms. You're bound to find what's exactly right for your characters and your audience.

I've quoted this before but it bears repeating. "Get your protagonist up a tree. Throw rocks at him" (Plot & Structure, pg. 12). Throw every manner of obstacle in your protagonist's path. There should be opposition to your protag's desires and goals in every scene. When the tension is a great as it can be, only then get him down out of the tree. You may say that doesn't sound like much of a dream world. Well, it's not for your characters, but it's perfect for your readers.
That's what creates a lasting story. Consider Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Nothing but trouble at every turn. It doesn't matter that this classic was written as a children's book, it's become a part of our collective consciousness. We still quote from it nearly 150 years after it was written. Who wouldn't love to maintain that kind of influence and staying power?

While entering the dream world is entertaining for the reader, it's pure magic for the writer. I'm still amazed that when I allow my thoughts to play make-believe, I find a character waiting to play along. The latest is a 12-year-old girl whose story is unlike any I've attempted so far. But it's not a story I've imposed on her, it's her revealing her story to me, one layer at a time. I love each and every rendezvous that has deepened my knowledge of her until I now feel I know enough to put pen to paper. I don't know it all, not by a longshot, but I know enough to look forward to the discovery of the rest.

I recently had a funny conversation with my husband after seeing Dolly Parton interviewed. Perhaps one of the most prolific songwriters of our time, she made the statement that for her, "everything's a song." I said to Rick, "I so relate to what she's saying. I'm not a songwriter, but I have these people living inside me with all these stories to tell, and this one girl has shouldered her way to the forefront, saying, "Me first!" Hers isn't the story I thought I would write next, but I find I must. Does that ever happen to you?" I asked. He looked at me as if I'd grown a third eye. "No," he said, "I can't say it does." And we both had to laugh, because therein lies the difference between a writer and a non-writer. After all our years together he's become accepting of my creative quirks, but he sure doesn't understand them.

What about you? What entices you to cross the threshold into the dream world, as a reader and as a writer?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Spin Doctor

This weekend my mom celebrated her 90th birthday.  I am so happy that I was able to celebrate this milestone with her. 

Ninety years packs a lot of memories.  During the time I was able to spend with her, I realized that some of her clearest memories are also the oldest. She showed me a faded blanket that a boy (not my dad) in the Civilian Conservation Corps won for her at a carnival. She hid it from her mother at the time.  The CCCs were part of President Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s. The boys of the CCC had Sundays off and went to church to meet girls.  My father and his friend walked my mom and my aunt home on Sundays until grandpa drove up beside them and told the girls to 'get in.'

Let's say I created a character based on my mom.  Her life history would mold her desires, disappointments and perspective, and would change over the course of her life, at least in part, based on her experiences. It would be inevitable.  She has lived through the Depression, World War II, the Korean war, the Cold war, the Vietnam war, the Iraq war, the Cuban missile crisis and Watergate.  She saw two new states added to the Union.  She listened to 'The Shadow' on the radio, played Sinatra on a hi-fi, watched Ed Sullivan on a black and white RCA, saw Star Wars on the big screen and Martha Stewart on a flatscreen.  The Berlin wall went up and came back down. Hemlines went up - and up - and came back down. Natural disasters, man-made disasters, massacres and nuclear accidents both moved and frightened her. The race to conquer space ended in a draw. 

Technology moves her forward, but as John Maynard Keynes points out, "The ideas of people in current leadership positions are always those they took in during their youth."  Both her past and her future influence how she sees the world and her responses to it. What seems noble and good at one point in her life may lose its meaning or substance later. She may hold to the values of her youth or see things differently. Or she may stray and return to them.

When we create a character, we consider her circumstances, but also the mindset she may have had when she experienced them.  For example, a multi-cultural neighborhood in a book set in the 60s would have different issues than one set in the 80s or again in 2012.  Also, what may be viewed as an entitlement in one decade may seem wrong in another.

On the everyday side of a contemporary setting, she might punch the number into a phone instead of dialing, order chai instead of coffee, purchase only organic food and take her own grocery bags with her to the store.  She would definitely pump her own gas.  She might only pay by debit card, but she might also have trouble remembering her pin number.  If a story has an aging character -of whatever age - even though it is a contemporary story, the character's past will be reflected in his or her responses, choices and interpretations.

Do you have a character who has lived long enough to put a different spin on an event or problem? We'd like to hear.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Why the Novel Matters: Guest Article by John Blase- editor/poet/writer/cowboy

We want you to meet John Blase. We think he's one of those writer/thinker/poet people that needs encountering, and we've invited him to share a word with us on our question for 2012, Why does the Novel Matter? He's an editor at David C. Cook, and a brilliant writer in his own right.
He's too humble to point it out, so let us urge you to go to his site (after you've read and commented here, let's not be in too much of a hurry), subscribe, comment, and enjoy his insight, poetry, and wisdom. John will be joining us in the comment section of the blog as well. 

John Blase (rhymes with maize) is a husband of one, father of three, poet, writer, editor, and part-time saint. He lives along Colorado’s Front Range with his family. His recent work includes two co-writing projects - All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir with Brennan Manning, and No Matter the Cost: Igniting a Life of Strength and Honor with Vance Brown. His own name graces the cover of Touching Wonder: Recapturing the Awe of Christmas. He enjoys dark coffee, red wine, faded denim, and red wine. 
Novels. Why do some of us keep writing them and some of us keep reading them? Its quite late really in the life of the genre, so why? Drumroll, por favor. I believe the novel makes you more human. And of all the plows you’d want to put your hand to in this life, like becoming a professional bull rider or a sommelier or a poet, the plow of becoming more human may very well be the best one.

D.H. Lawrence talks about the purpose of a novel being to extend the reader's sympathy. I like that. For example, a lower middle class poet (me) can read about a man dying of ALS (Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth) or about two sisters being raised in Fingerbone, Idaho (Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping) or about the lifelong friendships of two married couples (Wallace Stegner’s Crossing To Safety) and to some extent I become a better person for it because I’ve entered into these lives that I have never lived and might not want to lead but nevertheless it stirs, I think, the sense of possibilities within life. The range of ways to live in part explains a novel's value, seeing how deep and wide humanity truly is. Its like meeting people at a cookout that you’ve never met and you wouldn't have gone out of your way to meet, but there they are passing you the dill pickles and they suddenly become real to you. You understand to some extent their lives, plus your own a little more, and to a greater degree this mystical incarnation we call life. Its quite beautiful, really, this becoming more sympathetic or human. It entails becoming more compassionate and friendly and sensitive. I like that.

As you might guess, the inverse here is true, as in avoiding novels tends to constrict one’s sympathy, or make you less than human. For example, I once knew a man who avoided novels his entire life and he wound up a bitter old ninnyhammer with no one to talk to but a canary and she hung around only because of the cage. The winter of his years could have been vastly different if only he’d been willing to lose himself in Kent Meyer’s The Work of Wolves or Bonnie Grove’s Talking To The Dead. The choice, of course, is up to each of us: more human or less human. But I’d hate to see you end up like that.

I must add that this same phenomenon does frequently occur via poetry, which is somewhat like a sister to the novel, a radically younger sister, you know the one who came along after you were in high school that both intrigues and terrifies you. So I conclude here with a poem of my own to extend your sympathy for me because we’ve probably never met and chances are good you wouldn’t go out of your way to meet me, but voila! here I am passing you the potato salad. Enjoy.

Review for Dad-O

Her third grade spelling list for the week includes
the words dance, wreck, fancy, and tremble.
She already knows how to spell them,
she'll ace Friday's test, 'no prob, Dad-o.'
Still, we review them, just to be sure.
As she reels off d-a-n-c-e
I see a boy who will one day soon
take heart and ask her to inhabit his world.
Maybe he'll grow on me, but I doubt it.
W-r-e-c-k will be the letters soaked in tears
as she explains 'I swerved to miss the dog, Dad-o,
but I'm o.k.'
Thank God and Jesus.
I'm no prophet but my gut tells me
she'll want the f-a-n-c-y wedding dress,
her easy days of hoodies and jeans faded
like weekly spelling lists.

Still, just to be sure, we review these omens.
I try my best not to let her see me t-r-e-m-b-l-e.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Being Enough for Others

Here on NovelMatters we talk a lot about writing prompts, and usually in the context of how we as writers use them to stimulate creativity amongst ourselves. Patti’s post on Wednesday made me think that writing prompts are a way that we can give back to readers.
It’s true as Patti noted that even multi-published authors such as we go through periods in which we believe ourselves to be published only in the past-tense sense of the word, not in the present nor in the foreseeable future.
The gap stretches unimaginably long between the first flirting glance of the idea of the novel in the mind of the writer, and the consummation of that idea with the acceptance by an editor and its implantation in the womb of a contract. And face it, most love affairs with ideas die as virginal as nuns.
But this I have learned: Real writers keep writing. We may stop and sulk and rage and keen with snot running down the sides of our faces. But we love words, and so we keep going.
One way that I’ve been able to keep myself sharp in dry times is to give away my talents. With no thought of building an audience or making a market. I’ve discovered that some of my best audiences, people who are most open and anxious to hear what I have to say about writing, are people who aren’t likely to buy my books. Take people in public senior citizens’ centers, for instance. Or grade school kids.
I believe they—and others—are receptive because everyone has a story, but most people don’t know how to get it out in the open.
I have a standard poetry program that I present to people of all ages (adapting or substituting poems according to the audience.) It’s about what poems are not: Poems don’t have to be rhyming, stanza-structured, long, about noble subjects, flowery, etc.
I present the program with stimulating examples of each. (Poems don’t have to be long: the entire text of “Fleas” is “Adam Had’em.”)
At the end of the program, I produce an elegant container with a lid. I tell the audience that I have brought something mysterious in the container. I am going to release it into the room, and they will write about it, and each one will “see” something different that will become his or her poem. (Once I’ve freed them from the constraints of what they may have thought poetry “had to be,” they feel they can write.)
With a flourish, I remove the lid. People’s eyes light up and they begin to watch things on the screens of their minds. And then they write furiously, or frown, or look away. Not everyone will write. But for those who do, and want to share with the group, the results are wonderful!
Even if you are a beginning writer, there may be audiences in your community who hunger for a speaker who could give them a little inspiration to write, in a non-threatening situation.
Have you done this? Do you use writing prompts with non-writers in this way?
If you haven’t done this, why not give what you know about writing away to people who would be encouraged by it?
Do what Jesus said—give to those who won’t give back to you.
(Oh yeah -- and do it secretly. Guess I blew that.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Being Enough

Lamott is fun to read because she is so very over-the-top nuerotic. There were parts of this chapter, the one called "Publication," however, that were downright irritating and others parts that rang with clarion-bell truth that engraved my bones. Glad you're along for our book club.

Many nonwriters assume that publication is a thunderously joyous event in the writer's life...They believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo. Entire paragraphs and manscripts of disappointment and rejection and lack of faith would be wiped out by one push of a psychic delete button and replaced by a quiet, tender sense of worth and belonging. Then they could wrap the world in flame.--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

When people learn that I'm a published author of five novels, they assume I'm rich, as brash and adventuresome as Ernest Hemmingway, and famous. I am none of these things. I'm the manager of a household (including three toilets), the dog walker/poo poo picker-upper, the gardener, snow shoveler, and purveyor of sustenance (I shop at Wal-Mart). My self-esteem is not bulletproof, nor do I slough off rejection. I'm the same person I was before my first novel was published, only my expectations are more realistic, and I must deal regularly with issues of envy. (This may seem contradictory. Aren't we all?)

My life has been enriched by reaching a broader audience. Writing five novels has confirmed that I can accomplish big things. Composing a story weighing in at 100,000 words is like climbing Mt. Everest in the dark, without a camera or witnesses. It's big! Satisfying. Intoxicating. Privately, it's a golden handshake.

And people invite me to speak to groups large and small. Trust me, when I was changing diapers or teaching school, no one invited me anywhere to say anything. I thoroughly enjoy this perk because there are things I care about, and now people will listen to me--or pretend to listen while licking chocolate cake off the tines of their forks.

Over the last ten years, I've had amazing opportunities to share God's faithfulness, encourage artists and craftpeople to value their abilities as gifts, teach the craft of writing to aspiring writers, and convince rooms full of librarians that fiction is more truthful than nonfiction. I really, really like this part, but the invitations are dwindling since I haven't published anything in some time. Boo! Hiss!

All that I know about the relationship between publication and mental health was summed up in one line of the movie Cool Runnings..."If you're not enough before the gold medal, you won't be enough with it."

Being a published writer is humbling. One day you're a rock star--your publisher is buying full-page ads in magazines, telling the world you're the fresh voice in fiction, and PR people know your number by heart--and the next day, a review comes out in your local paper. It's the worst review ever written, and now your neighbors are blushing for you and avoiding eye contact at the grocery store. Your mother even writes a letter to the editor. You're wondering if it's too late to crawl back into obscurity. It is, sorry to say. But you are still standing, and you're discovering other reasons to put yourself out there.

All of this is to say that you need more than being published to "be enough" for yourself. While plotting and researching, spend time with people who love you and some that you choose to love. Nurture those relationships as fervantly as you nurture your craft, even moreso. This includes the One who loves you most, the Lord Jesus Christ. He's crazy about you! He cares little about what you do. (Publishing contracts are used in bird cages in Heaven.) Jesus revels in who you are--a lover of the unlovely, one who reaches out a hand to the hurting, someone who says yes, yes, yes to all that He is and loves Him for it. People like this are enough for themselves. This should be your goal before publication.

Has publication been all you dreamed? What "gifts" do you welcome most from publication? Which challenge you? How do you prepare yourself to face the ups and downs of publication?

We have one more chapter of Lamott's book Bird by Bird to discuss. Any other suggestions?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Why the Novel Matters - Winning Essay

We at Novel Matters think we have the best readers on the planet. All over the planet. Somehow you all manage to meet, over miles and datelines, right here on our blog, and that makes us proud - in a good way.

Our recent "Why the Novel Matters" contest brought home to us how amazing you all are. So to celebrate, we thought today we would post the winning essay, Vila Ginge
rich's Taking Flight. Here it is:

The novel has always mattered to me.
As a child, I climbed the Swiss Alps with Heidi and discovered England in The Secret Garden. I tied my braids with red ribbon like Spanish girls in picture books, or wrapped them in a crown like the heroine in Kirsten Saves the Day. With no television or computer games, my sisters and I rode bikes on the driveway and pretended to go to Bethlehem- the only foreign city I was sure of, thanks to our Bible storybook.
My folk
s raised me in a tidy Kansas town, north of Wichita and miles from anywhere significant. Long afternoons gazing at wheat fields made me conscious of my smallness and I hoped someday to escape, to soar over those prairies and find newfangled things.
On Sundays I sat with my friends near the front of the sanctuary, hands folded but eyes glazing as I found pictures in the wood grain of the pulpit- exotic things like donkeys and camels and palm trees. After school I devoured The Diary of Anne Frank with my peanut butter and jelly, went to sleep to the tune of waves off The Island of Blue Dolphins.
My earliest dreams sprouted from books and a rare airport trip, where my stomach ached w
ith longing as stewardesses clicked past, pulling their rolling bags.
Someday, I would be a stewardess and pull a bag with wheels.
I read more and my dream changed: I would be a detective like Nancy Drew. Later I combined Cherry Ames, Jungle Nurse with Little Women and altered my dream again. This one stuck and all through my teens, I wanted to be a journalist in Africa.
Then reality hit, with a thud like a Twain in our library drop-box. Detective? Journalist? Those weren’t career paths for Plain girls. I could be a teacher, a nurse, or a homemaker.
I tramp
led the seed-dream, but seedlings die hard.
I followed the acceptable path: taught school, married young. My husband had no interest in travel but I swaggered through France with The Count of Monte Cristo and toured London with David Copperfield.
Every time a jet flew over, I wished I was on it and every time I walked through an airport, my stomach hurt like it did as a child. But now I knew better. Girls like me didn’t go places. They put down roots like cottonwoods and learned to bend without breaking like wheat on the plains.
Then one startling day my husband mentioned mission work. Our church needed volunteers for its humanitarian program; maybe we should give some time to help ot
hers. It happened so slowly I scarcely realized it- here a comment, there a question- and when we submitted our application, I was as stunned as anyone.
Suddenly my wheat field exploded into fireworks.
But the mission board would probably send us to a local post, supervising hurricane clean up or a guesthouse.
They would, probably.
They sent us to Romania, within reach of the galaxy that was Europe. Other missionaries prepared for foreign service by getting shots and learning to cut hair but I read every library book that mentioned this new country of ours.
And then I climbed on that jet and glided away.
I soaked Romania in, walked the streets, spent evenings on our balcony and afternoons in the park. We explored from the brooding forests of Dracula, to the banks of the Blue Danube, to the quiet hometown of Elie Wiesel, and the quaint, overlooked country wedged in our hearts.
But that was not all. Oh no, it was not all.
Hungary and Ukraine became old friends and Anna Karenina and The Singing Tree grew real. There were other trips - a layover in James Joyce’s Ireland, a drive through Sherlock Holmes’ Bavaria, a glimpse of The Scarlet Pimpernel’s France.
Then we crossed the Adriatic by ferry and I blinked back tears as the lights of Italy approached. Kansas seemed far away but the girl with braids did a victory dance under the cottonwood.
Italy meant Venice and gondolas. It meant the Coliseum, a million crooked streets, and a new pasta dish every day. It meant The Voice in the Wind and The Last Days of Pompeii.

It meant everything.
And now, I truly believe there will be more. Once a book plants a seed, it grows, and once you come unstuck, there’s no tying you. My wheat field is a runway and the brown-haired girl pulls a suitcase with wheels.

Vila, I loved every word of this. How wonderful that God used the stories you read to plant dreams so that he could make them come true. Thank you for sharing your story with us. And by the way: as my husband is third-generation Romanian with both sides of his family from Transylvania, I would love to one day visit the brooding forests of Dracula.

I love how Vila wove the many novels of her childhood and youth into the essay, and tied it into the path the Lord has placed her on. We have a tendency to think, "I'm just a Plain girl (or a small-town girl, or a girl with no notable roots or possibilities) and that limits my potential." But God has other ideas entirely! He has grand plans for his daughters, and they often coincide with our own dreams. And that's because Philippians 2:13 (one of my very favorite Scriptures) is so true: For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." He gives us the desires in the first place, then makes a way for them to be fulfilled.

Why is Vila's essay so satisfying to the reader? Because it taps into universal, almost mythic themes with which we are born: yearning dreams, the inherent plainness of us all, the full-circle of the quest, the delight in the redemption of our dreams.

Her imagery is vivid and not overwrought, her command of the essay form is that of someone practiced and intentional.

Vila, you deserved to win this contest! And you should begin (and I suspect you have already begun) to write a novel. Yours will matter.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Writing Prompts Matter

I was an actor in my former life. My high school years can be summed up in two words: drama geek.

Sharon’s Wednesday post had the sweaty palm feel of a night at the improv—you know, when you jump onto a bare stage, someone yells out a situation, or maybe just a character trait, and then says, “GO!” You start acting your heart out, creating scene, tension, character, and reaction on the fly.

There’s nothing like a creative riff to blow the rust off your brain.

There’s a secret rule to improv, something never mentioned on Drew Carey’s old show ‘What’s My Line’, but it was always practiced. In improv, you never say no.

You don’t resist. You find a way to go with an ever changing, ever evolving moment. If you’re up on stage pretending to fly a kite and another actor comes in and tells you he’s a lion tamer and starts cracking his whip at you, you don’t resist. You don’t turn to that actor and say, “I’m not a lion.”

Instead you embrace the whole thing. Not necessarily by becoming a lion (that seriously limits your range as an actor), but by bending to the lion tamer’s will (not to mention that whip), and reacting to him in a way that allows the kite flying scene to continue, grow, become more than it was.

You go with it.

Writing prompts are the improv of words: permission to let go of our preset ideas and splash in the puddles of our minds. And when we let loose, when we go a-playing for the sheer fun of it, something amazing happens.

We get real honest, real fast.

When we let our mind fly, we’re able to take the fetters off. The real fetters, the real things that hold us back as writers. Truthfully, we’re not really worried, “What will an editor think?” We’re really worried, “What will Grandma think?” It’s the social constraints, family, church, fussy friendships that hold us back from riffing on what we truly think and feel.

Writing prompts help us stuff Granny in the closet and let our true selves free. It’s mentally and emotionally taking our girdles off and scratching. The freedom to explore our true selves, without the constraints of caring what someone else might say or think about what we’ve written.

And that’s why we should all be riffing with writing prompts.

Burn the thing after, if you have to, bury it in the backyard with the bones of Fifi the poodle, but get to that honest place.

If the golden rule is to write what you know, then the governing rule is Writer, know thyself.

 Here are a few more prompts to nudge you to the knowing place. Have fun with them, and, if you’re daring, please share your riff with us in the comments section.

1)   1. A bag lady finds a crying baby in a back alley dumpster.
2)   2.  Write a paragraph about orange.
3)   3. Write a stream of consciousness sentence that begins with the word “noise”. Write down the next word that comes to mind, then the next, and the next. Do not stop to think, just write the words down for three minutes.
4)   4. Describe falling asleep.

The above prompts are original to Bonnie Grove. You are free to share them as you like, just please reference Novel Matters when you do. Thanks! 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Writing Prompts

Today is my daughter Mindy's 38th birthday. Wow, is that hard to believe. I'll call her at 10:00 a.m., the time she was born. That's been my practice for years. My daughter Deanne was born at 5:30 a.m. That's a little harder to do, but I manage. So, Mindy, happy birthday with all my love.

I loved Debbie's post on Friday. Loved the old photo, which could be such an inspiration for a novel, as several of you pointed out. Imagination is such an amazing thing. There's no end to the things that inspire our imaginations, which are truly a gift from our creative God. A few weeks ago, Katy made the comment that writing is very close to dreaming. While I don't dream a lot -- or if I do, I don't remember the dreams -- that time just before sleep is the time my imagination is most engaged, particularly when I'm in the thick of writing a novel. It's a very creative time for me. I look forward to it as though it's the dessert to the end of my day.

Debbie's post got me thinking about writing exercises, like taking a photo and writing an opening paragraph for the story it inspires. Or perhaps writing an entire synopsis. Warm-up exercises are an important part to any number of endeavors. Athletes do them before they run that big race, or play that big game. Musicians do them to limber their fingers. Singers do them to prepare their vocal chords. And many writers do them as well to get the creative juices flowing.

I admit I often skip the exercises at the end of the chapters in the writing books I read, even my favorite ones, like Jim Scott Bell's Plot & Structure, which is a great resource and has some fine writing exercises to drive home the lessons he teaches. The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield is another good resource. It too has good exercises at the end of the chapters. So why do I skip them? True confession: It's a combination of laziness and a desire to move on to the next chapter.

But some exercises can be fun, even turned into a game if you approach it the right way. For example, Dragon Writing Prompts, a blog for fantasy and science fiction writers, has this prompt: "...drop a letter from a book, movie, play song, TV show to come up with a new title. Then add on a short plot summary that is, preferably, related in a twisted way to the original." They give some examples: "The Velveteen Rabbi, Huckleberry Inn, Little Omen, Planet of the Aps." You get the idea.

Another terrific resource for writing prompts is found at There are exercises like The Tooth Fairy is a Thief, The Ghost of Your Grandmother, Note Behind the Picture. Are you up for the challenge? Can you give us a creative title by dropping or adding a letter to an existing title, then writing a brief plot for the story? Or will you go so far as to write an opening sentence/paragraph for one of the Writers Digest prompts? How do you feel about writing exercises? Do you skip them, or do you enjoy the opportunity to stretch your brain? Where do your best ideas for your creative writing come from?

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Impatient Character a She Reads Guest Post

My biggest reading surprise of 2011 came in the form of Diane Setterfield’s gothic masterpiece, The Thirteenth Tale. Though published in 2008, I somehow managed to miss this novel until last summer when my family took a 1500 mile road trip. I packed five novels in the hopes that one of them would be good. I never made it past the first. And I’m not entirely sure if I spoke to my husband at all during that trip. I was consumed.

In her novel Diane Setterfield introduces us to Vida Winter, a prolific, reclusive author who chooses to tell her life story to a young biographer by the name of Margaret Lea. Vida Winter is one of the most memorable literary characters, and certainly the strongest female character I’ve ever read. She says something in the novel that felt so familiar to me that I’ve never forgotten it:

My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people anxious for life, who tug at my sleeve, crying, ‘Me next! Go on! My turn!’ I have to select. And once I have chosen, the others lie quiet for ten months or a year, until I come to the end of the story, and the clamor starts up again.”

I have experienced that demanding character, but never so intensely as while finishing my recent novel, The Rule of Three.

For months a new story had been nagging at me, creeping in during those moments when my mind was quiet. A long shower. That stretch of thought before drifting off to sleep. The dream that comes in the stillness before waking.

I recall writing a scene from my newly finished novel. It was a particularly tense argument between my Hero (her name is Stella) and Opponent that took place in an old, Jazz-era bar. There they were, leaning across the table in a dark, corner booth, both of them reaching for a tattered envelope containing a long-kept secret. I paused for a moment, fingers lightly touching the keyboard as I mulled a piece of dialogue. And then…

In the far corner of the bar was a woman delivering a baby! Of all the strange and bizarre things, the character in my next novel had walked into my current novel and set up shop. I could see it in my mind, like a fuzzy TV station that’s been caught between two channels, superimposing one face, one story, over another.

Vida describes that sensation best:

And every so often, through all these writing years, I have lifted my head from the page—at the end of a chapter, or in the quiet pause for thought after a death scene, or sometimes just searching for the right word—and have seen a face at the back of the crowd.”

I knew who this character was, of course. Her name is Martha. She’s a midwife. A mother. A diarist. A strong and capable woman if ever there was one. But in that moment she was an intruder. So I gave Martha her own notebook. I scratched down what she was frantically trying to tell me, and I politely escorted her from the premises. Then I shook off her specter and went back to the bar, and my characters bent in heated conversation.

The scene turned out well in case you’re wondering. As did the rest of the novel. But now it’s done. My mind, so battered after wrestling that story to the page, is finally rested. And Martha has renewed her protests, filling all that recently vacated space. It’s her turn. Tomorrow I will open her notebook.

There are other faces in the shadows behind Martha of course. A carpenter. A hoarder. A tattoo artist. They are waiting patiently. For now.

Questions for you: What was your biggest ‘reading surprise’ of the last year? Do characters stack themselves in your mind, waiting to tell their story? Or do they come to you one at a time? How do you fend them off until it’s their turn? Are you capable of writing more than one novel at once?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Hope in Unlikely Places

I would like to wish everyone a Happy Easter, and since it's Good Friday, I wanted to share an Easter photo I found in a shoebox full of black and white Kodak prints during a recent family reunion.

These lovelies are my sweet sisters and this photo was apparently taken on Easter morning (otherwise, I doubt the bunnies would still be in tact). I find the composition of this photo interesting in an almost Tim Burton-esque way. Their solemn faces, the sepia tones, the dust-bowl look of the place, and the fact that they're sitting in a dirt field with their Easter baskets so far from the house intrigues me. They are large, the house is small. The crazy thing is that this was not taken in the dustbowl but in a verdant, oak-covered stretch of Maryland where the humidity will curl your hair on a summer's morning and you can practically smell the breeze off the bay. The festive bunnies against the stark surroundings could suggest a contrast between extravagance and want, or for hope found in unlikely places. Luckily, their (our) experience fell somewhere comfortably in-between extravagance and want, and hope was not a stranger in our home.

It's the kind of thing that could spark a great story idea - or at least a creative caption. It wouldn't be the first photo to jumpstart a novel. Ideas, anyone?

I so appreciated Patti's post from Monday on 'Standing on the Shoulders' of women writers who paved the way for others. I remember discussing Anne Bradstreet in my American Literature class. Born in England in the early 1600s, she lived a hard life in one of the first Puritan colonies, was a mother of eight, the wife of a governor and considered to be the first American poet. Her writing, which was accomplished in the late hours after all her work was done and family was asleep (sound familiar?) was by necessity kept private and not intended for publication. One of her best friends was banished from her community for airing her personal views. Anne's brother-in-law secretly copied her book of poetry and had it published without her knowledge. She later wrote a poem about how it felt to see it in print and the changes she wished she could have made (again, familiar?).
I leave you with a look into her deeply spiritual life:

By Night when Others Soundly Slept

By night when others soundly slept
And hath at once both ease and Rest,
My waking eyes were open kept
And so to lie I found it best.

I sought him whom my Soul did Love,
With tears I sought him earnestly.
He bow'd his ear down from Above.
In vain I did not seek or cry.

My hungry Soul he fill'd with Good;
He in his Bottle put my tears,
My smarting wounds washt in his blood,
And banisht thence my Doubts and fears.

What to my Saviour shall I give
Who freely hath done this for me?
I'll serve him here whilst I shall live
And Loue him to Eternity.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Word for the Day: Prolepsis

We want to thank everyone who participated in our Why the Novel Matters essay contest. You gave us some wonderful entries to read and judge. Congratulations to our top three winners:

Vila Gingerich ~ winner of the Kindle Touch.

Susie Finkbeiner ~ winner of Sally Stuart's 2012 Christian Writer's Market Guide and our Novel Tips on Rice recipe book.

Cherry Odelberg ~ winner of Sally Stuart's 2012 Christian Writer's Market Guide.

~ ~ ~

After Patti’s excellent, stimulating post on Monday, I have a confession to make. Two confessions, in fact.

One is, that I have not given up ambitions (though circumstances should certainly be leading me in that direction, some might observe.) In fact, Patti’s post caused me to put into words a new ambition. And writing it for everyone to see is the height of self-exposure.

So here it is. I want to be able to successfully write and publish in the way that Joyce Carol Oates does. She writes meaningful fiction and nonfiction. She dares to write in many genres – literary, suspense, gothic, young adult, children; short stories, novellas, essays, books and more. She’s a playwright, poet, literary critic, professor, and editor. She is disciplined and prolific in her writing output. And she takes risks with her writing, and does so with great success. (And she’s 73, which gives me hope for continued productivity.)

My first exposure to her terse style came when I listened to an audiobook presentation of Black Water, a novella that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. (By the way, a New York times reviewer once said that this was “the best audio book ever recorded.”)

In this book, Oates uses a literary device we’ve all been told to avoid: She uses the same phrase over and over again. (Haven’t you always been told that you should vary your vocabulary so the reader won’t get bored?)

The phrase Oates repeats is this: “. . .as the black water filled her lungs, and she died."

She uses this repetition as prolepsis, which is a word whose root refers to anticipation. In rhetoric, prolepsis involves the anticipation of, and pre-emptive response to, objections that the listener might have.

In literature, and in Black Water, it involves the foreshadowing of an event as if it had already happened. An familiar example of this as metaphor is when a prisoner on his way to execution is called "dead man walking."

By Oates repeating, “as the black water filled her lungs, and she died," the reader knows that the character will drown, and yet Oates fills the narrative with so many details of hope that it is not possible to accept the death, just as the character cannot accept her own coming death, until it is inevitable. The dramatic tension in this novella is excruciating.

Do you know of other authors who have successfully used repetition or prolepsis (or both)?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Standing on the Shoulders--Writing as Gift

Something in the chapter of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott called "Giving" reawakened the reason I became a writer. Allow me to review, as briefly as possible, the legacy we join when we put pen to paper.

I returned to college full-time when I had a husband (Mr. Wonderful) and two school-aged children. I enrolled as an English Literature major and Education minor. The experience revealed a bull-dog tenacity I hadn't known I possessed that served me well. Tenacity is exactly what it took to dig into the literature of the Enlightenment, and Literary Criticism, and The History of the English Language.

During my final semester, I was required to take senior seminar, a tight group of twelve literary disciples who sat at the feet of the English Department's high priest, Dr. Crowell. Very intimidating. Fortunately, the topic was Women in Literature. Eureka! Something I could get my teeth into.

We started, of course, at the beginning of recorded female writings in the Middle Ages, the likes of Julian of Norwich and later Queen Elizabeth. Women's creativity was still quite suspect, unless you were the queen, and attributed to witchcraft and sorcery. You can see how discouraging that would be. Julian wrote of her visions--some I find very inspirational--and Elizabeth focused on the political and the rhetorical. In short, writing as an expression of the female experience was limited to topics of religion, and if you were the queen, you admitted to being a "weak and feeble woman" with the heart and stomach of a king. Even the queen had to hedge a bit.

The Enlightenment wasn't much better for women. Women were expected to focus on affectations and getting married but not getting old. A few--the Blue Stockings--broke away from the pack. I researched Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and her story of literary accomplishment is impressive and heartbreaking. She started translating classics as a child in her father's library. She became parlour amusement for her father and his friends. Later, she wrote dense political satire in iambic pentameter that was ridiculed for its female weakness by the likes of Alexander Pope. Eventually, she wrote her daughter, telling her that education for women was of little use. Ugh. You may better recognize these names from the Enlightenment (approx. 1800s): Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Brontes, Mary Shelly, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and all paid a high price for creativity.

The Turn-of-the-Century (the last) female writers were a confused lot, intransigent in their decisions to embrace society or to forsake it altogether--read that: marriage or spinsterhood. They saw no middle ground, because there wasn't one. A classic story in this genre is Kate Chopin's "The Awakening." Also writing at this time were Sarah Orne Jewett and Edith Wharton. Marriage or creativity? How many of us could make that choice?

The Modernists (1914-1939) female writers saw a turning of the tables. The men called the quarter century an "Age of Anxiety," but--with some notable qualifications--female writers expereinced an era of exuberance. Women finally gained the right to vote in the U.S. and they were entering into ever-increasing professional fields. Life was changing with the advent of new technologies--radio, nickelodeons, airplanes, and the automaobile. And WWI gave men the sense of being helpless rather than heroic. Enter the Modernist female writers we love and the experimentation they reveled in: Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein (love may not fit Ms. Stein, but you have to admire her verve), Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen, Katherine Mansfield, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, and Zora Neale Hurston. Still, mental illness (i.e. Woolf's plunge with a pocketful of rocks) and controversy marked the period.

According to the the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, contemporary writers (1940-1984) "wrote out of a double consciousness; on the one hand, a newly intense awareness of their role as female artist who had inherited an increasingly great tradition, and on the other hand, a newly protective sense of their vulnerability as women who inhabited a culture hostile to female ambition and haunted by eroticized images of women...contemporary writers were consistently struggling to define the cultural forces that had formed their personal and artisitic identities." In the midst of that milieu Eudora Welty, Mary Sarton, Shirley Jackson, Doris Lessing, Flannery O'Connor, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, and Joyce Carol Oates emerged as pacesetters for generations of women writers to come.

Soon after our class read about Sylvia Plath putting cookies and milk out for her napping children before sticking her head in an unlit gas oven, I asked my professor, "Are there any writers in the female literary canon who liked being married and didn't consider suicide?"

"We'll read her next," he promised.

And so we did, Annie Dillard's An American Childhood. I could have kissed Annie. If given the chance to stalk her, I will. Her book of essays assured me that a writer could grow up in a happy family, collect insects, eat snow off mittens, look for monsters during flashes of lightning, and still be a brilliant writer.

I'm old enough to remember the advertising slogan (for Virginia Slims cigarettes?) that announced, "We've come a long way, baby!" As female writers we have, but we stand on the shoulders of all the brave women who dared to expose themselves on paper, and, perhaps, to be burned at the stake for doing so.

We are wired as humans to be open to the world instead of enclosed in a fortified, defensive mentality. What your giving can do is help your readers be brave, be better than they are, be open to the world again.--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

You must, must, must read Lamott's chapter "Giving" in its entirety. Her words refreshed my resolve to empty myself for others. Having reviewed the women of literature, are you ready to join their legacy, to not squander what took centuries to earn, the freedom of our words and stories? Do you see your writing as a gift to your readers? How does that influence what you write? How does the act of giving your art change what you are willing to surrender in order to write?