Friday, June 29, 2012

Deal Breakers

Sharon's post on Wednesday was a God-thing.  I'll be honest - through a snafu on our part (it happens) we did a bit of scrambling and Sharon came in to pinch-hit.  She wasn't on the schedule to post, but God had it planned that she should. What a stirring, honest post and what thought-provoking responses! We would love to keep the conversation going, so please feel free to comment on Sharon's post if you still want to contribute.

If someone asked about the main distinction between books in the CBA and ABA, I would say that at the core, CBA books present a Christian worldview.  Some ABA books meet that qualification also, although not as many, or at least some of their characters respond from a Christian worldview.  Further I might add that books in the CBA don't usually contain swear words or blatant sexuality because publishers are too smart to offend their target audiences.  Big picture words might include redemption, forgiveness, healing, self-sacrifice and love.  The story's closure may be a bit open-ended, but it will have hope. Many readers expect to see their characters' faith in action and this, I think, is where readers can become disappointed in Christian fiction.  It's either too much or not enough.  Interestingly, my books have been accused of both.

As writers, we project bits of our own perceptions and personalities onto our characters.  For me to create a character that is overly demonstrative, flamboyant or outspoken as a Christian would be a caricature, and would simply not ring true.  I come from a long line of very private people with quiet faith.  Quiet faith does not mean ineffective. My character is not going to stop and pray over every minor decision or meal or problem, and she won't speak 'Christianese.' Will my character sense God's leading in her life and ask Him for help? Most assuredly.  Will she understand that Jesus loves her even though she's imperfect? Yes. Will he help her solve all her problems? No, but he will show her she's not going through them alone.

This won't be enough for some readers and it will be too much for others.  I can't please everyone, but  I understand that this can be a deal breaker.  Sometimes a theme is so subtle and understated that it runs through the story like a whisper instead of a marching band. That doesn't make it less effective and may be more appealing to an intuitive reader.

So, please feel free to continue your comments here for Sharon's post or get specific about what is too much or falls short in regard to today's. We'd love to hear!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Casting the Net

Latayne's post on Monday generated some good comments and good reading selections that I added to my summer reading list. Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan Lake was mentioned, which happens to be one of my very favorite novels. Thank you all for your contributions.
A paragraph in the comment by Anonymous was something I could really relate to. In speaking about a recently read novel, Anonymous said: "I understand that this is only one sample by one author. I have read many excellent CBA novels. But if I were new to Christian literature and this were the first I'd read, I would perhaps share some of the stereotypes and misunderstandings that cling to the genre." I'm going to go out on a limb here and give my own honest opinion about what Anonymous said.
I believe some years back, CBA cast a relatively wide net in an effort to appeal to a relatively broad audience. I realize I twice qualified my statement. But "relatively speaking" is the best I can do. With their relatively wide net, they caught an audience to which a few genres appealed in a big way, and because publishing is a business like any other, they focused on that audience to the exclusion of any others to any real degree. That left those of us who don't write in those genres without contracts; and what's so much worse in my opinion, they disenfranchised a much larger audience not inclined to read the pet genres that CBA decided to major in.
There. I said it. Gulp. And what's more, I believe it.
There are a number of authors who previously published with CBA that have in recent years begun to publish with ABA. Most of them are who I considered to be the top authors of Christian fiction. I even know of one who has stopped writing altogether because she couldn't begin to make a living with her writing. And she was well-published and extremely well-known. It's a travesty, in my opinion, that someone of her caliber would throw in the towel because she either could no longer get past the gatekeepers, or couldn't get a reasonable share of the marketing budget of her publishers. Others, as Patti touched on last week, are taking the indie route. I happen to be one of them, and will have a new release to launch in the next couple of weeks, which I look forward to sharing with you.
So I'd like to have an open forum today and an honest discussion about CBA and where you fit as a reader. Do you agree with the comment by Anonymous and/or my assessment? If so, in part or in whole? If not, why not? We've skirted around this issue in the past. Now I'd like to throw wide the doors and really talk about it. Please. Let us hear from you.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Brain-Dead Blogger

I tend to try to summon chameleon genes to make me fade into landscapes when in a crowd. Our minister who's known me for 35 years described me to a new church member who'd never met me as someone who walked around trying to make herself invisible. 

In conversations, I don't talk a lot, I mainly listen. Not to judge, not to get dialogue for a  new book, just to listen. (I already know what I know--if I want to learn anything, I have to let others talk.)

So, what does a wannabe chameleon, who can't think of a blog topic, do?

She asks readers to tell her what they are currently reading, and to kindly share a passage that has impressed them and say why.

(You don't want to know what I'm reading-- The Oresteia by Aeschylus, in preparation for teaching it :)

Soooo--- as the other Novel Matters ladies always say, Do tell!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Of Big Swings and Courage

Last summer, we entertained six family members, including three 11-year-olds, here in Colorado. Those children craved Rocky Mountain high adventure, so we took a river rafting trip, dug for fossils, and traveled to Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Glenwood Springs is a tourist-driven town squeezed by corrugated redstone mountains. It’s a peaceful place known for its mineral hot springs, mountain biking, river rafting, and absolutely fabulous restaurants.

We hadn’t driven ninety miles with three children for anything as pastoral as a mineral hot springs, so we headed up the mountain on a tram to the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park where they have a ride innocuously referred to as the Giant Canyon Swing.

My much older sister had already tried the ride and deemed it a hoot. And yet, since we traveled to the park by our recommendation, my husband and I felt a responsibility to go first. We didn’t want the children to be permanently damaged by the trauma of swinging over a 1300 foot cliff.

Yep, you read that correctly. The swing arcs over a 1300 foot cliff. Made out of rock, too.

Hunky Hubby and I stood in line behind two farm-fresh little girls from Nebraska. I asked one, “Are you nervous?”

She flipped a nonchalant wrist. “This is our third time.”

Third time? The girls weren’t as tall as my shoulder. How bad could this be? Obviously, a group of screaming ninnies had filled the queue just before we stepped into line. If little girls enjoyed the ride three times, there was nothing to worry about. I mirrored the girls’ confidence. On the outside only.  Inside, my heart pounded on my ribs, and an inner, saner voice nagged me to look for a pony ride. I love pony rides. They’re slow. Low to the ground.

There was no pony ride.

We put our toes to the painted line and watched as the little girls scampered into their seats and squealed at the sweeping movements of the swing. Easy breezy.

And then it was our turn. We chose our seats, the ones that gave us a full-frontal view of the canyon floor. A pimply-faced ride operator cinched us in. I think he was twelve. For good measure, I asked him to cinch a little tighter, please.

The swing is propelled by a hydraulic something-or-other that hisses and grinds. I could have done without the sound effects. Each arc of the swing goes higher and higher, until you swing above horizontal, also known as the wet-your-pants apex.

I wasn’t prepared for the terror. Yes, I had been a bit apprehensive, but remember the squealing girls and my much older sister. How bad could this be? As it turns out, very bad. Horrifically bad. Stupendously bad. I hated it.

I heard the hissing of the workings. I saw lots of blue sky and too much space between me and the ground. I did not hear my husband’s screams, although the cousins teased him about his amazing range all afternoon. No, I stayed smack in the middle of my own terror, thank you very much.

Off the ride (cue Hallelujah Chorus), my husband said, “That really got to me.”

Nothing gets to Dennis, not blood spurting out of our child’s head, not being awake for his own knee replacement surgery, not rattlesnakes.


“I’m shaking.” He held out his hand to prove it.

“Really? Are you all right?”

“I think so.”

“You think so?”

Dennis has heart disease. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. I watched him carefully, asked him if he still carried nitro tablets on his key ring, but he’d tossed those ages ago. He assured me he was fine, so in no time we were climbing a caged stairway to fly down the mountain on a zipline. Just before we stepped off the platform, he said, “I’m still shaking.”

Such is fear, real or perceived.  We all experience it differently. There’s a whole psychology of fear that I won’t (and can’t) go into here, but I’m thinking about that swing more and more these days.

I feel like I’m standing in that line again, my toes on the white line, waiting for my turn to be stupid. No, wait, I didn’t mean to say “stupid.” I meant, courageous. Yes, to be courageous, to be propelled by undefinable forces into the unknown, which, for me, is Indie publishing.

It helps a little bit to think of Independent Publishing as an adventure park ride. The odds of dying are quite small, not zero, but really quite small, and I’ve already felt like I’ve taken a stab wound to the heart and survived. To be frank, I have nothing to lose. Besides, there are lots of fresh-faced “children” who have gone before and will most certainly flip a nonchalant wrist at my fears.

This taking publishing matters (novel matters?) into my own hands is audacious. At least, it feels that way. But it’s time. It’s past time.

I’m definitely headed for a collision between my calling and my greatest joy. Why am I still standing here?

Have you done the indie publishing thing? Any advice? Warnings? Have you considered indie publishing and decided it’s not for you? Why or why not? Have you read any good indie books lately? Titles, please.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Zoetrope Dreams

I will begin by saying: this is the advice I write to myself. What follows is more my aspiration than my wisdom, but I pray it nourishes you all the same.

Before I wrote my first novel, I used to graze the center tables of bookstores, fingering richly illustrated covers, turning them over to read - not the back cover synopses, but the endorsements above and below them. "Magical" was a favorite word, as was "enchanting." When I read these things, I wove a dream that they were written about my book, the one I was going to write one day.

Imagine, then, how I felt when I spotted this from an issue of Pages Magazine:*

"If you know the novels of Steve Erickson... then you've glimpsed the dizzying zoetrope of history in all its shadows and light, drunk hard from a future that is mad and chaotic and a perfect extension of a past that is just as vertiginous, and emerged from the journey with a soul both wiped entirely clean - that is, redeemed - and with a greater sense of moral and spiritual obligation than you've ever felt before. You come out of an Erickson novel simply knowing what you must do, who you must be, how the beat of your heart and the burn of your dreams relate, almost umbilically, to a future that could be far off or almost already happening, but is certainly on a collision course with you."

I'll give you a moment to catch your breath. I certainly need one. It's the Mount Everest of all endorsements, isn't it? And here we stand gazing up from the valley with our Keds on.

I had to look up zoetrope**, and also vertiginous***.  I hold little hope that either word will ever have much to do with my writing.

The trouble with following big dreams is that they can grow so big that they cease to inspire and commense to frighten us. We mean to put on our boots and begin with a hey and a ho, but we feel suddenly, strangely tired, and decide instead to begin with a nap.

I'm going to buck conventional wisdom, now. Prepare for a shock. I'm going to suggest we let go of our dreams.

Can we drop them right now, just let them fall?

Of course we can. We are believers here. If we weren't it would be harder, because then who would dream for us?

But there is One who dreams for us. He said, "I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

See there? There is a future, and it is indeed on a collision course with us. It could be far off or almost already happening; we may not know exactly what it is.

ut it is good, and we will get there.

And meantime, what must we do?

I think we must write the next word. Make it the simplest, truest word we have in us, and then write the next one after that. And in the interest of simplicity and truth, we must resolve above all to pay attention. Take seriously the eyes to see and ears to hear thing. It is easy to let the commentaries tell us what's out there, but we must read and listen and look through our own senses until we know what those senses, our own, have told us.

I spent much of last week cleaning closets, culling out a mountain of stuff I don't need. It surprised me, what I was willing to let go of, and it surprises me still, how good it feels to have it gone, how this new measure of simplicity allows me to stretch and breathe.

I think I'll add my zoetrope dreams to the pile.

How about you? Do you have dreams that have robbed you of elbow room? What might happen, do you think, if you put them in the rummage sale and just sat down to write?

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

*Why did they cancel Pages Magazine? Why? 

**An optical toy, in which figures made to revolve on the inside of a cylinder, and viewed through slits in its circumference, appear like a single figure passing through a series of natural motions as if animated or mechanically moved

***Having or causing a whirling sensation; liable to falling

Monday, June 18, 2012

Roundtable Editing Matters

Last week on our Facebook page, a reader asked if we would tackle the question of how we get through the editing process. It's a great question because all six of us have very different ideas and approaches to editing--proof there's no one way to do anything when it comes to writing--and it will be interesting hearing from all of you about how you manage the aching throb of killing your darlings.

I'm a mishmash of editing processes. I edit as I write, sometimes pondering a single word for so long I forget what I was writing about. Sometimes I write by inches perfecting the words as I go. Other times I vomit Ray Bradbury style all over the page and clean up at noon. But when the manuscript is "done"--I've typed The End and meant it--is when the real editing begins.

My latest finished work has been a double whammy of editing. I was able to get feedback from several New York publishers on the work, and, after a long discussion with my agent, I took the manuscript back with the intention of rearranging some scenes, and writing a few new ones. I sat down to read, and discovered that the voice of the novel wasn't steady through to the end. Before I began on substantive edits, I did a two month, line by line edit of the writing. It was painful, sometimes I would hold up a marked up paper to my husband, barely holding back the tears and I would say, "See? Oh what a writer I am, eh?"

After those changes, I began the substantive. Large scale edits that included cutting scenes, combining scenes, and writing new ones. I've heard back from a couple of my readers and I know there is one section of the new ending that requirers further edits (small scale thank heavens).

When it gets picked up by a publisher, there will be more edits. Polished as it is, I know there will be further edits required--it's the nature of the work. A writer produces a manuscript, but a publishing team produces at book.

Like Bonnie, I tend to edit as I go. Ray Bradbury would not have approved, but I so love the click of a good sentence that I find it hard to go forward if I don't hear it.

When my manuscript is written, I edit again to get the novel ready for the publisher. I love this process. The words never click as well as I thought they did the first time around, and this is my chance to cut words and cut some more, till they sound exactly right - to me, and for the moment.

Of course the publisher will have its own ideas, and their editor will suggest further, larger edits. The editor for my last book was Nicci Jordan Hubert - I know she edited Bonnie's novel as well - and Bonnie and I agree that Nicci is brilliant.

The edits Nicci suggested were not so fun (translation: I hated them). This was where many of my favorite scenes  met their demise, and others were shortened to a shadow of their former grandiosity. Nicci asked things of me I thought I couldn't do, but I did them.

The moment after that was my favorite, very favorite part of writing, the moment when I heard that click, and realized, I'd never really heard it properly before.

When writing my first draft, I have to force myself to keep going (inserting possible sentence changes in parenthesis) instead of stopping to polish sentences.  Too many of them get cut in the end, and it's just a waste of time to perfect them.  It's really hard to do, but it's a better way.  I concentrate on outlining before even I begin, so there isn't as much major rewriting required, but then I worry that I'm constraining my story before it even gets started.  When I do my final rewrite, I use Theodore Cheney's ideas in his book, 'Getting the Words Right'.  He suggests beginning with macro edits going from the larger picture such as story structure down to micro edits, such as word contractions. It made sense to me.

I’m quite methodical about my edits. I write three pages of terrible, awful, no-good pages per day and leave them on my desk facedown. This seems to keep the words percolating in my subconcious throughout the day. I do sneak back to my desk to pencil ideas on the back, but I don’t look at the text again until the next morning at the appointed time. Then I flesh out, cross out, and make the words pretty. And then I start again with three more pages of terrible, awful, no-good stuff. Eew!

When I’ve reached approximately 100,000 words and typed ###, I start at the beginning and comb through the pages again and again until the words sing and the story makes sense. This part is usually done with the help of my critique group. (They are very mean and very good, so I listen carefully to everything they say.)

Finally, when the book reaches the publisher, I do more edits per my editor’s wishes. Both of my editors have been kind enough to point out the good before noting the weak points. This document is like reading your own future—painful, hopeful, revealing.

The real "finally" is this: When I’m reading from my published works in front of an audience, I revise as I read. The process is never done, not like a meatloaf. It’s much more like a garden. There’s always, ALWAYS a weed to pull.

 I have found that editing fiction is very different from nonfiction. When I was writing only nonfiction, I was so disciplined to make sure that my research materials and notes were tightly arranged, the writing was simple. (I know that may sound prideful, but the editor of my first book said that it was one of the most cleanly-written books he'd ever worked on. That speaks of the preparation that went into the writing of it, a talent God gave me and for which I can take no credit.)

Since the process of writing fiction is so different (at least for me), the self-editing is also very different. It is like combing out tangles. I have used this analogy before here on NM, but it is the most apt and appropriate one I've found. Editing fiction is not something I begin to do after a first draft. It begins with the second paragraph, going back over the first paragraph and seeing how the second should follow it. Then I edit the first, second and third, then the first through fourth, and so on. 

Have you combed tangles out of a child's hair? You can't just sink your comb into the most knotted section first. You have to comb through and comb aside the hairs on top. With it successive pass of the comb, you go a bit deeper and coax out strands and bring them into straightness. Deeper and deeper, but always working from the surface back toward the knots. 

I continuously "comb" the manuscript as I go.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Fellowship of the ... ?

I wanted to come up with a clever and creative title for this post, which I would also like to be clever and creative, but the truth is I'm still feeling a bit dry these days. Not even Debbie's excellent post on Wednesday, nor the great questions you all came up with on Monday seemed able to inspire me. But I'm in the middle of an editing project (Volume 2) for a friend who used to skate with Ice Capades, and I'm soon to release a new novel, so that's where my clever and creative juices are flowing these days. So instead of writing about writing topics that you probably know as well as I do -- if not better -- I thought I'd write about the fellowship of the, hmm, bats? Doesn't have the same ring to it as, well, Ring, but you'll get my point before long.
One of the truly great things about being a part of Novel Matters is the fellowship or camaraderie that has developed amongst those of us who meet here. It began with the six of us, who only came together in the fellowship of blogging at the suggestion of our agents. And what a suggestion it was! Divinely inspired if you ask me. We have become close, close friends, even though we've only all been together one time, and that was three years ago(!) But distance means nothing in our brand of fellowship as you're soon to discover. Because you too have joined our fellowship, and you mean more to us than you realize. We love the friendships that have sprung up between you and us, and between you and you. It's fun to "listen" to your interaction between each other, apart from us. We're like proud mamas -- not to be confused with Proud Marys ala Credence Clearwater. Uh, see what I mean about clever and creative?
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to share a conversation I had yesterday with Megan Sayer, who lives about as far away from California as she possibly can, in Australia, mate, and that's what I mean about distance being insignificant in our fellowship. This conversation began on Facebook between Megan and me, and expanded to include Lynn Baker Worley. So here it is.
(Megan:) Guess what? I was just doing some channel-flicking for my early-riser, and discovered BASEBALL on some obscure channel. Yay! I got very excited, and just watched the Yankees win against some people in white shirts. I didn't understand any of it, and I only got to watch one ball before it finished, but it made me terribly happy. Thought you'd be pleased : ) (She thought this because I am an avid baseball fan -- Go, Dodgers!!)

(Sharon:) You have me laughing, Megan. But it would be like me trying to understand Rugby. The Yankees are an American League team. The Dodgers are a National League team. We are National League team fans. The National League plays the American League in the World Series. And the team in white is always the home team. The visiting team wears gray, so I assume the Yankees beat some team on their home turf. Bummer. But I am pleased that you tuned in.

Okay, just spent 15 minutes on Wikipedia trying to get to the bottom of all this. Which I haven't. But I know enough for it to make sense, and I won't ask the big question of WHY. BUT ... I did read the other day something between you and Lynn Baker Worley where the Dodgers (National League) were playing the Mariners, who I've just discovered are American League. And if it's August, and the World Series doesn't happen until October (I like research), why are they playing each other now? That bit doesn't make sense.

I actually have a whole new respect for America after this. Between the complexity of major league baseball and having to keep track of 52 states, there's a lot to know.

(Lynn:) Some years ago the powers that be decided there should be interleague play during the middle of the season, which is why Sharon's Dodgers played my Mariners.

(My answer and Lynn's crossed in the mail.) Very good question, Megan. I'm impressed! Actually, the past few years MLB has added some extra inter-league games throughout the season. I think most fans aren't crazy about it -- I know we aren't. It used to be that the leagues didn't play each other until the World Series. That was in the good ol' days. Oh, and there are 50 states unless something happened this week that I don't know about : )

The Yankee game (and Sharon and I both hate the Yankees) must have been an old one. They haven't played yet today.

I'm sure it was. Lynn, do you like the inter-league play?

You didn't catch the last thing I wrote on Mindy's cake page I guess ... not really a fan of it at all. Not sure why they did it in the first place. I think it takes away from the World Series. Not sure I like the All Star Game deciding "home field advantage" either.

No, you're correct. I didn't see what you wrote on Mindy's absolutely YUMMY cake page. (Mindy is my daughter.) I'm so with you. Don't like the inter-league play at all. I also think it takes away from the World Series. But I DO like the All Star Game deciding home field advantage. I guess the only alternative to that is alternating from year to year -- and that would be fine with me.

Oh, 50 states, eh? Oh dear. Oops. I've added Milwaukee again, haven't I?

And ... dare I say it ... I like the Yankees. The Yankees are the reason I like baseball. Sorry.

Or the twin cities, St. Paul and Minneapolis. You're so funny, Megan.

Oh, no! Oh, NO!! Swoon. There goes a great friendship. Sigh.

Minne -- sota is the state, but you have to say it with a Swedish accent to make it count.

Swedish, eh? Susie says it with a silly accent too. I know a little about this from watching The Big Bang Theory and subsequent research (because I'm weird like that). I wonder if anyone's ever written a book called "A Short History of America for Dummies." I'd read it.

And the next time I fall in love with an entire country I'll have to try to pick a smaller one ...

I'd read it too. I still couldn't fill in a map with all 50 states in the right place. But if you're going to fall in love with a smaller country, make it California : )

No, actually, I'm pretty sure California IS a STATE. Well ... I was sure ...

Hmm. Really?

You two are really cracking me up. And there has been talk through the years of splitting the country of California in two! So it would even be smaller, Megan!

My husband, who travels the world for missions, always says he's from the proud state of North California. Says he'd like the dividing line to be just south of Lodi : )

Just so you know ... The Yankees are losing right now. Weather looks really bad in Atlanta so don't know if the game will continue or not! Go Braves!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

KNEW I shouldn't have posted that! Yanks are winning now and I'm heading on a walk!

So, while the Yankees won and the Dodgers lost, the pitcher for the Giants, our arch nemesis, pitched a perfect game for only the 22nd time in MLB history. Well, I take my hat off to Matt Cain. Debbie, are you getting this? Just glad it wasn't Lincecum!

So tell us, what brought you to Novel Matters in the first place, and what keeps you coming back? Whatever it is, we're so glad you're a part of our fellowship.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Come Out, Come Out wherever You Are

 On Monday, we asked what mattered to you and you assembled an impressive list, including story structure, publicity, knowing which idea to begin first, where to begin in the whole process, adding value, Myers-Briggs personalities, the importance of grammar and where we get our ideas.

In an earlier post, I mentioned my favorite John Steinbeck quote: "Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple, learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen."  I am jealous of people who have lists of possible story ideas.  I fight tooth-and-nail for every one. My rabbits must be tired.

Ray Bradbury, who passed away just this week (sniff! had his own trick for developing ideas.  He suggested making lists of experiences and words that trigger memories. Since he wrote of magical things that go bump in the night, he looked back up the stairway into the attic darkness of his childhood and made word lists that conjured stories.  Try making your own list of experiences - both good and bad - beginning with your earliest memories.  Everyone has those.

Every prolific writer has their tricks.  But just getting an idea doesn't mean it's salable or worthwhile. Life, like time to write, is too short to spend on unworthy ideas. 

Maybe we should consider what a good idea isn't.  A good story idea isn't contrived or predictable.  It doesn't have an agenda to push a certain viewpoint or rely on stereotypical characters.  It's not sterile or preachy with an atmosphere of intolerance inhibiting spiritual growth.  A good story idea is true to life and offers hope for the human condition.

Okay, some concrete suggestions.  If you're writing a contemporary story, you might want to peruse magazines like People or newspapers like USA Today or watch reality TV.  The issues discussed in these are current and fresh. (I knew Jodi Picoult would write a book about autism before she ever announced it.)  This is true for any genre. I'll bet you know of magazines and journals for topics that interest you, including new historical findings and scientific discoveries which could trigger story ideas. A speaker at a writers conference once said that ideas are in the air.  If you get an idea, jump on it before another writer sells it first.

It's a given to me to ask for divine direction and inspiration.  God, the Giver of all good things and Distributor of talent, cares greatly what we write.

Do any of these ring a bell with you?  Please share where you feel your best ideas originate. We'd love to hear!

Monday, June 11, 2012

What Matters to You?

Novel Matters is truly community. We've come to know each of you through your comments and interactions on the blog with us and with each other. We've seen friendships bloom, and writers become published.

It's an exciting community!

Today, we'd like to hear your questions: what burning questions do you have about writing life? Or about the industry of writing (publishing, marketing, promotion, sales)?

Is there something about your current project that is bugging you that you'd like to ask other writers about?

Would you like to stick handle some new ideas around and see which ones work?

What's on your mind? We'd be privileged to hear, and we'll do our best to offer helpful ideas.

Post your question in the comments section--all six of us will chime in as we're able.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Gilt and Honey and Sweat

Katy spoke on Monday about the books that are a slow read. I can imagine our beloved Katy curled up in some bohemian-looking corner lovingly turning the pages of a leather-bound book with gilt edges, rolling words around in her mind, caressing them with a fingertip, trying phrases out on her tongue.

Patti spoke of books that are good company. Patti is alpine breezes and fresh-scrubbed honesty. She would want books--indeed, she writes books-- that are strong and sweet, like dark honey with flecks of habanero in it.

Can I be Patti-honest here? I can’t bear to read right now. I finished a literately-written nonfiction May 1 and haven’t written much of anything since. Just lists and medical notes. My life changed so overtly on December 1 when my husband lost consciousness, not to return to us with his mind functioning correctly until the end of April, and coming back to our home in an electric wheelchair after five months, one week and one day, that reading is a luxury I don’t have. My Kindle sits by my bedside but I don’t turn it on. I lived without the Internet for over a week and hardly noticed. We moved last weekend and I haven’t unpacked a single book except those in the boxes with other stuff I needed to get to.

I live with sweat (my own—I know that’s not very lovely but it’s real) and the constant cool squirt of adrenaline in my gut anticipating the possible accident with lifts and ramps and gravity; and with pharmaceuticals in hourly boxes. Taking care of a quadriplegic is hard work, for me and for the professionals who come to our home to help me.  (Just two days ago I leaned panting over the hospital bed and met the eyes of the health care aide who had helped me with a harrowing transfer from wheelchair to sling to shower chair. She was panting too, and she's forty years younger than I. We looked at each other and we understood, we understood.)

Now, I don’t want sympathy, I’m just reporting in.

There have been times in my life when I have suffered with my own much-lesser health conditions, the kind that robbed me of sleep. I remember praying during those times, thanking God for the fellowship of pain, the heritage that is passed through our genes, the common denominator if you live long enough. People have suffered from the beginning of time. If hurting has no other immediate purpose, it can give us a connection with other sufferers.

I am praying that same prayer now. I could not possibly be the only lover of written words who can hardly bear their intimacy, at least for a season. I have no time nor patience for the slow read (a book would surely take me years to finish) nor the companionship of other worlds. Mine is too real.

I am not complaining because my church, friends and family have sacrificed enormously, time and money and resources, to keep me alive and functioning so I can keep someone else alive and functioning. I have been pampered in a maelstrom.

But I serve an economical God. Nothing He owns does He waste. Surely He will maximize this numbness, give this author the ability to create the thoughtful words that will speak to others like me. 

When they get ready to read again.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Novels as Good Company

I loved Katy's post on Monday. There's a proud place on my bookshelf for meditative books. She mentioned that most of the meditative books she enjoys are nonfiction, often memoirs with a few exceptions, most notably Gilead. But there are novels that invite you into friendship. That's what I'm going to talk about today.

Some years back I joined a book club of fellow teachers from the elementary school where I taught. We read a wide range of novels, always novels. We were a group of story-lovers. We spent the days using the bests picture books and middle readers to egg our students on as writers. At night, we hungered to indulge in adult fiction.

When it fell to me to select the next novel to read, I spent hours perusing Barnes and Nobles, reading back cover copy and first paragraphs. The whole process carried the weight of arranging a blind day for a beloved friend. Little did I know I would fall in love with the book I selected.

If I wasn't reading learning theory or middle readers at that time, I borrowed from my husband's library. Lots of bombs and good-hearted cowboys in there. But in this book I found, no bombs explode. No ranch is threatened by cattle thieves or--gasp!--sheepherders. No enemies of civilization to thwart. The story wasn't a mystery but included a hint of a mystery. Definitely not a romance but the longing of a romance wove through the story. The narrator is young, but it's not a coming-of-age story.

This story and so many of the stories I love are easier to describe by what they're not, but I'll try, through a few examples to talk about these books that defy genre classification. We've talked here about upmarket fiction, a marriage of the literary and the marketable (read that: has an engaging plot). The books I'm thinking of today, however, are a shade different. I mean no disrespect by the name I'm going to give them--good company books. How could I? I abandoned my hard-won career as a teacher and the possibility of a pension after reading this one book when I leapt into the luminous darkness of novel writing.

Some books are (not just or simply) plain good company, certainly not a roller coaster ride of threat and near disaster. Joy School by Elizabeth Berg was good company for me, a harried new teacher with too much life on my plate. It's the story of twelve-year-old Katie whose mother has died, her older sister has left home, and her father has moved Katie away from her best friend to a new army post. Katie sees it all and speaks with gentle honesty about her angst. Yes, she's in love with a married man who pumps gas, but this is a crush, not Lolita, and she's trying to fit in at her new school. That's the plot, but it's ancillary to the real story of Katie learning to deal with her losses.

So what is it about this good-company novel that keeps a reader engaged? Partly, I loved the timing of the story. Katie was twelve about the same time I was twelve. Her mother wore Tabu perfume, and she laid out in the sun with baby-oil laced with iodine. So, perhaps, nostalgia numbs the pain of a inconsequential plot. But what really won me was Katie's voice. Katie muses about getting to know a new friend:

When it's new and important, you have to rest in between times. And anyway, even when I like a person there is a weariness that comes. I can be with someone and everything is fine and then all of a sudden it can wash over me like a sickness, that I need the quiet of my own self. I need to unload my head and look at what I've got in there so far. See it. Think what it means. I always need to come back to being alone for a while.

I'm reading A Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler just now. It's the story of a mid-30s man who has lost his wife when a tree falls on their house. He has no problem accepting her occassional appearances after the funeral, but he believes others find them disturbing.

As with Tyler's other books, the story is more like standing before a painting in a gallery with piano music playing softly in the distance. The sun is shining. No one is two-stepping just out of your peripheral vision to have their moment before the painting. You can stand there forever, drinking in the portrait of grief and longing.

The charm of Tyler's books is how she captures the moments of a pedestrian life poised on the threshold of pain with such humanity and humor. If you're a Tyler reader, you can relax and know that she will give her characters all the room they need to grow and find happiness, so relax and enjoy the journey. This would be the second characteristic I submit for good-company books--they read like a memoir with a satisfying resolution, sort of a year-in-the-lfe-of story. Here, the main character, Aaron, explains the paroxysm of grief:

It's like the grief has been covered over with some kind of blanket. It's still there, but the sharpest edges are...muffled, sort of. Then, every now and then, I lift the corner of the blanket just to check and...whoa! Like a knife! I'm not sure that will ever change.

A good-company book also tends to fire a longing in the reader. Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season did that for me with its strong characters, a spectacular landscape, and uncluttered prose that quickened my pulse. In The Whistling Season, an aging Montana school superintendent must decide what to do about the single room school houses that dot the rural areas. They're terribly inefficient, which makes them too costly. The story is his memories of the 1909 schoolyear, the year his mother died and Rose and her brother Morris came to town. He learned so much. Some of it in the school, thanks to Morris. The story plucked me out of my time and settled me squarely into 1909. In the end, the book is an ode to the single room school house and education that really matters.

Childhood is the one story that stands by itself in the soul.

We can't very well talk about good-company books without mentioning Jan Karon. Twenty-five million people have stepped into Mitford through her books. All that without being reviewed by The New York Times or recieving a nod from Oprah. Impressive. Jan Karon treats her character benevolently and draws them with endearing strokes. Father Tim is far from the Elmer Gantry type of clergyman we've come to expect in literature. The greatest tension in Shepherds Abiding arises from a deadline--Christmas!--for completing Father Tim's wife's present, which he does just in the nick of time. Some people complain about the sugary storylines of Karon's stories, but many find her stories affirming with prose like this: "I believe that's when God first started speaking to my heart--the very day I started speaking to His!"

It's a bit audacious of me to name a genre, but it's Wednesday and I'm feeling a bit careless. Can you add your suggestions for a good-company book? Do you have another name for this type of book? Do you find a steady diet of good-company novels unsatisfying? How do you quench your desires?

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Joy of a Slow Read

Maybe you have memories like mine, of waking to the delicious sound of voices at the kitchen table.

When I was a child my grandparents would come to visit, often at this time of year, and often arriving at night while I slept. They were retired, and always seemed schedule-less, beyond the basic schedules of grooming, coffee, meals and naps. Their days were all sabbaths, or so it seemed.

My mother would take time off from work when they came, so their gentle rhythms would, for a time, become our rhythms. When I woke, the voices coming from the kitchen were thoughtful and unhurried, filtered through chuckles and quiet pauses. I don't remember exactly what they talked about, but it seems like the topics ran more to the conceptual than the pragmatic. Politics, yes, but in broader terms. My sister and me, naturally, but about the sorts of people we were growing to be.

When we visited them it was the same, but at night, we would join them in the unfenced area between their house and those of two neighbors. We'd all set our lawn chairs under the clothes line, look up at the stars, and talk. My great uncle, who read a lot (I am getting around to talking about books), showed me constellations, and told me which stars were really planets, how unfathomably distant they all were. Curiosity and attention were my childhood luxuries, but in these slow moments, they became the order of the day.

I'm about a third into a book titled The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. It recounts her observations of a common snail that lived in a terrarium beside her bed during her year-long convalescence following a mysterious illness.

It's not a page turner, not in the sense we usually mean. There are no heart-stopping moments, no smoking guns.

It is wondrously compelling. Reading it feels like listening to voices at the kitchen table, looking at stars with my great uncle who read a lot. Forced by an illness into an abundance of unstructured time, Bailey received a message to pass on to us, that each moment, each detail, the tiniest creature is fascinating if we take the time to look. I treasure books that remind me that time exists, and that there is enough of it to allow for curiosity and attention.

"Every few days I watered the violets from my drinking glass, and the excess water seeped into the dish beneath. This always woke the snail. It would glide to the rim of the pot and look over, slowly waving its tentacles in apparent delight, before making its way down to the dish for a drink. Sometimes it started back up, only to stop at a halfway point and go to sleep. Waking periodically, and without moving from its position, it would stretch its neck all the way down to the water and take a long drink."

Annie Dillard writes books like that. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is all the permission you will ever need to lavish time on each microbe of creation.

"It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God “set bars and doors” and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?"

There are other books that do the same. I pulled Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea from my grandmother's bookshelf when I was twelve. A bit young, perhaps, to begin thinking what sort of adult one wants to become, but I began to think of it then.

"I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact—to borrow from the language of the saints—to live 'in grace' as much of the time as possible."

You may have noted that all these books are memoirs, not fiction, and for good reason. Fiction doesn't lend itself to leisurely exploration. Novels need things like conflict, suspense, and tension. Most readers, I'm told, skip over novels that are described as "meditative," or "contemplative." We want our stories to pull us through on a cord of anxiety. Yikes! Oh no! What will the character do now?

The only novel I know of that has managed to finesse the narrative arc in a voice straight out of those lawn chairs under the stars is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It's the reason I consider this the most perfect novel I've ever read, because its author understands so well:

"This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it." 

Now please tell us about the books that have inspired you to pay attention. Extra points if that book is a novel.

We love to read what you have to say.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Scene and Narrative Matters

Sharon’s article on writing scenes is the sort of thing that gives writers tiny heart attacks. So bursting with hard core writing tips that as we read the air around us thins of oxygen and thickens with smothering questions: Did I follow the method of scene writing? Have I used too much narrative? Too little narrative? What is narrative?

I recommend printing Sharon’s article and referencing it often as you create your novel.

It’s an interesting time in the development of novel structure. We’ve fully embraced the postmodern subjective structure and have made it our own. It’s easy to lose sight of the foundational basics in the midst of all the sexy structural changes.

If you don’t know the basics of scene, narrative, cut away transition (now a given in modern writing), and partial resolve of tension (scenes that ease tension on certain plot issues while ramping it up on other plot issues), now is the time to apply yourself to studying them.

It’s these skills that will help you make the leap in novel structure you need to stay competitive in today’s market.

Modern readers aren’t the TV generation anymore. We aren’t interested in the three-act novel. Think Internet. Mixing medias as easily as metaphors.

Today’s novel is all about mixed media. Folding a collection of short stories onto themselves and into each other to form an overarching narrative about hate and the power of love (Let the Great World Spin). Using photography as an intrinsic aspect of plot (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). Incorporating research as part of the novel experience including footnotes (The Kingdom of Ohio). A novel that is so filled with visual reference the story takes a back seat (The Night Circus).

These are a few examples of where the novel is headed. And while it looks fancy (and it is), no matter the structure, each of these novels has, at its core, the mastery of scene and narrative weaving that holds the whole thing together.

Scene is action: movement, dialogue, interaction of characters, action, and reaction. It’s the actors moving on the stage, talking to each other, planting evidence, arguing about how to cook rice, making love in a hammock, reading the ransom note.

Narrative is personality: cohesive voice, POV, tense, tone, voice, and narration. It’s the stream of consciousness, the storyteller grabbing your arm (figuratively) and saying, Did you see THAT? It’s the frank self-disclosure, the murmur of warning that lets you know the story is about to get tense, very tense indeed. It’s the personal aspect of the novel and it matters deeply.

I’ve read manuscripts that were scene after scene grinding along until the book's final—you guessed it—scene. I didn’t enjoy these experiences.

I have read manuscripts that were 99% narrative, streams of consciousness so heady you could lose yourself in the long sentences up to fifty words long. I didn’t enjoy these experiences.

When time comes for me to pick up your novel and turn to page one, what would you like me to see? How will you enfold me with your narrative and scene? Draw me in. Please, please, draw me in.