Thursday, August 30, 2012


Why do we keep writing when our lives are frustrating and difficult?

A friend called me tonight, bearing a load of sadness. She’d been talking to an acquaintance whose husband was cheating on her. For my friend, just hearing another person’s experience brought back her own memories of being betrayed.

In a sense, two timelines intersected, two universes collided. My friend has never met her acquaintance’s wandering husband, and her own betrayal happened years ago. And yet that intersection uncorked long-stored emotions.

I understand that. I understand not because my life has ever been marked by marital betrayal. But it has been marked with sadness for lost opportunities, lost relationships, lost time.

Maybe that’s why my favorite movies are about situations that overcome impossibilities of time and space: Ladyhawke, The Lake House, and most recently, Source Code. One of my favorite books is an old, old and not-so-famous anthology: Science Fiction Adventures in Dimension.

Someone else called me tonight. “I want to give my life to Christ,” she said, “and because you were the one who reached out to me, I want you to come to my baptism tonight.”

Before she was immersed, our campus minister talked of burying her, of raising her to life, of new beginnings.

I want to believe that time can be redeemed. That there are no truly lost causes. That something can be dead and can live again. I believe in resurrection.  I believe I will be resurrected – and there is no more lost a cause than that.

And that’s why I write. I believe that the lives of many people who’ve never met intersected over a table as two people tangled in their stories spoke to each other tonight. I believe that a young woman pictured the death of Jesus, pictured His rising, in her watery grave – though she was separated from His events by two thousand years.

That’s what writing does too. In much the same way, I have the privilege of creating touchpoints with people I’ll never meet.

But I yearn to create touchpoints of hope, not despair. I want to redeem time for them – lost time, time that can’t be relived but can be restored like locust-gnawed years. I want to join with Jesus, making all things new, of showing hope that overcomes the world.

That’s why I write. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Of Befuddlement and Theme

It’s not enough to know how to do something. You have to know how to speak and/or write it, meaning that you use the correct vocabulary. And then, if you know how to communicate it, you can teach it to others.

When I taught 4th and 5th grade, mastery of multiplication included vocabulary words like factor, multiple, and product. Easy!

No one asked me to teach calculus. Reason #1: I didn’t know how to do calculus. #2: I didn’t know calculus-ese.

For the last year, I’ve been focusing on mastering the concept of story structure.

This should be straight forward. Stories have been around since people formed language, and much of what the ancients wrote about story—Plato and Aristotle, for instance—is still true today. Good stories share common attributes.  And there are lots and lots of books out there to teach me everything I need to know.

A smidgen of frustration (understatement) entered my quest for knowledge because people who write about writing, don't use the same vocabulary. For instance, there's "theme." Theme influences character arc and the internal and external conflicts of a story. In fact, theme should influence absolutely everything in a story.

Again, talking about theme should be straight forward.

It’s not.

Especially if you read more than one book on the subject. Maybe I should have been a mathematician, specializing in elementary math skills. There’s not an ounce of ambiguity about the definition of a sum or what a rhombus looks like.  (Polygons rule!)

But I’m a writer. I should have read ONE really good book about structure and been satisfied. Instead, I read five, which has landed me straight into the category of befuddlement. (The Category of Befuddlement would be a great book title. Dibs!)

I’ve experienced this befuddlement because each author presented different definitions for theme that were enough alike that I could eventually say, “Ah-ha! They’re talking about theme!” But two of the authors gave theme a new name. 

Is theme a bad word?

The first book I read, of course, was John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story, strongly suggested by Bonnie. Truby says at the beginning of the “Moral Argument” chapter that “a great story is not simply a sequence of events or surprises designed to entertain an audience. It is a sequence of actions, with moral implications and effects, designed to express a larger theme.”

I get that. Tell me more!

Theme is the author’s view of how to act in the world. It is your moral vision. Whenever you present a character using means to reach an end, you are presenting a moral predicament, exploring the question of right action, and making a moral argument about how best to live. Your moral vision is totally original to you and expressing it to an audience is one of the main purposes of telling a story.

This was a new way for me to look at theme, but it made sense. When I tested the idea against stories I’d read, it worked. Suzanne Collins must believe that personal sacrifice is the highest form of love. Lisa See believes traditions can tie a family together and rip them apart. Anne Tyler believes that what we may think is loving, others see as belittling and settling.

Alan Watt in The 90-Day Novel comes up with his own name for theme. He calls theme the dilemma.

There is a dilemma at the heart of every story…It is the core struggle around which every character in the story revolves. Some people call this the theme (Thanks for the hint, Mr. Watt.) or the dramatic question. It is personal to the hero yet universally relatable to the reader.”

Most recently, I picked up The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. He’s talking about theme as the moral premise. This is how he introduces moral premise:

Every…physical obstacle that the protagonist confronts is rooted in a single psychological, spiritual, or emotional obstacle. And to overcome the many physical obstacles, the protagonist must first overcome the singular psychological obstacle that his journey…is really about…Moral Premise—a statement of truth about the protagonist’s psychological predicament.

These authors are saying very similar things about theme. It’s up to me to create a working definition of theme for my writing. I’m very tempted to go back where I started, with Truby—“theme is how the author believes the world should work.” While these other writers on theme have deepened, corroborated, and expanded my understanding, I prefer this simple yet widely applicable definition. 

Distilling down the themes of books you’ve read—or written—is a great exercise. I’m a bit tardy, but I’ve done just that for my novels, plus my work in progress:

Like a Watered Garden: Expanding our perception of others allows us to grow and gain independence.

Always Green: Friendship is the best foundation for romantic love.

In Every Flower:  Being a family requires more courage than love and the ability to bend and stand against resistance.

The Queen of Sleepy Eye: Harsh judgment of others leads to self-incrimination. Forgiveness leads to personal growth and deeper love.

Seeing Things: We hang on to those we love by surrendering our desire to control them.

Goodness & Mercy: Running away from guilt only brings us back where we started.

Ring!: To free ourselves from regret, we must live without excuses and embrace living in the present.

Notice that theme is not the storyline (plot) or premise (one sentence that tells what happens to start a story and what the protagonist is going to do about it). Theme is the underlying truth of the story from the author's perspective.

What are the themes from your stories? What frustrations have you come across as you’ve learned the craft of writing? Is there a danger in reading too many writing books? What contradictory advice have you been given either by a teacher or in a book? And by the way, if I've got this theme-thing all wrong, tell me now!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Guest Author Interview with Athol Dickson

As you've learned by now, this year Novel matters is asking the question "Why does the novel matter?" We're asking this of ourselves, and of you our readers. We've also asked a few special authors to tell us about the novels they write, how they go about writing them, and why the novel matters in their opinion.

We are privileged to present Athol Dickson, author of The Opposite of Art, the Christy-Award winning River Rising and The Cure, as well as his non-fiction The Gospel According to Moses.

Novel Matters: Your latest novel, The Opposite of Art, includes an indepth knowledge of the world of art, and of painting in particular. What is your art background?

Athol Dickson: My mother was a good artist, and saw artistic potential in me when I was young, so she enrolled me in private art classes. I also took all the art classes available in the public schools, and then went to college to study fine arts for two years before transferring to architecture. My wife and I collect art, mainly oils and pastels. I used to paint a lot in my spare time, but that stopped when I started writing.

NM: When you did paint, what were your subjects, and what medium did you prefer?

AD: I worked in acrylics. I painted landscapes, still life, and portraits. I'm a much better writer than painter, which is why I focus on novels now. But I'm still passionate about paintings. Nothing inspires me to write more than a visit to a museum where there are paintings by great masters.

NM: This is the first of your novels that draws on your talent for painting. What was the seed of your story idea for this novel?

AD: I don't remember where this idea came from, but one day I suddenly started thinking about what it would be like if the greatest painter on earth saw God's face in a near-death experience and came back to life determined to paint what he had seen. It seemed obvious to me that no painter who ever lived has been that good, so I wondered how his failed attempts to paint it would change him and what he would paint in the end.

NM: What did you gain from writing The Opposite of Art?

AD: It's something of an epic story, spanning 25 years in a man's life as he travels across four continents. It was good to find out that I can write that kind of scale. It was also lots of fun.

NM: What do you want readers to take away from reading this novel as well as your other books?

AD: My first goal in every novel is to entertain.

NM: Sorry to interrupt, but all too often that's not an answer you hear. Authors, particularly Christian authors, tend to speak about a "higher purpose" or a particular message they want to get across, and we understand that. But if a novel doesn't first entertain, those other things won't be accomplished.

AD: I agree. I first want readers to have a great time. After that, if my novels bring new ideas to mind, if they make you think about things in new ways or open up a part of life you haven't considered before, then that's all the better. In this case, I think The Opposite of Art offers some valuable insights on the fact that we were created by our Creator to be creators.

NM: If this were an audio interview, that would be a great soundbite.

AD: That's a huge part of what it means to be made in the image of God, and it carries huge responsibilities, which many of us fail to understand. What is creativity about? What does it mean that it comes over us sometimes as a kind of urge, like our desire for food or sleep or sex? Why do so many of us resist that urge, or pretend it isn't there? Is there a proper way to respond to it, and is there a wrong way? These are just a few of the questions that The Opposite of Art explores.

NM: Having read the novel twice, I feel the depth with which you explore these issues through the storyline makes this a very thought-provoking novel. The affect it has on your protagonist -- which both kills and gives life -- is profound. Which novels have informed you as a writer over the years? In what ways have they influenced you?

AD: Thornton Wilder's work taught me not to worry so much about what "they" say, because he very often broke the rules, yet his novels are just wonderful. Gabriel Garcia Marquez just blew my mind with his One Hundred Years of Solitude. It's the finest novel ever written in my opinion, and he opened my mind to the fact that the novel is uniquely qualified to weave the spiritual and physical realities of life together. I also owe a lot to Flannery O'Connor, who showed me it's okay to make characters larger than life, and to Walker Percy who showed me readers will follow along with you if you think deeply.

NM: If you could sit down with any writer in history or living today, who would it be and why?

AD: Someone else asked me this same question earlier today. I'll answer the same way. I'd like to spend time with Ernest Hemingway, to talk him out of suicide.

NM: That's really a great answer. There are so many unanswered questions that surround the lives of any number of artistic masters whose work we've had the privilege to enjoy.

AD: Whenever I read Hemingway's novels, that fact is always a shadow of sadness in the background.

NM: Getting down to the specifics of your own writing style, do you outline your novels before you write, or are you a feel-your-way-through kind of writer?

AD: Mostly I outline, although it's really more of a list of scenes.

NM: Which comes first for you: plot, characters, themes, or something else?

AD: I've started with all three of those things. But wherever I start I soon switch over to thinking about one of the others. For me, they're so interwoven it's impossible to think of stories without bringing them all along at once.

NM: What is the one non-writing thing you do that helps you be a better writer?

AD: Road trips help a lot. They get me out of my rut and help me remember how big the world is. Also, going to art museums, which always inspires.

NM: How are you navigating the changing tides of publishing?

AD: I've decided to jump in with both feet. I've created my own imprint, Author Author. I have an excellent cover designer; a developmental, line and copy editor; an interior designer (what used to be called a type setter); and an outstanding publicist who is working nearly full time for me. Author Author is publishing the re-release of four previously published novels, in electronic and print editions, which I'm calling "The Christy Series" because two were finalists for that award and two of them won it. They each have new covers and new forewords or afterwords, and I've done major rewrites on all four of them. All the characters and plots are the same, but what I've learned has guided thousands of subtle changes I made to these four books. In some cases, I've also made larger revisions, such as combining scenes or changing the order of them. They are much improved versions of the original award-winning editions.

NM: Week before last, Latayne's and Debbie's posts on Novel Matters dealt with the changes that have taken place in their writing because of what they've learned along the way. I doubt there's an author alive who wouldn't rewrite every book they ever published, given the chance. You're making your own opportunity, and we applaud you. What is the worst piece of writing advice ever offered to you and why?

AD: They say the theme "must" arise organically out of the characters and plot. I think that's one way to write a novel, but definitely not the only way. Sometimes characters and plot can arise from theme. All that matters is how the novel reads in the end. It can't be preachy, which is why they give that advice. But it also can't be superficially driven by too much attention to action without underlying purpose, or dreadfully boring because of droning on and on about a character back story. There are many ways to write an awful novel.

NM: (laughing). Can't we all attest to that?

AD: The preachy-ness of an overbearing theme is only one of them. And if we say we "must" write in a certain way to avoid preachy-ness, we open ourselves up to the same mistakes in other areas. There's no such thing as a great novel without a theme, therefore it's silly to insist that one must not think about theme when planning a novel.

NM: What is the best piece of writing advice you have to offer aspiring authors?

AD: Keep writing.

NM: Okay, and on that note, what keeps you writing despite setbacks?

AD: I was given a gift for this. It would be a sin not to use it.

NM: That's an honest answer, and that's much appreciated at Novel Matters. Our final question to every author we've interviewed this year is this: Why does the novel matter? How does Athol Dickson answer that?

AD: Art is one of the objective proofs that human beings have a soul or spirit, and novels, of course, are art, so novels matter for that reason, the same reason all art matters: novels prove we're made in the spiritual image and likeness of a Creator.

But I think novels have an added importance because of the unique way they communicate to us. Artists using other art forms either speak directly to us in a kind of conversation, or else they focus our attention on something external to ourselves and ask us to observe that external thing. Only the novel (or other forms of literature) allows the artist to insert us into the art itself by using the first person point of view. Only in a novel can we become a kind of proxy for the work of art itself. What I'm saying is that music, film, stage, dance and other fine arts may seem to draw us in, but in reality we always remain outside, observing. Only the first person novel can literally draw our minds into the art itself by allowing us to "see" with a character's eyes and "hear" with her ears, and "act" with our own hands. No other art form offers the same virtual reality of living as another human being, thus no other art form can instill the same intense empathy for others. Of course, not all novels are written in first person. But I think even a third-person novel has an advantage over most other art forms, because of the amount of active participation required of the reader.

NM: You've given a lot of thought to the importance of literature.

AD: I really have. Film makes very few demands on our imaginations -- almost every detail in them is actually seen or heard; whereas the vast majority of details in a story must be provided by the reader's mind. Music is essentially the opposite. It stimulates emotional responses based on indirect contact with memories or subliminal associations. So visual arts like film leave little to the imagination, while music provides little space for rational ideas. Third-person novels occupy a middle ground between the visual and audible arts, in which the writer can communicate specific truths on a rational level while also communicating subliminally with a reader's emotions.

NM: Athol, we so appreciate the depth you put into your answers for this interview. We wish you all the best as you move forward with Author Author.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Who In The World

"Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness, but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day." ~ Ernest Hemingway

Don't listen to him. Remember that Hemingway took his own life. Trust me: a writer can palliate her loneliness and feel just fine about it.

I remember too well how it felt, in those noble, lonely days. I had a few encouragers, but they faced formidable foes, both inside and outside my skin.

You've heard the inner voices: "Look at your work: it's amateur stuff. Why waste your time on it when you could do something useful? Something profitable? Something practical? Something normal? 

Then there are the outer voices, notable not so much for what they say but for the way they say it. I remember telling people I wanted to be a writer, and they'd get this wonky look on their faces and say, "oh, really?"

To be fair: those folks may have been giving me encouraging looks. Perhaps it was those voices, those endless voices in my head that turned the whole thing ugly.

But it was ugly. I faced eternity, or the lack of it, each day. And nothing got written.

Then I met a miracle: one dear friend who talked about literature and thought as though they were the most important things to talk about. One day I ventured six timid words: "I want to be a writer." She took me seriously, urged me to attend my first writers conference, walked with me my first steps toward publication, and dear writer friends - toward you.

And what is the good of writer friends? Please take out your Bibles, and turn to Hebrews 10:24: "Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good works..."

That's what we're here for, all of us friends. To urge one another on to good writing. To provoke each other to love for our readers, for our craft, for the God we write for.

For further reading: Garrison Keillor has a great page about famous literary friendships.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why in the World it Matters

I'm on holiday, living it up in Alberta my old stomping grounds.

Last weekend we celebrated my parent's 60th wedding anniversary (60 years without a restraining order) in a town called Stettler, Alberta, where my folks live.
I lived in Stettler for three years before moving to Saskatoon almost 6 years ago. I know the place, know many of the people. Or I thought so.

My sisters and I had worked for months on the anniversary party and had intended it to be an open house tea, a come-and-go afternoon. It started at one o'clock. At three minutes past one the hall was filled. People jammed in, filled plates with sandwiches, fruit, cheese, vegetables, pastries, and pickles, filled cups with coffee and tea and punch. Our come-and-go had turned to a come-and-stay.

No one left until four o'clock--the hour we had given on the invitation to end the celebration.

I happily pointed this out to someone I had known when I lived in Stettler.

"That's small town, folk," he said. "You've been in the city too long, Bonnie."


Good point.

I'd planned the party from Saskatoon.

We lived the party in Stettler.

When I was in Saskatoon, it seemed important that people RSVPed. I needed to know numbers so I could plan the food, how many tables to set up, how many chair covers we'd need.
When I arrived in Stettler, I walked downtown and ran in to old friends who I would casually invite to the party.

"Just come. There's plenty of room. Lots of food."
What had mattered so much in the city, mattered nothing when I got to town.

Setting is everything.

Setting--a part of Story World--dictates so much in story. It is a character, and it moves characters around the story by its organic pulse. It is geography, buildings, technology, and environment, but it is also the below the surface stuff of character, social classes and how they work, mythology (some places are spooky, some are tragic, others bright, nearly divine), speech, and habit.

Setting means the ghosts of the place's past walk the streets and peek in the windows of the residents' homes.

Setting dictates whether a character hung up on the details of an anniversary party is dedicated, or a show off. Whether a character's uncanny ability to show up whenever there's a crisis makes her an angel or a devil.

In all truth, I've reached the end of my depth of insight today. Being on holiday has turned my poor brain to mush. Happy mush, but still mush.

So, you tell me what you have noticed about the power of setting, either in your writing or your reading.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Where in the World . . .?

I'm very excited about the release of my new novel, Unraveled.

When my interview was posted a few days ago, Megan Sayer asked what made me select Moldova for the setting. Some decisions I make when I begin a novel are purely arbitrary. The choice of Moldova was not.


As I worked on the story line for Unraveled over a period of several months I knew, of course, it would deal with human trafficking. What I didn't know was where one character's abduction would occur. I didn't want to place that part of the story anywhere in Asia, because to me that seemed too obvious a choice. So then, where?


As a Christian I rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit in so many areas of my life, including my writing. I prayed for an answer to my question, "Where in the world should I set it?" because I felt the location would be an integral part of the story. I didn't receive a clear answer to my prayers until the very week I planned to start writing the novel. I shared my dilemma with my husband, Rick, who, as many of you know, travels all over the world physically and strategically building the kingdom of God. He printed out a newsletter he had just received from a missionary he knows in Moldova -- a country I'd never even heard of. Rick had never been to Moldova, but he had met the Moldovan missionary, Andy Raatz, in Armenia the year before.


Andy's newsletter that arrived in Rick's inbox that week just happened to deal with the very issue I planned to address in my novel. Just happened. Mhm. He wrote about what a major problem it is in that part of the world, and what he and his wife Nancy hoped to accomplish in ministry there, and I knew I had my answer.


I contacted Andy and Nancy and told them what I was going to write about and asked for their help. They were an invaluable resource throughout the writing of the novel, sending me photographs of the local community and answers to all the questions I had. They even took time to read the manuscript when I finished it.


But more than location came out of that answered prayer. Several elements of the story came because of that particular location, elements I hadn't planned, but that rose organically from the setting to add much to the story. That type of inspiration has occurred more than once in my writing life. As I prepare to begin another novel, I can't help wonder what kind of "surprises" are in store for me.


What about you? How has inspiration affected your work?

Friday, August 17, 2012

The X-Files

Wednesday’s post on the “Almost Dead Files” is a stellar example of Latayne’s natural talent and genius.  I think we all agree it would be a crying shame if she never completed the manuscript.  Maybe one day she will be able to fit it into her hectic life.

Out of curiosity, I plugged in my old flash drive and pulled up my first novel with every intention of posting a paragraph or two.  How bad could it be?  After all, it was taken to committee by the first editor who read it.  (Bless her heart)

The story couldn’t have been farther removed from what I now write.  The 50,000 word manuscript was a Gold Rush romance set in early California with a newly widowed heroine who is alone in the world and thrown into dependence on the one she blamed for her husband’s death. I researched at night and wrote scenes during afternoon nap time at my home day care.  The story poured easily from some deeply creative space, so again, how bad could it be?

Um…there are no words for how bad it is, so I won’t subject you to it.  But I will perform an autopsy. Here are some of the classic mistakes I made on my first draft:

Opened too far from the action
Flashback in the first chapter
Predictable premise
Heroine too snarky
Didn’t check the guidelines from the targeted publisher
Didn’t target a publisher
Wrong POV
Superfluous/duplicate characters
Passive word choices (yawn)
Too much description
Overuse of hyphens
Stilted dialogue
Rambling elevator pitch

Here are some things I did right (on the rewrite):

Extensive research, invested in books on life during the Gold Rush
Chopped the first three chapters
Used flashbacks sparingly and farther from the opening
Wrote more natural dialogue
Improved the heroine’s likeability
Researched publishers and modified scenes to meet their guidelines
Changed the POV to first person
Included the hero’s POV
Limited the number of sentences that began with “I”
Cut duplicate, unnecessary characters (or combined them)
Cut description that did not serve a purpose
Added a few twists to the plot
Improved the elevator pitch and practiced it

I deleted more than I added to the final draft. Cut, chopped, changed, limited are words that mean business. I remember that I had to step back from it for awhile before the knife was steady in my hand.  A lot of work had gone into all those words, but I knew the story was better off without them.

 What is the most important thing you learned from writing your first draft of your first manuscript? We'd love to hear!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

From the Almost-Dead Files

I realized something the other day, something that filled me with regret. It doesn't look like I will ever finish -- much less publish -- my first novel. It's called Black Mesa Triptych, and true to its name, it tells a single story from three points of view. Here is the first character's opening section. I'll post it, and if you have opening lines from your first novel-that-will-remain-unpublished-for-whatever-reasons, feel free to post!

It was not until a year after his beloved Michaela's death did he really understand what had happened to him.                  
It was on the first really chilly day of late Septem­ber.  He had no real plans for the evening, his mind torpid as koi in a sluggish pond, the sinking feeling of exhaustion he knew so well. This sensation had become his familiar, hated but endured, something like having your house occupied by a mild-mannered enemy soldier.
 He had reached back deep into the hall closet for his overcoat (since Michaela's death he had abandoned certain of her rituals like the seasonal storing-away of garments in her cedar chest), ordering his body to go out and bring in a few pinion logs to make a fire in the beehive-shaped kiva fireplace.
He paused just before going outside, distracted by the voice that came from the television, the voice of an old woman, her speech halting, cadenced with foreign rhythms.  He idly reached his hand into the pocket of the overcoat and touched a small card and knew what it was, even without taking it out to look at it; even though it had been a year since he had seen it.
Clifton stared at the picture on the television screen, trying to concentrate on the white-haired woman there and not on the memories of the year before. I have seen the same look on the faces of automobile accident victims who survived when their families died, he thought.
The little woman's voice was flat and dispassionate.
"In the Holocaust, my father was killed like that.  My mother was killed like that.  I saw them.  I saw them die.  My sister was killed like that, and my grandmother. They were shot before my very eyes." 
Clifton stroked the embossed surface of the card in his pocket, the last poem Michaela had written him.  Its words burned into his mind, searing pain, galling, gagging.


     "But my brother and I, we were in the barn.  The Ger­mans didn't find us until later.  Then they took us away.
 "The first day we rode all day in a cattle car.  There were so many of us that no one could sit; we all stood through the day, and then through the night.  Those who fainted, died beneath our feet.  We could do nothing; our shoes trampled our friends and neighbors and strangers."

You yet dazzle

     "Then the second day they put my brother and me, all of us, into ox-carts, hauling us like beasts over the roads to the temporary camps.  We traveled from dawn until sunset without food, without water, without hope. 
"I held the railings of the cart until my hands lost their feeling.  And then I realized that the rest of me had lost feeling, too, but in another way.  And so I closed my eyes, and I decided that I would die."

You yet dazzle
The eyes of my heart

“And then I heard a sound, faint, like a child's whispering, you know?  And it wouldn't stop, it just wouldn't stop.  It became louder, a little bit at a time. 
  "And then I realized that it was someone saying my name.  'Rivka, Rivka, Rivka.'  I wanted it to stop, but it wouldn't.
“'Rivka, Rivka.'  It seemed to grow closer. 
   "I opened my eyes.  My brother was still beside me in the oxcart, but he was holding me up.  And he was shouting in my ears.  Not just calling my name, but shouting.  And he had been shouting it for a long, long time."

You yet dazzle
The eyes of my heart
For you

And now all the pain came back, as he remembered the night Michaela died, and how he had said her name, over and over again, even after all his hope had seeped out of the room where people watched him with downcast eyes, waiting to rob him.

For you

But he couldn't bring Michaela back.  She was gone, like his hope, like the warmth out of this September room, like an emptied-out bed, like lost, locust-eaten years.

For you                                                                     
Are the color
Of light 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Writing Gypsy: A She Reads Post

Today, our sister blog, She Reads, introduces Kimberly Brock, the newest member of their team. Kimberly  is a native to southern Appalachia, a former actor and special needs educator. Kimberly’s debut novel, The River Witch, a southern mystical work set on the Georgia coast, has been featured in numerous reading lists and chosen by two national book clubs. Her work also appears in the anthologies Summer in Mossy Creek and Sweeter Than Tea. When not at work on her next novel, she is busy supporting writers and the art of storytelling in all its forms. Kimberly lives in Alpharetta, Georgia, with her husband and three children.

Writing Gypsy

Over the years, the space where I’ve written has changed through moves and travels and motherhood. I’ve watched as other authors posted beautiful photographs of serene spots, antique desks in front of windows that overlook rolling hills or sparkling lakes. Neat bookshelves typically stood nearby, steaming cups of coffee or delicate cups of tea perch on pretty, linen napkins, a sharpened pencil or two stands in a piece of glossy pottery, fluttering curtains let in a sweet breeze of inspiration.

I would look at these images and sigh. I would say to my husband, “Look at this. Look, she has a desk. She has a space of her own. Isn’t there some famous quote about that? See, she’s a real writer. I covet my neighbor’s writing space. That must be against some commandment. Something must be wrong with me.”

“You’re a writing gypsy,” he’d say and shrug.

“Doomed to wander the earth.” I’d picture myself with a knapsack thrown over my shoulder, living out of a boxcar with only my laptop, a Tall Starbucks, and three ratty children with no shoes existing solely on fast food because I couldn’t provide a proper home and complete my novel at the same time. “I’ll never finish this book.”

And I admit the truth is I’m standing at my kitchen counter while writing this. My coffee pot is directly in front of me for easy access. My four-year-old is watching cartoons (loud ones) and my husband is on a business call outside on the patio. (He’s had a shower. I have not.) The new puppy can see him through the kitchen door and is barking madly. My older two children are about the business of making microwave oatmeal, slamming cabinets and arguing about how much water to use. Ah, the writer’s life. You see, the truth is, I don’t have a writing space. In fact, now that I think about, I have never had a room of my own. I shared with my sister growing up. I shared with roommates in college. Now I share with my husband.

But before this starts to sound like I’m grumbling, let me clarify. While I have no writing space, I have a writer’s life to envy. Here’s what I mean.

While I was working on The River Witch, I often woke at three a.m. to find I was writing in my dreams and I watched my husband sleeping and knew my characters would embody love. I wrote one-handed while nursing babies and knew my story would reflect upon life and cycles, fear and innocence and miracles. I wrote on napkins in the preschool carpool line. I wrote by the pool in the summer. I wrote by the fire in winter and lying underneath the glow of the Christmas tree and looking out a window high above Time Square. I knew the book would be full of nostalgia and the unknown. I wrote while watching a north Georgia snowstorm and in the floor of the bathroom while my child was sick. I wrote on the back of a bulletin in church. I wrote in the bathtub and in the bed and in the closet and in the kitchen. I wrote in the parking lot at Target. I wrote in a miniscule hotel room in Paris. I wrote on a plane. I wrote looking over the San Francisco skyline. I wrote while I was in labor. I wrote on a south Florida island while drinking Sangria with a dear friend who gave me music and shells and water and let me drive her boat really fast. I wrote on the ride home from my grandmother’s funeral. I wrote with my fifteen-year-old terrier in my lap the day before he became a sweet memory. I knew the book would be wistful and harsh and full of hope. I wrote in conference centers full of eager, anxious writers. I wrote after long days at Disney World. I wrote while the battery in my car secretly died. I wrote while the sun came up in Hawaii. I wrote while the jarflies sang in the north Georgia twilight.

And one day, without a single space to call my own, I finished it.

And it’s true the book is full of all the things I’d hoped. And feared. It’s all in there. I don’t think I could have ever written it from a little desk, tucked into a neat corner, with complete peace and quiet, or gazing out a wide window at the sea, which would have only distracted me. Because, apparently I’m just not that kind of literary genius. I need chaos and color and flashing views through train windows, not a soft cushion or good light. I need someone pulling on my arm for more juice and dinner burning on the stove and piles of laundry moldering in the washing machine. I need to be jotting things down on old napkins at red lights, with the out-of-gas light blinking at me, living on the edge with a car full of melting groceries.

And now that I really take the time to consider it, I suppose I am a writing gypsy. It works for me.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Others-Oriented Promotion

It's been an unprecedented week here on Novel Matters. I sure hope you've been here.

First, Bonnie threw convention to the wind and wrote a two-part post on Monday and Tuesday on the Anatomy of the Interview. I loved how she encouraged us--in her astute and hilarious voice--to be authentic and to approach each opportunity organically. And then Sharon showed us how she'd mastered Bonnie's suggestions in her interview on Wednesday.

All vital stuff. Highly recommended. I will never look at an interview in quite the same way ever again.

Even more, I found what Bonnie had to say about interviews true about promotion in general, like: "It's all about the audience," and "Think of [promotion] as a 'group hug' not 'spotlight on me,'" and "The purpose of [promotion] is to connect people with ideas in order to demonstrate concern for the overall well-being of the reader."

As so many of you commented, this fresh look at interviews/promotion is liberating for those of us who don't enjoy self-promotion.

If you follow our blog, you've heard that Sharon and I are forging a trail into the independent publishing world. The learning curve is steep, to say the least. Not only are we expected to write a can't-put-it-down story, we must learn formatting, hire editors, and--gulp!--create an enticing cover.

And, oh yeah, there's promotion.

My books (I'm preparing three out-of-print books and one new story) won't be ready until spring 2013 for release, but I want to build a relationship with my readers now. I would like to say that every step I've taken has been deliberate.

Not so much.

But I happened upon something by doing what I normally do. Bonnie would say I'm being authentic, but my initial motivation was fear.

As a former bookstore worker and librarian, I'm all too aware of the importance of a book's cover. It's usually the cover, sometimes the author's name, that gets a book picked up. I've seen it a million times. The importance of the cover cannot be overstated. Sadly, independently published covers are usually lacking in appeal.

I wanted to overcome the stereotype of the nondescript cover (without breaking the bank). More importantly, I wanted to give my story the chance to reach its reader, an even bigger challenge for ebooks. Have you seen the tiny thumbnail-sized icons on Amazon and B&N they feature to sell ebooks? To draw a reader, the cover has to be more than passable. Hence, a lot of pressure to create great covers has been waking me up in the middle of the night to stare at the ceiling.

As the art director, I'm no longer the one giving feedback. It's my job to dream and initiate the design. And then, I hunt for locations, hire a photographer, find models, acquire props, repair props, and make the wardrobe for the models. This last one, sewing, made my pits sticky. I hadn't made a garment in years, maybe not since my boys went trick or treating as Ralph S. Mouse and Tom Cat.

For the past couple weeks, I've eaten, slept, and sewed in full fear-of-failure mode. Daily headaches became the norm. (I know. Silly. But that's my story.) From the start, I updated my status on Facebook regularly with pictures about my sewing adventure and the quest to find the perfect Lucy and Mibby.

At first, I wrote the updates as catharsis, but I found that my friends enjoyed following my quest. They became my cheerleaders. They leaned in closer as I tiptoed through the process of creating book covers. Without planning to do so, I invited my readers a bit closer to observe the creative process. Like me, people love seeing something move from the imagination to reality. Remember watching the glassblowers make poodles and dolphins at the fair?

That's me, doing my art and showing my technique. I'm promoting my novels by talking excitedly about dressing them up for their debut. It's natural and fun. Painless, in fact. The grand finale will be presenting the covers to my readers and friends.

I can't talk about creating covers for my books and consider the job of promotion done. I'll talk through the whole process of indie publishing, but I'm also thinking of other ways I can give to my readers and build meaningful relationships. This probably means a personal blog, where I can create free yet meaningful content that will hopefully make my readers' lives better. Remember what Bonnie said, interviews--promotion!--is about the audience, always. Being other oriented makes promotion a lot more fun.

And I'll do interviews!

How do you see Bonnie's interview ideas applied to other areas of promotion? How have you created content to enrich your reader's lives? What venues do you use? Have you seen authors do this well? Feel free to ask questions and offer ideas of others-oriented promotion.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Novel Matters Interviews Sharon K. Souza

We practice what we preach here at Novel Matters. Two days of Interview 101, and now we are happy to host one of our own, Sharon K. Souza, as she has just released her third novel, Unraveled.
Today, Sharon talks about her fears about going indie, the publishing industry, and what it's like to write from the gut.

Novel Matters: Sharon, you read mountains every year, you’ve been writing for 25 years. Tell me, what scares you? When was the last time you were scared?

Sharon K. Souza: What scares me? In this context, what scares me is that 25 years of investing myself in a writer’s life will have been in vain; that I’ve let down my family—who are my greatest encouragers—by not being productive as a writer, and not abandoning my goals a long time ago to do something professionally to add to our household income. My husband, Rick, has done everything in his power to let me pursue my dreams, and just thinking of his incredible support moves me to tears.

NM: Now I’m scared, too. There’s no guarantee anything we write will be published, or that we will be able to continue being published. Why not throw in the towel?

SKS: Writing is not something I choose to do; a writer is what I am. Big difference. It’s in my DNA. Story comes out my pores along with my sweat. Crude, yes, but that’s the truth.

NM: You were always a writer?

SKS: For the early years of my life, my artistic expression was in drawing and then painting. Then when I began to write, I stopped drawing and painting. It wasn’t an intentional decision. I just spent all my creativity on writing, both fiction and non-fiction in the early years. I’m at a place in my life now where I want to get back to drawing. And THAT scares me. Because what if I can’t after all this time? I bought a sketchpad and pencils a while back, and knowing they’re in that drawer in my office niggles at me all the time.

NM: But you’re not drawing, are you? You’re writing—and going in your own direction. You’re going indie. Riding the wave on your gut. Tell me about the freedom of going indie.

SKS: The decision to go indie, at least for now, has made it possible for me to write what I choose to write. I’m not pressed or made to conform to a writing style, genre or subject that doesn’t appeal to me. Some might call it a gamble, even foolish, but I was at a place where I felt I had nothing to lose by trying.

NM: Nothing to lose? What do you mean?

SKS: My publisher cancelled the optional third book in my contract and stopped publishing fiction altogether. I hoped my agent would be able to find a new publishing home where my career could blossom and grow. I believe she tried, but it wasn’t to be. What I’ve learned in the interim is that there’s a huge no-man’s land between CBA and ABA, and that’s where my writing falls. I’ve said it before that I believe CBA has purposely narrowed its scope in the past few years to a few specialized niches, because they’ve found great success in a few genres. I also believe it’s left a lot of readers disenfranchised who desire a Christian element to the novels they read. Those are the readers I hope to reach. I don’t fit in CBA any more, nor do I fit in ABA. I thought long and hard about writing the type of novel that does well in CBA for the sake of being published, but for me that would be like marrying for convenience instead of love. I just couldn’t do it.

Does it terrify me to be that transparent for everyone to see? You bet it does. But anyone who knows me knows that what you see is what you get.

NM: How long have you been without a publisher? Why go indie now?

SKS: With all the changes taking place in the publishing world, I’ve been without a publisher for almost 4 years, and I lost my agent last fall. So I made the decision—with the help and support of my family and my Novel Matters co-bloggers—to go solo; and it feels exactly like I’m walking the high wire without a safety net. Which I suppose I am, and it scares me tremendously. I’ve just self-published Unraveled, and I want to do the best I can by it. But I learned from my publishing experience with Every Good and Perfect Gift and Lying on Sunday, that the marketing was ultimately my responsibility.

NM: You mean the publisher didn’t market your traditionally published novels?

SKS: I don’t think any dollars were spent on marketing my books other than my publisher adding them to their catalogue.

NM: That must have been a monumental undertaking to first write a great novel, then be expected to market her own novel.

SKS: My reader base was in its infancy, Novel Matters was yet to be born, so I started with a very small reader base and little knowledge of how to expand it. I had several author colleagues “out there,” many whom I didn’t personally know, who featured my first two novels on their blogs.

NM: What are the plans for this new novel? Anything you can share with us?

SKS: I hope to again set up a blog tour with Unraveled. I had post cards printed and mailed over 800 of them this weekend. I “launched” my novel through my website and Facebook page over the weekend as well, and will soon begin an extensive marketing campaign to libraries throughout the country. I learned the value of marketing to libraries through Judy Gann, who has done a lot of teaching on the subject.

So what scares me in a nutshell—pun intended—is the thought that I’ve birthed something that won’t reach its potential. I plan to do everything I can to keep that from happening.

NM: That’s a truly terrifying glimpse into the reality of being a novelist these days. Did you use that experience in your writing? How do your own life, feelings, experiences, ideas and hopes work their way into your writing?

SKS: I do use my fears in my writing, along with my joys, frustrations and failures. I’ve struggled with deep feelings of inadequacy all my life. I never, ever think I measure up. When my protagonist, Aria Winters, is stripped of her false securities, she comes face to face with her own failures, and that part of the story was all too easy for me to write.

NM: Tapping into that depth of honesty has to be difficult. Is this something you do in all your work?

SKS: The novel I most recently completed is a story of extreme loss, and I drew upon my unfathomable sense of loss at the death of my son. I’ve never before drawn on such deep, deep emotions in my writing—though I thought I had.

NM: This puts me in mind of that Arthur Miller quote “The writer must be in it; he can’t be to one side of it, ever. He as to be endangered by it.”  

SKS: There’s no question that empathy trumps sympathy, and unless or until we experience the really hard things of life, we can’t empathize with those who have. I write characters I can relate to on a deep level, because I want to reach readers who relate to them as well. And I want them to know, “truly I feel your pain.” There are people who have suffered great loss and I hope to connect with them through it, because there is a connection between people with a shared experience, even if they’re strangers.

A reader contacted me not long ago as she was in the midst of reading Lying on Sunday, which is a story about betrayal. She shared that her story was very similar to Abbie’s, and she opened up to me with the details. It moves me deeply that a complete stranger would trust me with her pain, but it also says I wrote from a level of understanding that made her feel she could trust me. To me, connecting to a reader on that level is the most important aspect of my writing.

And because I write stories that deal with tough issues, I temper them with humor. I can’t think of anything that can’t benefit from a little comic relief.

NM: Tell us about the new novel.

SKS: Unraveled is the story of Aria Winters, an idealistic young woman who seeks a new adventure in her very privileged life. She travels to a country she knows nothing about, meets people who change her life in uncomfortable ways, and has a crisis that nearly undoes her. 

NM: Writing is a partnership between creativity and serendipity. Did anything unusual or surprising happen in the writing of this novel?

SKS: The surprising thing that happened while writing Unraveled is the thing that happens with each book I’ve written, and still I’m surprised when it happens. And that’s a symbolic element that arises unbidden in the story. In this case it’s the sunflower, which represents a yielded life, so reliant on the sun that it never turns its face away from the light. I think if I forced a symbolic element in any given story it would feel exactly that—forced. But when it arises organically with the telling of the story, it accomplishes its purpose.
NM: Let’s go back to the novel. It’s the story of a young woman, a sort of second coming of age story. What themes are woven into the novel?

SKS: The main theme of Unraveled is the importance of staying connected to your life source. That can be family, faith, all things familiar. But we weren’t created to live an unconnected life and we suffer in many ways when we try to (cue chorus for Simon & Garfunkle’s I am a Rock). A sub-theme is that second chances aren’t always wasted; that one failure doesn’t have to lead to another.

NM: Who did you write this story for?

SKS: I wrote Unraveled for an audience who likes faith-based fiction that is raw and honest, that isn’t trite in its message or predictable in plot.

NM: Tell me about the novels you love most—your “keeper” shelf.

SKS: My keeper shelf has quite an eclectic array of books, from all the Dickens novels to Ted Dekker to John Grisham to Jack London. Lisa Samson is a favorite author of mine, as is Jamie Langston Turner. Elizabeth Berg is high on my list. You notice my favorites are comprised of authors rather than titles. That’s because when I find a novel I really enjoy I want to read everything that author has written. I don’t necessarily love every one of their books, but I do enjoy the type of stories they tell, and the way they tell them. With that in mind, there are elements I include in all my fiction: vital friendships, and heavy topics tempered with humor.

NM: Sharon, why does the novel matter?

SKS: The novel matters to me because a novel is a window into the soul of a society, an age, an era. When you read a novel, particularly literary fiction, which is the filet mignon of fiction to my way of thinking, you learn about the values and concerns of the author and his/her audience. You learn the things that make one age different from another, and that in more ways than not, we aren’t that different.

The novel also matters for the sheer pleasure it provides. I often read two or three books at one time, a non-fiction of one type or another, a book on the craft of writing, and a novel. The novel is always what I conclude my evening with. I’ll read an hour or two before bed, and that hour or two is the dessert I look forward to all day. When I hear someone say they aren’t a reader, it always jars me, and then I think of all the pleasures that person is missing. I can’t imagine a world without books. 
Thanks, Sharon, for your honesty, insight, wisdom, and for blazing a trail for like minded authors.
Dear Readers, we hope you've enjoyed this interview and that you'll drop Sharon a comment to let her know. Please stop by her web site, and we know she'd be honoured if you ordered her latest novel, Unraveled.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Anatomy of the Interview, Part 2

*In this special Tuesday edition of Novel Matters, we present part 2 of The Anatomy of the Interview. You can read part one here.*

Content of an interview
Here’s the secret of great writers, the ones who can write a novel so fulfilling the readers wish to eat it with a spoon: Writer, know thyself.

Know yourself, and be able to lay across the pages of your work, like a scroll with a broken seal, and transfer the very impression of your skin, breath, and heartbeat using only 26 letters.

Writers are observers, listeners, catchers of the emotion that floats in the spaces between two people. Nothing is lost on the novelist when crafting his story.

These qualities, these deep intuitions of human nature and the ability to zero in on its aspects must be brought to your interview.

Watch how our own Sharon Souza does it:

NM: Tapping into that depth of honesty has to be difficult. Is this something you do in all your work?

SKS: The novel I most recently completed is a story of extreme loss, and I drew upon my unfathomable sense of loss at the death of my son. I’ve never before drawn on such deep, deep emotions in my writing—though I thought I had.

NM: This puts me in mind of that Arthur Miller quote “The writer must be in it; he can’t be to one side of it, ever. He as to be endangered by it.” 

SKS: There’s no question that empathy trumps sympathy, and unless or until we experience the really hard things of life, we can’t empathize with those who have. I write characters I can relate to on a deep level, because I want to reach readers who relate to them as well. And I want them to know, “truly I feel your pain.” There are people who have suffered great loss and I hope to connect with them through it, because there is a connection between people with a shared experience, even if they’re strangers. *The full interview with Sharon will be posted on the blog Wednesday, August 8, 2012.*

It’s easy to picture Sharon saying this, even if you’ve never seen her before. It’s so natural. She’s obviously being herself, telling you a truth in the same clear-eyed voice you’ll find peppered throughout her novels. And it was all so easy for her to do, right?

Sorry, no. It takes work.

You’ve heard the obvious advice before: Be yourself.

This is only good advice if “yourself” is naturally terribly interesting and a good communicator.

Maybe you are, but I’m going to assume it’s a reasonably safe bet that you don’t have the ability to razzle-dazzle at the drop of a hat. That you might need to work up the nerve first, that you likely need to practice being sharply on point and distractingly interesting at the same time.

Be yourself is too general to be helpful. The real me is mostly a collection of dull moments, un-brilliant thoughts, and the occasional fit of stupidity. Often I am funny, but not usually on purpose. In other words, the real me—or, more to the point, the real you—isn’t supposed to be for public consumption.

It’s too big and, frankly, boring for the interview. People who believe they are “naturally chatty” and charming, usually end up yammering on and on about themselves without any direction or purpose. People who are shy end up giving short answers that are mistakenly interpreted at unfriendly.

In an interview, you bring parts of your true self to light that are relevant to the purpose of the interview (see part 1). You must choose the truths about yourself that are the most compelling, interesting, relevant, and endearing (or iconoclastic if that’s what fits).

Call it personae. Call it a brand (but let’s give that term a rest, shall we?). Call it personality.

For example, Cec Murphy self identifies as “curmudgeon”.  Doing so helps his public personae in many ways. First, by repeating the title hundreds of times, he has branded himself in the minds of others: he calls himself a curmudgeon, we believe him (eventually).

Second, it gives him the freedom to say things other people might hedge away from. He can be straightforward because we cheerfully accept that he is saying and doing those things because he’s a curmudgeon, shucks, ain’t it sort of charming?

Thirdly, and most cleverly, he has managed to parlay this aspect of his personality into the image of the wise man, the hermit in the cave others seek out for wisdom. He’s gruff, but he’s honest and that makes an encounter with him and his work worthwhile.

Not a bad gig. And its true. It’s not his total truth, it’s not necessarily the most important truth about him, but it is the coat his public persona wears and it works well.

While you’re mulling over which of your personal aspects are the best fit for your upcoming interview, keep in mind that there is one that must be included in every media exposure: the components that make you an artist. Every interview is, in part, an exploration into the creative mind.

Creative types fascinate everyone, these people who have carelessly and passionately thrown themselves into the arms of Art and live to tell the tale. A fundamental human question is to try to understand the creative process and creative mind.

This brings us back to that basic rule of writing: show, not tell.

You don’t explain the creative process and mind by talking about them. The best interviewers know that the only way to explain is to show it in action. To tell stories about it. They make simple statements about an action they have taken. They don’t apologize for it, or try to explain it, nor do they beg to be understood. They don’t make a fuss over it either.

Here’s Judy Blume tossing out great insights into the creative mind:

“Fudge was actually based on my son Larry when he was a toddler [. . . ] He [. . . ] want[ed] to eat his supper under the table and so I let him.
I can remember a friend walking in once and saying, "Judy, you better stop him from doing that. He is going to grow up to be so weird." I am here to tell you that he's all grown up and he's a lovely man and he eats his dinner at the table with everyone else. We used to say, "Larry is an interesting toddler." You know what? He's an interesting man.”
Blume has done so much more than explain of the genesis of a character, she’s expressed an artistic truth and is unapologetic in her approach to creative living. It’s a glimpse into what it takes to be a writer: a fearless certainty in the process. Joy in the journey.

Notice too, the subject of Blume’s statement about creativity isn’t herself, but her son, Larry. Do you see what this does? Can you feel the casual, inviting way she says, “Isn’t life wonderful and strange? Don’t you think we’ll be great friends?”

Friendship. In the end, that is the blessed crux of the interview. An interesting, offbeat, creative storyteller shows up wearing loose fitting, comfortable clothing, takes a seat, smiles and says, “Isn’t life wonderful and strange? I think we’re going to be friends.”