Monday, January 30, 2012

The Age We Read

If you asked me what kind of book would have a profound effect on me at this stage of my life, one of my last choices would have been a book about the Jazz Age in the 1920s. After all, I took a whole semester of F. Scott Fitzgerald in college (only because it was the only lit class offered during the semester that I could fit in my crammed class schedule) and I hated it.

So. . . I buy books on tape, whatever’s available at the time, at a local charity thrift store. (Fortunately for me, someone with literary tastes like mine donates regularly.) So I ran through the Grisham and the Sharon Ewell Foster and the Cornwell and the Hillerman. So all that was left was The Great Gatsby. So I began to listen to it because it was narrated by KJV Bible narrator Alexander Scourby.

When I read Fitzgerald in my twenties, I was newly and happily married. I couldn’t muster up sympathy for alcoholics who danced in Manhattan’s fountains, years before my mother was even born. I couldn’t relate to the angst of those people with their marital problems that bled over into their writing. After all, my life was wonderful – and not only that, I had a whole lifetime ahead of me.

But now I am myself a novelist, and writing about issues that destroy people’s souls, that wash hope beyond the most distant shores, issues that demand re-evaluation because they determine where people will spend a mobius loop of eternity. Issues which demand our attention because ignoring them can put us in a position in which it can be too late, irretrievably too late.

For the first time, the description at the end of The Great Gatsby made sense to my soul:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I am a different person than when I first read that, years ago.

And now I think that I shall never recover from those words; the simplicity, the finality, the truthfulness of those words.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Story World Matters: Part III

To begin, I would like a show of hands: How many people would like to join me on a teaching conference call to discuss story world further? I would set up a time, you call in online, you will be able to see only me, but we would all be able to talk. I would need at least 15 people or so to make it work. If you would be interested, leave me a short comment.
When it comes to story world you can’t escape the word organic. All the elements of our novels need to connect structurally in non-forced ways. Organic means the story is honest, and that the parts have grown naturally, one idea feeding the next until we have a cast of characters living in a believable world and acting truthfully. Whenever we try to push a concept through a cookie cutter template we end up with a generic formula story that lacks vitality and depth. It’s just like every other story. In Part two of this series, we discussed how to ensure connectivity by story world being a physical representation of the conflict between characters.

The second type of conflict that story world demonstrates is the internal conflict of your hero. When you create a character web, you examine in detail how the various characters oppose one another. The only way to do that is to fully grasp what it is the hero wants, and then how the other characters try to prevent the hero (and each other) from getting his or her desire fulfilled.

In the best stories, the hero has a strong desire at the beginning, which changes (is altered) over the course of the novel. The lessons learned through the course of the novel temper the desire in some way (strengthen it, weaken it only to reveal to the hero the stronger desire he/she was suppressing, etc.). For example, the hero of a murder mystery wants to find the killer, but by the end of the story he discovers his greatest desire was to prove to himself that he doesn’t possess the mind and instincts of a killer himself. The story world helps the reader to see the hero’s internal conflict—the war inside.

There are two things to hold in balance while you craft a story world that physically demonstrates your hero’s struggle for what he desires.

First, ensure your story world properly reflects the kind or type of journey your hero partakes of in the novel. This is a question of story structure. You can read more about this in part one of the series. Secondly, focus on building a story world that reflects the hero’s weakness, and need, as well as desire.

For the first part, we are concerned about the overall arch of the hero’s journey, the structure of the novel that takes the hero from the place he or she lives at the beginning of the novel, and moves him to a new moral, ethical, emotional, and sometimes geographic location by the end. In broadest terms, there are two states a hero can live in: freedom or slavery. Your novel is the story of how your hero moves between these two states of being.

There are pits stops along the way, places that appear to be freedom, but are actually deeper slavery, and places that appear to be defeat (or a visit to death), that lead the hero toward freedom. This journey is organically built into every aspect of your story including the story world. The places and things your character encounters are every bit the hero’s journey as are the dialogue, character interaction, backstory, and plot. John Truby says it this way, “The connection between hero and world extends from the hero’s slavery throughout his character arc. In most stories, because the hero and the world are expressions of each other, the world and the hero develop together.”

The second part requires us to consider our hero’s weakness, desire, and need. Story world demonstrates the hero’s weakness in physical ways. Need is personified inside of place. Desire for freedom is sketched out in the landscape of places, and the systems that are in place. It’s Luke Skywalkers home planet Tatoonine, a dessert place where a living must be coaxed from the sand. It’s Harry’s room under the stairs. In Gilead, it is the box on top of the bookcase that John Ames cannot manage to take down by himself. Often our stories begin with the hero living in slavery (to an idea, a system, an unloving family, a haunting mystery, an old hurt, etc.), and has specific weaknesses. The story world, then begins as a place that highlights and exploits that weakness. As the hero fights for the goal, the story world changes to reflect the small success and larger failures along the way, until, finally, the hero reaches the goal (or fails to reach it) and the story world is changed because it.

It’s a dance where the world and the hero are in step, mirroring one another. The reader understands the movement of the novel because it pulses all around.

The take home is that story world is a physical manifestation of the hero’s inner conflict, weakness, need, and desire that changes over the course of the novel.

It’s been a great week on Novel Matters. We’ve gone deep into story world, yet there is much more we could have talked about. My biggest difficulty in crafting this series was all the material I had to leave out of the discussion for the sake of articles that didn't run several thousand words long. 

If you would be interested in a live conference call, leave a comment and let me know. If the numbers work out, I’ll schedule the call and we can meet up and talk more.

Meanwhile, what has been the take away for you this week? What have you come across in your reading that touches on story world? Do you have questions? 

Debbie Fuller Thomas is on She Reads today talking characters and writing what you know. A great article! Check it out.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Story World Matters: Part II

The takeaway from Part 1 of this series was that the world your characters live in is a manifestation of those characters. So, if we create a story world that reveals our characters, does that mean it should rain every time the hero is upset?

Please no.

Characters are complex—meaning they are layered, sometimes contrary, and able to hide truth from themselves. Story world personifies the complexity of your characters over the course of the novel. It’s the ground they stand on, and the wind up their kilt. It’s the dark alley of oppression, and warm house of acceptance. The buildings, weather, land mass, and even the technology inside the story world is organically linked to the characters in such a way that it reveals meaning, themes, and plot.

For example, in my completed manuscript A Girl Named Fish, my hero, Joan, lives on a fictional dystopian island. The story structure is fairy tale, so that means the island is Joan’s kingdom. I emphasize this point by giving Joan and her husband, Leif, an apartment above the chandlery shop they own. This serves as Joan’s ‘high tower’, the place in which she eavesdrops on the world without fully engaging. I crafted a scene near the beginning of the novel in which Joan stands in front of her open window and overhears two women on the street below talking about her. Later, when a girl calling herself Fish enters this rarified space, it is altered. Near the end of the novel, there is another scene where Joan overhears two women talking about her, but the high tower has been transformed.

My island in A Girl Named Fish is fictional, but novels often borrow a real location as their setting. The difference is, when you borrow a real place, let’s say Las Vegas, you make it into your Las Vegas. You craft it’s places and give meaning to it’s buildings, attractions, and streets. It’s motels are as corrupt and gritty as your undercover cop hero, or casinos as glamorous and sparkling as your beauty pageant character, or its neighborhoods as cloistered and manicured as your falsely perfect characters who allow themselves to be blinded by the high fences around their houses that keep truth out.

You take the real place and mold it into a familiar, yet utterly unique place that pulses, shifts, and changes with your characters. You create a world that is a revelation. The city itself reveals a moral truth of humanity. And yes, you do this even with historical fiction. Every place in history has a few nooks and crannies you can realistically use, bend, invent to create the exact story world you need to tell the story.


Remember the adage Fiction is conflict? That isn’t just plot advice. It’s important to crafting all aspects of fiction, including story world. Your story world expresses the conflicts between characters in physical ways.

This means that in order to create an organic story world, you need to understand the web of conflict between characters. In simple stories like romance novels, there is a hero (the POV character) and an opponent (the person the POV character falls in love with), with the rest of the cast of characters there to make tea when the POV character cries. More complex stories are ones that have multiple characters in opposition to the hero and to each other. Every character is a reflection a different way of understanding the hero’s moral issue. Your story world will reflect the conflict.

For example, in The Great Gatsby, there is an initial conflict between the open spaces of the Midwest, and the elegant closed-ness of the city, including its mansions. There is the East Egg (established wealth), and the West Egg (new money). Gatsby is newly rich by illegal means, and his home is gaudy and ill appointed compared to the homes of the less recently rich. Later, the mansions add layers of conflict by introducing the gas station where we find Tom’s mistress. And New York City, by the end, has morphed into a beast, a monster, green and vile. All of these aspects of story world combine to support and diagram the deeper conflict found in the novel. The conflict between people, ideas, systems, and ideologies are all manifest in the story world.

Notice how the physical world in The Great Gatsby not only reflects conflict between characters, but also conflict of values. The values held by your hero (more about that in part 3), and how they are in opposition to the values held by other characters and the systems that entrap each one. Your story world supports and manifests the various conflicts of values found in the story.

In Alice Hoffman’s epic novel The Dovekeepers, the story world is Masada, King Herod’s abandoned desert fortress where 960 Jews chose to die by their own hands rather than be taken hostage by Rome. The novel is a study in conflict. Three women come to Masada from different places (open spaces) and work together in the dovecotes (closed spaces). Masada is a fortress against the gathering Roman army on the desert floor below, and inside Masada there are opulent rooms where leaders reside, and cramped, dark stables where poor families live. And there are hidden places deep within the mountain where magic spells are pronounced and women give birth to illegitimate children in secret. Each space inside Masada highlights the conflict between characters (the cave on the side of the mountain where the Essenes hide away from the “unclean” Jews above, the cistern that runs nearly dry, the dovecotes where a woman and a captured slave are thrown together. All these aspects combine to highlight the shifting alliances and increasingly dangerous conflicts.

The spaces in The Dovekeepers reflect the conflict of values found among diverse yet devout people. They highlight the religious, economic, class, and ideological conflicts, and hold them in tension with the terrible deeds that take place in the open (the desert) in the name of survival.

The general rule is the greater the conflict between characters, the smaller the space should be that contains the conflict. Great stories always have their great, final battle take place inside the smallest spaces in the story. This works best when the entire story before the final battle has made structural use of story world to help tell the story. (Don’t be confused by the term “battle” this refers to whatever form major conflict takes, it doesn’t refer exclusively to combat or fighting.)

The take home is that your story world is the physical manifestation of your character’s conflicts.

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

Monday, January 23, 2012

Story World Matters: Part 1

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It's story world week on Novel Matters. Three articles examining three aspects of creating an organic story world for fiction that feels like real life.
I'm taking over the week and teaching some of the basics. I hope this will touch off a series of questions, discussions, and contributions from each one of us. I offer these articles as starting points, things to consider and fiddle with as we write. I don't pretend to have all the answers or suggest that this is the only way to create story world. I know it works for me, and I offer these ideas up to you for your consideration.

Like all elements of fiction writing, story world is multifarious. Meaning, it isn’t one thing, but a composite of techniques, perspectives, and aspects of the writing craft, which are also multifaceted.

Story world is exactly what it says it is: the world in which your characters live, breathe, and have their meaning. It includes the setting, but is much larger and complex than setting alone. It is the world you create in order to express your characters. Story world “shows” (demonstrates) your hero’s personal growth as it morphs and changes throughout the story.

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

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

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

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

Story structure is: Story process + original execution.

Story process refers to the type of story you are telling (love story, fairy tale, coming of age, dystopian, journey, fish out of water, myth, masterpiece, etc). Original execution refers to the unique way you will tell the story.

Here are some examples of this formula:

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

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

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

Let the Great World Spin: A single moment in history is the catalyst for tragedy and hope, expressing humanity’s irrevocable connectedness. (Story process: Allegory/myth hybrid. Original execution: bringing diverse and seemingly unconnected characters together inside a defining moment in history.)

Story world: New York City, beginning in the heart of Manhattan, and spidering out into the various boroughs.

The story world in this novel is overly familiar: New York City. McCann takes the city and creates a series of enclosed spaces where the characters live out their disconnection (a hovel apartment in a dangerous neighborhood, a space under a bridge, a sweeping Central Park apartment, cabin, an institutional home for the physically impaired), crowned by the space below, and around the World Trade Center buildings.

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

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

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

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

Your story world is no less detailed.

Detailed and limited. You need to erect boundaries around your story world. The drama of your novel will take place inside of these “walls” (even if there are no walls at all—State of Wonder, Ann Patchett’s latest release takes place in outdoor spaces, first the streets of a city, then the jungle). When you think of your novel, you need to think in terms of contained space. Where are the boundaries of your story? Is it a town, a city, an island, a house, a boat, a shoreline, a hut, a jungle, etc.? Then, within those boundaries, you will create secondary spaces (rooms with in a house, a house within a city, a campsite within a forest, etc).

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

This is only the tip of the iceberg, a brief introduction to the topic of story world. There is a great deal more to consider based on the specific story structure you will use, and the original execution you will employ. We’ll explore further in part two, coming on Wednesday.

For now, the key take away is that the world your characters live in is a manifestation of those characters.

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

Friday, January 20, 2012

Lessons on Truth from Novel X

What a great start to the year--a guest post by Ariel on Monday that reflected what we intuitively know about a great book but she put into words: "Character and Plot and Setting and Theme slip away with time. But I can pull any book from that shelf [of keepers], dust off the cover, flip to a favorite passage and tell you exactly how it made me feel. And really, that’s all that matters in the end." If you missed Ariel's post, backpedal a few days to enjoy her passion for a good read. And then, there's Katy's post on Wednesday that left us gob-smacked as she gave voice to her astonishment, the true calling of the novelist, according to Annie Dillard. Thanks, Katy.

At the end of Katy's post, she said, "Truth is what happens underneath, and how it resonates like a great voice through a vast impossible mouth." And that's our job as fiction writers, to tell the truth.

I gave this a lot of thought. I know excellent fiction is truer than life, but what goes wrong when it isn't?

It just so happens I finished reading a novel for my book club a few days ago, and I couldn't quite put my finger on why it left me flat. I'm not going to tell you the title or author. The Novel Matters writers are looking forward to reviewing novels in the coming months, novels that matter for their craft and for "the way it made [us] feel." This novel (Novel X) was a worthwhile read, to be sure, but not one that gob-smacked me, so I'm only using my reading of the novel as a jumping off point for our discussion.

I must say that the author did an amazing job of plunking me into a landscape and culture of intense contrasts and unequaled beauty--the mountains of Kentucky--with exceptional skill, so much so that his words set my heart longing for a place I'd never been. And his descriptions--oh my.

But the read was dissatisfying, despite the plethora of 5-starred reviews the book received. (The novel read more like a memoir, which should read more like a novel, but that's a topic for another day.) I think my dissatisfaction came down to the question of truth. John Truby says in his book The Anatomy of Story: "...You must give the hero desire. Desire is what your hero wants in the story, his particular goal...Desire is the driving force in the story, the line from which everything else hangs."

In Novel X, the hero wants what she already has, and that would be a fine desire to structure a story around, if the author had created obstacles to the hero keeping her family and home, but there weren't, not really. And that's not truthful. We are all driven by desire, and we all fight against an army of obstacles to obtain those desires. This is the very reason we read novels. We want to see the hero struggle toward their desires, just as we do, sometimes failing, perhaps being betrayed, always being sidetracked, and frequently a bit misguided.

What I'm suggesting is that a big part of "the truth that happens underneath," as Katy said, is desire, and the stronger the desire the stronger the obstacles and the more satisfying the story when that desire is met, or traded in for something higher, more noble, or holy.

Perhaps Novel X's hero's lack of desire hit me because I'm guilty of this flaw. Not that I lack desires. I'm a zoo of desires! But it's scary to embue my hero with a desire that will take him or her places that make my skin itch, or toward a thicket of obstacles with no discernable path. It's a process, for sure. Here's a recent conversation I had with my latest hero-in-the-making to demonstrate my point:

Me: So, Reece, what do you really, really desire?
Reece: For the last year to go away.
Me: That's not going to happen. I wish it could, for your sake, but then we wouldn't have a story to tell. Think about it. What do you desire? What are you willing to die for?
Reece: I want my family back.
Me: Your ex-husband is married to another woman. Maybe you should desire something else.
Reece: You asked me what I would die for.
Me: So I did. What's your first move?
Reece: Isn't that your job? I could use some direction here.
Me: probably shouldn't have had the affair.
Reece: Are you sure you're qualified to write this story?
Me: This isn't getting us anywhere. Tell me about your parents. Why are you back home?
Reece: My mother's crazy, always has been, and she's finally driven my father away. She can't live alone, just can't.
Me: Let's see, you're a divorced adultress who wants her married husband back, and you're trying to save your parents' marriage. I suppose there are kids involved. This is getting messy.
Reece: You're the one who asked about desire.
Me: So I did. Let me get back to you.

As you can see, Reece and I have some work to do. This piece of the story--the hero's desire--is so very important that I'm willing to revisit it many, many times. Without a strong desire and plenty of obstacles, I don't see how we can say our fiction is truthful. This is where our heros find their motivations, after all.

What about you? How important is desire when conceptualizing your hero and his/her story? Are there other story elements more important to establishing truth in a novel? If you've read a Novel X--let's be nice and not name it--what was missing?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Yesterday on my morning walk around Greenhorn lake, now half frozen over, I heard a sound so astonishing, even the explanation demanded disbelief, and Einstein-like analysis, and in the end ... astonishment.

What the sound was, was two otters (I think it was two) swimming, and barking, in the water beneath the ice. My friends and I reasoned that the ice created a big echo chamber, and the otters were perhaps barking for the same reason we yell, "Hello!" in a canyon.

What it sounded like was something akin to sonar mixed with the bellowing of a seal. But that doesn't begin to cover it, because the sound was ... so big. It sounded like the lake was an enormous mouth, talking.

Just when I thought this place couldn't astonish me further.

I've seen an eagle lift into flight not twenty feet away, and felt the wind from his wings. I've heard the call of ruddy ducks, not quacking, but sweet and plaintive. I've seen a mole - a dead one, but perfectly formed with soft gray fur, tiny hands and a small fleshy flower on the tip of his nose.

I've heard the sound of ice cracking down the length of the lake, another amazing noise, like gun-shot and thunder.

Annie Dillard says this is a clue to the meaning of my life: "You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment."

I can live with that. Sometimes I think I read novels, and write them, simply because I want, in the largest possible sense, to get it. I remember something I heard once in La Jolla, California, a favorite vacation spot for my family when I was young. (Younger. I meant younger.) Speaking to a girl my age who lived there, I gushed, "You are so lucky. You see this amazing, immense, crashing ocean every day." With whales in the distance, and dolphins, and tide pools filled with mysterious creatures, and surf so loud you can't think, you can only feel. Her reply was, "After a while, you don't notice."

It seemed wrong - a shame, certainly, but less like something to be regretted, and more like something to be repented. It was an insult to something holy. To Someone holy.

But there are things I don't notice. Maybe a little less than there might be, because I am a writer, and I'm always thinking how to describe things. Still, if I really understood what lay before me every day, if I had eyes to see and ears to hear, wouldn't I go around gob-smacked all the time?

One day, I'll get it.

Meanwhile, I'm going to need a lot of stories. I'm going to need Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and Walter Wangerin's In The Days of Angels. I'm going to need the novels of Bonnie Grove, and Patti Hill, and Latayne Scott, and Sharon Souza and Debbie Fuller Thomas. I'm going to need a lot of authors who at least get it a little bit, to give voice to their astonishment so that in their light I can see the beauty before my eyes.

Without these writers, I am at the mercy of the marketers who tell me what is beautiful based on what they manufacture that they want me to buy.  With that kind of propaganda, I might look at an ailing old woman without her teeth, and be repelled or amused, but fail to be amazed at the beauty Wangerin sees:

"Odessa Williams was frowning—frowning and nodding, frowning with her eyes squeezed shut, frowning, you see, with fierce pleasure, as though she were chewing a delicious piece of meat." (From In the Days of Angels.)

When I see you, or you see me, we might notice things the magazines have trained us to see, like hair and complexion and style. If we're very spiritual, we might see goodness or shame, and miss the deeper truth that one loving man finds, in Gilead:

"When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the “I” whose predicate can be “love” or “fear” or “want,” and whose object can be “someone” or “nothing” and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around “I” like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick, and avid, and resourceful."

The great thing writers must do, even in fiction, is to tell the truth. You might think the real goal would be to create an exciting plot. Truth can be boring, after all. Check out the millions of truths driving the highways on Monday mornings, and you'll see how boring truth can be.

This is where great writers earn the big bucks. (That was a joke.) They never settle for easy facts and call them truth. They know that Monday morning traffic is only the ice on the surface of the lake. Truth is what happens underneath, and how it resonates like a great voice through a vast impossible mouth.

Monday, January 16, 2012

How it Feels: Guest Post by Ariel Allison Lawhon of She Reads

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“…in the end we will only just remember how it feels…”

– Rob Thomas, Little Wonders

There is a bookcase at one end of my living room. I refer to as my “keeper shelf” and were you to visit me (I hope you do!) you would find a motley assortment of novels. I keep my Harry Potter collection beside The Chronicles of Narnia. They’re not so different after all, full of magic and wonder and whimsy. I have Ann Patchett and L.M. Montgomery and Neil Gaiman. Kate DiCamillo. Marilyn Robinson. Leif Enger. Somehow The Book Thief and The Glass Castle ended up on the same shelf as a five-book collection by P.G. Wodehouse (bought, I might add, at a rambling bookstore owned by Larry McMurtry). A dusty and tattered edition of The Princess and the Goblin is held together by a rubber band and sits on the shelf farthest away from my curious toddler. It’s the copy my mother read to me as a child and I’d sooner give birth to a hippo than part with it. The Thirteenth Tale. Water for Elephants. The Night Circus. The Kite Runner. The Hunger Games. The Help. Watership Down. I own almost every novel written by Dick Francis and George MacDonald.


This collection of stories evokes something in me that I find difficult to express. It’s not uncommon for me to pass my bookshelf, run my fingers along the spines, and close my eyes. I summon the emotions I felt the first time I read them. Sometimes I even pull one from its spot and read a passage. I did this yesterday with The Time Travelers Wife:

The curve of her shoulders, the stiffness in her posture say here is someone who is very tired, and I am very tired, myself. I shift my weight from one foot to the other and the floor creaks; the woman turns and sees me and her face is remade into joy; I am suddenly amazed; this is Clare, Clare old! And she is coming to me, so slowly, and I take her into my arms.”
Three years later and I don’t remember much of the plot, but I do remember how I wept my way through the last 50 pages. Audrey Niffenegger broke my heart and then patched it together with that last scene. My devotion for her novel is irrational.
For me, redemption is synonymous with The Kite Runner. I was quiet when I finished Khaled Hosseini’s stunning debut. I sat, book laid open in my lap, and felt something akin to worship—not for the author, but for the pure joy of seeing that kite lift into the air, and for what it meant:
It was only a smile, nothing more. It didn’t make everything all right. It didn’t make anything all right. Only a smile. A tiny thing. A leaf in the woods, shaking in the wake of a startled bird’s flight. But I’ll take it. With open arms. Because when spring comes, it melts snow one flake at a time, and maybe I just witnessed the first flake melting.

Every book on that shelf moved me. Sometimes to laughter. Sometimes to tears. I have felt rage and empathy and grief. I’ve even fallen in love a time or two. Yet I’d be hard pressed to synopsize any of my favorite novels. Character and Plot and Setting and Theme slip away with time. But I can pull any book from that shelf, dust off the cover, flip to a favorite passage and tell you exactly how it made me feel. And really, that’s all that matters in the end.

Question for you: what is it that you hope your reader’s feel when they’ve finished your novel? Can you describe, in a word, what the last novel you read made you feel?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Want Ad: MWF Seeks Self Assured Novel for Long Term Relationship

Sometimes I wish finding a great novel was as easy as placing an ad in the classifieds. Wanted: Hunky page-turner for trips to the beach and possible late night trysts.

Recently, I tried my hand at writing a want ad for the kind of novel I am looking for. It was a hopeless mess. But one phrase kept coming to mind:
Self-assured. I need that.

I have a hard time making sense of the world. I struggle with what other people seem to grasp so well, so quickly. Small talk is nearly impossible for me. When someone asks me a question like, “How have you been?” I over answer. Worse, I tend to ask questions that make people screw up their faces and shrug their shoulders at me. My mother tells me that I’ve never seen the world the way most people do. She says this in a proud and delighted way, which makes me feel better about it.

Imagine my delight upon opening a novel and discovering within mere paragraphs a mind and imagination I could relate to. I was a kid of maybe 9 or 10, and Judy Blume had done me the favor of writing a novel called Otherwise Known as Shelia the Great. A story about a girl who over invents herself (lies) in order to be noticed and liked. I don’t remember the story as much as I remember the thought I had when reading it, “Finally, someone who speaks my language.”

It wasn’t Sheila the Great talking my language, it was Judy Blume. And without knowing it, I had fallen in love with the introspective novel—those titles we refer to collectively as literary. I searched them out. And, having found them, I searched for myself in their pages. I didn’t approach novels in order to get lost in them. I was hoping to be found.

That’s what it’s all about in a way, isn’t it? Looking for bits of ourselves that had been somehow scattered to the four literary corners of the world. Not that we knew that, not for the longest time, but when we discovered this fact, didn’t we shudder feeling exposed and excited? It was a bit like being spied on. And it was beautiful. And ugly. Or at least as ugly as we believed ourselves to be at the time. Now that we’ve read more, we know better than to call ourselves ugly. Warty, maybe. Flawed. Sometimes broken. But literature won’t leave us self-loathing. It teaches us that self-loathing is merely one of a million options for how we can choose to live.

The novel of self-discovery is one that offers neither the rose-colored glasses nor the fog of despair, but the adjustable lens of a telescope. Through it we can bring a distant moment into sharp focus and see it for what it is. The reality of the thing. But the grace of it is we can blur the lens too. Take in small frames of truth, only as much as our eyes can hold at one time. The novel will wait for us. We will go back to it, thumb its pages, reread that bit near the middle. It’s not asking us to judge, only to look, and in looking, see, and in seeing, understand.

Understanding is where grace shines. It pries into the cracks forming on the surface of our doubt. It whispers words so softly we can only guess at their meaning. It rolls us over so we can see things from another angle. And it never once tells us what to think. It only asks that we do think.

How could I condense these thoughts into a want ad, 20 words or less, seeking my perfect novel? What would your want ad read?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Hope and a Prayer

In keeping with our theme for the year: Why the Novel Matters, for my first post of 2012 I'd like to share a story about how a novel contributed to the journey of faith of a young U.S. Marine.

In April 1971, my fiance Rick and I were 18 and crazy in love. He was a Marine; I was a recovering hippie. It was with many tears I sent him off to the Philippines for a 15-month tour of duty. He'd had orders to Viet Nam, which were canceled at the last minute when President Nixon began a major troop reduction. So it could have been worse, though it didn't feel like it.

Life in the Philippines was a different world for Rick, particularly off base. But even on base, drug use was rampant, and Rick began to see many of his friends turning to hard drugs. While he was a heavy drinker, even at 18, he had no interest in drugs, but the peer pressure was intense. One night while on guard duty in the jungle Rick prayed his first-ever spontaneous prayer. He promised God that he wouldn't go into town on liberty again, where every kind of temptation and trouble could be found, if God would get him back home. One week later, early in the morning, he and 7 other Marines were headed down a windy mountain road on their way to the shooting range when the truck they were in lost its brakes and steering. Both lines had been cut by rebel guerillas known as Huks. The truck rolled and very nearly went off the mountain. All 8 Marines were injured. Rick suffered a broken back, and was eventually medi-vacced home -- the only one in the accident who was. He ultimately received a medical discharge from the Marine Corps as a result of his injuries. Rick believed then, and now, that through those circumstances God answered his first genuine prayer.

But while he was in the hospital in the Philippines, a Red Cross volunteer came to his room one day with a cart of books. Rick selected The Robe, written in 1942 by Lloyd C. Douglas, from the stack of books because he remembered seeing the movie when he was a kid. As he read that novel, the Gospel became real to him for the first time in his life. Even now, more than 40 years later, he still gets emotional when he talks about the impact that novel had on him, because it's really what began his journey of faith.

We were married soon after he returned to California. He and I had very different backgrounds and upbringings, very different religious experiences that shaped us, and they were worlds apart. But the impact that novel had on him put us both on a path that ultimately brought us together in our commitment to Christ. Within a few years of our marriage, Rick became an ordained minister within our denomination. Since the mid-80s, he has traveled the world building churches, Bible schools, orphanages, and helping ministries reach their full potential. But he credits a novel about the garment for which Roman soldiers gambled while Christ hung on the cross, for starting him on a journey he never could have imagined.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Why the Novel Matters

Welcome back to Novel Matters! We hope you had a wonderful holiday season and are excited about the possibilities of 2012. We have missed you and the stimulating conversations we have come to enjoy so much. We've been busy bees while you were gone. Here's a taste of what's coming in the new year:

Drumroll please...announcing our theme for this year -
why the novel matters. Everything we do in 2012 will circle back to this question, and we'll be looking for your input, so put those thinking caps on.

Soon we'll announce the particulars of a "Why the Novel Matters" essay contest. The essay can address novels in general or one in particular and the grand prize will be a Kindle! Lucky finalists will not go away empty-handed, as we have some delightful parting gifts, so stay tuned.

We've lined up interviews with fabulous authors whose books help us answer our theme question. They'll give us a peek into their methods and madness and maybe even their struggles with publication. Look for these interviews to begin in February and continue on the fourth Monday of each month through November.

We'd love to have a picture of you reading one of our books in an exotic locale (or just around town, but be creative). We'll post your photo on our blog and give you a shout-out on our
new Facebook page.

Yes, Novel Matters is now on Facebook, and we'd love for you to 'like' us
here. Now it's even easier to stay in touch and keep the conversation going. We'll also post photos of the writer's life and try to make it look more glamorous than it actually is (no pictures in our jammies, we promise).

We've sharpened our Ticonderoga #2 pencils and are tapping into our creative juices to bring some short stories to the blog. Who knows, a story could grow into a living, breathing novel and you will be here at its conception. At the very least, we'll have fun trying.

We'll continue partnering with our sister blog, She Reads, exchanging posts monthly and supporting each others' endeavors to spread the positive message of a loving Creator.

Last, the six of us will post reviews of books we love in the coming months. And of course, we'll explore the question, "Why does this novel matter?" for each one. We'll need your feedback on this, too.

By the end of 2012, we hope to have a pretty good handle on why what we do matters. Is this an important question for you? We'd love to hear.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

See You Monday!

We're back Monday, January 9th.

oh. One more thing.

It's going to be amazing.