Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Shore Up Your Sagging Middle

A novel, at its basic reduction, is a series of scenes cohesively held together by narrative. Picture what we used to call a "granny quilt." It's a collection of crocheted circles or squares attached in rows by basic crochet stitches. Then the rows are connected by another basic stitch. When completed, it's a lovely work of art, that serves a useful purpose.

Scenes in a novel are like those circles and squares. According to The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer, by Sandra Scofield, "The scene is the most vivid and immediate part of the story, the place where the reader is the most emotionally involved, the part that leaves the reader with images and a memory of the action" (pg. 3).

That's not to say the narrative is unimportant. Remember, narrative is the stitch that holds the scenes together. It should be written with as much care as the scenes themselves, and should be as engaging as possible. One of my favorite authors is Jamie Langston Turner, who uses a lot of narrative in her novels. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoy her writing very much because her narrative is written with such care, and with such an engaging voice.

But back to scenes. Scenes are immediate. They happen in the present as you read them. Scenes are mini-stories, self-contained, each with a beginning, middle and end. Each scene should contain new and pertinent information, should have a degree of tension, and most importantly, should move the story along. If a scene doesn't accomplish these things it should be re-written with those goals in mind, or if it's entirely superfluous it should be cut altogether. Elizabeth George, in Write Away, has this to say: "Be careful that the scene adds something necessary to the story's development: information, revelation, discovery, sudden change" (pg. 139).

The middle section of a novel is most vulnerable to bogging down the story. If you find your WIP falling victim to a sagging middle, evaluate the story, scene by scene. Is the scene itself tight, adding ever-increasing tension, and moving the story forward? Are the stakes raised with each succeeding scene, resolutely moving toward the climax? If not, re-work your scenes until they are. And if they can't be rewritten to that end, don't hesitate to cut them. "Each scene has a dilemma or a pressure on the POV character, and it is sufficient in its importance that it drives the action and feeling" (The Scene Book, pg. 60).

The antagonist should oppose the protagonist at every turn. The tautness of a scene can be likened to a cord held tightly at one end by the protagonist, and held just as tightly at the other end by the antagonist. One is always pulling against the other. That's what creates the type of tension that makes a book impossible to put down. Tension is built by "holding back information from the reader; introducing questions and then intensifying concerns about the answers; making the reader uneasy about the harmony of relationships" (The Scene Book, pg. 73). Sol Stein in Stein on Writing acknowledges that, "Our instinct as human beings is to provide answers, to ease tension. As writers our job is the opposite, to create tension and not dispel it immediately ... and when it comes to moments of tension, to stretch them out as long as possible" (pg. 106). Elizabeth George says, "And make that conflict rise, as all good conflict should. Don't jump into it with people yelling, screaming, shooting, and having swords drawn" (pg. 139). Stein adds this great piece of writing advice: "The most important moment of tension in a novel is its first use, which should be as close to the beginning of the book as possible. It puts the writer in charge of the reader's emotions" (pg. 107), and that is an important goal of the author.

The narrative between scenes gives the reader a moment to catch her breath. So it too serves an important part. But remember, the narrative shouldn't be expendable, but should be as engaging as any scene.

I'm the type of reader who doesn't ever skip over anything in a novel. I read every word, every time. I love being rewarded with scenes that draw me in and raise my heart rate. And I love narrative that takes me back to level ground without a sense of let-down.

There's so much more to writing scenes that keep the middle from sagging. I recommend all three of these books, but especially the great little primer by Sandra Scofield.

What problems do you run into in the middle section of your novel? How do you evaluate the problems, and what do you do to resolve them?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Claudia Mair Burney - Why The Novel Matters

We at Novel Matters are proud to welcome the Ragamuffin Diva, Claudia Mair Burney as our guest today. We spoke in a recent post about her beautiful novel, Zora and Nicky, but Claudia is a prolific and versatile storyteller, as well as a passionate follower of Christ. 

Those who follow her on Facebook will understand what a gift she has given us today of time and attention in the midst of a serious family crisis. 

Thank you, Claudia, for honoring us this way.  

Once a woman told me she never read fiction because it was a waste of time. She said this knowing I am a novelist! After I recovered from the blow, I thought about the stories I read and tell. A waste of time? I think not!

Human beings are story people. The evidence of this is ancient. From cave paintings depicting stories on rock walls to the oldest of sacred texts, it's clear that stories showed up when humanity did. They explained our beginnings, natural disasters, and our relationship to each other and God. And when God decided to become a man, he came here doing what? Telling stories! About regular folks. No wonder his book is the bestselling of all times! I think if Jesus had more time here, and a good publisher, or at least a strong platform, he would have written novels.

Why? Because like parables, novels are mirrors. If you look carefully into them, you can find yourself, no matter where you are. You may see through a character's struggles the depths of your own depression, and the hope that you can endure it, as I did when I read Lisa Samson's Songbird. Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy made me want to fall deeply in love with Jesus. I saw in the young nun protagonist a hunger for the Lord that stirred a fierce appetite in me for his most ardent love. In real life, I am not a stigmatic like Mariette, but while reading his masterful, poetic novel the idea of suffering the wounds of Christ became so compelling that I had to write my own stigmata story. That is how my novel, Wounded was conceived, and that is the power of a good story. It gives birth to other works, like novels, poems, paintings and songs.

Novels saved me from a terrible adolescence. They transported me to worlds beyond the crack infested ghetto I grew up across the street from. Sweet romances told me to wait for true love. I may have failed the chastity lessons I learned in those hopeful pages, but I can truly say those books, like any good novel I've read, never failed me.

My son suffered a horrible accident recently, and is in the hospital with a long recovery ahead of him. Novels take the edge off a brutal reality. Sometimes they distract me. Sometimes they make me laugh. Sometimes they remind me that I am not alone in my suffering, and often, they fuel the most reckless, glorious hope. And hope is a necessary thing. I'm indebted to the novel, particularly the faith novel, for giving muscles to what I believe.

It's all there in a great novels, every matter of existence. Someone writes of love, another of mystery. One writes of action, another of mayhem. And we find ourselves in the work. Sometimes we say, "amen." Other times we say, "I'm sorry." And when the pages are all read, we put the book down with a sense that our lives matter; our troubles and our trifles. We matter, because we see ourselves right there in print.

We are not alone. That is why the novel matters.

Friday, May 25, 2012

And the Novel Matters Because...

So, we're still askin' - why does the novel matter? God knows why (and I'm not being flippant). He should get credit for coining the most elementary of writing techniques: show, don't tell. Such a smarty-pants, He is. He knows so well what will get our attention.

The stories of the Bible are basic and life-changing, whether parable or true account. They are short and to the point, imparting truth and morals without preaching.  I don't remember being dissatisfied with a lack of details as a child. Indeed, we were discouraged from what was considered 'embellishing' scripture.  As a fiction writer, my curiosity now pricks at familiar stories that raise more questions for me than they answer. I find myself applying story-developing techniques, not to embellish, but to glean the most from the story. I speculate as to what the character felt, saw, imagined or concluded.

When we read (and write) fiction, we practice putting ourselves in another's shoes.  We develop empathy for characters, whether fictional or true to life.  This makes the stories of the Bible come alive as it did for me recently as I read again the familiar account of Saul's conversion. 

Saul is a young rising star. He has always gone by the book, jumped through all the hoops, and God is rewarding him for his diligence and righteousness.  His confidence explodes as he now wields the power of life and death over sinners.  He senses God's approval of him, endorsing and rewarding his actions.  Heady stuff for a young man. He's on the express elevator to the top.  Even his peers agree.

Then, on the road to Damascus, he is plunged into darkness.  He hears a voice, but it's not saying God approves of him.  Quite the opposite. Self doubt and confusion bring him to his knees. Is everything he's worked and devoted his life to a sham, or is the evil one trifling with him?  How could he be so wrong? It's not fair.  Fear sets in.   He has enemies in the church and he is at his most vulnerable. In his tortured, confused mind, he imagines the friends and family of those he imprisoned and killed to be close and plotting for his blood, or at least, celebrating his downfall. What if his companions abandon him now?  He would be left at their mercy. He grows despondent suffering from severe depression and doesn't eat or drink for 3 days. A once-great man, he is now completely humbled and degraded.  Life doesn't make sense anymore. His future is gone.  He gives up.

Ananias hears about Saul's condition and perhaps he revels in it. News travels like wildfire.  It's payback time. God is faithful.  He has our back!  But when God tells him to go to Saul to heal him, Ananias reminds God who he's dealing with. Are you sure you want to do that? Since God told Saul that Ananias was on his way, it would be like walking into a trap, and Ananias isn't exactly known for his guts. Perhaps he second-guesses the vision.  Was it really from God, or just a figment of his imagination? Eventually he realizes that it's too true to doubt.  Since God has never actually spoken directly to Ananias in this manner before, he has no choice but to obey. Ananias kisses his wife and children (for the last time, he wonders?) and heads out without telling them where he is going.  He feels a measure of peace in obedience which is better than defying God.  As he nears the street where Saul awaits, Ananias wonders whether his fellow Christians, especially those who have had loved ones imprisoned, will consider him a traitor and doubt his love of Jesus when Saul is back on his feel again.

Anyway, you get the picture. This is the way my mind works, sticking to the scripture and putting flesh onto the characters. Reading and writing fiction makes them come alive, and this is why the novel matters to me.

Do you feel that reading (and writing) impacts your understanding and appreciation of stories in scripture? We'd love to hear.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Narrative Transport

Our dear Latayne is in limbo without internet at the moment, so we have reposted this excellent contribution.  She will be back soon!

Every once in a while I read something that so aptly describes something related to writing and reading that I want everyone to read it.

Such is the case in the following brief quote from the foreword to a collection of short stories of a rare genre: Christian science fiction. The book is Leaps of Faith, edited by Karina and Robert Fabian.

I was a teenager when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. Afterwards, I wanted to believe it was true: that somehow, somewhen, elves had walked the earth, men had lived heroic, tragic lives, and curious creatures called hobbits had once saved everyone from evil triumphant before sinking back into well-earned obscurity. . .
 I didn’t analyze it at the time, but allowed myself to be swept up and away by the power of mere words on a page.
 Three decades later, I can put a scientific name to that experience: narrative transport. It describes our capacity to be taken out of our mundane lives, immersed in another world and our feelings irresistibly tied to those of the story’s characters. Whether this capacity is hardwired by evolution, designed by God, or both, it appears there is part of us that can only be accessed by stories. Storytelling is as ubiquitous in human society as religion is, whether that culture is past, present, or future. We tell stories because we have to. We are made that way.

--Dr. Simon Morden
How about you? What book has effected such a "narrative transport" for you?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Must-Have List for Novels

It's time for what we call the Novel Matters Roundtable. Each of us weighs in on a question asked by the designated inquiring mind. This month it's Patti Hill. But you can't just sit there and read--no, no, no. Your ideas matter just as much as ours. We love chatting up the craft of story and the question-of-the-year, Why does the novel matter. 

By the way, next Monday the 28th, Claudia Mair Burney, gifted storyteller and novelist, will be here to answer that question for us. Today, the question is this, and we have so much to learn from you:


Author Yiyun Li answers this question in The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook like this: "I look for a world--sometimes it is one as familiar as this one world we have, and sometimes it is a strange world that perhaps would only happen in a dream--but in either case when I read a novel I look to live in that world along with the characters."

Genre isn't the first thing I look for when choosing the next read. For me the potential novel must ask a question that makes my heart itch for an answer, or provide a glimpse of an answer, or a voyeur's opportunity to see the question through another person's eyes, even--or especially--if it's a question I've never thought to ask. It's the what-if question. What if four women of very different backgrounds with a common urgency to survive found themselves in the dovecote of Masada? (The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman) What if an English village committed to containing the plague within its boundaries by isolating itself from the world? (Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks) What if a 14-year-old Lithuanian girl is deported to a Siberian work camp by Stalin's goons? (Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys) Like Li, I lived the characters of these novels, and they left me changed forever. Hmm. Interesting. All of these books are historical fiction. Perhaps I should rethink the genre thing.

Like Patti, I don't run to genre novels--though I've read a few I enjoyed--and tend toward non-genre, literary (think Doris Lessing), and more recently, that in-between novel that fits everywhere and nowhere (Time Traveler's Wife, The Book Thief, The Kingdom of Ohio, The Cat's Table to name a few recent/favourite reads). Among the six of us here at Novel Matters we're forever recommending books to each other. This, I think, is our second fastest glue one that holds us so close. Sometimes when we ask each other how the other person is, we phrase it as, "What are you reading right now?"

But, when I go hunting for a read,what am I looking for? I think I'm just looking. For a hole in the wall, a stargate, a portal, a beckoning voice. I bought Let the Great World Spin because the first paragraph had me holding my breath, tilting my head to see the tightrope walk that materialized above my head. I didn't need to know why he was there, it was enough for me that McCann conjured him. I'm looking for someone to tell me a story in a world where people only tell me their opinions.

If, however, you were to pin me to a wall and force me to choose (please don't), I would say what I'm looking for are complex stories told from varying points of view, with an eye for undercurrent details, and written with the light hand of respect--for the characters and the reader.

While I too have my favorite genre, it's seldom the thing that compels me to read a book. It's just that mostly my favorites fall into a specific category. But not always. Some of my favorite books over the past 2 or 3 years haven't fallen into that category at all. For example, The Circle Trilogy: Black, Red & White, by Ted Dekker; The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, as Bonnie mentioned; The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. All very different novels, and I loved them all. So genre matters, but not entirely.

I always read the first page or two of a novel I'm considering, and if something doesn't grab me by the end of the 2nd or 3rd page -- forget it. Or if something turns me off within those couple of pages, again, forget it.

First and foremost I need a character to pull me in to his or her story. If I can hear the voice of the narrator or POV character from page one, and it's a voice that entices, I'll stay to the very end no matter where we're headed. If the story seems superficial or the POV character shallow, I'll put it down, because I don't want to waste my precious reading time. It's nice if there's a burning question that I hope the author finds the answer to. But even that isn't necessary for me to deeply engage in a story. Just give me a character to relate to. That, for me, matters most.

Good characters are important. I must have someone worth taking the trip with.

I did love Let the Great World Spin, but not for the high-wire - I get light-headed even reading about such things. I loved the book for the wondrous character of John Corrigan - it turned out he was the only reason I loved the book, but he was enough. To illustrate:

"He slept on his stomach with a view out the window to the dark, reciting his prayers—he called them his slumber verses—in quick, sharp rhythms. They were his own incantations, mostly indecipherable to me, with odd little cackles of laughter and long sighs. The closer he got to sleep the more rhythmic the prayers got, a sort of jazz, though sometimes in the middle of it all I could hear him curse, and they’d be lifted away from the sacred. I knew the Catholic hit parade—the Our Father, the Hail Mary—but that was all. I was a raw, quiet child, and God was already a bore to me. I kicked the bottom of Corrigan’s bed and he fell silent awhile, but then started up again. Sometimes I woke in the morning and he was alongside me, arm draped over my shoulder, his chest rising and falling as he whispered his prayers."

Acrophobia notwithstanding, I love a sort of high-wire act in a story - a daring, spectacular risk in style or subject matter. The Book Thief is such a book, a story narrated by the angel of death in a style that knocks you off center. Gilead is another - a slow reading, meditative tale that no one but a genious could have written. It still moves me, years after the first reading.

 Oh - and a book must contain wonder if I'm to truly love it. I believe there is beauty tucked in like Easter eggs in every life, and its the novelists job to find them, by golly. If art doesn't give me eyes to see, then what is its purpose? Is it even art?

I look for characters that I respect.  Their lives may be a mess and they may be searching for truth or to find God in their situation, but they respond honestly and look inward as well as upward.  The are multi-dimensional - never flat and predictable.  The correct course of action may be simple, but it's not a simple matter for them to choose it.  They struggle with their human condition but in the end, choose rightly.  We need to see the process and see them overcome.  I guess you could say I'm looking for everyday heroes.

A novel has to promise a kind of richness of experience for me to spend time inside its covers. One of the very best examples of this is Katy's book, The Feast of Saint Bertie. Even before I knew our precious Katy, I was drawn in by the book's cover. It has a cool medallion with scallops anchoring the letters of the title. It has warm, almost-clashing but satisfying colors. The pomegranate has a deep shadowed floret end. There are plums and leaves and juicy pomegranate seeds. The woman looks off into the distance with a slight smile. A feast of a saint implies history and tradition, but the name Bertie is almost flippant and modern.  I couldn't wait to get into the book, and its opening scenario -- a woman's house burns to the ground the day of her husband's funeral, and she can't find their son to tell him his father died.

Wow. A wow cover, a wow opening, a wow book. That's what I look for in a good book.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: Zora & Nicky by Claudia Mair Burney

Not long ago, I read a book, non-fiction, entitled Love Revolution, by Gaylord Enns. In the book, Pastor Enns reveals that the church has for most of its history passed over the one great New Testament commandment, in favor of a safer, more comfortable Old Testament one.

The commandment we favor is the one that says we shall love our neighbor as ourselves. The one we’ve passed over is the only new commandment Jesus ever gave, and that is that we love one another as he has loved us.

Do you see the difference? Does it frighten you?

Love Revolution is a wonderful book, one of a few non-fictions from this century that have blown my mind. It’s the kind of book that leaves me with more questions than I came with, and a frantic need to know: What would that kind of love, the love of Jesus incarnate in the church look like? How would it walk and talk in this world, this life?

On May 28 we will host a guest-blogger who has written a novel that comes as close to walking me through that answer as I’ve seen in any book, non-fiction or fiction. Our guest will be Claudia Mair Burney and the novel  is titled Zora & Nicky.

Madeleine L’Engle once said she liked books that have something underneath. Zora & Nicky has a universe underneath – or perhaps even a heaven.

It’s a romance, and I rarely read romances, owing to a bias that began when I was twelve and read halfway through a Halrlequin book or two, or maybe less than halfway.  I felt, even then, that something ought to happen in a story besides two people falling in love, swooning, weeping, slapping faces and waiting by the phone.

More happens in Zora & Nicky – Claudia made sure. To start, she made Zora black and Nicky white and drew them from controlling, bigoted families intent on keeping them apart, but that’s just the beginning of sorrows.  On the surface, this book is about a bi-racial couple falling in love. Underneath it is about how estranged we all are, what a failure to love and be loved has done to each of us, and how we mend the tears. The picture of restoration Claudia offers is like a heart-wrenching glimpse of a home far away. It not only walks us through the living out of Jesus’ great commandment, but it provides a compelling answer to the question of why the novel matters, and what a specifically Christian-themed novel can offer: a frank, enchanting exploration of the broken, God-soaked world we all inhabit.

Claudia Mair Burney, fearless explorer, we can’t wait to hear from you.

And you, dear readers, please discuss Zora and Nicky if you’ve read it, or any other book that came to mind as you read this post. We love to read what you have to say. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The First Two Questions to Ask When Starting to Write a Novel.

I’m not in the habit of quoting Zig Ziglar, but the dude once said this: You don’t have to be great to start you have to start to be great. It’s a nice quote if you can picture saying it sans the fist pump and jazzercise music playing in the background.

Beginning a novel is daunting. Ever since Patti Hill talked about writing as stuffing an octopus into a mayonnaise jar, I haven’t been able to get the image out of my head.

How does a writer go from holding an octopus in one hand and a mayonnaise jar in the other to a tidy stack of papers with his name neatly typed on the cover page?

If starting is the most crucial step (and it is), then starting well will save hours (months? Years?) of frustration in rewrites.

Writing fiction is personal. No two writers come at it in the same way, and no one can say, “This is the definitive method of how to begin writing a novel.”

One writer begins with a character that shows up in her head and won’t go away. Another follows the crumbs of a plot, a series of “what if” questions. For another it’s the setting. Yet another (and this is how I usually begin) it’s theme.

Regardless of what jump-starts you to dive into writing a new novel, there are two questions you need to ask yourself before you put pen to paper.

The first question is: Who is telling this story?

When you discover the answer to this question, you lay the foundation for a myriad of complex literary devices. Discovering your narrator means you’ve discovered:

 Your setting. Real people live in real places—they come from somewhere.
 When (in time and history). Narrators live in the present—even if they are dead (The Book Thief, American Beauty). 

The tense you will use. Past tense (the current champion in novels everywhere), present tense? Which is best. Is anyone out there writing in future tense? 

Voice. Ah voice, that misunderstood device of writing. Both simple and baffling. Knowing who is telling the story means you can listen deeply to that voice that lifts the words off the page and lives in the reader’s heart and mind. 

And the biggest of them all Point of View (POV). Knowing your narrator means the POV (almost) decides itself. First person? Third person limited? Omniscient? Second person (rare, but wonderful when it’s done well)? 

Now, I’m not going to say that if you choose this kind of narrator then you automatically will have this kind of POV. It doesn’t work that way because each novel is different, and the more complex the story, the more layers of questions arise. But. If you spend a good chunk of time fiddling with the question of who, something amazing happens: you get traction under your story at the very beginning.

The second question to ask is: Why must this story be told now?
The word “now” is key to the question.  It’s not asking “is my story timely?” or, “is this culturally contextual?” Those are questions about things that lie outside your story.

Why must this story be told now is a question that, when answered, brings a sense of intimacy, urgency, and intrigue to your novel. That tingly feeling you get when you open a novel and feel pulled in immediately.

Why now? What desperate thing has happened that means the narrator is compelled to speak? Now. Immediately. Today. That not telling the story now would be wrong, perhaps tragic.

Why is now the best time to tell the story? Knowing this will help you know where your story begins.

If you’re starting a new novel, ask yourself:

Who is telling this story?
Why does this story need to be told NOW?

These questions will lead to more questions, which will lead to answers, which will lead to you typing THE END with a flourish.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The God of Story

I think of him first as a storyteller, this Jesus of mine.  That might sound sacrilegious to some. He is after all Savior and Redeemer. Lion and Lamb. But to me, I would not know him as any of those had he not spoken to me first in the gentle whisper of story. Given half a chance, I would sit at his feet and listen even now. I’d follow him through those dusty streets. Stop and ponder in that crowded marketplace. Or lounge on a grass-filled hillside. Prodigal sons and lost coins, rich fools and fig trees, talents and tares – I would cross my legs and sink to the floor, chin on hands, to hear his stories. So kind of him to write them down so I can read them at my leisure. 

This has been a long year for me. And I find myself grappling with Story. I am a student, learning and listening. Over and over again I return to the parables. And I wonder what they mean to me as a writer.

Spend any time in Christian circles and you’ll eventually hear this: “Jesus knew how important stories are. That’s why he spoke in parables.” Those thirty short anecdotes sprinkled through the first four books of the New Testament are the subject of countless sermons. Yet I’ve never seen them used to teach the craft of storytelling.  

Several weeks ago this realization led me to a friend, a former NFL player and PHD in Biblical Studies. The book he handed me weighs more than my two-year-old.

“Do I need a doctorate to read this?”

He gave me a cheeky smile and a bone-rattling pat on the back. “If you want to understand the God of story, this is the book.”

Turns out, the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery is a fascinating read – if you have time to absorb all 1058 pages. Sorry to say I skimmed. My interest then, and now, lies in a mere two pages beneath the heading of “Parable,” a portion of which reads:

The narrative qualities of the parables are a virtual case study in the “rules” of popular storytelling as we find them in folk narrative, including a reliance on archetypesOnly one of the characters (Lazarus) is named, yet as we encounter the characters of the parables we sense that we have known them already. They are universal types, possessing the traits that we and our acquaintances possess. Never has such immortality been thrust upon anonymity. We do not need to know the name of the woman who first loses and then finds her lost coin: she is every person. The family dynamics of the parables of the prodigal son and the two brothers whose father asks them to work in the vineyards could be observed at any family’s breakfast table… We come to realize that it is in the everyday world of sowing and eating and dealing with family members that people make the great spiritual decisions and that God’s grace works.”

And that’s the power of story, isn’t it? To see ourselves in the narrative. To squirm and wrestle. To celebrate. I find it interesting that overt religious references in the parables are rare. Jesus never inflects his images, never says, “Oh, by the way, that bit about the Prodigal Son is really about you and God. Wanted to make sure you caught that.” Instead, he lets me see my reflection in the story. He leaves me to wonder which part I play.

And I learn from this, tapping my thoughts onto a hard drive while my babies sleep. That’s what it means to show instead of tell. He doesn’t have to elaborate. I am shown the holy in the routine: planting and harvesting, a wedding invitation, baking bread, lighting a lamp, traveling to a distant town. The parables teach me to trust that readers understand the unspoken language of story.

A final folktale feature of the simple stories Jesus told is their reliance on archetypes – master images that recur throughout literature and life. We think at once of such motifs as lost and found, robbed and rescued, sowing and reaping, sibling rivalry. Often these archetypes tap deep wellsprings of human psychology.”

Master images. Master storytelling. Simple and profound and, honestly, beyond the reach of my current abilities. I wish I could say that I fully understand how to apply the literary tools found in the parables to my own writing. But the truth is that I’ve only scratched the surface. Yet even as I struggle to learn this craft, he says, “Come, let me tell you a story.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dry Places

I'm in a dry place at the moment, creatively speaking -- and pretty much every other way if I'm being honest. It's the Sahara of dry places to be more specific. I've been writing for 26 years, and in all that time I've never been without a story. Always, by the time I'm 2/3 of the way finished with a novel I'm writing I have another story emerging from my subconscious. I have to keep the new story at bay so that I can finish the work in progress. I don't silence the voices calling to me; I keep running notes of the emerging story, but I don't give in to the excitement of the new one until the old one is finished. And as you know, it is exciting to consider the possibilities of new characters, setting and plot. It would be easy to yield to the newness, certainly easier than pressing on with the current work, dealing with plot problems perhaps, and characters who won't cooperate.

That's where discipline comes into play. Where you make yourself keep at it until every loose end is resolved, every plot point completed, and you know in your heart you've done the best you could possibly do with the work at hand.

But for the first time in 26 years I've not had to restrain eager characters who can't wait for their story to be told. Yes, I have a new novel in mind, but I've had to dig deep for every idea, every character, every everything. And that's a little bit scary.

Why this dry place? Well, all 6 of us at Novel Matters are going through tough times. Illness, death, economic difficulties, publishing woes. We're all in a hard place. While I'd love to be delivered -- and eventually will be -- I've learned enough over the years to know I should pay attention while I'm in the pit. I need to keep a good record of my feelings, both bad and good: what that churning in my stomach is like in real words, or how a long sleepless night adds to the anguish of my situation; but also what soothes my soul in the midst of despair. Because those are the things, good and bad, that help me "show" and not "tell" which Bonnie wrote so beautifully about on Wednesday. I especially loved this paragraph:

Showing isn't really about an explanation of the action occurring in a novel --
it is an exploration of the people themselves. It is taking the characters, laying them flat and rolling, like a scroll, their essence. Recognizing the
inadequacy of our efforts, we, the writers, pull out what it is to experience
the story we are telling. We examine a facet here, an angle there, all the
while weeping for the parts we cannot tell within the limitations of the medium.

How I love that last line: "weeping for the parts we cannot tell within the limitations of the medium." And yet, because of our own experience, our extreme highs and desperate lows, we convey what there aren't enough pages to capture, sharing a sense of intimacy with those we'll never meet, because of story. If we do it right. It's that connection that gives me the greatest satisfaction as an author, the nearness that occurs between writer and reader, no matter the age difference or the physical distance that separates us.

That happened to me last week. I received an email from a woman who was reading Lying on Sunday. She told me how and why she related to that particular story, about laughing all by herself at 2:00 in the morning (on a work night!) as she read. She emailed me twice more as she made her way through the book, and said she'd love to have lunch with me because she knew we'd get along so well. She said we would probably laugh so hard they would kick us out of the restaurant. And that would be just the remedy for my dry soul. Too bad New Jersey is so far from California.

Laughing with friends is one way I survive in the Sahara. Music is another. Music touches me in those troubled places like little else. I suspect it touches you too. Here's one of my favorite songs to listen to when I need my soul to be soothed: Rescue by Jared Anderson. What's it like for you in those dry places, and what rescues you while you're there?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Show Me Don't Tell Me How To Show Not Tell

Happy birthday to Debbie Fuller Thomas! She's 39 again and we wish her every happiness today!

I've seen explanations like this: 

"The difference between showing and telling in writing is simple! 
Telling: Becky was sick. 
Showing: Becky sniffled into a tissue, then vomited.


Hmmm. Not so much.

Perhaps we need to take the discussion of Show vs Tell and throw it in the same place as Becky's crumpled tissue. Writers need to stop talking as if Showing is some easy literary device. Something you can choose to employ or un-employ at whim.

It is, instead, the preferred method of storytelling. Method - not device. It is part of the theory of the modern novel. It is the discussion of intent, not meaning. It is the unveiling of the human condition, not the opening of a toolbox.

Didn't know there was a theory of the literature? There are several. But that is for another blog.

If Showing were simply about writing long and detailed explanations of the chain of action-reflection-reaction-action, no one would ever get a book written - moreover, no one would care to read the thing anyway. Who wants to read an encyclopedia of people in motion? 

This explanation doesn't give insight into why some of our most beloved novels have wide swaths - pages and pages - of narrative summary. These often pop up in fascinating tangents where a character has experiences something, and then ponders the nature of the experience at length. Is that "showing"? The answer is: Yes, in part.

Something much more interesting is going on when we speak of Showing. An author who shows the story is an author with a light touch - one who respects her character's choices, who balks at easy answers, and stares messy incompleteness in the face. A writer who shows is a writer able to capture the subtleties and nuance of human hearts in motion. 

Showing isn't really about an explanation of the action occurring in a novel - it is an exploration of the people themselves. It is taking the characters, laying them flat and rolling, like a scroll, their essence. Recognizing the inadequacy of our efforts, we, the writers, pull out what it is to experience the story we are telling. We examine a facet here, an angle there, all the while weeping for the parts we cannot tell within the limitations of the medium.

Showing is to cause the reader to be awash in the experience of your characters. It begins with word one, and ends as the last page is turned. It is the author's ability to step aside, and let the characters experience the story. It has nothing - I repeat - nothing to do with how many words you use to help the reader picture the turning of a door knob.

Sometimes you just need to get the door open and who cares how it got that way - if I explained the tedious gripping of a handle, the turning of a wrist, the click of tumblers, it would slow the story down - bog it down, actually. Instead the door is opened. Ah! A greenish Becky enters, crumpled tissue in hand. Oh good!

So what do we call it when the author pushes aside the doldrums of "Becky was sick" in favor of "Becky sniffled into a tissue and vomited"? I would call it being precise.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Of Thin Places and Life

FYI: My latest novel, Seeing Things is available free as an ebook at this link until Monday the 7th. Download at B&H Publishing here. Enjoy!

 If you've been reading along with us this week, you've participated in a discussion that presses us toward writing "transcendent and eternal" stories. Katy started the discussion on Monday by writing about thin places--"where the veil between the physical and the spiritual was so thin, you could touch hand to hand with God."

Some find themselves in that nether world and recognize where they are. I truly believe all of us have walked there but missed the veil that heaves with His presence. That's why we must always be present and conscious--as writers and human beings.

Six weeks ago, I sat beside my mom as she stepped beyond the veil into eternity.

You have to know this about Mom to appreciate the story I'm about to tell: She was a toucher. If anyone strayed into her personal space, they received a hug, fierce with intent, and that intent was love. She once patted Senator Robert Kennedy on the cheek when the crowd pressed too close to hug. Her only chance to touch him was to snake a hand to his face and pat. She hugged her oncologist when he told her the cancer had spread to her liver. "You have an awfully tough job," she said and gave him another hug. And for twenty years, she hugged as many who would allow as a greeter at her church.

That was my Mom.

During the final week of Mom's life, either my sister or I slept at our parents' house with a baby monitor on high to hear her calls for help in the night. She drank less and less, ate even less. We watched as she shrank away from her bones. Up until a pesky brain tumor had shown up in December, my aging mother had run circles around me. Mom chugged through life with the throttle open. Now, her legs wouldn't support her. She'd almost slipped through my arms during a transfer. I worried I wouldn't be able to care for her.

And yet, we touched. She loved a long hand massage with lavendar-scented lotion or to have her face washed with a hot--the hotter the better--cloth and to be slathered with Mary Kay lotion, a gift from a friend. Always, we kissed goodnight. Always, we held hands as we talked about big things, like if she wanted a little apple sauce or a teeny tiny milk shake.

Her eyebrows lifted at her choices, "A milk shake sounds good." And then one sip was all she could manage.

On Saturday night, my sister arrived to take a shift as caregiver. I needed to go. To sleep in my own bed. To be held by my husband. Open the mail. Pull a few weeds. Walk the dog.

My sister called at 10:30 the next morning. "Patti, her breathing is different. You better come."

Indeed, Mom was panting more than breathing. I looked under the blanket. Her legs were tinged blue up to her knees, not a good sign. My sister and I--and this may have hurried Mom's leave-taking--sang off-key hymns to Mom. After all, how do you cheer someone into heaven?

Well, we followed Mom's example. We kissed her. Told her we loved her. Thanked her for loving us into strong women. She was beyond responding, beyond touching. When we talked to her, she opened her eyes as square as windows, but they didn't see us.

We settled in for a wait, long or short, we didn't know. Dad held her right hand; I held her left. Sis stroked her leg. Her every breath was a relief and a surprise, a source of agonizing suspense. Would this be the last?

Through all of this, Mom remained perfectly calm. We waited. All that was left was to revel in the warmth of her hand, the familiarity of it. I also agonized over my own remaining days without that hand and those strong arms.

Suddenly, Mom dropped our hands. Dad tried to recapture her right hand. She batted him away. She stared forward, reaching ahead, she seemed to be beckoning with her hands. Within moments, her arms relaxed and she took her last breath.

When she dropped our hands, we believe the veil tore for Mom. She stepped into eternity where she was greeted by the Lord Himself, and she was, of course, hugging Him.

I'm like the other ladies of Novel Matters. I love the thin places, the places where light and shadow shift, "where places [are] both one thing and another." In my parents' living room that morning, there was death and life, sorrow and joy, and something else, undefinable yet eternally familiar.

I'm not sure how sitting with Mom as she passed will change my writing. That remains to be seen. I only know that the experience has changed everything else. Eternity is very, very near. The thin places are nearly palpable, expected, hunted. Everywhere.

I didn't write Mom's story here to receive condolences. I wrote to encourage you to embrace the thin places and to infuse your writing with the humanity and sacredness of them.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Humanity Matters

“[. . .] craziness and brokenness are so vital to a story,” Katy said on Monday’s post.

We’re just so human. Try as we might to be otherwise, what with our Christmas newsletters and greener than green front yard lawns, we can’t escape our messy, confusing human state.

Hide, yes.

Escape, no.

Enter fiction where, for once in our ever-loving life, we’re allowed to pull back the thin veneer of straight teeth and gold stars at kindergarten, and look straight into the bubbling pot of messy humanity. Really have a good look. Poke around in there, sniff the dirty socks, and cry a little when the way the character breaks apart looks so much like the way we’ve broken apart.

You are broken.

There’s no way around this fact (even when, as parents we fool ourselves into thinking it won’t be that way for our children, that if we keep them whole long enough they will stay that way for life). Somewhere along the way life tossed you like a toy, and something about you broke.

Enter fiction where for once there is someone who is broken and lost and confused and getting it all wrong. Just like us—but just enough not like us that we can bear to look deeply and brush up against our ache. Really feel it, and accept it as part of our experience, part of what makes us who we are. Part of our personal crazy.

You are home to personal craziness.

There is a part of you no one understands—not even you. The fear that wakes you in the middle of the night and pushes you out of bed, down the hall, to check the child sleeping in the other room even though that child is grown and hasn’t slept in that bed for twenty years. The way rain makes you laugh, and how mowing the lawn reminds you of the six weeks you spent with your leg in a cast, and how you can’t remember your Grandmother’s maiden name and that makes you cry. And how you can’t explain any of it to anyone because it doesn’t make sense.

Enter fiction where we find characters that speak the language of our silence. Who ask the same questions our hearts have been wordlessly asking for years we just didn’t know it until we found the story that asked the questions.

Fiction is the story of you living a different life in order to be able to see yourself in a new way and make sense out of the life you are living.

You’re broken.
You’re hiding it.
And it’s making you crazy.
Fiction says, “Welcome home.”