Monday, July 30, 2012
Friday, July 27, 2012
Donald Maass, known in writing circles for his The Breakout Novel, has written another writing must-read, Fire in Fiction. Maass has been watching this phenomenon of mediocrity for thirty years. According to Maass, the decline can be explained by motivation. He classifies writers as Storytellers or Status Seekers.
A Storyteller has a passion to spin stories while the Status Seeker's desire is for publication. Oh, the Status Seeker talks about the desire to polish craft in the beginning, but if they are thwarted by rejection, they follow the common wisdom of getting the manuscript back in the mail and keeping it there. They get frustrated and consider landing an agent or contract a matter of timing or luck. A Storyteller is likely to pull the manuscript after a rejection slip. They see rejection as evidence that something is missing. They take the time to develop skills to write a superb story. Once contracted, the Status Seekers are most interested in what kind of blurbs they can acquire, and how much will be spent of the cover, and how much support the publisher is willing to ante in.
If you feel like you're being poked with a stick, I'm rubbing sore spots too. But Maass isn't finished yet. He goes on to say that Storytellers spend their time writing, not endless promotion:
Storytellers have a more realistic grasp of retail realities. They may promote, but locally and not for long. They'll put up a website, maybe, then it's back to work on the next book. That's smart. The truth, for new authors anyway, is that the best promotion is between the covers of the last book.
Whoa! This is counter to much of what we learn at writers conferences. We're pushed to have an Internet presence (ahem, like this blog!) that works like a net to bring in readers. Build a platform, we're told. Send out newsletters and e-blasts. Market to libraries. Twitter. Facebook. Market, market, and market some more. Maass redirects that focus:
Storytellers ignore the ephemera. Their mid-career focus is hitting deadlines and delivering powerful stories for their readers. The issues that come up are about developing their series or what to write as their next stand-alone.~
Maass wants writers to stop waiting for the "magic" that will push their novels up the best-seller list and embrace the passion of the art. Success doesn't depend on the publisher. It's completely up to the Storyteller.
Where have you seen decline in quality in novelists you've followed? Tell me what you think of Maass' delineation between storytellers and status seekers? Is he right? Wrong? If you're a writer, could you turn a deaf ear to all the marketing madness and focus more on your craft? How would you do that? Let's talk about this! I'm dying to hear what you think.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
You wouldn’t disagree, though.
If you met them, you would find them handsome, kind, bright, creative and engaging. Really. That’s what I always hear from people who go out of their way to tell me. They truly are remarkable.
But what if I said that when I see them, I feel the light that emanates from their souls, I honestly see halos around their heads, I practically hear the angels sing? Well, you might believe me the way Scully believed Mulder (“I’m sure you thought you saw…”), but you wouldn’t see the halos, and you wouldn’t hear the angels.*
Madeleine L’engle held that we are made like onions, with all the ages we have ever been still layered inside. The infant still lives, as does the two year old, the ten-year-old, the teenager. I believe this is true.
So the reason, I think, that I see these young men so clearly is that I have witnessed the formation of all those layers. Few others – their father does, and my eldest’s mother (I’m his step-mom) – understand the things I know because I was there.
I believe that when, as the Bible predicts, the lion will lie down with the lamb, then at that moment we will all see more clearly past our noses into the souls of each other. We will see one another the way I see my boys and be astonished that we ever passed a human on the street without looking up.
Because we will see what was formerly unseen.
Trust me – this all has to do with books.
Over at Novel Matters, we are having a long conversation about why the novel matters, and I believe the answer is connected to all I’ve just said.
The following video is an excellent interview with Eugene Peterson conducted in 2007 at Point Loma Nazarene University. Toward the end of the video (you can drag the slider to 26:11 if you’re in a hurry), he says something I like:
“Imagination is almost, not quite, the same thing as faith. It connects what we see with what we don’t see, and pulls us through what we see to what we don’t see.”
When an author writes a novel, she must know her characters, layer by layer. She uses her imagination to blend what she knows of her own story with what she knows of the stories of others – some of them people she knows very well.
When you read a book, you use your imagination to flesh out the story the author has given. She has written down the words, but you supply the pictures. You bring to the page what you know of yourself and those you love.
And somehow, when this collaboration works at its best, the result is that you look at the stranger on the street with new eyes. You glimpse the light between the layers. You hear music.
*Their wives might, or if not yet, I think they will. You should meet the man I’ve come to know these past 27+ years. Light and angel songs.
Monday, July 23, 2012
We’re pleased to present author Rosslyn Elliott, whose debut novel Fairer Than Morning (Book 1 in The Saddler’s Legacy trilogy, published by Thomas Nelson), was the 2011 Laurel Award Winner, and the Lifeway Fiction Favorite Reads of 2011.
Novel Matters: Rosslyn, your debut novel, Fairer Than Morning, is a fictional account based on a real historical family. What was the seed of your story idea for this novel?
Rosslyn Elliott: Fairer than Morning, and the other books in the trilogy, is based on the Hanby family who lived in central Ohio and worked on the Underground Railroad before the American Civil War. I found their story completely by God’s grace and will, when I was living in Westerville, Ohio, about six years ago. I visited a small house museum, Hanby House, at just the right moment in my life, when I was beginning my work as a novelist. Heaven basically dropped the heroic, inspiring story of the family in my lap, and said: “Here you go. Go tell it on the mountain.” And so the past six years of my writing life have been devoted to these three generational novels about the Hanbys that together form an epic family saga based around the life of William Hanby. He left a legacy for so many people because of the suffering he survived in his youth, and the way he let it shape him and temper his character into faithful compassion.
NM: Your story is set on a farm in Ohio, and in Pittsburgh. What role do the settings play in your story?
RE: The settings are important, but so is the seasonal weather. One of my favorite aspects of Fairer Than Morning is the way the weather plays into the story’s mood. The location was based on reality, because my story is informed by historical fact and real people. But the timing of the weather was my own choice, and the weather is what really brings these settings to life in this particular novel. Ohio in winter is a completely different place from Ohio in late spring! Both Ohio and Pennsylvania could be very harsh places to live for those who didn’t have protection from the elements, and very little is more gorgeous and moving than the arrival of spring after the brutality of winter. And what keeps that from being cliché is the research and the detail that informs specifically how the seasons change, not just a generic flowers-blooming, ice-melting kinda thing.
NM: What did you learn about writing working on Fairer Than Morning?
RE: From the ambivalent response of editors to my first (unpublished) novel, I learned how very tight and condensed a plot has to be in order to create that page-turning interest.
NM: I don’t’ know a writer who doesn’t have at least one novel locked away in a dark drawer. And thank God for them, because they teach us. So, what was it about that first novel, from your perspective, that needed to change?
RE: My first novel had four points-of-view, and tended to come across as two parallel plots, which sapped the forward-moving energy. So when I chose to begin my next novel, Fairer Than Morning, with only two points of view, I found that it was much, much easier to sustain the unified momentum of the plot through fewer points of view. This helped greatly when I returned to that apprentice novel and rewrote it by condensing to two points of view and resituating the two main characters to be present at all major plot events. However, that second rewrite was quite a mess, as I struggled to get the novel out of its original form, and it required a third complete rewrite before that novel became Sweeter Than Birdsong, and was published this year as the second novel in my series.
NM: And after your struggle, what do you hope your readers might carry away from reading Fairer Than Morning?
RE: I would love for readers to find that the novel stays with them because it s a powerful story of forgiveness. Will Hanby is a constant example to me, not because he’s perfect, but because he is able to forgive through his faith some evils that most of us would find very difficult to forgive. And I think that
we sometimes see pat descriptions of forgiveness in inspirational novels, but the real challenge is to show that intense struggle with anger or even hatred for those who have seriously hurt us, and then to capture the exact moment at which Grace, not our own goodness, enters into our hearts.
NM: Let’s change gears just a bit, and talk about the writing process. Which comes first for you, plot, characters, themes, or something else?
RE: Themes, I think. But that depends what you mean by first. Themes are my highest priority and the greatest pleasure for me as a writer. But what do I attack first, as I struggle through the first draft? Plot. To me, a good plot has to have the right blend of forward motion and reflection, and that means figuring out how the shape of the conflict and action is going to play into the characterization, which in turn creates the themes. Writing novels would be much easier if all we had to do was write characters and coin phrases. A meandering but beautifully-written story would be a tempting trap for those who love words as much as I do. Accordingly, my first goal is to avoid that trap and make sure that I have been sufficiently interesting and told a story that is well-paced and worth my reader’s time.
NM: I love the beautifully written, meandering novel. Truly do. But I see your point; literary fiction isn’t burning up the bestselling charts as a rule. So when it comes to creating that faster plot, do you outline your novels before you write, or are you a feel-your-way-through writer?
RE: I’m an outliner, all the way, because otherwise I fear I won’t finish. But my initial outline is pretty sketchy, and I revise it as I go. I’ve had whole families enter the plot that weren’t part of Plan A.
NM: It’s a fun yet surreal feeling when a character shows up on his/her own in the midst of writing isn’t it? Okay. Life isn’t always writing. You need a break from it sometimes. What non-writing things do you do that help you be a better writer?
RE: Working with horses and teaching children are the things that help me, because they keep me grounded and other-focused. Besides, these activities also calm me down, which was a lifesaver when I was on deadline.
NM: Ah, deadlines. The craving and bane of the writing life. On the one hand, every writer wants one because it means you’re being published. On the other hand, it can feel like you’ve been set on a treadmill and you have to keep pace or risk losing that contract. Publishing is a strange place for a writer to pilot. How are you navigating the changing tides of publishing?
RE: What I have learned, in the rough and tumble fulfillment of my first contract, is that I’m a writer first and I will never survive spiritually as a writer if I have to be a full-time marketer. Fashionable as it may be to assert one’s ability to handle marketing, I simply do not like self-promotion. There, I said it. And so to survive as a writer, I need to focus on writing, on what I love, on ideas and how they can encourage people and help to fight the good fight in this fallen world. If that means that I make different choices than some of the writers who are more marketing focused, so be it.
NM: Self promotion is so difficult, isn’t it? A “grit your teeth” aspect of writing life. But, even though you’re on the quiet side of promotion, you’re doing some stuff to get the word out, right?
RE: I do what I can to connect in an authentic way by social media. I’ve met some wonderful friends and readers through social media. But if my work someday turns into an Emily Dickinson-like set of crumpled papers in my desk, I would rather that fate than lose my soul as a writer and become just another squeaky cog in the gears of the publishing industry. My attitude now is: I will do what I can to get out the word about my books. But what I’ve observed, after all is said and done, is that breaking out into bestseller status often happens because of Providential occurrences that have little to do with self-marketing and everything to do with the content of the novel.
NM: I love the quote, “A bestselling book is a book that happens to be selling well.” It’s so mysterious why one book zooms off to the stratosphere, while another, equally well done book doesn’t. Okay, we’ve got a handle on your approach to promotion. Tell me, what is the worst piece of writing advice ever offered to you and why?
RE: “Write to a strict formula.” Strict formula stinks. Authorial knowledge of how good narrative works is essential. But when one or two people have tried to tell me “readers won’t like this unusual thing about your story because they want this canned, cardboard hero and heroine instead,” that advice was dead wrong for the type of story I write. It’s important to be receptive to constructive criticism, but also not to underestimate your reader.
NM: Wow. That is bad advice. Excellent answer, no matter what genre you write. Okay, on the flip side of the coin, what is the best piece of writing advice you have to offer aspiring authors?
RE: Write what you love, and do it to the absolute best of your ability, always assuming that you can learn more and do better. And don’t worry too much about whether you publish it traditionally. Place the quality of the work first, and if it’s meant to be, the other will follow. But don’t accept any less than your best work, which is much, much better than you think. If you’re a real writer, your work will never be good enough in your eyes. You will always be set on self-education and how you can get better, not on comparing yourself to other writers.
NM: Agreed. Self-education is critical. And ongoing in a writer’s life. I know you’re a reader, all writers are, so tell me, which novels have informed you as a writer over the years? In what ways have they influenced you?
RE: Novels that affected me greatly as a human being are also the ones that influenced me as a writer. I’ve never been one to admire the style of a novel detached from its content, or to think to myself: “I’d really like to write in a similar style to that great novelist.” (Though I thought it about Shakespeare more than once. Ha!) I’ve always admired the great lyrical poets most, stylistically. The novelists, I admired more for their virtues, their themes, and their sympathies, which is why my favorite is probably Dickens. I’ve also really appreciated works by William Dean Howells, such as The Rise of Silas Lapham, and Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. Dostoevesky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov opened my eyes to how deeply a novelist can look into a character’s spirit. All of these novels appeal to my conviction that novels can play a role in exposing evil and offering hope.
NM: Amazing. I’m willing to admit Dostoevsky gives me a headache. I mean, I get why he’s great—totally. But wow. Good for you. Okay, so if you could sit down with any writer in history or living today, who would it be and why?
RE: Dickens. I’d love to see how he talked about the poor in person. Was he one of those people who got tears in his eyes when his sympathy was roused? If so, that would make me feel better about my own propensity to get emotional when I talk about people and situations that have moved me, especially examples of charity and goodness. Maybe Dickens and I could both be weepers-of-joy together and he wouldn’t mind.
NM: Yeah, seems like he’d be a guy that would welcome a fellow weeper of joy. He had spent some time in the boot blacking factory while his father sat in debtor's prison, so I'm sure he was full of genuine empathy. Rosslyn, the theme of Novel Matters this year is the question why does the novel matter? How do you answer that question?
RE: We need to know true stories about how people have lived out their faith through history. Almost all the good faith stories and everyday heroes have been lost in the ceaseless postmodern barrage of negativity about Christian hypocrisy and legalism. We have many, many heroes of the faith who may not be household names, but whose stories are tremendously uplifting. Their stories need to be told in a way that ignites our passion for us to imitate their sincere and courageous example. Ordinary history doesn’t do that. Only novels do it. Novels make history come alive, and show us how we are still living “history” every day. In a nation that is rapidly forgetting its history, where schools are hardly even teaching it anymore, the rescue of history in our hearts and minds is an urgent mission for the historical novelist. Novels matter because they can create long, complex arcs of theme and symbol that depend on the passage of time to reach their full meaning. The passage of time is the greatest, most inevitable of moral teachers for every human being, and that’s why novels are the most moral (or immoral) of art forms.
NM: Thank you, Rosslyn, for an excellent interview. It’s been great getting to know you.
We are giving away a signed copy of Fairer Than Morning. One name will be drawn from those who leave a Comment on this post. The winner will be announced tomorrow afternoon.
Friday, July 20, 2012
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
As for the quality of the workmanship, I trust the women I co-write this blog with -- all exceptional authors in their own right -- and the ones who've read it gave me the confidence to move forward on my own. Katy designed a fabulous cover that has great significance to the story. It's beyond what I hoped for. This is the back cover copy:
Aria Winters wants off the nut farm. Literally. She wants to get as far away as she can from the Shunk-Winters family-run nut-farming business. So she takes her Bible school degree and heads to Moldova to teach English at a missionary school. Aria falls in love with all the children, but especially shy and beautiful Anya. When the unthinkable happens, Aria begins to question what were once the absolutes in her life. She returns to the family compound, where she tries to hide from life, and most especially from God. But just as the Moldovan sunflowers can't help follow the face of the sun, so Aria must face the true Son. Can she live with what His light exposes?
Am I nervous about going this route? Absolutely. But I'm also excited. It's been too long since my last novel was released. And when it became apparent that my writing fell within the great big chasm between CBA and ABA, I knew this was the course for me. And I'm counting on that great big chasm to be just that -- a great big void that I can help fill. I've said it before, and perhaps I shouldn't be quite so candid, but CBA has become a very small world unto itself, and the type of stories I write can't seem to find a home there any longer. I don't feel I'm a good fit for ABA either. But I'm not ready to hang up my spurs, creatively speaking, and so this seemed the best option.
The only way for this to work is to make the ripple effect as productive as possible. So I'm asking those of you who read Unraveled and like it, to tell your family and friends about it, and ask them to tell their family and friends about, and so on and so on. I'm asking you to Tweet about it and get the message out on Facebook. If you have a blog or some other way of promoting Unraveled, I hope you'll help get the word out. I'd be happy to do an interview for you. Above all, I want your feedback. You can email me through my website: www.sharonksouza.com, or through my Facebook page: Sharon K. Souza, Author.
So, look for Unraveled on Amazon, in print form and Kindle version, by the end of July. And please let me hear from you. It matters very much what you have to say.
Monday, July 16, 2012
I'm not always good at goal-setting, but I recognize the importance. As writers, we don't accomplish much without goal-setting on many levels. Life happens, and even the most enthusiastic of us stall in our writing if we don't have our goals clearly defined and posted prominently as reminders. Some writers set daily, weekly and monthly word counts complete with charts to track their progress. Ray Bradbury wrote 1,000 words a day, but I never heard that he was a chart-maker. He probably didn't need it. If you're planning a large manuscript, posting your word count and adding time for a cooling off period and ample time for revision will give you a pretty accurate idea of when your darling will enter the world. This is especially important if you have a deadline, in which case you must work backward from the due date and hope you are not already behind.
Setting writing goals is only part of the writer's picture. Career goals are a blending of what is and what is not in our control. We can't control the economy or the changing demands of the marketplace, but investing in writers conferences, both local and national, building your library with the best 'how to' and reference books, developing creative web and blog sites and defining your brand will enhance your chances of reaching career goals down the road. Fortunately, more information is available on these topics than has been in the past.
Of course, goals are flexible and need periodic review and adjustment. Are they practical or unrealistic? For some writers, it's a creative process and they love seeing their progress. For others, it's like pulling teeth. I fall somewhere in between. Which is it for you? What kind of goals do you set for yourself, or which goals are helping you most on your road to publication?
I've always made goals related to writing. For my first five novels, I wrote three pages a day.To be truthful, I have goals related to just about every part of my life, or I tend to bob along with the current in a most unproductive manner. Now that I'm going Indie, it's even more important to have goals. I'm publisher, writer, art director, formatting, marketing, publicist, and some other roles I'm not even aware of yet.
I've given myself the goal of shooting four covers and getting my WIP to an editor by the end of the month. I'm waking up in the middle of the night wondering how to do a 1940s hairstyle on a model I haven't found yet. I'm also sewing this yet-to-be-found model a dress. My husband is building her a bench to sit on.
I'm loving this! It's fun and I'm actually moving toward a goal. It feels good.
Nothing gets the fingers flying like a deadline. I tend to work on a deadline when I start writing a novel, but I don't set one while I'm stewing a book. I need LOTS of time to think (average is about two years) before I start to write.
In terms of career goals, it seems to me much of what I need to do is say no to lots of stuff. There are all kinds of seemingly writing related things out there that work to keep me from writing. Especially those subjective, circular discussions about what publishing "should" be. My goal is to be a well published author. It's big. Probably too big for the likes of me, but there it is. I have no plan B.
Things are a bit off kilter for me these days. In fact, I feel like I've floundered for much of the year. Like Patti, I'm going independent with my very-soon-to-be-released novel Unraveled -- with perhaps more to follow -- and my goal was to have the book ready to release soon after the first of this year. But I've had some health issues that completely messed with my goals. Not only did I not have the book ready to release in January, I also floundered when it came to writing. For the first time since I began writing novels back in the mid-eighties, I haven't had a novel in the works since I completed my last manuscript a number of months ago. I've had good intentions, but you know what they say about those. Compounding the problem was not knowing the next book I wanted to write. I had three story ideas vying for first place, and was convinced I was going to go one direction, only to realize deep in my gut I wanted to go another. But before I began a new work, I need to get Unraveled ready for release. And I'm very happy to say I'm there. Finally. It should be available before the end of the month. Then my goals will be all about marketing, but honestly, I'd rather go fishing. In Alaska. Sigh. But it does feel good to feel like I'm getting back on track with my writing goals. Once Unraveled has left the nest, I have two more completed novels I hope to release. And I seriously plan to begin work on the novel my gut says to go with. So my main goal for now is getting back on track. I think I can ... I think I can ... I think ...
I'm the champion flounderer here, having done it for years, for some good and some not as good reasons. I evidently need lots more time than Bonnie to think. These ladies are my heroes.
On my first book, I created a deadline, by telling an editor to expect the manuscript I'd pitched to him on a certain date. The second book was bought by a publisher while I was still writing it.
Deadlines are serious pressure, and hard on your health and family life. On the other hand, they get things done.
The one I'm writing now is not contracted, and I've given myself permission to publish it independantly if that seems best. It's interesting what that option does to your writing. It may indeed seem best.
For now, my goals consist of simply doing the next thing.
Pray for me.
How about you, dear readers? Tell us about your goals!
Friday, July 13, 2012
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Am I crazy?
In my manuscript--Goodness & Mercy--I have a first-person, eight-year-old narrator. Not only that, I have multiple first-person narrators.
I'll answer my own question: Yes, I am crazy.
But I love a challenge, and writing with a child narrator for adult fiction fulfills that requirement on many levels. You might be thinking: To Kill a Mockingbird! I loved that story. I never tripped up on the child narrator, not once. Scout is just so, so wise.
And she is wise because she speaks as the adult Scout--Jean Louise Finch!--remembering a pivotal period of her childhood. While childlike in her honesty, Scout's observations are peppered with adult vocabulary and filtered through years of living. And it works! Harper Lee manages to create a believeable character that settles us into an eight-year-old's skin without baby talking to us. I love that story, too.
There have been some notable contributions to the list of fiction for adults with child narrators in the last decade: Room, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Me and Emma, just to name a few. Here's what I'm learning about writing with a child's voice for adult readers:
Children remember differently
They remember details that would slide right by most adults. Maybe it's because they're shorter, but more than likely it's because they don't have the cognitive hooks to snag what they observe. This means they'll remember conceptually through images. For instance, I remember taking naps at my Aunt Evie's house. Naps there weren't about sleeping at all. I lay there in the still heat, running my fingers over the chenille spread to find a break in the pattern of nobs and hedges. The chenille spread, not boredom or resentment, represents my memories.
Carrie of Me and Emma by Elizabeth Flock remembers the farm where she lived with her stepfather, mother, and younger sister:
Just to the side of that, taking up a whole outside wall of the mill, is Mr. Murray's old sign that shows a cartoon rooster cock-a-doodle-dooing the words Feed Nutrena...Be Sure, Be Safe, Be Thrifty.
Having children doesn't help
When my sons were small, I had no interest in hearing children's voices in my imagination, along with endless requests to hunt for fossils and yet another lemonade stand. My fantasies were all about people who spoke in complex sentences and used multi-syllable words who hated rodents, fish, crawdads, salamanders, and hermit crabs. Perhaps when grandchildren come along...
More than being a parent, I'm drawing on my time as an elementary school teacher to write with a child's voice. I was too emotionally invested in my own children to learn anything objective about how children develop cognitively. What I learned from my students is that they are not insulated from tough experiences ("Do you play sex games at your house, too, Mrs. Hill?), are highly sensitive to nuance ("You won't be doing your one-legged happy dance today, will you?"), and aren't nearly as inhibited as you might like them to be ("Mrs. Hill, you have a booger in your nose. It's green.").
Children do make judgements, especially if an injustice occurs or someone is injured by another on the playground, but not all of their emotions are accompanied by tidy explanations of why something happens. Children are the purest of observers for their lack of life experience, and this makes them wonderful narrators, allowing the reader to assign meaning and emotion to what happens on the page. If child narrator does passed judgment, they're likely to use what populates their world, like movie heroes and cartoon characters or toys as illustrations or for vocabulary. Here, the child narrator, Jack, aged 5, in Room by Emma Donoghue uses a television reference to explain that his mom cannot say what she wants to:
“Goodbye, Room.' I wave up at Skylight. 'Say goodbye," I tell Ma. 'Goodbye, Room.'Ma says it but on mute.I look back one more time. It's like a crater, a hole where something happened. Then we go out the door.
Talk to and listen to actual children
Can't overstate this. I promise you will be surprised and delighted by what you hear and see. Children are the greatest show on earth! Take special note to how they move and the words they use.
Don't be in such a hurry to grow up yourself
Stay childlike: take the time to pull the petals off a daisy, play fetch with the dog, worry over having no friends to play with, get really dirty, eat from the dog dish, build a mud castle, pocket a rock, watch cartoons, stand up to pedal your bike really, really fast, play with the window out the car window, stomp in a puddle, color in a coloring book, read a dog story and cry your heart out, wear mismatched socks, and sleep in your clothes.
My points are generalities, of course. Every child is an exception, but when writing a narrator, the voice must ring true. That's the only rule that needs breaking.
I also have a 90-something narrator in Goodness and Mercy. Oddly, I had a much easier time with her voice, sonny.
Have I missed something? Who are your favorite child narrators? What challenges have you faced writing from a child's point of view? What is the power of a child narrator in adult fiction? Who has done this best?
Monday, July 9, 2012
This year, Novel Matters is exploring the question "Why does the novel matter?"
We've asked some writers we admire to weigh in on the question, and also to share their creative spark with us here.
We'd like to introduce you to Tracy Groot. She's the Christy award-winning author of Madman, which Publishers Weekly called "beautifully written...and entertaining and compelling book" in their starred review. Her first two novels, The Brother's Keeper and Stones of My Accusers, both received starred reviews from Booklist. Tracy and her husband have three boys, and together, run a coffee shop in Holland, Michigan.
Her latest novel, Flame of Resistance is the first of three books with Tyndale, with two other historical novels to follow. One is a story about Andersonville, the Confederate Civil War prison, and the other is a WWII story set in France about the miraculous evacuation of the British army at Dunkirk.
Novel Matters: Tracy, you're an avid reader. Tell us about the novels have informed you as a writer over the years?
Tracy Groot: East of Eden is probably one of the most influential books I've ever read.
NM: How so?
TG: Steinbeck taught me that as a writer, it's okay to teach. A Tale of Two Cities also affected me profoundly, in ways that are hard to articulate. I promise, that's not a copout; I wish I could figure out why it's such a powerful novel to me. I don't mind to let it remain a splendid mystery. A few other notables are To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Killer Angels, Great Expectations, A Christimas Carol, Ender's Game, The Great Gatsby (I hate it that I can't figure that novel out), Jane Eyre, A Wrinkle in Time, The Lord of the Rings...I could go on for about a year.
NM: Okay, lots of American classics, and some great British fiction writers mixed in. So, if you could sit down with any writer in history, or living today, who would it be and why?
TG: What an incredibly unfair question.
NM: (Evil grin.)
TG: Can I sit down with 3 or 4?
NM: (Raised eyebrows)
TG: Okay, if you put my feet to the fire (or deny me chocolate), I'd say that I'd love to sit and have a chat with C.S. Lewis. I'd spend the first 10 minutes giggling like a doofus, then tell him I would've married him if I'd had the chance (because he certainly would have married me).
NM: Absolutely understand about marrying C.S. Lewis. All that tweed and quiet days reading. Who else?
TG: I'd also love to chat with John Steinbeck. And Patrick O'Brian. And Agatha Christie. And just to mix things up, J.D. Salinger, only because I'd give him a piece of my mind for holing up for the rest of his life. He should have married Harper Lee.
NM: Okay, so let me ask--
TG: Wait, one more--G.K. Chesterton. Oh! And Michael Shaara.
NM: Perfect! So you read and read--absolutely necessary for a writer. I want to know about your writing life, how you've put all this influence to work, but first, let me ask What is the one non-writing thing you do that helps you be a better writer?
TG: I watch film. Movies, TV episodes, documentaries. Great screenplays inspire me. I am currently in love with Joss Whedan. I like to study great directors. I'll get hooked on a director, and watch all of his stuff to death. I couldn't get enough of James Mangold, and watched 3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line about a million times.
NM: You can't go wrong studying everything that went right with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It sounds like even when you're not writing, you're feeding the writer in you. Okay, let's get to the really good stuff. You the writer. Do you outline your novels before you write, or are you a feel your way through writer?
TG: I tend to do sort of an outline in flux, a combination of outline and feeling my way. Sometimes I'll do some broad strokes on a dry erase board, like plot pivots, and aim for the pivots.
NM: Plot pivots? What are they and how can we aim for them?
TG: Plot pivots to me are events of varying degrees of import that shift the storyline into another direction. By varying degrees, I mean that I could have a plot pivot as simple as "She picked up a button" or as dramatic as "Emery died"; either way, both mean something to me. "She picked up a button" could mean that Violet realizes the emptiness of her efforts to help the Confederate cause, reduced to making buttons out of seashells because the Union blockade of ports has shut down all trade; is this what she is meant to do? Or is there something more? Should she instead focus on helping the Union prisoners at Andersonville, knowing that to aid mankind will ultimately aid the Confederacy? "She picked up a button" becomes a plot pivot, a decision point for Violet. Sometimes I'll write lines like these on my dry erase board, knowing they contain far more. "Emery died" is a huge, end-of-Act-II type of plot pivot. Either way, when a plot pivot occurs, I'll write it down. The compilation of these one-liners become a stagger-step type of plotline for me.
NM: There's a real intuition going on in your writing, a 'trust your gut' aspect that is thrilling and frightening for a writer. Do you have a basic formula for how you start? Which comes first for you, plot, characters, themes, or something else?
TG: Every novel is different. Sometimes it's theme, sometimes it's character, sometimes it's plot, sometimes it is vagaries of all three.
NM: I love how you allow each story to "be", and work with what it brings you. It's difficult for new writers to trust their instinct, and we're bombarded with advise about how to write a novel. What is the worst piece of writing advice ever offered to you?
GT: "If you want to write a novel, you have to pay the price and write magazine articles first."
NM: Wait, wait! Isn't that true? Don't we all have to "pay the price" if we want to be allowed to write the stuff we want to write?
TG: I say don't waste time. Write what you want to write. You want to write short stories? Write a short story. Poetry? Write a poem. Novels? Write a novel. Blog? Then blog. Life is short. Do the kind of writing you want to do.
NM: Okay, I'm loving your gutsy advice about embracing who you are as a writer, hang what “they” say. It isn’t often we come across a writer who isn’t interested in all the rules, yet is still published.
TG: Rules are important--they are important to learn, and very important to decide if they fit; important to decide if they should be rules at all for us. "Write magazine article first" wasn't necessarily bad advice, but it was wrong advice for me, disheartening advice. (And it was, after all, advice--not a rule.) I didn't have a place for it. It wasn't in my make-up. But I did it, and when I failed to get published, was absolutely overjoyed; I had no desire to write articles, my desire was to write novels, and I told myself, "There, I did it because someone smarter than me, published MULTIPLE times, told me to, and it didn't work, and now I get to do what I want to do because I earned it." But to follow advice that didn't resonate in the first place, and then to figure that I earned the right to write...that's just silly. I would've saved time and found happiness a little quicker if I'd gone with my gut. That's where Princess Rebellious thinks any sort of writing advice should fall: into the Does This Resonate Arena. Does it resonate? Then do it. Does it not resonate? Then don't. It was my own darned fault that I wasted time. I didn't listen to my gut. Oh, well. You learn from your mistakes. Not a bad thing at all.
NM: Sensing a writer with confidence here. I find it's difficult to always keep my head when I spend time online, surfing the industry news sites. The publishing world is rocking on its heels, and it's getting harder and harder to get and stay published. What keeps you writing despite setbacks?
TG: I can't not write.
NM: Is there an expression of this in your life that illustrates the innate writer in you? I recall examining this question a few years ago, and I reached the astonishing conclusion that it isn’t writing I can’t not do, it’s story I can’t not do.
TG: Wow. I think you answered it for me--"It's story I can't not do." Precisely! And thanks! I'll use that for the rest of my life--"It's story I can't not do." I heard a guy say 'Reading is writing', and that's God's honest truth because it's story. Reading puts in to me. There are seasons I spend reading, reading, reading, and ultimately that is writing, writing, writing. Reading is storytelling; you're telling yourself the story as you read it, as it filters down through the filter of you, and ends up in that place you will one day draw upon to write. I call it my compost heap. This is not original; I got it from Tolkien. He said all goes into his compost heap, and I have found that this is so. When I read, or when I engage story through film, it funnels down through my filter and goes to that mysterious heap, where, when I draw upon it later, it is transformed and comes to the page different than how it went in, because of all of the things in my heap that reacted to it, and transformed it. How very individual we are. Our heaps are like no others.
TG: My husband is a social media guy, and helps me to pull my cantankerous old-school self into the blinding light of internet day. It's tough. I have to work at it. Part of the navigation is to realize that the tides, really, really, really have changed. I have to make friends with that notion.
NM: Make peace with the media frenzy. Good advice. Speaking of advice, I asked you earlier for the worst writing advice. What is the best piece of writing advice you have to offer aspiring authors?
TG: Read. A lot.
NM: Let's talk more specifically about your work. Your new novel, Flame of Resistance is set in a little town called Benouville, in Normandy, France. What role does setting play in your story?
TG: Normandy is a hallowed place in American history. I found that I could tell part of the tale of D-Day in Normandy by zeroing in on one little city.
NM: Earlier, you told us that ideas for your stories come to you in different ways. How did the seed of your story idea for this novel come to you?
TG: I was reading Stephen Ambrose's Pegasus Bridge, a book about the spearhead action of D-Day, and came across a tiny little line about a Germans-only brothel in Benouville. It made me wonder if any French prostitutes worked with the French Resistance. It made me wonder, What would happen if one of those German officers was actually an American spy for the Allies?
NM: Now we're all wondering! What do you want your readers to carry away from reading Flame of Resistance?
TG: I'd love readers to learn what it was like to live under enemy occupation for not months, but years. I'd love readers to discover that not every German was a Nazi, that the French didn't just lie down and let Hitler run over them; most of all, I'd love readers to find that resistance against darkness is not futile. I'd love readers to wonder if sort of a spiritual enemy occupation is going on around them right now, and think about what they can do to resist.
NM: And what about yourself? What did you gain from writing Flame of Resistance?
TG: New friends. I love to meet and talk with people who lived through extraordinary circumstances; I also love to connect with people who are professionals in their particular area of interest, and learn about what they do. I had a chance to talk with aged family members who lived through the five-year occupation of Holland, and learned things I never knew. I also had the privilege of interviewing a WWII veteran--a retired and decorated Air Force Colonel--who helped me learn about flying a P-47. He even pulled strings to let me sit in one!
NM: Thanks for being here today, Tracy. I'd like to end off with the question we're exploring all year:
Why does the novel matter?
TG: In the historic changes that have come to publishing, some good and some bad, one thing has not changed; the world is always looking for a good story. The novel matters because it supplies society with needed diversion, needed respite, and needed truth that may not come when it's served up cold. If we're really lucky, truth may come through a kid named Huckleberry, a ghost named Marley, a hobbit named Frodo, or a place due east of Eden.
Friday, July 6, 2012
Surprise your readers. Whatever they expect, do something else.
The example the author gave in the article had to do with characterization: If Joe, the young truck-driver lifts weights in the living room while his wife, Sarah embroiders cross stitch, then no one is surprised. But if you give the weights to Sarah, and the cross-stitch project to Joe, things get a bit more interesting.
I love books that surprise me, and in my writing, I'm proudest when I have created a recognizable character - I'm thinking of Finis, the overbearing preacher in To Dance In the Desert - and turned his stereotype inside out so you see the real person inside.
It works with plot, too. Ever read a book that lead you to believe things would pan out one way, but then something happened and the story went a different direction altogether? The new course has to make sense, certainly, but when it does, to my mind, it's story magic.
Much as I love books about the craft of writing, sometimes a good rule-of-thumb is worth 300 pages of literary theory.
Since this is Friday, let's play a game. Nothing too heavy. We're going to grab three random numbers, and write a quick plot the easy, predictable way, and then mess with the elements a bit, to make it more interesting.
To prepare, pull up the random number generator: http://www.random.org/
Generate a number between 1 and 7. Write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 1, generate a second number between 1 and 39, and write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 2, generate a second number between 1 and 38 and write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 3, generate a second number between 1 and 26 and write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 4, generate a second number between 1 and 33 and write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 5, generate a second number between 1 and 27 and write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 6, generate a second number between 1 and 40 and write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 7, generate a second number between 1 and 9 and write it down.
Generate a number between 1 and 36, and write it down.
Now you're ready to play.
HOW TO USE THE FIRST NUMBER:
There are seven portfolios featured on her site, and for the purposes of this exercise, you're to navigate to one of them. The first number you generated, between 1 and 7, will tell you which one:
- If you generated number 1, go to "New York 1."
- If you generated number 2, go to "New York 2."
- If you generated number 3, go to "Chicago."
- If you generated number 4, go to "Travels."
- If you generated number 5, go to "Unknown."
- If you generated number 6, go to "Self Portraits."
- If you generated number 7, go to "Color."
HOW TO USE THE SECOND NUMBER:
HOW TO USE THE THIRD NUMBER:
Here you will find a list of Georges Polti's 36 Dramatic Situations. Choose the one that corresponds to the third number you chose. If you like, click on the situation to read a brief discussion of the parameters.
Now, dear reader, you are ready write the outline of a new story, using the photo and situation you just chose. First write what seems most obvious to you, and then change things so it still fits the picture, but in a more surprising way.
Here's what I did with mine:
My generated numbers were: 6, 18, and 35.
That gives me this image:
My dramatic situation is number 35, Recovery of a lost one. (How ironic: the theme of both my novels.)
My first take on the story:
Ten-year-old Gracie's brother Steven, aged five, was last seen two months ago, getting into a navy blue, 1947 Packard no one had ever seen in her small town.
Now, on the way home from school, she has just spotted the same Packard pulling up a dirt drive to a house all but hidden behind trees and tall bushes.
The sign near the sidewalk says, "No Trespassing." She stands wringing her hands, mustering courage to tiptoe through the brush and look through the windows for her brother.
That was too easy.
And boring, and predictable.
What if Gracie isn't a little girl, but an elderly woman who has just failed the eye test for her driver's license? And what if she isn't your stereotypical old lady, but is was riding that bike to the local college, to finish her Bachelor's degree in... let's see... Marriage and Family Counseling, to help a family - her family - whose dysfunctions trace directly back to the stranglehold she's kept on her children and younger siblings all their lives.
And what if the missing person is the brother who has managed to avoid her completely in the three months since he announced his engagement to the twice widowed woman who runs the local food bank? And she has met her sister-in-law to be, and has identified in her the clear traits of a sociopath.
But now she has seen her brother pull up the dirt drive of this hidden house. And the sign out front says, "No Trespassing. Especially Not If You're Gracie."
Now it's your turn.
Generate your three numbers and use them to come up with a predictable plot in just a few words. Then change out the predictable bits with less-predictable ones, and let us know what you have.
Oh, and include the link to your photograph.
We love to read what you have to say.
Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Monday, July 2, 2012
As writers, we create this surreal intimate effect, in part, by bending time.
Beginner writers will examine the components of a story, align them in linear fashion, then write the story based on plot points: this happens, then this, and then this, until, finally, that happens.
All novels include a linear plot, action that pushes the story forward.
It’s the more experienced writer who can take the elements of plot past, present, and future, shuffle them like a magic deck of cards, arrange them differently, and present a coherent story made richer through the bending of time.
There’s a taboo word in fiction writing circles: Backstory.
It’s naughty to write backstory. Right?
How did the past, those elements of a character’s story which take place before the story happens become such a bugaboo? Somewhere along the way, all personal history was lumped together into one mushy pot of backstory goo.
Writers too often include story-irrelevant details in their manuscripts. Readers go cross-eyed soaking up all the details only to discover that, in the end, very few mattered to the story.
There are, however, story-relevant details that not only should be included in the present story, but need to be highlighted and given their own scenes.
There are events that happen future to the currently occurring events within the linear story that need to be brought into the present.
A fiction writer is a time-travel tour guide. A storyteller, with eyes forward and in the back of her head, leads with a flashlight in and through time, then, near the end of the story, she flips the switch, bathing the reader with the light of understanding of how the past, present, and future occur all at once inside the story of you.
Because fiction is about being human, it is the collusion of past, present, and future. The story-imprint of the way we think, process, remember, and live.
There are facets of your past that are as present as if they were occurring right this moment. Ghosts haunt your present life, influencing emotions, reactions, and skewing your hopes for the future.
We paint our present with yesterday’s brush. Events from years ago tilt into the future.
Our fiction should represent this fundamental human truth.
Here then, is a quick primer on how to bend time:
Write oodles of backstory as you please. Then, wade up to your armpits through the words looking for the tiny handful of story-relevant bits, the images, events, and/or voices from the past that haunt your character. This is the ghost. You will know it when you find it because it is small, fleeting, and painful to the touch.
Write the ghost. Craft a scene about the ghost that reads like a short story. If you’re not deeply moved by the scene, re-write it. Repeat as necessary.
Take the ghost for a walk. Nudge it into the plot, push it deep toward the end of the story. Watch what it does. Document its shimmer and gloss, how it dims, or grows menacing. Write a scene about the future of this ghost. If you’re not deeply moved by what you’ve written, re-write.
Delete half of each scene you’ve written. At least half. Likely more.
Re-write the ghost. Yes, again.
Delete half or more.
Now you’re getting to the heart of it. Now you are beginning to see that single, defining moment in time that haunts your character.
You likely need a tissue or two. Blow your nose. Brace yourself it’s going to get painful.
Live the moment. Slip into the skin of your character, shod your feet with preparation of this soul’s gospel. Expose yourself to the potentially fatal harm. Invite the haunting.
Then, you will understand all you need to about the way time bends inside of us.