Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why You Shouldn't Talk About Your Novel

I was talking to a writer friend of mine recently and one of the many subjects we touched on was what happens when a writer talks about his/her work in progress.

Writers love to talk about their work. It's only natural, apart from the world, clacking away on a keyboard for hours on end makes us jumpy, chatty, a little nutso when we get out among people (or is it just me?), but there are very good reasons why you shouldn't talk about your the novel you're currently working on, and not one of them is the reason you're probably thinking.

You don't really know what you're talking about. A novel is a long process, and while the general subject matter might not change over the course of writing "Chapter 1" and "The End" the content will shift remarkably. Plan all you like (and I'm a planner), but the end product will be something different from what you started out to write.

You're boring people. Your flat out excitement about the minute details of your character's existential journey is non-transferable. No one cares about your characters. Why? Because they can't read the book yet. Don't ask your friends to get worked up about something they don't understand, can't envision, and aren't able to read because it's not written. Naughty, naughty.

You're wasting your creative energy. When the eddy of ideas swirl, and you're dying to tell someone all about it, you need to sit down and write instead. If you blab all the goodie details of your latest and greatest idea, that's where the energy flows--out your mouth, into someone's ear and goodbye. When you try to sit down later and recapture the perfectness of that moment, it will elude you.

Think of it this way. Creative energy runs in unreliable pipes. It pours out into you whenever it feels like it, and runs dry the rest of the time. When you stand under its flow, you want to be certain to direct that energy into your work. If you talk about your work to someone else, you mis-direct that energy into a place that does your work no good. You're wasting that energy because (see above) it's non-transferable.

And you thought I was going to say that you shouldn't talk about your work because someone might steal your idea. Nah. Truthfully, someone has already written a book about what you're writing a book about. But not the way you write it.

Carpe Annum by saving your creative energy for your work. Pour it into the pages and no where else. Future readers will thank you.

Siphoned your energy into the wrong places? Share your cautionary tale with us. Harnessed that fickle flow right onto the page? Share your victory dance so we can dance with you.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Carpe Annum Interviews: Tosca Lee

Each year, Novel Matters chooses a handful of writers as guests on the blog. This year, we've invited great writers to talk to us about the theme: Carpe Annum--Seize the Year! This month, we're happy to welcome Tosca Lee to Novel Matters.

Tosca Lee is the NY Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Demon: A Memoir, Havah: The Story of Eve, and the Books of Mortals series with NY Times bestseller Ted Dekker: Forbidden, Mortal and Sovereign (June, 2013). A former ballerina, Tosca still spends time in the dance studio and loves to adventure travel. She makes her home in the Midwest.

Novel Matters: We’re excited to have you join us today, Tosca. Your latest novel, Iscariotjust released Feb 4th. That name sends shivers of anticipation down reader’s spines. Tell us about the story. 

Tosca Lee: Iscariot is the first person story of Judas, from his childhood in Roman-occupied Israel to his emergence as the man known to the world as the infamous betrayer of Jesus. But even more, it is a view into the life of Jesus. One that caused me to really see, for the first time, this man I call “Messiah” in the context of history, as his contemporaries might have seen him. As I might have seen him.

NM: Love the idea of slipping into first century skin.

TL: The further I got in the novel, the more I realized I wasn’t just writing the story of Judas—I was writing my story.

NM: Goose bumps here, Tosca. This couldn’t have been an easy novel to write. The story of Judas is dominated by its ending. Why did you decide to take him on as the subject of a novel?

TL: I have to admit, when editor friend Jeff Gerke first suggested the idea, I ran the other way—I knew how much research and time it would take and I was completely cowed.

NM: Jeff has written for Novel Matters before (here, here, and here), so we know he is full of innovative, reach-for-it ideas. So, Jeff suggested the idea and you ran away, quite sanely. What changed your mind?

TL: It followed me around. It haunted me. Finally, months later, I was sitting in this restaurant in New York City, and started scribbling a scene between Judas and his mom on the paper tablecloth.

NM: Uh oh.

TL: I knew I was a goner.

NM: I’ve heard New York City restaurants will do that to you. I’m guessing you went home with that tablecloth.

TL: I tore the scene off, stuffed it in my purse, and called my agent a few days later. I was actually kind of hoping he would talk me out of it. He didn’t.

NM: Clearly, everyone you know enjoys torturing you. 

TL: All my friends failed in this regard, including dear friend Robert Liparulo, who said, “You know, I really think you’re supposed to do this.” I cried and kicked a whined a few months more before finally getting down to work.

NM: You’ve got to appreciate the process here. It’s only those ideas that you can’t shake, even after vigorous efforts that you know are novel-worthy. Part of the reason we want to run away is because we know the story will be difficult.

TL: And it was difficult; the research took a year and a half, and the book took another year and a half to write and months to edit because I over-wrote my first draft by 130,000 words. Oops.

NM: You’ve tackled this difficult subject of Judas Iscariot, and you wrestled with a number of limitation—that’s the nature of storytelling. In this process, were there any writing taboos that you respected in the past that you no longer consider taboo? If so, which ones, and why? Which would you never break? 

TL: I try not to consciously think about things like parameters when I'm writing. I go back and censor word choices that won’t fly in the market, kill clich├ęs, de-grossify when I'm editing if need be.

NM: You manage to kill the censor while you’re writing?

TL: I like writing to be experimental and open while it's in process.

NM: You talked about how long it took to complete Iscariot. The years of investment. Some authors write a book a year and others write a handful over a lifetime. In the beginning, did you consciously choose one of these paths over the other, and are you happy with that choice today? 

TL: You know, I've never made a conscious choice about this. In the beginning, I think we're just glad as authors to have a contract, so we write and sell those books when we can. For me that meant Demon: A Memoir came out in 2007, and Havah: The Story of Eve in 2008... and then there was this quiet spell of three years while I switched publishers (which is time-consuming), worked on Iscariot, and started the Books of Mortals series—the first of which (Forbidden) came out in 2011. So in my case, it's really just been about tackling the next project as it comes.

NM: Forbidden, your first novel with Ted Dekker debuted on the NYTimes bestsellers list. That must of have felt amazing. Writing careers ebb and flow—one day you’re an Amazon 5-star, the next you’re on your way to the bargain table. Always, every day, however, you’re an artist. The story must be written. How do you—do you?—separate yourself from opinions to give your creative self for another day of writing?

TL: You know, I remember my first one-star review. My heart started thudding. I felt anxious, defensive, and mortified. But my anxiety has ebbed with time. A few months ago I saw a one-star review that said Demon was "written with the deftness and wit of an inebriated three year old." And I remember thinking, "Who would give alcohol to a three year-old??"

NM: (there is a long pause while Bonnie tries to stop laughing and then composes herself) Drunken toddlers aside, you seem to be saying that in order to survive the deep cuts that come with putting your work out there, you have to learn the combination of time and experience. Where does the cup of courage come from?

TL: I think just realizing that readers’ responses are a reflection of where they’re at. It’s not about you. It’s about what resonates—or doesn’t—with them right now. For me, I know that any time I choose to get offended, I’m the one who suffers.

NM: Good advice. Learn the art of shaking it off and knowing it’s not really about you. Personally. Okay, advice. All writers are looking for it. What advice do you have for writers just starting out?

TL: Make sure you've got strategic people on your team who love your stories. Choose stories that you're obsessed with. And then sit your butt in the chair and write. 

NM: If tomorrow were the first day of your career, what advice would you give yourself? What did you wish you knew when you started?

TL: Start writing the next one before you sell the first one. And invest in a better desk chair. Try not to pick your nose in interviews.

NM: Really grateful for that last one, Tosca. Let’s talk about the writing process a bit. You’ve mentioned massive research, overwriting the first draft of Iscariot, and how you like to take the breaks off when you’re writing. So, the question is, outline or no outline? Do you use a detailed outline when writing, or is it total go with the gut?

TL: There's no substitute for the process itself—some things cannot be planned. That said, I've been learning the value of well thought-out outlines more and more after grossly over-writing my last two solo novels. 

NM: What's the one thing (be it a technology, a notebook, a wristwatch, or pen) that you can't be without as a writer?

TL: My iPhone. I don't know how many times I've grabbed it off my nightstand at 2am to type myself a note. Barring that, I have to have notebooks and pens. And Cheetos.

NM: Cheetos. That’s code for chocolate, right? Okay, when Cheetos fail, who do you turn to for advice when things are rocky on your writing journey? Who is your human Cheeto?

TL: My co-author, Ted Dekker—after 30-some books, he's definitely gone through any issue I might be having. And having written together, he knows my writing habits and the demons that plague me.

NM: The theme this year on Novel Matters is Carpe Annum: Seize the Year! Tell us about a turning-point time in your journey as a writer when you took hold of your career. What did that look like? How did that moment change you as a writer?

TL: In 2010 I had two books out and was working on my third in the midst of a hectic career as a globetrotting management consultant. And then out of the blue I was offered a contract on a new series with Dekker. There was no way I could travel every week, finish Iscariot, and co-author three books in the next two years. I had a choice: hold on to the security of my 401K and continue writing books when I could... or throw it into gear and go. I vacillated a few weeks in the name of thinking things through, knowing the whole time what I would choose. Stories are my passion. I went.  

Since then it's been busy and it's still sometimes scary. But there isn't a single day that I don't wake up grateful and eager to begin.

NM: Thanks so much, Tosca, for coming in and sharing your journey with us. We’re excited to read Iscariot, and the stories you have for us in future. Thanks for helping us Carpe Annum!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Toads and Pianos!

To paraphrase a popular saying among writing professionals, “There are a lot of people who want to have written a book, but only a fraction who will write one.” As anyone who’s ever tried it knows: writing is Hard Work. Hard. Work. These days I feel like Fred Flintstone trying to get the Flintmobile going – I’m having a hard time gaining traction in my new WIP. To completely mix my metaphors – though I’ll stick with the vehicular theme – I’m currently taxiing on the runway, waiting for take-off, anxious to hit altitude where I’ll finally begin to soar through the writing process. Maybe. Each new book I begin is a crap-shoot, wherein I ask myself, “Can she do it again?” And, oh, the conversation that little question incites inside my head.

Speaking of craps, the name for the old and popular dice game is believed to have originated from crapaud, the French word for toad, given because of the toad-like crouch the players assume while tossing the dice. I’m not making this up. Honest. Gotta love the French.

Okay. So we’ve established that writing is not the romantic, suave, easy life non-writers assume it to be. It has its moments, yes, but the same can be said of childbirth and weed pulling. The fond moments always pertain to the end product, never the process. Crapaud! I could crawl in a hole just thinking about it.

And to throw even more light on our word of the day, according to The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedia Dictionary, crapaud also translates into “baby grand [piano].” I swear I’m not making that up either. Do you suppose it has something to do with the way the French sit when they play the piano?

Just a thought.

If writing can be a drudgery, and rewriting an even worse drudgery – and let’s not even talk about submissions, rejections and marketing – why the deuce do we do it? If I were sitting at a typewriter, this is where I’d rip out the sheet of paper, wad it up and toss it into my over-flowing waste basket, then choke myself with my ascot.

Gosh, I’m feeling metropolitan today.

So, is there anything fun about writing? Yes, yes, and yes. To name a few: getting into the groove, breathing life into the nostrils of your characters, writing The End on a story well written. Hearing from happy readers. Investing well the millions you’ve earned from your Hard Work. Oh, wait, that last part was pure fiction. Ignore it.

And making trailers.

For me, making trailers is the “icing on the petit fours of (the writing) life” – to quote one of my characters, from one of my books. As I sit here I can’t remember which. Okay, maybe making trailers isn’t really the icing, but it’s one of the ingredients. I love making trailers. They’re fun. And in comparison to actually writing the book, they’re easy. I love selecting the music, getting just the right feel for the story; selecting the images I’ll use; and writing the script, which will hopefully help tell the story of the story without giving the story away. (That last part of the last sentence reminds me of a button I wore in my hippie days that said, “Why do we kill people who kill people to show people that killing people is wrong?” I’ve since had reason to reconsider that button.) Then I love watching the completed trailer, feeling a sense of a different kind of accomplishment. Of course, I wouldn’t have known where on earth to begin without Katy. She’s such a wealth of information, and beyond helpful.

But putting all the fun things of trailer-making aside, are they useful? Do they create interest and help sell books? I personally enjoy book trailers. I view them to learn what other writers are doing, and to compare them to my own. But I’ve also purchased books because of trailers. Have you?

Another question I have is how do you get people to view them? I’ve talked about my trailers on Twitter and Facebook, but I haven’t generated much traffic to them. Should I add that to my list of things to worry about? I love lists, but I want them manageable. If I put the link to my trailers, say, here, would you be even a little bit enticed to view them? If you liked them, would you encourage your plethora of friends to view them? Then would you participate in this completely unscientific poll and tell me what you think about the trailers and the subject of trailers and whether or not you would create trailers for your own books?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Book Club: Writing 21st Century Fiction, The Inner Journey

I'm reflecting on chapter 3 of Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass, "The Inner Journey." Rather than regurgitate what you've already read, I've picked two ideas that were especially relevant and challenging to me. Feel free to add other ideas from the chapter. Haven't read the chapter? Don't let that stop you from joining in. We love hearing your voices.

Think of your favorite story of all time.

Now, what has kept that story more like a memory than fiction?

Was it the conflict? The meet-you-for-lunch reality of the characters? The action? The snappy dialogue? The lyrical prose?

According to Donald Maass, it's the emotional landscape of the story. And the starting place is opening ourselves up to our own emotional landscapes. We've been talking about the power of writing personally, honestly, transparently--except when, as Latayne pointed out on Monday, writing from reality can be dangerous. But typically, the more willing we are to mine our emotional lives, the more compelling our characters will be.

By way of example, let me give you peek into one of the most traumatic periods of my life. If you're thinking high drama, prepare to be disappointed.

Just as my first novel was gaining the interest of an agent and a publisher, I started having weird physical symptoms. My hands and my feet felt as though someone was driving spikes through them. Doctors were clueless.

To minimize the pain, I discovered two coping mechanisms: 1) Stay in the most neutral position possible. This meant lying on the floor, usually with my dog, watching the 2000 election returns. Remember hanging chads? 2) Apply ice to the back of the neck.

Since this went on for 15 months, I had lots of time to till my emotional landscape. I grieved my loss of ability--every movement intensified the pain. I wallowed in self-pity. I ranted at doctors (in my
imagination only) who dismissed me. I wondered if God could be trusted. Was He even there? Could I die soon, please? I dug for courage to make it to 9 am, 10 am, 11 am...I felt betrayed by the church. I'd become invisible. My friends disappeared. I clung to the thinnest threads of hope. I asked my husband to hide my sleeping pills. My life devolved into doctor's visits, who I realized weren't going to solve my medical mystery within the allotted 1-hour period and bone-crushing loneliness. leached from my bones and I settled in to live well with pain.

Writing a novel about lying on the floor for fifteen months would be b-o-r-i-n-g, boring! But writing a story with the knowledge of this kind of upheaval was like opening a Swiss Bank Account of emotional currency I could loan to my characters. And connect with my readers.

Since Jesus promised us tribulation (grievous trial; trouble or suffering) in this world, I assume you also have a Swiss Bank Account of emotional currency. In that case, what Maass has to say should redeem, at least in part, what you've been through:

One of the joys of writing 21st century fiction is the permission it gives you to feel deeply and wide. Your task is to tune yourself to the frequency where honest emotions come through with a crackle and hiss. p. 22
A huge part of our humanity is our inner conflict. Not inner turmoil (I want to do this, but I do that.) Maass describes inner conflict this way:

The strongest inner conflicts plague characters with two desires that are mutually exclusive. When believably built, inner conflict leads to unsettling actions...Inner conflict is a dilemma. It's a debate that can't be won, an unavoidable fork in a road that leads to two equally feared or desired destinations. It's a predicament that's powerfully human. p. 23

Strong characters, the kind that become as real to you as those you dearly love, have strong inner conflict. In structuring your story, you will want to deliberately inflict your main character (at least) with a very strong inner conflict.

I recently read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Here's the book description from

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

The description hints at the inner conflict. The girl cannot get close to people she cares about, but she desperately needs and wants to get close to those people. All while I read the story, I ached to draw Victoria into the circle of love that is my family. She. Is. A. Character. In. A. Novel. And still I ached. Hope would present itself and be snatched away. She would sabotage every opportunity at intimacy in huge ways. I fell to sleep thinking about her. I woke up reaching for my Kindle to see how she had fared in the night. The resolution is brilliant, hopeful yet guarded. It's honest. I will never forget her.

I wonder what emotional currency the author brought to this story. How did she gain insight into someone with reactive detachment disorder? That is for her to know and for us to enjoy.

What struck you about Maass's ideas dealing with the inner journey? What stands in the way of creating a rich emotional landscape for your story? Can you cite examples of stories that successfully connect emotionally? When structuring your story, do you deliberately juxtapose your character's desires? Will you? Anything else from the chapter you care to discuss?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Novel Verite

Once I had an idea for a book, my first novel, and I began to write it. It got high marks in a novel contest, and praise from readers.

But something stopped me from finishing, and that was my conscience.

You see, as the result of a chance conversation, I had figured out how to commit a crime. I learned from a nurse about the many-pocketed “disaster aprons” that hospital workers used to evacuate newborns. (That was before the invention of tracking devices and door alarms.) My fictional criminal used them to kidnap children – and halfway through writing the book, I realized I didn’t want to teach anyone how to do that.

I never finished that book because I didn’t want life to imitate my art.

But sometimes life imitates our art in a way that is far beyond our ability to control – or even predict.

My newest book, Discovering the City of Sodom, is being printed right now. Co-written with an archaeologist named Dr. Steven Collins, the book asserts that the “sin city” of the Bible was indeed a real place, and according to Dr. C., it was destroyed by an airburst of an asteroid that exploded with atomic-bomb force right over ancient Israel.

In other words, the bigger, badder brother of what exploded over Russia a few days ago.

(A fellow author, upon hearing about the recent airburst, said God was giving us pre-pub buzz. And I say, Thank You!)

I’d like to know from my fellow NovelMatters ladies, who have written on compelling and often controversial subjects and heart-wrenching scenarios, if and when and how did life imitate the art of your books? And how did that make you feel?

Thank goodness I can say life has not imitated my art, because I've discovered over the years I tend to write about the disappearance/death of little girls. I'm sure there's a psychologist or two out there who would love to get me in a counseling session. I'm forcing myself not to go there with that subject matter again, but I do have two novels that touch on that in one way or another. Once they're published, no more. But I have tried to psycho-analyze myself  regarding that. I've lost two babies and an identical twin sister, so maybe that's where it comes from. Because of that I pray life never imitates my art. The one story where my art imitated life was Every Good & Perfect Gift, which dealt with early onset Alzheimer's. I knew nothing about eoa until a close friend was diagnosed at the age of 41. She and I were only 3 months apart in age. Since Evie's death, I've had another close friend who died of eoa. What are the chances?

Like Sharon, my art more imitates life than the other way around. Both of my novels are about missing family members - the first about a missing mother. Strangely, while I wrote that first one, I never considered that my father, who dropped out of my life when I was seven, might have anything to do with the subject matter. When I did realize, after the book was scheduled for publication, I felt exposed, like I'd just written down all my secrets and handed them to the unknown public. It's turned out to be a blessing. The unknown public has been very kind, and of course, there were many who responded because I touched on their own secrets. I've found to my surprise and wonder that, once readers and authors touch under the table and say, "me too," then exposure turns to compassion. God's mysterious ways.

All of my books in some way deal with my fears and the questions that dog me. My sons say it's more than a little weird to see bits and pieces of our lives in my books. And my mother once asked if she was the mother in The Queen of Sleepy Eye. My answer? Heaven's no, Ma! My soon-to-be-released book does harvest the essence of our family history. My mother was left to tend to her 6 brothers and sisters after her parents had been deemed unfit. She was only 16, so the state stepped in and adopted out most of her siblings. Although several of my aunts and uncles have passed on, we are a family, all thanks to my mother's efforts to keep the tie that binds cinched tight. I love her for that. My main character bears her middle name, Lucy, and fights to keep her family together after the death of her parents, even when the mercy of God seems more of a hindrance than a help. While the story isn't my family's story, it's very personal.

Like Patti, my kids have also said it's a little weird to see pieces of their lives in print. It's inevitable that we use life as we see it. I think losing 3 babies to miscarriage has influenced my writing until now, although I didn't lose them in the way as my Raising Rain protagonist.  Writing about any kind of loss can be very therapeutic, if you're willing to be transparent or are just really, really good at disguise.

I'm late to the table as usual. Life imitating art. While I've only one novel published, and one non-fiction, I've written several more novels, and all of them are, in various ways, personal. Not playing coy, really, but those personal bits tucked between the words are tucked there because that is how I can talk about them, veiled inside a larger story that is not my life story. Writing fiction is the only way I can share the dark alleys. In the end, I suppose all novelists end up writing their emotional biographies, their souls scattered across the shelves.

Friday, February 15, 2013

True Love

I want to talk about love.

Because, as I write this, it's Valentines Evening.

And because the man next door is this moment standing on the sidewalk serenading his lady inside - or else he is not feeling well, having had too much to drink.

Because, for better or worse, on key and off, love is in the air.

And because I've been in love with one man long enough to know what love looks like, and to know that most movies and most books get it wrong. You may know this too. I hope my neighbor knows.

Tolkien certainly did:

Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to.
J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter to Michael Tolkien, March 1941

On this day after Valentines, I'd like you to write a caption to tell me something true about love, something the books and movies don't divulge. I've provided some pictures for inspiration from my Pinterest board, Pictures That Want To Be Stories.

And I've done the first one to get the ball rolling:


A thousand things could be true of him that moment. And if they could progress past the moment to a kiss and then to years, and then to a silver anniversary, then those thousand things would taper to seven or eight or fifteen things that were true of him, and they would be the same old things, and the seven or eight things about her would become old as well. And then the mystery and possibility would be replaced with what? With that un-named something that she saw between women with whiskers and men with breasts?
She beckoned him in. 

Sorry folks. I'm tired tonight. But please see what you can do with this picture or any of the others.

We love to read what you have to say.






Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Love Story or Romance?


To celebrate Valentine’s Day, I thought we might take a look at some favorite love stories.  I’ve compiled a short list containing books that don’t fall into the romance genre, but have strong romantic elements.

Gone with the Wind
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
The Princess Bride
The Time-Traveler’s Wife
Wuthering Heights
Little Women
The Painted Veil
Snow Falling on Cedars
Le Morte de Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Roundtable
Anne of Avonlea

It’s just a partial list and I know you could add some fabulous choices of your own.

These stories are more than romance but would not be the same stories without it.  Emotional tension weaves through the plot - the kind of tension with which we can all identify.  It moves the story along, raising the stakes.  People, society, misunderstandings and forces of nature conspire against the lovers and threaten to keep them apart.  

I recently read an article that declared Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre to be romances, but Gone With the Wind and Romeo and Juliet to be love stories.  The difference was in the endings. Romances have emotionally satisfying and optimistic endings, but love stories do not. The characters may not end up together in a ‘happy ever after,’ but we are given to believe that their love is declared in a way that eternally binds them, and for certain stories, that’s enough.

I’m not against the optimistic ending, but sometimes a love story is called for. Which do you prefer and why, or would you like to add a book to the list? We’d love to hear from you.

Monday, February 11, 2013

God of Story--Guest Post by She Reads's Ariel Lawhon

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.”