Friday, March 29, 2013

Petty Me

I enjoyed both of Patti's posts this week on characterization, especially Wednesday's excellent and informative post on the risk of overpopulating a novel with superfluous characters. But I had to laugh at Patti's characterization that her post on Monday was "snarky," because our dear Patti can't be anything but sweet -- even when she's being snarky. Now me, I can be snarky. And petty. Case in point: I just finished reading a novel by a best-selling author whose name equals celebrity, and whose publisher is one of the most prestigious in the business. I enjoyed the novel tremendously. It was an engaging and complex story, which is why this author has achieved the success she has.


There's a plethora of italics used for emphasis. They're practically everywhere, on every page. And not only are they a nuisance, they portray a level of inexperience this author is way beyond.

See what I mean?

According to Harbrace College Handbook, Eleventh Edition, italics are used for: certain titles (books, magazines, newspapers, plays, films, etc.); foreign words and phrases; words or letters used as illustrations (ex: The letter A is the first in the English alphabet); emphasis; and in a few other instances. Regarding the use of italics for emphasis, Harbrace cautions: "...overuse of italics for emphasis defeats its own purpose." The Chicago Manual of Style backs up the assertion: "Overused, italics quickly lose their force." Evidently, the best-selling author and her publisher didn't get the memo. As a result I was pulled out of a compelling story with every unnecessary italicized word/phrase, because I knew this author should have known better. Compounding the problem was the extensive use of foreign words that were also italicized. And a story within a story that was all in italics.

I was cautioned about the overuse of italics for emphasis in my early writing life, because I used them like they were pepper in my grandmother's chicken'n'dumplin' recipe. There could never be too much. Wrong. Well, not about the pepper, but certainly about the italics. I learned that instead of italicizing any and all words one would emphasize if reading the text aloud, one should only use italics to emphasize a word that would not otherwise be emphasized. It's even becoming less the norm to use italics for internal dialogue or a character's thoughts.

I tend to backslide often and without thinking when it comes to the use of italics. They populate my writing on a consistent basis. But I whack them mercilessly when I edit. In fact, the re-released versions of my novels, Every Good & Perfect Gift and Lying on Sunday, have far fewer italics than the original versions.

Okay, perhaps I am being petty about the overuse of italics. In the case of the novel I just read, they won't make it any less of a best seller or the story less stellar, and the author won't have any trouble getting her next seven-figure advance. But if our hope and our goal is to produce the best manuscript possible, then we'd do well to remember it's the little foxes that spoil the vine. Let's give that editor or agent who reviews our work one less reason to turn us away.

What about you? Does the overuse of italics interfere with your reading experience? Do you have a particular pet peeve when it comes to the do's and don'ts of good writing style?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Does This Novel Seem Crowded to You?

[Author note: If you’re a pantser, sit down and make yourself comfortable. I'm hoping to show that some pre-writing activity can save you work later without killing creativity. Honest!]

Character, characters everywhere! But do they have a job to do? That’s a good question to ask. Just like you’re created with a purpose in mind, your characters should be, too.

It’s so easy to overpopulate a story. That’s how I’ve collected so many dynamite deleted scenes. But creating a cache of deleted scenes is not my objective. I need to look at my characters as part of an organic whole, not as detached individuals. Each character should help define the others.

According to John Truby in The Anatomy of Story, we learn the most about our protagonist when we can compare her to the other characters on four different levels: by story function, archetype, theme, and opposition. 

Today, I’m going to talk about the story function of your characters, because this helped me the most with crowd control—and revolutionized the way I think about developing characters.

This is my gift to you after being so snarky about Maass’s chapter, “Standout Characters.” Deepest apologies again, Mr. Maass, sir.

Every novel starts with a premise. The premise is what your story is about in one sentence. For instance, the premise of The Hunger Games (HG) is: In post-apocalyptic America, a teen-aged huntress takes her sister’s place in a last-man-standing battle against representatives of the eleven other districts of Panem.  

Once you know your premise, you create characters. Start with your protagonist or hero. She’s the one with the central problem. (Katniss must take care of her sister.) She’s the one who drives the action in an attempt to solve her problem. (Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place in the hunger games.) The protagonist drives the action, but she isn't without her weaknesses and needs. (Katniss is a loner, but she must partner with other contestants to survive, knowing she will later need to kill them in order to solve her problem.)

This is where things get interesting. All other characters in your novel will represent an opposition, an alliance with the protagonist, or a combination of the two. Every character has a job to do to tell your story according to the premise.

Antagonist: The antagonist should want the same thing as the protagonist, which will bring them in direct conflict. This doesn't mean they hate each other, necessarily. Think of them as opposition, a less brick-wall kind of word. (Katniss has one big antagonist, the government, plus twenty-three contestants that want to live to take care of their families, so they must kill her.)

Ally: An ally helps the protagonist solve her problem. They listen to the protagonist, giving the reader a chance to hear in the protagonist's own words what she values and wants. Again, their goals are usually the same, but sometimes the ally has her own goal. (In HG, Katniss has an ally in Gale, her hunting partner in District 12. Also, Cinna, her stylist uses his cunning and skill to make Katniss a favorite in the games.)

Fake-Ally Opponent: This is where things get really interesting. This character seems to be on the protagonist’s side, but is really an opponent. This is how twists and turns are added to a story, as well as tension. (Effie Trinket plays this role for Katniss. She’s very proper and gathers a team to help Katniss, but she represents the government, the source of all Katniss’s problems. As the government’s representative, she facilitates the death of at least one, if not both of her charges, Katniss and Peeta.)

Fake-Opponent Ally: These are fun characters to write but not as common in storytelling as the Fake-Ally Opponent, but HG is full of them. This opponent appears to be fighting the protagonist but is actually a friend. (Peeta, of course, is the first of Katniss’s opponents to come to mind, but don’t forget about Rue. The most powerful Fake-Opponent Ally is Haymitch, Katniss’s supposed mentor. He is drunk and useless most of the time, but he sees something in Katniss that makes him believe she is finally the one who can survive. He recruits sponsors and sends supplies at just the right moment.)

Subplot Character: Their role is to give another opportunity to define the protagonist through comparison (they want the same thing or have the same problem but go after the solution differently) and to advance the plot. In HG, Katniss’s mother is a subplot character. She wants the same thing, to take care of Katniss and Prim, but her grief has paralyzed her. In this way we see the heroic side of Katniss. The mother moves the plot along by her passivity. Katniss is all Prim has in her broken world.

HG might not have been the best example because there are lots of characters, but they fit very nicely into their roles. Let’s look at a “smaller” story world to see how this works.  Feel free to disagree with me.

In The Language of Flowers, the premise is that a young woman uses flowers to say the things she cannot say on her quest for love. 

Victoria is our protagonist. Her central problem is that she wants to love and be loved but can’t do either. As a product of the foster system, Victoria has never properly bonded with a caregiver, so she probably suffers from reactive attachment disorder (RAD). She uses the language of flowers she learns from her foster mother to try to make connections. 

Her antagonist is RAD, I think. She sabotages herself in all of her attempts to make meaningful connections. 

The author brilliantly gives Victoria two strong allies, Renata the florist and Grant the flower grower. Renata gives Victoria a job to rescue her from homelessness and allows her room to be ellusive, and Grant is the most patient man in the world, and he loves her, literally and figuratively challenging her flower language. 

Victoria’s false-opponent ally, and this is up for debate, is her caseworker. Name? She comes off as making hurtful decisions for Victoria, but she introduces her to the only mother she will ever know because she understands what Victoria needs. 

The false-ally opponent is her foster mother, Elizabeth. She needs the same thing as Victoria, love, and she gives it freely until what she loves more than Victoria is destroyed. She ends up wounding Victoria worst of all. 

The subplot character is Victoria’s assistant whom she brings in from her old group home. Again, name? She’s there to compare how two foster system kids react to emancipation.

So, there you have it, a purpose-driven approach to populating your novels. Personally, this information has helped me develop a wider variety of characters with greater capacity for conflict and helped me to focus the story on the premise by not adding characters who aren't needed. (This is how adorable yet menacing Fred got booted from Goodness & Mercy.)

I would love to hear what you think of Truby’s story structure approach to populating your stories. Have you tried this approach? What benefits or hindrances did you experience? How do you keep from over-populating your stories? Have you ever asked yourself while reading a novel, "What is this character doing here?" 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Getting Snarky at Donald Maass

Dear Mr. Donald Maass, sir,
We're discussing your book, Writing 21st Century Fiction, at Novel Matters today. If you've stopped by to see how much we loved the chapter on standout character, please go away now. My writing career is on shaky enough ground as it is. Being black-balled by a top New York city literary agent would shoot my career between the eyes. So, you just mosey along. Go to the corner and get something highly caffeinated or one of those famous hot dogs they sell on the street. Forget you ever heard my name, please.
Patti Hill

Reader Alert: I’m a little cranky about this chapter.  In fact, I may sound snarky when I don’t  mean to. Yes, Maass says true things about characterization, but he also quotes his other books on writing. 

Hello? could we have something fresh here?

And he speaks in broad generalities, which sound suspiciously like he really is talking to genre writers. Like this:
A standout protagonist is one who quickly stirs in your reader high admiration. p. 79
Yes. No. Duh! This isn’t wrong. It’s just prescriptive. Are we all writing books about Boy Scouts? This is the kind of stuff I taught my fourth-grade students. Ack! 

(Oh my, this is snarky. So sorry.)

My pulse quickened a bit when Maass started a section on characters who lack conflict. This is a huge problem for beginning writers. They want their characters to be nice and not make the writer look bad for being able to think up very human things for their characters to do. The result is a boring story. As we talked about last time, the inner journey—conflict and all—is crucial to creating characters and stories reader can relate to. I was genuinely eager to hear what Maass had to say.  

Any character, whether wholly negative or naively positive or somewhere in between (My question: Has he left anyone out?), can be alive, alert, and engaged in life. But how is that conveyed to the reader? There are three key techniques: the use of observation, opinions, and self-awareness. P. 100
Maass uses Aibileen Clark from The Help as an example of a character who is a keen observer, especially of the white family she works for and full of opinions she can’t express. And who was more self-aware than a black woman of the south in 1962? Aibileen knew her place.

But Aibileen is not wholly negative or naively positive or anything in between.  She is human! I can hear her voice in my head. “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”  Her keen observations, opinions, and self-awareness are NOT add-ons. They’re who she is. 

(I didn’t like this chapter very much.)

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. The qualities Maass attributes to a well-rounded and interesting character are valid. They just wouldn’t, in my humble opinion, resurrect a poorly conceived character. I love a character who can see things I can’t and describe them in such a manner that makes me groan with pleasure. And I happen to like opinionated characters, too. They make me squirm and laugh, all as that character turns a mirror on me. As for healthy self-awareness, I’m reading a novel now about a man who makes note of his bowel habits in his journal. Too much?

Here are five nuggets you can take from this chapter:
  1. Heroic protagonists need to show us that they’re human.
  2. Stronger than surprise is selfless focus. Think Enzo in The Art of Racing in the Rain
  3. Put as much planning and work into your antagonist as you do your protagonist.
  4. Don’t skimp on your secondary characters, either. Give them a history and know them well.
  5. Work on your characters until they fascinate you, then they will fascinate millions of readers.

I was going to continue this discussion on Wednesday, but that’s about it. Instead, I’ll share something I've learned from a master storyteller that has changed the way I populate my stories. I promise more of a take-away. Also, I will put my snarky self on the shelf--with that obnoxious elf.

And I’ll be reading ahead to see if Maass has anything more to offer us.

Was I too hard on Maass? Help me out here, what's the most important thing you do to develop human characters? From whom have you learned the most about characterization? Name a character who took your breath away. Can I hide at your house?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Please Pass the Carrot Sticks

After Katy's fabulous post about wonder, I'm moving from the sublime to the ridiculous. It's Friday and it just seemed like the time to let loose. My topic today has been on my mind for awhile and I bet I'm not the only one who wrestles with it.  I've never heard it mentioned in a writer's conference or addressed in a book on technique or about the writer's life.  But it can become a health issue for some.

I'll put it out there - the writing life can make you fat.  There, I've said it.  We even have an acronym: BIC.  Butt (or bottom) In Chair.  You're supposed to put it there and keep it there until you've reached your word count for the day or you've finished the chapter or you've exhausted your scene ideas.  Granted, it doesn't mean that a writer should sit for eight hours straight.  But I've already spent eight hours in an office chair at my job by the time I sit down to write at night.  If I take time to make dinner for my family and go for a jog or stop by the (imaginary) gym for exercise, it's nine o'clock before I even get to my manuscript. 

Seriously, I love writing.  I'm willing to forgo the jog or the (imaginary) gym to either write until midnight or go to bed early to write at the crack of dawn.  True confession here, from that kind of writing over the last few years I've added two-count 'em-two dress sizes.  But I've discovered that it's not just about BIC and ignoring my need for exercise that packs on the pounds.  I'm also a stress-eater, the stress of working under a deadline, the stress of juggling job/writing/family, and most importantly, the stress of story. 

American screenwriter Syd Field says to get our protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at her.  Raising the stakes just makes a better story.  But when the story's really coming together or I'm in the throes of an intense scene, I feel the palpable stress of the heroine or the raised stakes she's not yet aware of and I want chocolate. Oreos with milk. Something with sugar. I want to pat the seat beside me and say to her, "Sit here, honey, I've got something for that."  She might even thank me - until I tell her to get back up the tree.

I've always wondered about heroines who, when confronted with a major crisis, 'simply couldn't eat.'  It just doesn't ring true to experience, but I suppose the alternative isn't very ladylike.  No one wants to imagine the protagonist settling in with a gallon of rocky road and a serving spoon.  I understand being so engrossed that you look up and wonder where the time went, that yummy feeling of accomplishment and flush of satisfaction. I've enjoyed that on occasion. But stress only makes me seek the respite of comfort food, not turn away demurely.  I should be so demure.

So, I hear ya. Stop whining and figure it out. Planning ahead helps, and I have made progress. Not purchasing Oreos (grumble) or chocolate is a good idea. Keeping low fat, low carb snacks on hand is also a step in the right direction, as is the MyFit phone app which helps me keep track of everything I eat.  Walking on my lunch hour would be a great habit to make. Lowering my protagonist's stress level so I'm not tempted to cheat would not be good planning, I'm very sorry to tell her.

Maybe I'm way off base with this and I'm the only one who wrestles with writerly stress-eating.  Perhaps it's the bane of the writer who still has wee ones underfoot or must punch a timeclock to pay the bills. But if I'm not the only one, and you find it challenging, too, please share your wisdom with us. We'd love to hear!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Only Wonder

Back when I began to call myself a writer, when with trepidation I adopted one of Vistaprint's ready-made business card designs and put my name on it, I allowed myself one customization, which was this quote:

Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.
Gregory of Nyssa

People would look at that and ask - usually it was the non-writers who asked - what does it mean?

The vibe was all Evangelical suspicion. Should a Christian believe this? And wasn't Gregory of Nyssa a Catholic?

I never knew how to answer the question. It was like the Emporer's New Clothes - only sewn by truthful tailors. If they didn't grasp the meaning of the quote, then...

Or maybe I'm the naked emporer, and the tailors were liars after all.

But still I believe. I believe that when we think we understand, we've stopped far short. I believe that beauty is God's deepest mystery. I believe that when things look their ugliest, there is beauty to be found, and the longer it takes to find it, the more it will take our breath away when it appears.

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

From one loving Christian to another: If there is a God and he is good and sovereign, how could it be any different?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Welcome, Susie Finkbeiner

We are excited to have Susie Finkbeiner as our guest today as she shares with us about her newly released novel, Paint Chips. Susie is part of our Novel Matters community, and we couldn't be more proud of her. Paint Chips is currently available on Kindle, and will be released in print format within the month.

Novel Matters:  Susie, can you tell us about the genesis of your novel and how you arrived at such an interesting title?

Susie Finkbeiner:   Years ago, while sitting in a workshop at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I arrived upon the title Paint Chips. Those of us in the workshop viewed video clips and were tasked with thinking up an opening line for a novel. One of the clips was beyond strange. People in bear costumes, dancing and speaking German. The line I came up with was, "My mother always told me not to eat paint chips." That day I determined that my novel -- should I ever write one -- would be titled Paint Chips. Little did I know how symbolic that title would become.

NM:  It's always exciting and amazing when symbolic elements arise organically in our work. It certainly makes you feel you're on the right path. In Paint Chips you write about mental health and the sex trade. Where did your research take you?

SF:   When I started writing, I fully intended to write about mental health. I have people close to me who live with mental illness. My life and my memories were part of that research. I also read a lot and watched several documentaries about mental illness. However, one of the most helpful resources was a friend of mine who is a psychologist. She enlightened me from the other side of illness as one who treats the disease.

NM:  That's great that she was able to share her insights. And what about the trafficking element?

SF:   In the early days of writing Paint Chips, I sold jewelry and bags that were handmade by women who had been rescued from the sex trade in other countries. Part of that involved presenting a talk about human trafficking. I knew the statistics, the stories, the organizations which fought for the freedom of others. I never intended to incorporate sex trafficking into my novel. I actually resisted it, but the story took over. I'm so glad it did.

NM:   With two very difficult subjects to write about, which scene was the most challenging for you to write?

SF:   In the first draft, the story flowed. It wasn't until the first rewrite that I found major challenges. The most challenging and emotionally taxing was when Dot is exploited for the first time. My fingers hovered over the keys of my computer. I didn't want to put her through that pain again. Each time I edited that scene it felt like I subjected  her to the horror again and again. That happened to be one of the scenes that needed the most work. It's still one I struggle to read.

NM:   I think most of us can relate. It's never easy to put the characters we love through difficulties, but that's what makes their stories worth reading. How long did it take you to write Paint Chips?

SF:   From first words to publication, it took two years.

NM:   Two busy years, since you're a wife and mother. You have young children (read: demanding, noisy, too-cute-to-ignore-for-any-reason). Tell us about the "mommy juggle." How do you balance writing for publication while raising a family?

SF:   My kids really are cute. And they give the best hugs in the world. God has blessed me with three kids who are best buddies and who love to play together. My twin boys are content to play "Thomas" for hours on end. And my little girl often "gets lost inside a book" (her words ... lovely isn't she?). All of that helps. I've also learned to write in 15-30 minute spurts throughout the day. I stay up later than the rest of the family and I don't watch much TV. Sorry, no time for "Downton Abbey" here. Let it be said that I will never win a prize for having the cleanest house in the neighborhood. Writing trumps housework almost every time (unless we're out of clean underwear ...).

Really, though, having a supportive husband is the most important tool in my writer girl tool belt. He is always scooting me away from folding laundry so that I can get back to my story. The other day he said, "Your purpose in life is to write. I'll do the dishes."

NM:  Oh. My.

SF:   Sorry, girls, he's all mine.

NM:   No kidding. I think we need a moment to relish that thought. Okay, tell us about your path to publication. Was Paint Chips contracted early in the submission process, or did you knock on a lot of doors first? Were you with an agent when you made the sale?

SF:   When I thought Paint Chips was ready, I sent several query letters to different agents. They all said, "No, thank you." I decided to wait to take the next step. I literally put the manuscript in a box that I kept on a shelf in my storage room.

I frequented Novel Matters, commenting often. That was how I met Dina Sleiman. Unbeknownst to me, Dina worked as an acquisitions editor for WhiteFire Publishing. Also, outside of my knowledge, Dina had been following my blog. One afternoon, she contacted me, asking to read my novel. A few months later I signed  a contract with WhiteFire. Nine months after that, Paint Chips released as an e-book. It has been a whirlwind year.

NM:   And an exciting one, I'm sure. What are you doing to market Paint Chips? What's working best for you?

SF:   I have the best friends in the world. Really. I do. They have been instrumental in my marketing plan. And, as far as I know, it's working. They've featured me on their blogs, posted links to the novel on their Facebook wall, started a Twitter campaign to get Jimmy Fallon to read it. One friend and her daughter wear T-shirts featuring the cover of Paint Chips. Some call it a tribe, others a platform. I call it a fantastic group of friends.

NM:   I bet you do!

SF:   With the print release of Paint Chips coming in less than a month, I'm scheduling book signings, release parties and speaking engagements.

NM:   Very exciting. What's next for you, Susie, and how are you seizing the year?

SF:   I'm writing my second novel, called Dead Woman's Chamomile. The writing this time is so different, so much more gentle. Since the digital release of Paint Chips, I've had many people ask how it feels to have my dream come true. It's an interesting question that I don't know how to answer, because my dream wasn't publication. Don't get me wrong, it was a goal, but the dream is being able to write stories. Publication just affords me a larger audience and a few bucks to put in the bank. I'm grabbing onto this year by living my dreams by writing what I love.

NM:   Thank you for sharing with us, Susie. We certainly wish you all the best as you promote your debut novel.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Cherry Picking at the Feast of Words.

"...the art of reading is ... an intimate ritual ... a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us .." From The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

I haven't read Zafon's novel but, after Sharon's introduction to it on Wednesday, it's been added to my (impossible) TBR pile.

What caught my attention is the first bit "an intimate ritual." Call me dense, but the rest lost me somewhere--the muddled metaphor of mirrors offering glimpses of our insides. But it sounds romantic (if you don't think about it too hard. I mean, I've never glimpsed my pancreas in a mirror, nor do I care to.) Full points to Zafon!

Reading is not a natural act. Meaning, if we left our toddler to his own devices he would learn to "read" images and symbols, but not many words. The act of reading a word, then translating it into an image that represents a symbol of an action is complex and, in some sense, unnatural. A look at literacy rates in North America can only confirm how difficult of an act reading is to learn, practice, and master. 

Reading takes thousands of hours of rehearsal. Thousands of hours spent alone (minus the time spent listening to the Library Lady, a good teacher, or loving parent) engaging in the triple of act of recognizing word symbols, comprehending them, and translating them into meaning/action, and doing this very rapidly.

Is it any wonder that writers understand every moment a reader spends with their work as a sort of sacred time? A passing of one's soul through the other's. Writers move into the intimate ritual of aloneness as a ghost beside the reader while the pages turn. We want to participate fully in a feast of words we are not invited to. The feast enjoyed by the solitary reader.

What's the first thing I think of when I contemplate this feast? Of entering into the "intimate ritual" of a reader? 

Word choice.

I take it as a personal responsibility to the reader to fully engage her process of mastering reading by offering rich, textured words that evoke sensation, complex symbology, and atmosphere. The weapon of choice?


Ah, you thought I was going to say verbs, didn't you? Smart you. Of course verbs! They smear movement all over the page. Vital. 

But let's pause to praise the nuanced noun. 

Nouns that are specific as well as apt have a powerful effect on the readers senses, every bit as meaningful as vigorous verbs. 

Here's your assignment. Take a look at the four nouns listed below. Give them meaning, punch, and impact by offering an alternative noun that is specific, and apt. We're not looking for phrases here, just a single word.

I've offered an example noun for each--but you will be far more glorious in your reach.

Tree. (Ironwood)

Car. (Sedan)

Man. (Elder)

Street. (Lane)

Post your answers in the comment section. Be enlightening, be apt, be entertaining, and keep in mind the intimate ritual we desire to participate in as the provider of the feast of words.

*Bonus homework--for keeners only--describe yourself with three nouns. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Art of Reading

I recently read Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, for my book club. It had been on my list for more than a year, so I was looking forward to getting beyond the opening pages, which I'd read online when deciding whether or not to add it to my list. It was way beyond the story I had anticipated, taking a very dark turn and staying there throughout most of the novel. Dark in the vein of Phantom of the Opera, The Book Thief and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. But the story was masterfully written, and the characters wore their flesh all too convincingly.

The setting is Barcelona, Spain, 1945. The protaganist is Daniel Sempere, an 11-year-old boy who is truly an old soul. The opening takes place at The Cemetery of Forgotten Books -- and that's where Zafon captured me, right in the first sentence, at that sadly intriguing place. Daniel's father takes him there and tells him he can select one book, and that once selected, Daniel is responsible for that book, "making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive." He tells Daniel, "Every book ... has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands ... its soul strengthens."

The novel parallels two worlds: the world of Daniel Sempere, and that of Julian Carax, the author of the book Daniel selected from The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, titled The Shadow of the Wind. It's believed to be the last of Carax's books in existence, for someone has gone to deadly extremes to rid the world of his novels. Immediately Daniel is thrust into the mystery surrounding Julian Carax's life, both personal and professional, a mystery frought with intrigue, danger and murder. The tension doesn't let up from page one.

But there were two lines near the end of the book that I had to stop and contemplate for a while. On page 444, one of the characters says, "Julian had once told me that a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise."  And on page 484, "Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it's an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind ..."

Those quotes are bookends that examine a novel from the author's perspective on one hand, and from the reader's perspective on the other. "... a letter the author writes himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise." I agree with that line to a point. I do believe a book is written as much for the author as it is for the reader. I'm not so sure that it's to discover things the author would otherwise be unable to discover. Rather I believe, from my own experience at least, that it helps her untangle complex issues she might not have the energy or courage to examine any other way. "...the art of reading is ... an intimate ritual ... a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us ..." That line I do agree with whole-heartedly. I think that's why books are as intensely personal as a painting or a song. What pierces me to the marrow may mean nothing at all to you. And I'm pierced because I relate to whatever the issue may be. I think that's why, as Megan said in a comment to Patti's post last Friday, "We appreciate, and probably look for or expect, different things from novels, which is why there are books that some of us love and others are disappointed in." If you're like me you begin a novel with anticipation that you and the novel are going to have a soul connection on one level or another. Yes, there are novels we select for a light read, that we don't look to for any special meaning. But those books that do beckon us for a deeper experience can be hugely impacting if they connect with us, or hugely disappointing if they fail to do so.

What is your perspective on those quotes. What book have you most recently connected with on a deep level?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Outsider Art--A Guest Post by She Reads Writer Ariel Allison Lawhon

My mother, Emily Allison, at work on one of her sculptures.

When I was a child I could not sleep unless there were lumps of papier-mâché drying on my windowsill. I often woke to find them standing sentry, gray shapeless things, not so unlike the goblins or dwarves or gargoyles that littered the books on my shelf. Each abstract form was part of a whole—a hand, a face, or torso—in one of my mother’s works-in-progress. Sculptures formed from the flotsam and jetsam of our lives: a teak bowl, a rusted bedspring, a bottle cap, steel wool. Random bits and pieces that, when assembled, would stop you cold with their beauty.

Back then it wasn’t uncommon to find my mother stirring a pot of beans with one hand and mashing a bucket of papier-mâché with the other. I grew up with the understanding that art was something created in the midst of real life, not a secret that could only be learned at some distant university. It was something you made. Not something you learned.

In those days my mother’s artwork was mainly found in gift stores and curio shops around northern New Mexico, small pieces that could be taken home for less than the price of a dinner at a nice restaurant. It helped pay the bills. And she would be the first to say that those early sculptures helped her learn the craft and figure out who she was as an artist. Twenty years later, her work can be found hanging on the walls of Gallery 202 along with Picasso and Warhol. Like her more famous roommates, my mother is innovative, bold, and intelligent. Unlike those cultural giants, she was never formally trained. My mother is an Outside Artist.
“The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for art brut ("raw art" or "rough art"), a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture.” - Wikipedia

The original usage of Outsider Art specifically applied to creative works made by the mentally ill, or, in some cases, children. But for the sake of this post, we’ll stick with the more relaxed definition: those relentlessly creative souls who teach themselves and then bring their offerings to the table for others to enjoy.

My mother earned a spot at the table by force of will and immense natural talent. She knows who she is and does not let the lack of pedigree daunt her.

I think about this often when the subject of higher education comes up among writers. The MFA (all the better from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop) is to writers what a degree from Massachusetts College of Art and Design is to my mother’s colleagues. (And who wouldn’t want to study under such gifted teachers?) But the reality for many a creative soul (my mother and I included) is that those opportunities were/are/will be impossible. A plethora of circumstances and obstacles can prevent the Outside Artist from taking the traditional route. She must earn her spot at the table in another way.

She has to do the work. And she has to be good.

That's what I told a friend recently at lunch. She wants to be a novelist. But she fears that she cannot write professionally without an MFA. But my friend is already a writer. And she's good. The kind of good you can't learn in a classroom. And for her, like thousands of other self-taught artists, a degree can never replace the act of creating. Writers write. Sculptors sculpt.

It has been over two decades since I needed a lump of papier-mâché on my windowsill to usher in a good night’s rest. I sleep well these days because I know who I am. A writer in all my art brut glory. Perhaps technically untrained but not uneducated. Next month I’ll tell you about the teachers I’ve had (hint: they’re all modern-day literary giants) and how their tutelage has shaped the course of my career.

I’d love to hear from the Outsider Artists in this virtual room. What has your creative path looked like? How have you earned a spot at the table?

Friday, March 8, 2013

New Rule: Beautiful is NOT Boring

There's nothing quite so boring as a book where nothing happens. I'd recently started a beautifully written (lovely phrasing and language) book, but I finally skimmed to the end to see what I already knew would happen--no twists or surprises and hardly any outer journey, slim action.

If this particular author (and I never read and snark) had read the chapter, "The Outer Journey" of Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donals Maass, I would still be reading the story. The story contained all the elements that should have added up to a great story, but it flat-lined.

Maass spends a good amount of time outlining the differences between plot-driven and literary writers, but the message that stuck with me was the externalization of emotion into action:
A plot development is a nice accomplishment, but without emotional impact it’s just something that happens. Emotional experiences are fine, too, but unless they’re externalized in actions, they won’t touch readers. They lack the kinetic force of the real.
We all know what it means to call yourself a plot-driven writer or a character-driven writer.  The trick is to take the best of both and make give your stories higher impact. The two groups have much to learn from one another.

As a character-driven writer, I tend to envy the genre writers a bit. The threat of death that all stories need (yes, even literary stories) can be the real kind of death by stabbing, shooting, poisoning, or a long, long fall over a cliff, none of this internal or psychological death stuff. Running away from real death, facing real death, and fighting to the death are by need real action.

In character-driven or literary fiction, that external threat is harder to come by. Our art is painted with line and shadow of internal struggles—things like regret, forgiveness, and lots of psychological scars.

I agree with Maass that external struggle is crucial for strong impact, no matter what the genre.
…your artistic sensibility pulls you away from strong feelings. It pushes you toward what is subtle, nuanced, and delicate, which can be another way of saying what is small, nebulous, and weak. P 49

Friendly reminder: Maass is a New York literary agent. He appreciates art, but his passion is art that sells. That’s how he makes his living. He’s a keen observer of what elevates good fiction to powerful fiction, again, the kind that sells. So, art for the sake of art is not the point of this book. The melding of the best of commercial fiction with literary fiction is the point so that the story engages the reader and sells.

Let me share a bit of how this is working in my present novel. About five years ago—and I don’t remember what was going on in my life—Psalm 23 came to mind, especially the line: "Surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life."

Oh yeah?

Either I didn’t understand what goodness and mercy were, or God had some 'splaining to do.

[Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, but I write about Jesus anyway.] It turned out that I wasn't 100% clear on what goodness and mercy looked like in everyday life. Basically, I discovered a great chasm between what is and what ought to be in my life—and your life, too, I suspect—because while we live in the kingdom of God, we also live with the remnants of the curse, most notably death and decay.  This not-so-little truth clarified a lot for me. I saw goodness is God's ultimate provision for me--Jesus!--every day, and I discovered that mercy can sometimes feel like a smack to the back of the head, at least until the larger picture is at hand.

And I wanted to write about what I was learning, of course!

As a story, not an article for Christianity Today. (They prefer their writers to actually be theologians.)

As per Maass’s direction, I needed to externalize spiritual concepts into actions, surprises, and twists—and characters with strong goals! Enter my hero, Lucy, in dire need of goodness and mercy, even though she has twin siblings named Goody and Mercy who follow her all the days of her life already. In the story, the twins manifest the qualities of their names, but not in The Shack kind of way or a Hind’s Feet in High Places way. The story is not an allegory. It’s about a girl who feels like a second-class member of God’s family due to deep regret and the accompanying shame, but her sister, Mercy, is God’s right-hand girl, and her brother, less obviously, is the source of goodness in her life. Lucy finds her sister’s ministrations perplexing and inconvenient, just as anyone would who can’t forgive themselves.
Anything important that’s internal can be externalized. p.50

And so, a promise made to a beloved parent becomes the impetuous for a felonious act. A contrary aunt spurs a race with uncertain winners. A hunger to connect with a daughter produces all kinds of self-sabotaging behavior. The outer journey is the inner journey put to dance steps.

Our job as storytellers—according to Maass—is to take these concepts like sorrow, anger, shame, regret, embarrassment, betrayal, and so on and so on and externalize them into action. He gives Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as an example of this done exceptionally well. I couldn't agree more. I mean, a little boy who goes on a quest to express his grief? That's action. Also, my oft-referred to The Language of Flowers does this beautifully. Victoria Jones, the main character, burns a house down, gives up her infant, walks away from a lover. Action! And she will break your heart and make you angry. That's high-impact fiction.

Even if selling doesn't motivate you, strongly impacting your reader should. Why else would you sit for years and years in front of a computer screen than to connect in the most explosive way possible with our readers?

If you are the writer of upmarket, literary, high-impact fiction (whatever!), what challenges do you face when wanting to "go big" with action that represents what's going on inside your characters? Can you give an example from your work? How about a book you've read recently that demonstrates what Maass is trying to teach us? Are you even "buying" Maass's take on externalizing emotions to up the emotional stakes for the reader? Why or why not? Have you set down a book (don't give the title or author) lately because nothing really happened, but it was written beautifully? What would you tell the author? 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Telegraphing Versus Foreshadowing

I've mentioned before that the compelling first line of one of Mary Higgins Clark's novels, a line which contained foreshadowing, made me want to write novels. I didn't think about the fact that the author's off-handed remark--about a coming disaster buried in a sea of other details--was foreshadowing. I just knew that it made me want to keep reading.

Authors have been giving readers hints about forthcoming events since the beginning of writing. Even God did this. As Priscilla, author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, shows us in chapters 8 and 9, all those previous temple furnishings and ceremonies pointed to another, greater reality that is only revealed long after the first veils and curtains disintegrated into dust.

Up until a hundred years ago in English-based literature, sometimes the hints were very overt. "Dear reader, something is about to happen in my story which will shock you," was the general sentiment if not nearly the very words.  Today we would not call that foreshadowing, but rather telegraphing -- stopping the course of narration of a story to make sure that the reader knows that  something will happen. 

Some of the greatest novels of our time have used more subtle foreshadowing. Consider the opening lines of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms:

The leaves fell early that year. 

We may not know what will happen, but we have a sense of foreboding when we read those words. Similarly, Harper Lee gets our attention in To Kill a Mockingbird:

The night was still. I could hear his breath coming easily beside me. Occasionally there was a sudden breeze that hit my bare legs, but it was all that remained of a promised windy night. This was the stillness before a thunderstorm.

(I have a friend, now deceased, who loved To Kill A Mockingbird so much, and read it until the pages fell apart, that her daughter framed the book for her. This is now one of my treasured possessions.)

The challenge for a writer who wants to share a hint of something forthcoming is subtlety. How to know the difference between foreshadowing and telegraphing? Hallie Ephron gave the perfect definition, in my opinion, in Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead with Style (Writers Digest Books, 2005):

When you insert a hint of what's to come, look at it critically and decide whether it's something the reader will glide right by but remember later with an Aha! That's foreshadowing.

Clark did it by burying the foreshadowing in things the reader would want to rush through. 

I'm aiming for more subtlety.

I think of it as the sound of the snapping of one's bones- a sound that would be drowned out by pain, but a sound nonetheless.

Do you have any favorite examples of effective foreshadowing? Have you consciously used it in any of your writing?

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Life Stages of a Reader

(Confession time: If you've read Novel Matters a very long time, the post you are about to read may look vaguely familiar. This little blogger forgot that today was her day to post, until some dear reminded her just minutes before she left for work. This is an early post, but it sparked a great discussion. Please join in again! And please forgive me.)

How have your reading preferences changed over your lifetime? Can you see some sort of growth or development in the choices you've made?

I once heard Leif Enger relate the inspiration for an integral part of his novel, Peace Like a River. His four-year-old son, John had wanted to know how the book was progressing. Enger answered it was going well, and was then confronted with a boy of four's next most logical question: "Got any cowboys in there yet?"

Thus the birth of Sunny Sundown, the epic poem woven throughout the novel.

It starts in childhood, doesn't it? This hope that the new book will be filled with beloved heroes and thrilling surprises. Think of the the time you were nestled on a soft lap, waiting to be both dazzled and comforted with a new - or familiar - mix of character, setting and plot. Do you remember the first thing you hoped for, in those earliest days?

Will there be magic?
For me, the burning question was, "Will you crack the lid of my little life wide open and show me that the things in my hands, that my hands themselves can do wondrous things?" And so the grownup person reads to us Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson.

Will there be cowboys? We get a little older, and we want more. We want to see ourselves in heroes larger than life, handsome, beautiful, brave, and always triumphant over the bad guys. Our parents read to us an illustrated copy of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. We take the book into bed with us, and we pour ourselves into its pages.

Will there be wonderful settings, unforgettable characters? Somewhere along the line we start wanting to travel - not to Neverland, but to real places we've never been. And for the trip, we want a best friend, someone so like us we wonder if the author's been talking to our grandparents. We pick up Lucy Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and imagine we've found our kindred spirit.

Will there be nuance and complexity and importance? We enter high school and we think we know so much. We've learned life can be dark, that good doesn't always triumph, and if we're really intense, we feel ready to take on the important things. I was intense. My son is more balanced, so I'll have to tell you what I read at this stage: Franny and Zooey by J.D. Sallinger.

Can we just lighten up already? We grow up. We have kids of our own, and jobs, and bills. Life is heavy enough, thanks, so let's just read something light, shall we? We choose a story that will make us laugh, will move us to tears - but only the kind we cry at weddings, never funerals. Something like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Will there be nuance and complexity and importance? Okay, maybe the kids start school. We start to watch the news again. Sooner or later, we're up for a bit more oomph. We don't mind shedding tears over the genuinely tragic, we don't mind fleshing out the deeper issues. Maybe we read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Will there be wonderful settings, unforgettable characters? We catch on that settings don't have to be beautiful or even foreign to be compelling, and that characters can be heart-breakingly complex and still be our best friends. In fact, by their complexity they actually enter into our lives and change it forever. We read, perhaps, Leaving Ruin by Jeff Berryman.

Will there be cowboys? Can it be? Can a story take us on a steeplechase, and also plumb the depths of human experience? Can a novel be fun, and convicting and deeply affecting all at once? We read Enger's Peace Like a River and we know it can.

Will there be magic? Here we are again, back where we began. We know there is something more than the characters we meet, the places we travel, the issues we probe. It's hidden in all of these things, but we can't quite name it. We want so badly to touch that deeper world that shimmers in the air of our triumphs and heartaches. How can ink on a page, a story written by humans help us find it? It's a mystery, dear readers, but may I suggest, perhaps, River Rising by Athol Dickson?

I can tell I'm already in trouble here. The guys are going to gag at Anne of Green Gables and make cracks about canned testosterone. Some Jane Austin groupie is going to think I've implied Pride and Prejudice lacks nuance and complexity. (Not a bit of it.) Still others are going to tell me they progressed quite differently through the literary world. Oh please, do tell. We want to know the books that have mattered to you, and when, and why. We're writers, after all, and for us this is valuable information. We covet your thoughts.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Unreliable Pipes & Sippy Cups

On Wednesday, Bonnie wrote, "Creative energy runs in unreliable pipes."  Well, said, Bonnie. I might pin that above my computer.
While searching for equally brainy quotes about creativity, I came upon one that I love by Ray Bradbury, "We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.  The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out."

Maybe it's just the way my brain works, but the combination of these two quotes brought to mind the sippy cup I used with my kids, the kind with a tight-fitting plastic lid and straw.  Even when it was full, nothing came out of the cup unless the straw functioned properly.  My son could toss it on the floor or projectile it across the room, but unless he hit the lid just right or learned to utilize the straw or the dog got it, nothing came out.

Sometimes it feels like I'm wrestling a stubborn sippy cup when trying to direct the creative energy to my pages. Wouldn't it be great if it came instead in a Big Gulp cup with a flexy lid like the kind that skids off when you bump it against the steering wheel?

The cup is a good thing. It captures the creativity and holds it until we need it. The pipe is definitely a good thing, because it channels the flow to the page.  What can we do to keep the channel open and functioning? Here are some of my favorite quotes about creativity. It's nice that famous authors have blazed the trail ahead, whacking at thorny shrubs and palm fronds with their inky machetes.  They know what they're talking about.
  • Show up.   Same time, same place. Or change the place, but know when and where you're the most creative. "I only write when I'm inspired, and I make sure I'm inspired every morning at 9:00 a.m. " Peter DeVries
  • Don't empty your reservoir.  Leave your last sentence or your last paragraph dangling, but don't bring closure to the scene.  "I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it. " Ernest Hemingway 
  • Bring your best to the table. Make it a priority, not the last of your to-do list. “...a writer should not so much write as embroider on paper; the work should be painstaking, laborious."  Anton Chekhov
  • Fill up on good writing, not junk food. Read widely and be discerning. “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Stephen King
  • Dig deep.  Don't chicken out. Write what only you can say. “Go where the pain is, go where the pleasure is.”  Anne Rice
  • Know when to walk away. Got frustration? Go polish the silver or wash the car. Do something that doesn't require thinking but keep your notepad nearby.   “The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes. ”Agatha Christie 
  • Write intuitively. Hold a loose rein on your outline and be open to surprises. “The only good writing is intuitive writing. It would be a big bore if you knew where it was going."  Ray Bradbury 
  • We repeat, don't talk about your WIP. "I think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension." Norman Mailer
I will end with this quote from Anne Lamott that gives me comfort.
For those of us who remember the Polaroid camera...
 " Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop.  You can't - in fact, you're not supposed to - know exactly what the picture is going to look like until is has finished developing."

What does and doesn't work for you when staring into the creative vacuum?  Is there a routine you follow or a special tool you use, a favorite quote above your laptop?  Please, we'd love to hear!