Monday, April 29, 2013

Deleted Scenes: Goodbye, Fred!

In a recent post--Does This Novel Seem Crowded to You?--I talked about how to prevent overpopulation in your story. Every character has their job to do. If not, well, goodbye!

When first writing Goodness and Mercy, I created a character to act as antagonist to my protagonist and to give a secondary character a chance at redemption. That character, Fred, is charming with a hint of menace, as you will soon see.

Once I got deeper into the story, I saw that Fred was a complication that muddied the premise. In fact, his presence made the story something very different from my original idea --yes, I was working from an outline--and I didn't want to go there.

No room for sentimentality--goodbye, Fred! Lucy doesn't need a Fake-Ally Opponent. So there!

While some may consider writing the following scene a waste, the process clarified my vision of my story by showing me what I didn't want it to be. And that's a very valuable discovery.

Here's the deleted scene, starring Lucy and Fred.

A flirtatious breeze released a shower of golden cottonwood leaves and played at lifting my skirt. It was all I could do to hold a stack of library books and keep my skirt in place. A truck skidded to a stop on the gravel.

Fred Greaves leaned out the driver's window and smiled his billboard smile. “Did you leave any books at the library?” He shouldered his door open. “Let me help you with those.”

He reached for the books. I stepped back. “I’m fine. It’s not that far, and as long as I’m walking, I’m not reading Nathaniel Hawthorne.”

He looked pained and clenched at his shirt over his heart. “Has Lotti soured you on me already?”

“Ada,” I said and shifted the books.

He laughed. “I thought me and Ada had an understanding.” He mimicked her voice perfectly, “Nothing good comes of idleness, Mr. Greaves.”

I bit my cheeks not to laugh.

He put up his hand. “You’re right not say a word against her.” He gestured at the orchard behind me. “She has spies everywhere. How else can she know everything, unless…do you think she’s a witch?”

Although I ached to agree with him, I didn't dare agree with him. “She’s a good Christian woman.” After all, she attended church regularly and delivered potato casseroles to funerals.

Mr. Greaves motioned and I followed him to the passenger side of the truck. “Come on. Jump in. I don’t bite nearly as hard as those women would suppose. Besides, you’re about to drop your books. The good people of Palisade do not abide the abuse of their library books.”

I climbed into his truck for two reasons. First, two blisters the size of quarters made each step pure misery. This from the new shoes Ada had chosen for me, the kind meant for lumberjacks. Second, Mrs. Greaves said things about Ada I wished I could say straight to her face. Oh, and one more thing. Accepting a ride from Mr. Greaves would put a knot in Ada’s girdle.

“Thank you,” I said as he slammed the door shut and walked back around to the driver's side. I figured Fred to be younger than my father but certainly not a boy and much younger than most of the men I saw around town. The boys hurried off to the war the moment they became eligible. And he sure didn’t look like any of the farmers I’d ever known, not in Wisconsin or Colorado. He still owned all of his fingertips and his fingernails looked nicer than mine. When he smiled, his eyes nearly squinted shut, and I liked that.

Fred caught me watching him and gave me a sideways smile. “Do you want to learn how to drive? I could teach you. Got nothing better to do.”

“I already know how to drive.” I wanted to tell him I’d driven eighty-five miles before the tin lizzy dropped her transmission on the road, but I wasn’t telling anyone that story. Mr. Greaves wouldn't turn a girl in for kidnapping her own brother and sister, but in a town as small as Palisade, one word to the wrong person and everyone would know.

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “You’re an amazing girl. Fact is, you’re more of a woman than a girl, aren't you? I bet there’s a lot of boys giving you a second look over there at the high school. Isn’t that true?”

If I hadn't been loaded down with books, I would have squirmed at his question. Instead, I kept my answer short. “I never noticed," I said, but I had noticed.

“How old are you, Lucy?”

“Sixteen. I’ll be seventeen next February.”

“Now, see, I thought you were older. You carry yourself well.” And he winked.

We sped by our mailbox. “Stop!” I yelled.

The truck fishtailed to a stop and the pile of books slid from my lap. Fred leaned down to gather the books. He smelled of fresh tobacco and aftershave, much nicer than I'd expected of a man who treasured his rubbish pile.

He said, “I was enjoying our conversation so much, I nearly drove right by your house. You’re a very pleasant young lady.” He held my math book to his chest. “You sit right there. Don't move. You’re a lady.” He opened his door and looked back at me over his shoulder. “That’s how you’re to be treated. Stay right there.”

I sat as still as stone until Mr. Greaves opened my door and extended his hand. I'd only seen men do such a thing in movies. I took his hand as I stepped out of the truck. It was strong but soft. My heart fluttered. What was that all about?

He relinquished my math book. “Its the lucky boy who catches your eye, Lucy. Be choosy. You deserve the best. If you ever need anything, I'm usually around. You're always welcome. I keep colas in the icebox.”

This could not be the man Ada had been talking about. “Thanks for the ride, Mr. Greaves.”

“We’re friends now, Lucy. Call me Fred.”

[Author's note: After reading this scene, I wanted to shout, "Lucy! You stupid, stupid girl. Get out of the truck; do not pass go; and never, ever, ever seek Fred out, colas or no." The scene begs for Lucy to do just that and for a totally different story than the story I wrote to be written. You can see why Fred had to go, at least for now.]

Do you save deleted scenes? Have you ever used a deleted scene in another part of the same story or used it in part or as a whole in a new story? I have! Are there other ways to use deleted scenes? Name an author whose deleted scenes you would love to read.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Mary Kay Syndrome

Now, let me begin by saying that I love Mary Kay cosmetics. In fact, people often comment on how few wrinkles I have, and I attribute that to beginning to use the skin care products in my early twenties. And it was a Mary Kay lady who kindly whispered to me that I had stray makeup brush hairs on my face before I spoke publicly at a book signing last week.

And yet when I think of Mary Kay, it is with mixed feelings. First of all, the last group “facial” I attended where the products were demonstrated, one of the hostess’s chairs broke beneath me. (It’s pretty hard to keep applying cream with your ring finger and saying, “lightly, lightly,” when you have just demolished an antique.)

But even more memorable was the time that I was traveling cross-country for a speaking engagement, a trip that required several plane changes. On the last flight was a group of well-dressed and pleasantly boisterous women. Upon deplaning, I went into the airport’s ladies’ room to try to comb my hair and make myself presentable – since I’d left home at 3:30 a.m., I wanted to freshen up a bit before seeing the conference organizer who was meeting me at the gate. 

As I leaned and peered into the mirror and put some mascara on my bleary eyes, the group of women came into the bathroom. I didn’t pay them too much attention until one, a delegate I guess, came up beside me.
“I’m a Mary Kay representative, and I have products that can help you with that,” she said, handing me a business card. Then she and all the other ladies flounced (yes, they really did) out of the bathroom, leaving the other women in the bathroom looking at me –who felt about as attractive as an airsick bag.

So why am I telling these stories? Perhaps as a morality tale. What stung so much, what made me walk out of that bathroom feeling drab and inadequate, was the public way in which the spokeswoman, a stranger to me, showed me my faults. I can just imagine her giving a knowing wink to her compatriots, and them congratulating each other on a great sales opportunity captured and another ignorant person now fully informed.

The morality tale is that the Internet is also a public place. It’s true that readers and writers often see the flaws of writers, and are often anxious to point them out.

Let’s leave the snipping and criticizing to people who don’t even pretend to be Christians. The Bible way to show someone his or her fault is privately—and with humility.

Lest you fall, and break more than a chair yourself.

PS and by the way: This post wasn't provoked by anyone saying anything cruel to me about my writing (at least, not lately.) I've just observed that writers and readers sometimes are not constructive in their comments, especially on Facebook. Have you noticed that, too? 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Falling Past the Five-Year Plan

I used to be a five-year plan kind of person. Or tried to be. I don't know if there are any more of that breed still out there, but if there are I'm not among them. Too many five-year plans - and one-year plans -and one week plans - have failed.

It feels strange to say I'm grateful for this. It only recently hit home that the best laid plans of mice and men are only the plans of mice and men.  That what actually happens - despite my lists, schedules and failures - can turn out to be good.

It helps a lot, at times, for instance, like Monday - when I read in Don Pape's interview that readers have begun to expect the same prices for books as they do for iPhone apps: free, or at least cheap. Think of the trouble this signals for any who want to be paid for their writing.

Maybe you've seen it written on posters in Facebook: "Never give up what you really want for what you want right now."

May I suggest a new one? "What you really want is easier to get than what you think you want."

My five year plans outlined the things I thought I wanted. For Instance: to make my living writing books.

But recently - by accident, default or sheer grace - I have managed to allow God to write his own list for me:

  • To settle into this moment, in this skin.
  • To loosen my grip on my needs and desires, assuming, like any loved daughter, that I will be cared for.
  • To see for once the things I missed when I held so tightly to my needs and desires that my eyes were clenched shut.
  • To write from a place of wonder, generosity, and compassion - for my characters, my readers, and myself.
  • To give, assuming, like any commissioned servant, that provisions will be in my hands when they open.

Now that I look at the list, they don't seem so easily gotten. Whole years of things came before. And if I'd put them on a five-year plan, I doubt it would have worked out.

It feels, though, as if I just let go, and let myself fall - in frustration, or resignation, or weariness.

But when I fell, grace caught me. How easy was that?

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Carpe Annum Interviews: Don Pape, Publisher of Trade Books at David C. Cook

Novel Matters has been celebrating 2013 as Carpe Annum: Seize the Year! Here to help us do that today is Don Pape, publisher of trade books at David C. Cook, one of the most innovative and exciting fiction publishers in the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association). 

Don Pape was born in Brazil of missionary parents. He got his high school education in Canada’s capital where he attended his father’s bilingual church – French in the morning and English at night. After graduating with a degree in political science, Don went on InterVarsity staff in Toronto and that is where he met his best friend and wife of 28 years, Ruthie.
He has served in a variety of roles in publishing – graphic design, sales, marketing, literary agent  - and for the past six years has been publisher of the trade books group at David C Cook. He has seen a half dozen titles attain New York Times bestselling status and enjoys interacting with his authors. An avid reader, he enjoys swimming, hiking and listening to smooth jazz – or attending concerts at Red Rocks! He is the proud father of three sons – Jeremy, a freelance videographer; Matthew, a communications major; and Timothy, a recent graduate of the nursing program. While an American citizen, he still loves his home country of Canada – for its hockey, Tim Horton’s coffee and best of all, Swiss Chalet chicken.

Novels that I’m reading: Lisa Samson’s The Sky Behind My Feet, Kent Haruf’s Benediction and Jenny Milchman’s Cover of Snow.  Talking to the Dead by your own Bonnie Grove truly is a personal favorite of most recent novels I have published – including Nancy Rue, Elizabeth Musser and Julie Cantrell

I love reading novels and personal favorites are John Grisham, Ann Patchett and classics from Madeleine L’Engle. I am a varied reader, can you tell?

Novel Matters: Don, the theme this year on Novel Matters is Carpe Annum: Seize the Year! Tell us about a turning-point time in your journey in publishing when you took hold of your career. What did that look like? 

Don Pape: Ugh, this is a hard one. Well, I’ve been in this for almost thirty years. I had a stint of over a year where I had a role as a literary agent; while I loved my colleagues and the Agency where I worked I truly missed “the team.” It was a significant job to hold but I recognized then that I really am gifted to encourage and lead, and the role of publisher allows me to engage with Agents, Authors, editors, designers, copy editors, marketers, sales folks – a whole mix of people that together brings a book to market. I love that. I love being a part of that and engaging in the different aspects of getting a book to market – from start to finish.

NM: It couldn't have been easy to move away from the role of literary agent, knowing how much you cherish and care about writers. How did that moment change you as a publishing professional? 

DP: It affirmed the role that I have today. I believe it has helped me broker on behalf of various departments but ultimately I think we also have a very strong team, of which I’m a part of right now. 

NM: And it's the best of both worlds--of both your gifts--to work with the team and still remain actively involved with writers, yes?

DP: I’m working with some excellent authors but I’m also working alongside some very talented editors, copy editors, designers who all have an end-goal to serve the Author and his message well.

NM: Publishing is changing on every front. What is the biggest change you've noticed in the last few years? 

DP: Well when I first started the only market channel truly was the Christian retail. Now that is truly waning and we have a very bifurcated market – online, brick and mortar and that can mean book shops, drugstores, grocery stores… We don’t have a loyal customer either – the buyer wants a deal! 

NM: I recently got an iPhone, and I realized after only a few days that my attitude toward all of the content available on my phone had shifted from, "This is so cool," to "I want free apps!" E-books are wonderful, but they also feed into the shift in thinking that books are just like apps, download and enjoy--and apps should be free or, at least, very inexpensive.

DP: We have seen through digital a real devaluing of intellectual property. Once we would buy a project with a reasonable advance and sell it for $15 in the hopes of recouping your investment. Now that consumer is wanting that same property – nah they demand – at $2.99 or heavens, free! 

NM: Are books doomed, then?

DP: Lots of change but truly plenty of opportunity because people still want to read a good story, right? A great story –whether in physical or digital , the important thing is getting it into people's hands and that is our challenge – discoverability. Can a great story be found in the cacophony called world wide web?

NM: Tell us about those opportunities you've been excited about in terms of publishing for 2013 and into the future? 

DP: This year we are launching a number of new authors with us at Cook – Gary Thomas, Jim Wallace, Stasi Eldredge, Tim Chaddick, Matt Chandler….I'm so delighted to be working with each of them and the uniqueness of their message. I just really get excited about being a really good steward of people's message…what God has entrusted to them and they in turn entrust to us. It's an honor. And these projects I cited are just really fresh voices, new material, but ancient truths. I love it!!! We are doing some digital first projects – Mark Steel and Glenn Packiam come to mind. That’s exciting to be a part of that foray.

NM: As a publisher, what are you looking our for when it comes to fiction you want to publish? 

DP: Nothing changes – a Really Great story!! Whether it is historical, contemporary – a really great story well told, amazing fully developed characters. And please, not another “in the tradition of Left Behind” or “Gresham-like” – let’s be original please!!

NM: We're all making notes on that last answer, Don. Here's what comes through for me in this interview, and knowing you personally: you're a people person. You love writers, artists, musicians, editors, everyone involved in the arts. (I just had to sneak in this picture of you and me chatting at a conference awhile back. Good times!) How does being a people person this make your job easier, and how does it make it harder? 

DP: A people person wants everyone happy – can’t always have it that way. Discernment, tact, grace, aplomb, diplomacy….all come into play. Sometimes you have to tell the Author they can’t have what they want. Some hard decisions need to be made. So it’s great when all is moving along smoothly but when conflicts come along the people person can wreak havoc. Ugh. But age and maturity helps… I think!

NM: Nothing trumps experience and after nearly 30 years in this industry, you have so much and we're honored you've shared some of it with us today. One last question, in addition to being a people person, you're a Carpe Annum man—I know you jump into every year full of enthusiasm and drive. What are you doing this year to seize the year, professionally, personally, or both.

DP: My sons bought me an artist's kit for Christmas and I’m planning to get back into doing some watercolors. I’m always reading too and that keeps me sharp. I am challenged by business books and writers like Brene Brown, Daniel Pink, the Heath Brothers and Jonah Berger – they are making me think outside the box as well as to dream. Sometimes publishing is quite corporate and not in any way creative so it is nice to occasionally read an inspiring book that keeps you going.

Thank you so much, Don, for taking time from your insanely busy schedule to spend time with us on Novel Matters today. As always, it's a pleasure to talk to you.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Whale of a Metaphor

I just finished reading (again) Ray Bradbury's Green Shadows, White Whale about the time he spent in Ireland writing the screenplay for Moby Dick  with John Huston in the 1950s. Part memoir, part novelization, he brings the people of Ireland to life to the point that your head voice will develop an Irish lilt. Be forewarned - there is a bit of language some may find offensive - just sayin.'  The book is a study in story structure, dialogue, description and metaphor.  Especially metaphor.  So much so that I've gotten out my metaphor drum and I'm beating it.

He inky-pen harpooned the whale for seven months until he arrived at a metaphor in the form of nailing a gold coin to the mast that helped him complete it.  Here is some of what he discovered:
"At last the metaphors were falling together...What nailed it fast was hammering the Spanish gold ounce to the mast.  If I hadn't fastened on that for starters, the other metaphors...might not have surfaced...Well, the gold a very large symbol.  It embodies all that the seaman want, along with what Ahab insanely desires above all...The men do not know it, but the sound they hear of the maul striking the coin's fastening nail is their sea-coffin lid being hammered flat shut."

I love that he shared his 'aha!' moment with us.  What genius!  Here is a quote from his website: 
"I was born a collector of metaphors," he says. "Metaphors are the center of life."  Here's the rest of the article, in case your interested:
I borrowed this quote from a much earlier post of Latayne's:  "The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance. –Aristotle, Poetics

Perhaps because I'm a visual learner, I tend to categorize metaphors as either small and functional - maybe even obvious - or big-picture, bone-structure scaffolding that adds layers of richness and depth.  It probably takes a bit of genius to create that type of metaphor without being over the top or creating a caricature.  I think Mr. Bradbury pulls it off quite well.

What about you, do you see metaphors in life?  Do you employ them in your own writing, or know of an outstanding example that you could share with us? 

P.S.  I couldn't help sharing this from his website, too:  "A second encounter with the entertainment industry came in 1961 when Bradbury was hired by MGM to write the narration for Orson Welles to speak in King of Kings. "It was fun to go back and narrate the entire life of Christ. They took my script and came back and said, 'We don't have an ending."' Bradbury laughs. "I said 'Really? Have you tried reading the Bible?"'

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Self-Publishing

I'm taking a break from Mr. Maass for this post—maybe a little longer—to update you on the agony and ecstasy of my self-publishing saga.

First, the agony, which is completely self-inflicted.

It was probably stupid to set the goal of releasing four novels at once. Yes, three of them have been previously published, but that doesn't exclude the need for a little tweaking here and there. In fact, it was shocking just how much tweaking my out-of-print novels needed and how many copy edit mistakes I found. (I’m quite sure—well, I’m almost sure—that these errors were made after I’d made corrections on the galleys.)

I have one more book in the series to finish tidying up. I’m pleased to say that the third novel needs less work than the first.  I am capable of growth, and I find that comforting.

Furthermore, formatting books for ebook publishing is TEDIOUS and fussy work. Instructions at Amazon contradict themselves, so you must use trial and error to complete the task. Besides, they speak in printer-ese. Bleed? Thanks for asking. Yes, I think I will.

I’ve watched all sorts of videos on YouTube that show how easy formatting is, but they’re lying. Will I do this again? Probably, but only one book at a time. And I will hire someone to do the formatting.
Let’s slip a little ecstasy in here before I make someone cry.

Writing as a self-published author is heaven for the perfectionist writer. Bonnie exhorted us all to slow down on Monday, not to rush a thing of beauty. Well, self-publishing lets me set my own deadlines, which I am six weeks behind on. But besides that, I have spent four years on my new novel, Goodness & Mercy.  And not one call from an overwrought editor or nervous agent. My little darling is maturing and blossoming at its own pace.

Back to the agony.

Formatting a print-on-demand book is even harder. I ended up hiring someone to do the dirty deed for me. I love her. Or him. (Androgynous name.)

More agony.

Writing as a self-published author who tilts toward perfectionism is hell. My formatter sent back a lovely document ready for uploading to Create Space, and what did I do? I tweaked it and tweaked it and tweaked it until I feared I might tweak the magic right out of the story. This morning, after one more minor tweak, I swallowed down hard and sent the uber-tweaked manuscript off for minor repairs by the formatter.
D-O-N-E, done.

I’m getting very close. Once the back cover copy is completed (again), the cover will be ready for its reading public. That means “celebrity” endorsers first, then blog reviewers, followed by my readership who will, hopefully, feel that I tweaked just right for them to post a 4-5 star review on Amazon.

I’m dying to write a new story. I have something lovely teetering on the edge of my subconscious, waiting for the all-clear to jump.  

I’m not ready to pass judgment on the process of self-publishing quite yet. Honestly, the true test will be whether or not readers find my stories. Storytellers need and want an audience. I've told my dog plenty of stories, and it's just not enough.

Thanks for listening. I feel much better. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Let it all hang out? Uh, no! A Roundtable Discussion

I love April. Next to November, it’s my favorite month. Just wanted to get that off my chest.

I really enjoyed Debbie’s post on Wednesday, April 3. She talked about how we, as writers, need to trust our readers and not spell everything out for them in minute detail. She added a couple of great quotes. This from Hemingway: "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them."

And this from Les Edgerton, author of Finding Your Voice: "The writer should provide the "bones" or skeleton of the story and the reader furnishes the flesh..."

Wonderful advice from both.

For the past 2 or 3 years I’ve enjoyed the privilege of judging writing contests, one which is sponsored for unpublished writers. The biggest mistake new writers make, in my opinion, is exactly what Hemingway and Edgerton were talking about: All too often, new writers in particular don’t trust the reader. They feel they must tell everything they know about the characters and their plight – often on the first page – rather than allowing the reader to DISCOVER. And isn’t that what reading is all about, discovery? They give huge information dumps, and if we’re at all invested in the story, we have to sift through all that superfluous stuff to find the valuable. But the big risk these writers take is that we won’t become invested. Not even a little. I find myself in a strange place these days where time is concerned. It feels more precious than ever to me, and what spare time I have for reading is going to be spent on jewels, not junk. Sorry if that's harsh.

Sharon, I too have judged contests (mainly poetry, but sometimes those of novels too.) I have found that the problem isn't too much backstory. I found that what kills the chances of most contest entrants fall into two categories:  1) It looks and sounds unprofessional -- usually because of non-standard formatting, or other amateurish marks like poor punctuation, spelling, and grammar;  and 2) It's not interesting.

Now, that may sound harsh, too. But the writer is taking a tremendous risk -- a risk that the reader will keep reading to try to find a gem inside their writing. Perhaps relatives will. Perhaps friends will. But an editor just won't. If after a page or two there is no spark, there is no further reading. After all, the editor or judge didn't invest in that book, and he or she can throw it away without a second thought.

 I'm more convinced than ever, from my own writing journey and from reading for contests at conferences, etc., that the first issue of new writers is rushing. Rushing to get to the end (e.g. posting: I wrote 8,000 words today! And then not going back and really editing those words for voice, timeline, plot, structure), rushing the story--hence the backstory download--and rushing to put that story into the hands of an agent. I've sat across from writers who I have had to tell, "You have some good ideas, but no plot." The writers who are writers, the ones who will make it, usually express that they understand and will let these ideas simmer longer and wait for the story to form. Others get upset with me. I once had a writer complain to conference organizers about me because when she plopped her 300 page memoir down I hadn't had the "decency" to read a few pages (while she sat there watching, inside of the 15 minute appointment she had booked with me), and then I had the "nerve" to tell her that memoirs require a plot, the same as fiction, and that they need to be about something specific, not simply snippets of life stories strung together by long, loose threads. I said all of this gently, but she said I had been rude. The truth is hard to swallow when you've got a "finished" manuscript that you've worked so hard on. I get that. But a writer shrugs at all those hours of work and says, I can do better.

She got me back, though. As she stood to leave our little table she told me she had an appointment with D___________ (insert name of important publisher) and she would prove everything I told her was wrong.

When I graduated with a degree in English Literature and Elementary Education, I skipped off to teach  a roomful of fourth-grade students, believing I was prepared to make that year the best learning year of their lives. I was almost right. It was a great year of learning, for me! And I kept on learning the art of teaching and still do. When I plunged into writing, I had a trophy case of As to prove some really smart people thought I could write. That wasn't enough either. And the books I read on fiction writing or a clinic or two I attended weren't the beginning and end of making me into a writer. It takes TONS of practice.

My biggest mistake--and I still struggle with this, although I'm getting better--was not giving my characters enough conflict, interior and exterior. This is the mistake I see in the contests I judge. The result is a story where nothing happens. Boring! We want to be nice to our characters and show them in their best light. Conflict doesn't develop at all, or it's resolved too quickly and easily.
We need to get real.

 The mistake I've seen most often, as Bonnie observed, is the rushing.  Rushing to put the proposal in the mail, rushing to pitch the story to an editor, rushing to find a shortcut to publishing.  I think it's destined to increase with the rush to self-publish.  An author who has already sold a book to a publisher and gone through the experience of edits, rewrites, and marketing has an education under her belt.  She knows the value of hiring an editor and not cutting corners that compromise the integrity of the work.  But even for a published author, self-publishing is uncharted territory.  That doesn't mean that you shouldn't self-publish, but don't rush the process.  Get a professional opinion.  There are many legitimate editorial services available. Read through it one more time, and if at any point - ANY - point in your manuscript you stumble over a word choice or have to stop and clarify something or you yawn, it's time to at least do some tweaking, and possibly a bigger rewrite..  Never accept 'good enough.'

Friday, April 12, 2013

Mediating the Duelling Poets.

April is National Poetry Month and we've been celebrating at my house by talking about poetry, reading poems aloud to one another, and even trying our hand at writing one or two. My children have long loved Edward Lear (Who doesn't? He was Shel Silverstein before being him was cool) and loved my reading of The Jumblies so much I had to read it twice before they agreed to go to bed.

Later this month my husband and I will read poetry to a group of grade 4 and 5 students. Guess how much fun we're having as we assemble a reading list.

In the midst of the jamble of reading poetry, I've also been reading about the lives of several poets over the centuries and a few things struck me.

First, the luxury of being able to gaze back in time and line up facts, quotes, and biographies stretching back to the dawn of Western civilization is an unspeakable honour. Let us not waste such a vast opportunity to the cell phone drone of today. Let's teach our children (and reteach ourselves) to look up from our screens and dive deep into history, thinking long about anything at all.

Second, I found it thrilling to read about the diverse--even polemic--attitudes the poets themselves held about the art of poetry. As I've been skidding across time like a teenager at a sock-hop I've hit upon these bulwark positions about what sort of subject matter makes for great poetry:

"I think it will be found that grand style arises in poetry, when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or with severity a serious subject." Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold (1887)
         The sea is calm tonight, 
         The tide is full, the moon lies fair 
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Arnold believed that great poetry comes when it's aimed at a worthy, grand subject. His poetry examines faith, politics, self inside of society, loss of faith, and the question of how best to live. His most famous poem, likely, is the one above, a gloomy piece about losing faith. 

Now, race ahead in time and set Arnold's opinion beside that of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) who wrote poems and was described by John Ashbery as "a writer's writer's writer." She once told Robert Lowell, "I'm not interested in big-scale work as such. Something needn't be large to be good."

Filling Station
          by Elizabeth Bishop
Oh, but it is dirty!—this little filling station,oil-soaked, oil-permeatedto a disturbing, over-allblack translucency.Be careful with that match!
Father wears a dirty,oil-soaked monkey suitthat cuts him under the arms,and several quick and saucyand greasy sons assist him(it’s a family filling station),all quite thoroughly dirty.
Do they live in the station?It has a cement porchbehind the pumps, and on ita set of crushed and grease-impregnated wickerwork;on the wicker sofaa dirty dog, quite comfy.
Some comic books providethe only note of color—of certain color. They lieupon a big dim doilydraping a taboret(part of the set), besidea big hirsute begonia.
Why the extraneous plant?Why the taboret?Why, oh why, the doily?(Embroidered in daisy stitchwith marguerites, I think,and heavy with gray crochet.)
Somebody embroidered the doily. Somebody waters the plant,or oils it, maybe. Somebody arranges the rows of cans so that they softly say: esso—so—so—so
to high-strung automobiles. Somebody loves us all.  

“Filling Station” from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. www.fsgbooks.comSource: The Complete Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1983) 

It's interesting that, while Bishop uses the "small" subject of a filling station, she alights on a vast one: Love. And Arnold, giving full attention to the vast night and sea, manages to sulk his way to the very same subject. Maybe that's the trick to all poetry, all writing, all art? That we're all reaching for the great subject of love. That all things lead us there, even when we thought we were going in the opposite (or smaller) direction.

What do you think? Grand subjects, or small things? What are you doing to celebrate National Poetry Month? We love hearing from you.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Discovering the City of Sodom

It’s finally here, friends. The book I researched on the shores of the Dead Sea. The book I wrote on a lap desk in the passenger seat of my car in hospital parking lots for four months while my husband lay comatose and paralyzed, in his own Dead Sea.

The book of archaeology and excavations and heartbreaking dead ends and nerve-jangling discoveries. The chronicle of dislimbed bones and pottery heat-blasted into trinitite glass. The book of a lost city that wouldn’t stay lost.

It’s here, and it’s stirring up trouble.

Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Old Testament's Most Infamous City (Howard/Simon & Schuster) describes how, why and where God detonated a literal firebomb over a targeted spot in a valley in the Middle East early in human history. It is about dirt, but not just any dirt:  Dirt honed in on, like GoogleEarth zooming in from outer space. Or, more accurately said, from Infinite Space.

My co-author, Dr. Steven Collins, did something that many other professional archaeologists scoffed at. He used the Bible to track down a major archaeological find: what is now the largest official dig in the entire Jordan Valley of Israel and Jordan. Off limits to excavators for decades because of the regional wars and now a joint project with the government of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the hulking mound of Tall el Hammam is a massive site with hundred-foot-thick battlements, fertile with finds.

I was privileged to give its history a voice.

I’d like you to share in my excitement. I want you to have a copy of this book. I’ll randomly choose two of you who tell me why you'd want to read this book.

Monday, April 8, 2013

THE WRITERS WHO CHANGED ME a guest post by Ariel Allison from She Reads

The greatest part of a writers time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” – Samuel Johnson

Something odd happens to me in the months before I begin writing a novel. At some point after finishing one novel and beginning the next, I stumble across a book that moves me. I always feel the same after finishing one of these books: shaken, delighted, in awe. These books become landmarks in my own journey as a writer and their authors an unknowing mentor. While I read dozens of books between projects, there is always one that rises up and becomes the new standard for my own writing. Three books come to mind now, each having found me in that very moldable state prior to beginning a new work of my own:

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. This book was recommended to me while I was still in the concept stage with my first novel. An editor who knew my love of smart historical fiction suggested I give this thousand-page tome a try. I adored its intricately woven plot and abundance of historical minutia. I marveled at the creativity and top-notch writing. But there’s something else that Stephenson does very well. He gets you by the throat at the beginning and ending of every chapter and scene break. I won’t soon forget the opening line: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” Who is this woman? Why is she being hanged? How can you not keep reading after a line like that?! Neal Stephenson taught me how to weave history and plot in a way that forces the reader to keep turning page after page.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I’d heard about this book for years before I finally picked it up. A long road trip with my family proved to be the perfect excuse to see what everyone was talking about. Five hundred pages and two thousand miles later I was completely changed as a writer. In my opinion, Setterfield writes mystery better than anyone else on the market today. Not in the traditional, Agatha Christie way, where the red herring is king. But in this fantastic, sprawling, intelligent, trust-your-reader sort of way that makes for epic fiction. Setterfield takes you on a journey and sets the most delightful traps along the way—not just for her characters, but for her readers as well. She never inflects her writing. Never makes it easy for us. Never assumes that we can’t follow along. Diane Setterfield taught me that readers are smart enough to figure it out, and if by some chance we don’t, even better! We will love you for the thrill of not having figured it out!

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I read all eight hundred pages of this novel in three days last November. She has two profound talents in my opinion. The first is that every scene, every character, every piece of dialogue in her novels serves a purpose. There is nothing superfluous. No dead weight. Every single thing matters. She may introduce a seemingly random character or plot thread at the beginning of the book only to build upon it so that it becomes the pivotal twist at the end. The second is that she takes her reader to the broken, exhausted, exhilarating point of every emotion. Whether writing a knife fight, a journey, a love scene, a homecoming, a betrayal, or even torture, she builds her scenes (none of them are short) until the page quivers with tension. Where a lesser writer would have mercy on the reader and cut the scene short, she takes it to the most brutal, unexpected, and profound conclusion. Her characters and readers suffer alongside one another. They weep together. They are redeemed together. Her devoted, almost rabid following is proof that readers invest themselves entirely in her work. Diana Gabaldon taught me to earn the trust of my reader by never, ever letting them off the hook. When I pick up one of her novels I know that I will be shaken and grateful at the end.

All of these are things I have needed to learn before beginning a new project. And I believe they are lessons that can only be fully grasped through the act of reading. I couldn’t have learned them in a classroom. I had to feel them first.

Question for you: what authors have changed you as a writer? How? What did you learn from them?