Friday, January 31, 2014

Out of the Garden, part one

We've been talking about writing a story together all week here and here. And now, it's showtime.

Below is part one of what will be our story--yours and ours. We hope the opening lines ignite your creativity and you decide to join us in telling the story. We'll give details for your participation after the all-important beginning.

I’d seen her before hovering around the gladiolas. One can ignore what one does not believe exists. Sometimes, after a sighting, I’d lie awake and worry. Did she fly with the devil’s minions, or heaven’s angels? I could sleep only after convincing myself I hadn’t seen her at all. Aging eyes, frequent headaches, trick of light.
            And then my cat carried her into the house one Tuesday, dropped her at my feet like a prize catch. She was only slightly larger than a mouse. Not dead despite the cat, one wing bent out like a wind-turned umbrella, and blood swelled where it melded to her back. I scolded the cat. 
           She looked tiny lying inside the shoebox I’d found and lined with cotton balls and a clean hanky. Her eyes never left my face. There were people coming, I tried to explain to her as I slid the shoebox under the bed. 

Your turn!

Sign up at to contribute up to 300 beautifully polished words to the story. We suggest that you revisit the posts from Monday and Wednesday for pointers.

The newest installment of the story will run each Friday. We'll let you know your assigned Friday via email. We ask that you submit your installment as a Word document to our email address on the Wednesday previous to your assigned Friday. That gives us pokey folks time to get your words posted.

We'll continue the story until it comes to a satisfying resolution.

Not to worry, previous installments will be available through a link. 

That's it. Any questions? 

This is going to be fun.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Once Upon a Time

Novel Matters has always been a collaboration. Six writers setting out to set the blogsphere on its ear, right?

It started out with six writers, but, from the very beginning, Novel Matters has been a meeting place, a community of like-minded book people. Readers and writers alike. Three times a week, we put out there some ideas, hopes, dreams (sometimes crushed dreams), and then the collaboration begins. Over the years, each one of you (even you lurkers!) have contributed to the life, verve, and joy of this blog by commenting, sharing your thoughts, and often, sharing part of your life with us.

Now, we invite you to share in a story. To be a co-writer with the six of us--starting Friday, January 31.

Patti Hill will post the opening of a story--150 words--for you to read. The next step is to email us ( and tell us you are willing to write a section of the ongoing story.

You'll have time to think, write, edit, rewrite, etc. Then, you will send your nicely polished words to us and we will post them. You can read the continuing story each Friday on Novel Matters.

Ready for a fun writing challenge with no down side? Don't hesitate. If you love story, you are welcome to sign up. Don't wait!

Email us at and join in the fun!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Pickwick Comes to Novel Matters

Is it spring yet?

Sadly no, but let's defy the arctic blasts and have some writerly good fun.

After all of our talk about collaboration last week, writing a serial story with our readers seems like the most logical (and entertaining) next step.

This Friday the 31st, you'll find the beginning of the story posted here, and yes, we collaborated. We had a ball.

You have a huge part to play in this. We'll supply the beginning, but we invite you to add each consecutive portion of the story for the following Fridays until, well, the story is finished satisfactorily.

This is how our serial story (yet to be titled) will work:

  • We post the beginning of the story this Friday, January 31.
  • You jump in with unbridled enthusiasm to write a portion of the story. Please let us know via our contact us button. We'll be waiting!
  • We will then assign you a week to write up to 300 words. That's about a page. Your job is to keep the story moving with good tension, interesting twists, and ever-deepening revelations about the characters.
  • The next author (and you know you want to play along) starts where the previous author left off. 
  • Your installment is due the Wednesday before the Friday it is published.

Things to remember for participants:

  • Remain true to the characters. Yes, they should surprise us but in a way that's consistent with who they are.
  • Let's practice what we've been preaching about nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs are very welcome to play, in moderation. Lean hard on specific nouns and power verbs. 
  • Have fun, fun, fun!
  • Invite your authorial friends to join us.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens enjoyed outrageous popularity when it was serialized, starting in 1836. Authors are still serializing their stories in newspapers, as e-installments, and as e-novels. Let's not miss out on the fun.

We believe we have the most creative and talented readers in the blogosphere. We can wait to see what you have to contribute.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Better Together

I have never been part of a reading group - not yet. I suspect it would feel like the best moments of a college literature course -  the intense discussions, the never before thought of ideas -  only with couches and coffee, and wonderful friends. Some of you reading this have had the experience. So tell me: Would it be like that?

CS Lewis described something like it in his first acquaintance with his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves:

I found Arthur sitting up in bed. On the table beside him lay a copy of Myths Of the Norsemen.
"Do you like that?" said I.
"Do you like that?" said he.
Next moment the book was in our hands, our heads were bent close together, we were pointing,  quoting,  talking - soon almost shouting - discovering in a torrent of questions that we liked not only the same thing, but parts of it in the same way.
Maybe being in a reading group would feel like that. Or like the moment I discovered that Bonnie too had read Let the Great World Spin. Like me, she had found it to be a remarkably redemptive novel despite the odd thing author Collum McCann had done in showing us one luminous,  unforgettable character for the first small bit of the story, then taking him away and for the rest of the book, dragging us through a world that bore some resemblance to our own, and a striking resemblance to hell. The thing McCann did was to show us the ripples one luminous life made in a hellish world. And Bonnie saw it.

I imagine a good reading group could change the world , don't you?

Lewis seemed to think so. In The Four Loves, he describes a friendship like the one he enjoyed with Arthur Greeves, that begins with "What? You too? I thought I was the only one." He continues:

But as long as each of these percipient persons dies without finding a kindred soul, nothing (I suspect) will come of it; art or sport or spiritual religion will not be born. It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings, or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision...
And the world changes.

It makes me wonder who Martin Luther King Jr spoke to after he read the life story of Gandhi. Did some friend see what he saw in that book? Would life be the same if King had not found that friend?

Have any of you taken part in a reading group or are you in one now? Does it make a difference?

Please do share.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Work With Me Here

I have never collaborated with another writer or even considered doing so.  The idea and opportunity have just never presented themselves. The closest I’ve come to collaborating on fiction is to interview real live folks who are willing to share their experiences to lend authenticity to a story. 

So many people have stories to tell, but unfortunately, most industry professionals will tell you there’s no market for memoirs or autobiographies unless you are a celebrity or in the national news in some way. That doesn’t mean people don’t have amazing experiences to share. 

This creates difficulties of its own.

The biggest difficulty is in presenting that you are using their experiences to bring integrity and depth to the story but you’re not writing about them specifically.  This gets very muddy and awkward when people don’t see this clearly and can’t detach themselves from the facts they are sharing.  No matter how many times you emphatically insist that you are not writing about THEM, they may not see it until they read the finished product (after publication) and may or may not be disappointed.  Or angry.  They may feel disappointed or betrayed because they didn’t understand (or didn’t want to understand) that this wasn’t their story. Sigh.

It may help if you share a little about the character as you go along, the direction you are going and perhaps the outcome, if you know what the outcome will be before you reach the end.  And even then…

Happily, people are generally gratified to be part of the writing and creative process and recover from any disappointment or misunderstanding when they see their names in the acknowledgments.  Hooray for acknowledgments!

We would love to hear if anyone has had experience – good or bad – in interviewing real life folks for fiction or has been interviewed and can give some insight.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Collaboration: Heaven or Hell?

Most of what I've published is non-fiction, the meat and potatoes of my writing career.

 I regard fiction as my guilty pleasure-- doesn't usually pay the bills like nonfiction does, but it's as yummy and costly as any dessert.

One of the skills I've learned in non-fiction is the art of working with another writer. Or a non-writer, as the case may be. Today's roundtable is an examination of the pros and cons of using your writing skills in conjunction with someone else's ideas--or collaborating in any form.

I've published four books now in which I was the writer and someone else(s) were the source of the ideas. I regard this kind of writing as much harder than working alone. One reason is that almost always the person to whose ideas I'm giving shape is someone who won't ever write a book. In most cases, it was the other person's life story or life's work. And for that reason, I am much more self-accusing when I try to handle someone else's "baby," so to speak.  It truly is nerve-wracking for me.

Latayne, the only way I would collaborate with someone is if I came into the project before one word was written. I have a journalism background, so ideally I would want to interview the person, study the notes, organize the material, and interview some more before I even started writing. There, of course, would be tons more interaction between drafts.

That's not really collaborating, but taking other people's work and sorting, editing, shifting, and mutilating another--and I think you're dead on about the collaborator being a non-writer--person's writing sounds more like hell to me.

The challenge of writing a truly engaging story from a true story must hold many pitfalls. Most real-life stories don't follow a strong story arc, so there would have to be some heavy editing (cuts) of the parts that don't move the story along. I'm only speaking from minor experience with this, but people with a story aren't too happy about dropping bits to satisfy the reader. They want to writer their story. It would help if I had a more assertive personality, perhaps.

Now, if you're out there with a story about your trip to heaven, hell, or Fresno, give me a call.

Fresno, huh? Happens to be where I was born.

The idea of collaboration makes me nervous, and I often wonder how writers make it work. I think of Jenkins and LaHaye with the Left Behind series, and more currently, Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee. I'd love to interview  a pair of collaborators to see how it works for them. Perhaps we can line up Ted and Tosca for one of our author interviews this year? It's worth looking into. There are certainly authors I'd be honored to collaborate with, but I think it would be my biggest writing challenge yet.

Latayne's experience and wisdom about the writing process amazes me. I have never collaborated with another writer - or a non-writer - and never wanted to. But Latayne speaks about the process with such equanimity that even if she says it is harder than working alone, it sounds at least doable. I have read works by the other ladies on this blog and offered suggestions, and I've worked especially closely with Sharon. Our first published novels were practically birthed as twins, with Sharon and me passing manuscripts back and forth as they were written. All lovely, positive experiences.

Which leads me to conclude I might not mind collaborating, so long as I had a good chemistry with my collaborator, and loved their story as though it were my own.

Sharon, Ted Dekker also collaborated once with Frank Peretti - once - and I believe it was not a good experience for them, simply because their styles were so different.

Writers are unwieldy folk. Part of what makes a writer stand out is unique voice, ability to skew perspective, and original feeling story (I say feeling because story is never 100% original). Part of what gets a writer paid these days is collaboration. A young writer working with a bestseller views this as his/her "big break" and a sure ride to the bestseller list, not to mention a paycheque. Sounds good to me! But the marriage between the utterly original writer and collaboration with another writer is rife with drama. I imagine there is an even split for collaborations that go well--mostly marked by partnerships like LeHaye/Jenkins where the idea came from LeHaye and Jenkins wrote the books. The Dekker/Lee books are different. Tosca did the writing for the first draft of each chapter, but Dekker was very involved at every step. Somehow, they both have made it work and they continue to produce books people love together. (Also, I was late adding my thoughts to this roundtable. Wonder what that says about my desire to collaborate??)

Would I wish to collaborate a fiction title? Would it be difficult? I'm happy to remain open to the idea. It's writing. I love writing. Difficulties can be overcome in the name of a novel people love.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Hunting Adjectives with Elephant Guns

Bonnie's post on Monday made me sit up and pay attention. Bonnie climbed into the bully pulpit for the sake of nouns, the building blocks readers use to create story worlds and those shadows we all hope to leave with our readers. (Sharon's post on Wednesday made me rethink my daily words, the ones I fling about recklessly. Thanks for that, friend. I am resolved to do better.)

And so I went a-hunting for adjectives as she had done. I found few extraneous uses, but they're there. I also admired strong nouns like never before.

This was such a powerful exercise that I've done the work for you. I've collected seven random samples from novels we've all loved. Some are more adjective-rich than others. I hope you'll look at these 50-word snippets and help me decide if any of the adjectives should be scratched, or if a more descriptive noun could have been used.

Remember, adjectives aren't the bad guys. We do tend to lean heavily on them in our writing. The trick is to use the strongest noun possible (cottage rather than house; beret rather than hat) to minimize the need to slow-down-the-action adjectives.

Yep, this is how writers have fun, so jump in!

[Note: I italicized the adjectives for you. I didn't italicize adjectives with linking verbs. That makes things messy but does show what a complex task lay before us each day. Also, I have missed a few or thousands.]

I finished reading the letter and closed my eyes. I was thinking, So many tears for Elder Sister, so much joy for me. I was grateful that we followed the custom of my not falling into your husband's house until just before the birth of your first child. I still had...Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See

We had been wandering for so long I forgot what it was like to live within the walls or sleep through the night. In that time I lost all I might have possessed if Jerusalem had not fallen: a husband, a family, a future of my own. My girlhood disappeared in...The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman

A day after the Evers funeral, Miss Leefolt's mama stop by for a visit. She live up in Greenwood, Mississippi, and she driving down to New Orleans. She don't knock. Miss Fredericks just waltz on in the living room where I'm ironing. She give me a lemony smile. I go...The Help, Kathryn Stockett

When he was pushed out by the rest of his family, the relief struggled inside him like an obscenity. It was something he didn't want to feel, but nonetheless, he felt it with such gusto it made him want to throw up. How could he? How could he? But he did...The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Restlessness rippled through the schoolroom like waves of wind through wheat. A teacher on a discipline rampage can be a fearsome thing; every student ever born knows that. But we never expected that kind of behavior from Morrie. Nonetheless he seemed to go out of his way to pick fault...The Whistling Season, Ivan Doig

The polar bears lies on his stomach, head and snout stretched in front of him. In repose he looks harmless--cuddly even, with most of his bulk concentrated in the lower third of his body. He takes a deep, halting breath and then exhales a long, rumbling groan. Poor thing. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
Note: Some would have italicized polar bear, but when it's a species, as the animals in the following example, I prefer to read the two-word phrase as a noun.

The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane's heart. She rowed upstream to see wood ducks, canvasbacks, and ospreys and to search for tiger salamanders in the ferns. She drifted downstream to find painted turtles sunning on fallen trees...Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell

Did any of our authors go crazy with adjectives? Did they use adjectives when a strong noun would have been more powerful? Look at your own writing, too. Is this a new awareness for you? What are you doing this weekend? I'm going to a mineral hot springs with the family. Thanks for spending time with us. We so enjoy your company.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Be it resolved . . .

Latayne certainly got us off to a great start this year with her "We suspected it all along" article last Monday, and my writing sisters have kept the pace. Latayne's revelation that novels can actually leave a physical shadow in the brain that stays with the reader for days was an amazing bit of information. As her title suggested, we suspected it all along. And we've always known that about words anyway.

I read another tremendous post about words soon after reading Latayne's post. I quote from Ann Voskamp's A Holy Experience blog post titled: Dear Kids: What you need to know about Duck Dynasty, Justine Sacco and Christmas. I highly recommend you read the entire post. But this is what leapt out at me:

"Words leave your mouth, your keyboard, but words don't ever expire quietly in a void --- they always explode in hearts."

That is absolute truth. Words are not innocuous. Ever. They impact on some level, even if it's just to inform. If you doubt that, consider this: "In the beginning was the Word." That's how the Apostle John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, chose to define Christ in the opening words of his gospel. There are so many nouns he could have used instead: In the beginning was the Son of God, the Redeemer, the Light of the World, the Morning Star, the Alpha and Omega. And on and on. But in the beginning was the Word --- which spoke into existence all that is --- and that Word has resonated throughout the universe ever since.

Words matter. The ones we speak and the ones we write. If words are our calling, we have an obligation to use them wisely. Ecclesiastes 12:11 says, "The words of the wise prod us to live well.
They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together." On Wednesday, Debbie talked about her need to "stick with books that include some measure of hope." I'm so with Debbie on that. A novel can take me to the inferno, but if it gives me reason to hope I'll stay with it to the very end. That's what I want to accomplish with my writing. To bring hope to my readers, to leave a shadow on their brains that will point them in the right direction if the need arises. I know I fall short, but it's what I strive for.

But I not only want to write things that make a difference, I want to speak them. I've made one New Year's resolution that I've kept as far as I recall. It was 18 years ago, and the resolution was to begin wearing lipstick. You heard me right. I didn't mind the look of lipstick, but I didn't like the feel of it on my lips. My husband, on the other hand, liked me in lipstick. So I resolved to begin wearing it, and I have ever since. Not all day, every day, but certainly when I go outside my front door.

This year I made another New Year's resolution, one a bit more important than lipstick, and that's to be more positive in my attitude. The past few years have been difficult, and they've worn on me. Often, it's been reflected in my words. So I resolved on New Year's morning to keep my language positive, and to better practice the faith I've worked so hard to develop over the years. If my words are going to explode in someone's heart, I want them to bring life, not death; to encourage, not defeat.

 Only a handful of novels I've read in my life have really impacted me, have left an enduring shadow. The first was To Kill a Mockingbird, which I read in high school way back when. Sadly, most novels I've read are forgettable. They entertain for the moment, but that's it. What creates a really distinctive novel for you? Can you share a title?

Monday, January 13, 2014

We Need to Talk About Your Adjectives

Adverbs. We’ve made a big deal about them in recent years. Readers, it has been declared, hate them (fine, though I strongly suspect most don’t care that much if they enjoy the story), They weaken prose, so off with their heads.

I could argue that well-chosen adverbs make for punchy prose packed with panache (just ask Arthur Plotnik), but the general point is well made. Killing off the “ly” words does tidy up the place. And writers have complied. We’ve had our ah-ha moments and killed off swaths of  “ly” words.

Before we take too deep a bow for our writerly stroke of genius, I draw your attention to the forgotten noun. Or, more accurately, the flabby adjective your nouns are resting on like sleeping old men atop waterbeds.

Nouns matter.

Last week Latyane pointed us to some neuroscience experiments that have recorded physical effects on the brain from reading fiction. This makes sense because most complex tasks inflict physical changes in the brain and reading fiction—words that are complex symbols that represent symbols of real things—is nothing if not complex.

I’ve pounded the noun drum before and I’m tattooing again in the context of thelingering shadows in a reader’s brain. When we read, we accomplish an astonishing array of tasks all without moving a muscle. Our brain scans words on a page, interprets the symbols correctly, and builds a complex system that, if it were extracted from a reader’s brain, would resemble a close proximity to real life with all its subtlety, brutality, and interact relationships. Reading is an act of stunning creativity. And what aids
readers in their creative act is nouns they can build on.

Recently I read a new writer’s attempt to create a scene. There were the usual newbie mistakes, including a floating POV, overly descriptive prose, and telling rather than showing. Still, it was the writer’s use of adjectives that stood out to me. In two sentences the writer used nine adjectives.


I panicked a little. Went to my work-in-progress and scanned the manuscript looking for adjectives. I found a sample roughly the same length as the one with all the adjectives. Because I suspected I was a more experienced writer, I decided to count the adjectives in four sentences, rather than two.


The adjective? Bowline.
Maybe I was just lucky. I chose another passage, another four sentences.


Then I hunted up some favorite novels, the kinds that have stayed with me and played out in my memory for years.

I’m certain you can guess the outcome.

Nouns are the objects in which our brains build the worlds suggested to us in novels. Shadow-makers. The stronger the noun, the more certain the building blocks.

Adjectives are helpful when clarity is needed.

“His left arm.”

“She rolled into a protective ball.”

Precision is the goal for all writing—better to use a precise noun than to try to prop it up with an adjective.

So, where is the fun in adjectives? Modern writing is full of them (thank heavens!), and it’s important that we don’t leave this article thinking the point is to kill all the adjectives and leave it at that.

Kill the flabby ones and replace the noun it was propping up. Then, have some fun with adjectives, using them freely and creatively in ways that help readers build worlds in their imaginations.

Here is an example from my current work-in-progress, Trillium, with the adjectives highlighted:

I was drowning. Being eaten alive by a shallow creek. Dying beside a cow, of all things. No one believes they would die beside a cow. Every breath found only liquid. I thrashed, kicking my legs while trying to free my right arm from the elbow-deep mud, which meant pushing down with my left arm, sinking it deeper into the muck.
There was a splash. Loud. Nearby. Not made by me. I was kicking in mud, and this was the sound of water. My name. Drawn out like a yodel, Fiiiioooooooooooona. Splash. Twice more. My yodel name, then splash. “Grab the rope!”
Rope. Cory. Help.

Hit your manuscripts and go adjective hunting. If you want, come back and tell us how it went. How many frivolous ones did you kill? What about the creative uses? Can you think of a novel you read that dragged you down in adjectives? Share your thoughts, examples, grousings, and chocolate cookies in the comment section.