Monday, September 29, 2014

I'm Taking My Wild Heart Outside

Roll with the punches.

Stay flexible.

Be dynamic.

It's exhausting.

I'm not rolling these days. On the best days, I bend a little, but mostly I just fold. Fold up for easy storage.

I need to get out of my head. Get away from myself and the stories I've convinced myself make me an artist.

My brain needs a break. I need to get outside and sniff the air. Look around and hear my heart beating for anything other than an industry that holds me in no regard. I'm okay with that: no regard. Likely wouldn't know what to do with it if I had it. Probably would leave in on the lap of a stranger sleeping in a doorway.

I'm a doer. Not a waiter. Waiting breaks my stride. Smears itself across my psyche until the most dynamic parts of me line up into a holding pattern, and I stammer and cry in public.

I am an artist.

I'm taking my wild heart outside. I can't be the creative firebrand if I stay inside the lines.

God help me shed expectation. Finally and forever toss aside the notion of success and instead let me touch the faces of the people I love feel the weight of eternity.

Show me how to travel . . .

Friday, September 26, 2014

Let Me Sleep

When I get to Heaven, I hope the first hundred years I may only sleep. I pray I will see you, yes, and that your hand will lay on my head and stroke back my hair. That you will understand, say "You are so tired. Just rest."

That you will know that I am only dust. The grass that fades away.

Let there be moonlight, and stars.

Please understand.

Please don't be disappointed.

This was a battle, wasn't it? And not just a sad trail of missed opportunities and wrong turns? Tell me I fought valiantly. Even if I lost.

Stroke my hair from my forehead, please. Tell me I served you. Tell me I did well.

I hope I did well. I hope

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Simple and Sincere Account

Thoreau lays his scalpel along my vein.

I...require of every writer...a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives.

I type one-handed and shield my soft underbelly with the other. I cannot permit it.  My regrets, my shames, my failures are my own.  Better to scratch at the ugliness of others than to reveal my own darkness.

The price is too high, and so my words are dreck, stale and tepid. There is no healing in them.   My words themselves are sick. 

I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.

Taking the scalpel in wavering hand, the ink flowing red, I lance the wounds that sicken me. The pain is only a phantom whose story has little power.  The feverish healing begins.

My biggest wound was 

 (from Walden)

Friday, September 19, 2014

On Parts and Sums

(image courtesy of

Now, more than ever, I cannot get numbers to give up their powers. They are an old foreign language, growing more incomprehensible with every year. It is not just the algebra from high school that is fading away. In fact, I think I am forgetting how to add.

This summer I began to try to learn to sing alto in church hymns. Music has been another great mystery to me. I know there are four parts, but unlike my husband who sings the soprano reallyreally flat to emulate another part, I know they are all there. But they lurk in muddy harmony, like wriggling water snakes just beyond grasp. I cannot find them unless someone plays, charms each snake, each alone.

These two inacessibles, music and numbers, humble me. Ah, I say.

Ah, I see. I have learned great empathy for people who cannot make words yield their secrets, either.

Words still woo me. I am not the ragged claws, scuttling.

But. But-- today is a broom and dustpan I am using to sweep into the corners of myself to gather enough of me to

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dear God ...

How do you help someone in her situation? Lord, if you're listening, that's what I need to know. I pray, yes, non-stop, but I wish I had the perfect words to say to her, to eradicate this pain she can't navigate. But what do you say to an 18-year-old who's just lost a close friend ... a one-time boyfriend ... to suicide? So I pray. And I weep for this girl I love so deeply, for this boy I never knew, and for his family and the grief that will never leave them. Death like this creates a massive Before and After. It's a chasm you can't go back across.

God, I know you're good, and kind, and merciful. There's no end to the adjectives that describe you. Your compassion is fathomless; but, God, I have to admit you aren't always what I want you to be, you seldom do what I want you to do. I wish, God, I could be your advisor for a while.

I'd tell you what it feels like to be let down, to deal with disappointment so big it can swallow you whole. I'd say, Lord ... a lot like the sister of Lazarus said to you ... if you'd only been looking, this awful thing wouldn't have happened. I'd tell you that maybe you should use some of your omnipotence to prevent things like 18-year-old boys from hanging themselves. Or from feeling the need in the first place. There's a lot I could argue against free will. But the thing is, I want it when I want it. Okay, I know, I'm definitely too fickle to be the advisor to God.

But I have to say, believing in you -- and I do with all my heart -- but believing in you creates more questions as I pass through this dark night of the soul than if I didn't believe; didn't believe a benevolent God truly cares about and enters into the affairs of humanity. Because things often make so little sense with you in the equation. If I didn't believe in you, I could say when awful things happen, "Well, that's just the way it is. It's fate, or whatever." But because I do believe and I know you could have made a difference in so many situations ... and yet didn't, that creates a huge disconnect between what I see and what I believe. Yes, I know, that brings up the whole faith vs sight debate. But I'm hurting too much right now to debate.

So the biggest question of all, God, related to so many issues, is ...

why ...?

why do You

Monday, September 15, 2014

First One in the Lake

Being first up to write honestly about the dark night of my writing soul is a bit like being the first one in the lake at the beginning of summer.

I stand at the end of the dock, warmed by the June sun on my shoulders and squint into the glint off the water. It's a lovely picture, but if the lake is still deceptively frigid, the cold will squeeze my lungs with an iron fist.

Here's the funny thing: I thought I'd been honest all along. Now, poised to jump, I recognize that in the name of not being labeled ungrateful, faithless, a quitter (that one really stings), too circumspect, a party-pooper, or unworthy, perhaps not called at all or even talented, I barely know where to start with this truth business.

Perhaps it's enough to know I'm tempted to take a job at Taco Bell, clear the bookshelves of all writing books, and convert my office into (gasp!) a TV room with a futon. In other words, remove all that reminds me that I didn't live up to my potential.

The boxes of unsold books must go, too.

And yet, I write most days, plugging away at a story I'm convinced is absolute dreck. Still, I can't help but marvel at the accumulation of pages each day, and when I read from the beginning (as I just did), I'm surprised that the story is not quite as awful as I'd feared. But not as good as I'd hoped, either.

If storytelling were a drug, I would be a junkie.

It makes no practical sense for me to continue writing. I'm in debt to myself (actually my husband, but he doesn't keep track of these things like I do) for the release of my last book. Also, I'm an extrovert craving the company of people other than made-up characters. And I fear that my precious time on earth is being squandered dreaming up plot points, distilling a phrase to the most concise word, and researching the sound of waves under a pier.

There are lost people out there. Hungry people. Enslaved people. Angry people. Doesn't God

Cookies, as promised.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Not going gently into that dark night... of the soul

For six years the six of us have walked alongside you, our readers, sharing with you our collective knowledge and insights about writing. In many ways, we’ve let you eavesdrop not only on things we have taught you, but on our interactions with each other.

We six have something extraordinary, and we know it. One thing that people always notice—and speak of—is the remarkable unity between us. The tenderness and kindness and great affection in our words to each other. The lack of competition, the wholehearted support and love we have for each other.

We began the blog as hotshot writers, riding the successes of recently-published books. Some of us won awards, all of us were congratulated by someone. Our agents at Books & Such whose names we bless forever for bringing us together, saw something we all had in common and put us together. And it was love at first sight for all of us.

But something has happened to each of us. For some, our salaried jobs have sapped our writing time. For others, we have faced tragedy of startling varieties. Economic realities—and great loss—has been the portion of others of us. And there is more. But what has happened to one of us, we feel, has happened to all. Often for each other flows, as the old song says, the sympathizing tear.

We are one. In ways we cannot explain to others, we are one.

We are losing ourselves in each other: You’ll not see our individual pictures nor will we sign what we write other than by our collective name, Unity. No longer will NovelMatters be a place to get advice, but to read journal entries, poems, rants, character sketches and scenes that do what writing is supposed to do: show, not tell.

Other, greater, writers than us have acknowledged their Grief Observed (C. S. Lewis), their spiritual bereavement and begged, Come be My Light (Mother Teresa), and have whispered the prayer of Madeleine L'Engle. (See below.)  

And we want, out of the loss and the dark night of our collective soul, to use the gift of language God gave us to talk about the things that authors often don’t talk about.

We will end each post without punctuation. We want the conversation to go on, in your heart.

We feel the privilege of honesty that will give a haven of fellowship for others.

Welcome. Come sit with us.

Are you wanting to pray this prayer? 

What we want more than anything

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Does This Novel Seem Crowded? A Rerun

[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, September 1, 2014

Reviews: Do They Matter?

Happy Labor Day weekend! I hope you've had a wonderful summer and are looking forward to the changes fall might bring into your life; whether it's back to school for you or your kids, or a welcome change in the weather. Enjoy your day.


Good intentions. We all have them. Many times we act on them, but sometimes we fall short. I often find myself on the short side of good intentions when it comes to promoting books I really like. I tell myself as I'm reading, "I'm going to be sure to write a review for this one!" But when I close the cover on the last page, it somehow slips my mind.

As an author, I should know better. I know how important reviews can be, as well as the value of word-of-mouth promotion --- especially word-of-mouth promotion. When looking for a book to purchase, I often check the posted reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I realize that many of the 5-star reviews come from family and friends of the author, but you can still glean a lot from what people say about a book.

The competition for an author these days is fierce. Even with social media as a means of getting the word out, one voice can get lost among the oh-so-many. But we still have a sphere of influence, and we ought to use it when we can. The books we read that are really good, that move us in some way, need to be shared with other readers. And posting reviews, or promoting a good book on FaceBook, Twitter, or other outlets, is a good way to do that.

I appreciate any review my books get, but I love it when someone I don't know says something good about one of my novels in a review or in a post somewhere. And I especially love it when that reader takes time to contact me personally. It's made me so much more aware as a reader that I should do that as well. And I have, many times.

Readers and writers, we're in this together. Writers are looking for readers, and readers are looking for writers. Proverbs 15:23 says, "A word in due season, how good it is!" A review or other means of promotion for an author or book we like can be that good word. It can benefit other readers who are looking for something worthwhile in which to invest their time and money, and it certainly benefits the author, who works so hard to build their audience.

Do you rely on reviews when selecting a book to read? If you hear a good review about a book, does it entice you to check it out?