f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 05/01/2004 - 06/01/2004

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, May 28, 2004

Day 4 of Tone: Summarizing a Book in a Single Phrase

In the end, I think the books I remember the most are the one that evoke in me a strong and inescapable feeling. That feeling can be one of many—mirth, longing, contentedness, sadness, etc—but it adds up to something that transcends the page and forces a response from me. These aren’t necessarily the books I love (there was a book called Violence by Richard Bausch that I swear made me feel like I’d been beaten with a tire iron) but books that stay with me.

A good deal of that comes back to the other definition of TONE that we were going to discuss this week. At the end of a book, when you’re trying to gather all your thoughts about a novel and put it into words, often what you first put into words is the TONE of the book.

It’s not true for all titles. Some demand more of a response to theme or imagery. In others, one character’s voice holds your attention. Some, like Lord of the Rings (for me) you’re simply glad to have flipped the last page. But for many books, as you try to tell others what you liked about it, you speak in the code of TONE. (And if you read book or movie pages, it often where reviewers spend all of their 50 cent words.)

For a good chick-lit title, one might use words like: frothy, light, saucy, effervescent

For a thriller: harrowing, claustrophobic

One novel is stark; another is lush.

All these words are trying to capture the overarching feeling of a book when you add up its component parts of narrative, language, style, characters, setting, plot, and theme.

Look at it in terms of cooking—your final dish becomes more than just the sum of your ingredients. They interact and influence each other usually evoking one dominant taste with other “notes” below.

Let’s stay with cooking as our metaphor for a moment.

Sometimes when you’re cooking you have an ingredient you want to work with, say mushrooms. That’s like starting a book based on a character or a setting. Other times you need a certain type of food, say, salad. That’s similar to sitting down and trying to write in a genre. Other times, you a have a craving for a particular taste. I think that’s similar to writing toward tone. You want to tell a frothy story. Or a menacing one. Any of that make sense?

It was asked how writers know that the POV or tone of their work is right or not.

I think that’s a fascinating question. For me, and this is about the least helpful answer ever, I knew my POV and tone were right because I could finish my novels.

In the case of my first novel I started it and slowly shifted by tone and point-of-view until I was on the right track. Then I went back and rewrote what turned out to be 150 pages until it all was the same track.

My second novel was completely different. I had been putzing with different POVs and voices for, literally, years. When I finally found the right voice, the writing took off.

My guess is that the different solutions occurred because the books were written with different “centers.” The first novel was far more centered on theme—dealing with the hauntings of your past—while the second novel was a first-person tale that needed voice down cold. And as for their overall tones. I don’t know. I’m not sure if I’m even the right person to say.

I can talk about others’ books. And you all were kind enough to send in some examples as well. I’ve simply made a list below. These are the feelings brought forth by a book after a singular reader finished. Actual results may vary.

Straight Man by Richard Russo — Sly poignancy
Couples by John Updike — Tragicomic hedonism
A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch — Dark humor
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee — Innocence lost
From Dust and Ashes by Tricia Goyer — Careful emotional restraint
The English Assassin by Daniel Silva — Methodical, meticulous, and matter of fact.
Shadowmancer by G.P. Taylor — Crapola
Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code by Eoin Colfer — Good fun
Godric by Frederick Beuchner — Blunt, self-effacing tone
From A Buick 8 by Stephen King — Dry, matter of fact tone
Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett — Hard cynicism
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell — Bleak, desperate tone
The Covenant by Beverly Lewis — Poignant
Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst — Awakening grief
Thorn in My Heart by Liz Curtis Higgs — Engaging
Operation Wandering Soul — Dazzling release
Here Comes the Bride by Pamela Morsi — Down-home charm

That’s just a handful of novels. Try to name the tones of some of your favorites. And think if there’s one that you want to try writing. That’s it for Friday. Have a great long weekend. I may or may not post on Monday depending on life. Definitely Tuesday though.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Day 3 of Tone: In Which We Continue to Talk About Voice, Rather Than Tone

Today we’ll look at voice as it emerges in the transcendence of genre. Both books are considered classics, but both fall solidly into genre categories.

1. Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett — If Raymond Chandler turned language into a machine-gun, firing away with what sometimes seemed like wild-abandon, Dashiell Hammett turned his into a scalpel, honing it until it cut.

The problem with reading this book, of course, is one that isn’t Hammet’s fault. No matter how many times I look to the book, I can’t get Humphrey Bogart’s voice out of my head. Such is the danger of a film interpretation. But, nonetheless, let’s look at some of Hammett’s exposition as Spade is confronted by Iva Archer, the widow of his partner, a woman with whom he was having an affair.

She was a blond woman of a few more years than thiry. Her facial prettiness was perhaps five years past its best moment. Her body in all its sturdiness was finely modeled and exquisite. She wore black clothes from hat to shoes. They had as mourning an impromptu air. Having spoken, she stepped back from the door and stood waiting for Spade.

He took his hand from Effie Perine’s head and entered the inner office, shutting the door. Iva came quickly to him, raising her sad face for his kiss. Her arms were around him before his held her. When they had kissed he made a little movement as it to release her, but she pressed her face to his chest and began sobbing.

He stroked her round back saying,
“Poor darling.” His voice was tender. Hi eyes, squinting at the desk that had been his partner’s across the room from his own, were angry. He drew his lips back over his teeth in an impatient grimace….
The book is third-person omniscient. It also rarely strays from that terse, declarative prose. The authorial voice you get is clipped and unobtrusive, the better to let the real glory of the book shine, namely, Hammett’s patter, his dialogue. If you’ve seen the movie, you know of which I speak. And let me assure that much of the screenplay was lifted, in whole, from the book. Just some wonderful lines.

Compare that with our second genre—horror.

2. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James — A classic ghost story that gets creepier the more one reads it, this is not Stephen King or Peter Straub. It was published just one the far side of the 19th-century (1898) and so it reads, let’s be mature, and say, “differently” than most books today.

It’s a pretty good example of a book in which the tone changes. It is after all a book about people going more than slightly mad. And yet, it’s not like it goes from Mary Poppins to Sixth Sense. No, things start off creepy. We’re given the tone right away, we back off, and then we rediscover it. The beginning:

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but, except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sigh that had shaken him.
First off, check out that closed-grammar in the first sentence. Lots of commas. Lots of control. Second, what’s up with telling ghost stories on Christmas eve? It’s in “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” too—“There’ll be scary ghost stories, and tales of old glories…”—I’ve never understood that.

Anyway, James begins with a placid retelling of hearing a creepy story. It’s not intended to put us on edge, but it sets the stage for the fairly swift descent from placidity to insanity. Otherwise, it’s that dense 19th century writing to which we’ve become unaccustomed. Our thoughts have become simpler in recent years and in doing so, what we’re able to express in a single thought has been limited in turn. Next week we’re going to have a guest speaker talking about a new novel that’s out and one of the points he brings up is on this very subject.

Anyway, we could do this with every book in the universe. Nonfiction, youth, smut, basketball memoirs—it all gives you voice and in the end the cumulative effect of a book is named it’s tone. We’ll try to get to the bottom of how that works tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Day 2 of Tone: The Sound of One Man Arguing With Himself

Rereading my last post, I’m not sure whether I’ve adequately captured tone. I’ve spent a few days thinking about it and my thoughts have led me to this.

Syntax + Diction + Punctuation = STYLE. The words you choose, the order you put them, and how you control the flow actually equals your style. Sure there’s lots of writing hoo-ha’s we normally think of in terms of style but aren’t they all simply a product of which words and their order?

So, in my revised algebra of writing, TONE = STYLE / Context. The words, their order don’t mean much if we don’t understand the reason the author puts them there. That reason I’ll call CONTEXT. It goes back to our discussion of a teenager saying, “Sure, Mom.” How that sounds depends largely on context of the situation, right?

Okay, so we’re squared away on STYLE and TONE and POV and VOICE. I want to repeat again that the four things are highly linked. Or should be. It becomes rather obvious when your voice doesn’t match your point-of-view or your style seems out of place for the voice. There needs to be a correspondence between all these things.

Anyway, let’s talk today about VOICE. I went to my bookshelves and pulled four novels that I’ve read and that I think have fairly distinctive voices.

1. Operation Wandering Soul by Richard Powers — Powers is what is normally called a stylist. That means his writing often seems to be raised above the need for characterization or even plot. OWS is perhaps the ripest example of that. It’s a contemporary tale of Richard Kraft, a pediatric surgeon whose ward is suddenly filled with the wrecked lives of orphans. Interspersed with this are retellings of classic fairy tales or historic facts involving large groups of children. It comes at you from a lot of angles but demands a lot of work. Here’s a passage about a removing a tumor from an infant:

Together, the team extracts the mass they were after, clamps it off, and hacks it out at its insidious roots. In admiring tones as the gourd is lifted out and laid in a waiting pan, the Millstone marvels, “Hang that on the top of your Christmas tree.”

Kraft briefly considers trying to get someone to close for him, but elects against putting his limited seniority to the test. After all, as his mother used to tell him when he went fishing with a low trump, one must never send a boy to do a man’s job. He’s carried the ball this far. Might as well finish, although it must be obvious to everyone on the team that he’s about to go narcoleptic.

He sews like the zigzag accessory on a Singer. His sheep shanks run as erratically as a tricky halfback, say Sayers or Sweetness. This girl will grow up with Wellington’s Victory stenciled across her belly—a thin red line dominating the front. However sultry and beautiful, however high her features, there will be this mark, and her every lover to a boy-man will wonder:
What happened to you?
This is one of the less dense passages in the book. The prose is crammed with allusions and flights of fancy and looks into the future and glimpses backward. It’s the kind of writing that would make the Reader’s Manifesto-guy go bonkers. He’d say it was purposeless—drivel for the sake of drivel.

I am not quite on that side. I’ve read Powers. He certainly walks the line of pretension, but to accuse him of doing it without purpose is ludicrous. So the next question is why this voice?

Myself, I think he wants to take us a step from reality. The fairy tale passages are actually told in more straight-forward narrative. It’s the contemporary stuff, the narrative happening now that he writes in a vernacular that makes it seem otherworldly. L.A. and Bangkok become echoes of each other. Strange stuff happens. And to pull it off, we need a voice that won’t quite less us feel comfortable.

2. Straight Man by Richard Russo — Russo on the other hand, wants us in the real world. But one that has just been knocked a little out of joint. This book is one of the treasures of the last few years. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and yet poignant and meaningful. I’ve not said it in a while, so I’ll say it now—Richard Russo is an amazing writer.

The book starts with a wonderfully deadpan prologue and then launches us into the unhinging of one William Henry Devereaux. To wit:

When my nose finally stops bleeding and I’ve disposed of the bloody paper towels, Teddy Barnes insists on driving me home in his ancient Honda Civic, a car that refuses to die and that Teddy, cheap as he is, refuses to trade in. June, his wife, whose sense of self-worth is not easily tilted, drives a new Saab. “That seat goes back,” Teddy says, observing that my knees are practically under my chin.

When we stop at an intersection for oncoming traffic, I run my fingers along the side of the seat, looking for the release. “It does, huh?”

“It’s supposed to,” he says, sounding academic, hopeless.

I know it’s supposed to, but I give up trying to make it, preferring the illusion of suffering.
As I mentioned, this is reality. The diction is crisp and clean, but the syntax is complex. Check out that first sentence. It’s a well-organized, intelligent mind thinking such thoughts.

As I also mentioned, it’s reality askew. Can you sense the humor in the book? This isn’t supposed to be a hilarious passage but there are little hints at the voice. The use of the word “academic” paired with “hopeless.” Devereaux, in whose voice the entire story is told, keeps most of the book light and acerbic and off-kilter.

Tomorrow we’ll look at two other books. Then on Friday we’ll talk about the other definition of TONE in a book. In preparation for that one, I’d love for you all to think of maybe two or three of your favorite novels of recent years and try to boil their tones down to a word or a phrase. You can email me them and I’ll put together a list for Friday. Or you can post them on Friday.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Day 1 of Tone: Listening to the Written Word

In putting together this little entry on tone, I’ve discovered that I mean two different things when I talk about it and I think they’re both completely relevant.

The first side of it is the more literal definition of tone as commonly used in speaking. This “tone” is simply how the way something is said can add layers of meaning that go beyond the mere words that are spoken. We all know this very well. Teenagers live and die on tone. For instance, the words:

“Sure, Mom.”

Think of your most annoying, bratty teenager, and then say those words with a roll of your eyes, as though you couldn’t be more annoyed your mother birthed you, and you’ll get your sense of tone. And that plays out in novels, too. You have a “narrator” or “point-of-view” and however your story emerges from them is your tone.

But tone is something more, too. Tone is the cumulative weight of a book that allows us to describe it another person. Rather than sound, it becomes a tactile word. That book is heavy. Her newest comedy is really light. Perhaps I’m missing an obvious word that should be substituted for one of these terms, but for the moment we’ll call them both tone and begin our look. And we’ll start with the aural aspect.

Let’s go through the steps of creating a novel.

First, you come up with an idea: what story is being told.

Next, you choose a POINT-OF-VIEW: who is telling the story?

And finally you hone in further and pick a TONE: what does that story “sound” like?

TONE, in this sense, regresses to the mean. Most authors don’t choose to tell their novels with grand flamboyance, nor do they aim for dull recitation. Instead, they try to reach the happy medium of novel-land where subtle shadings and slight adjustments help do their work.

From a technical standpoint, TONE is actually a figment of our imagination. It’s a bit of writers voodoo that’s concocted from a recipe of diction (the words chosen) and syntax (how those words are arranged.) Control of those elements helps a writer create the tone she wants.

We’ll get to those elements later this week. Or perhaps in their own sessions. Today we’ll continue forward with this gossamer TONE and show how it becomes a key element in a readers’ connection to your story.
Just as (Diction + Syntax = TONE) so, t o my way of thinking, do (P.O.V + TONE = VOICE). And if you’ve never seen English reduced to mathematics before, well, them I’m glad to be here. Anyway, tone should never be separable from point-of-view, so we lump them together and find ourselves faced with VOICE.

Strong and pure VOICE is one of the key distinguishers between good and great fiction. (And when I use these terms I’m talking about construction and writing. I may not “like” a book but I can see the merit and wonder in its writing.) In good fiction, voice is compromised somehow whether it’s inconsistent, muddy, indistinct or a thousand other problems. In great fiction, it’s clear and crystalline and lasts the entire book long. You always “hear” the book in the narrative voice rather than your own reading voice.

Whether it’s the sound of Scout reminiscing about her father, Kerouac’s authorial bebop riffing, Melville’s stentorian madness, or Chandler’s hardboiled patter, we are immersed in VOICE. The book becomes like a sounding bell and often, even years later, when we pick up the book we’re amazed to find that the VOICE has not changed very much.

So, for the rest of the week we’ll look at the part TONE will play in our grand equation. And then we’ll look at the bigger picture and see how to make our book’s overall TONE play like a melody, ebbing and flowing, through the book until it becomes almost a physical thing that we can touch and hold.

(Another resource on Tone.)

Madeleine L'Engle Interview

Madeleine L'Engle expounds a bit in the wake of her Wrinkle in Time miniseries. Not an interview that will get her booked onto Focus on the Family.

Lisa Samson on the State of Christian Fiction

On her "everything but fiction" blog, Lisa Samson talks fiction. And we're the better for it. She's got a post on some other factors influencing the substandard state of CBA fiction. Warning: she uses the word "hiney" at one point. Which ends up being one of the weird words I've heard, but have rarely seen written. Is that the official spelling?

Anyway, my official response is that I very much agree with what she says. Many of her feelings can be found echoed in posts throughout this site. But. But, the only factor we can FULLY control is our own writing. And so the harsher and more demanding I can be on you (and myself), the better. So we'll continue to ask a lot of each other (and of Lisa, too!) and see where it takes us.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Another Piece of Advice for HtBPWs

Since I'm in the advice giving mode and since it's Friday and, as happens every week, I'm nearly comotose as I sit here looking at what may be the first of seven consecutive days of rain, I'd like to recommend that you study the art of the pitch-statement.

It's corny and trite and it goes against everything we feel as artists, but it's actually close to imperative that you can boil your story down to--take a breath here--one compelling sentence. Thirty words, at most.

Sound horrible? To be frank, there's no point really in arguing. It needs to be done and the person to do so is you. Marketing folks may not get the scope of the book. Editorial folks may miss your unique hook. You know both, so squeeze them down into thirty words. Or less.

It's a skill, not an art. You can develop it but you may need to practice. It's not actually the worst idea to come up with three or four that take different approaches. You can use different pitch statements for different audiences.

As an incentive to practice, let's run a little contest. Winner gets a free F*I*F book--say, Ann Tatlock's All the Way Home.

Write up a UNIQUE pitchline for either the book To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, or A Christmas Carol. Submit them over the next week (two maximum per writer) and I'll select a winner. (Caveat: I'll need at least ten submissions for the contest to make sense.)

Happy Weekend.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

A Piece of Advice for All HtBPWs (Hopeful to Be Published Writers)

My apologies for yesterday. Sometimes I’m just going to come up firing blanks and when that happens, well, I turn to the “Your mamma” jokes. Thank you for not taking it personally. I know none of your mothers but I assume they are/were all very handsome women.

Today, I want to take the blog back on topic by returning to the actual topic of writing. Next week, I’d like to do another nuts & blots study of the actual craft. I think I want to look at “tone.” If you’d asked me a few months ago if I could ever talk for five days about tone, I’d have said you’re crazy but after the whole 7 day POV-extravaganza I just want to give myself some time.

So, next week will be tone.

Today I want to encourage you all—after not seeing enough of this at the writers conference—to learn your market. One of the questions I asked most of the author hopefuls with whom I spoke was “What are some competing books in the market?”

The most common response was, “I don’t know.” Or, “I don’t think there’s anything like it out there.”

“I don’t know” is honest, but not real helpful. One of the roles you’re going to have to play as author is “promotions/marketing.” That may sound backwards or surprising but it’s true. Publishing houses have only so much time and a very limited window during which they can promote your book. After that, much of the hard work will fall on you. One of the things you’ll need to know in that promotion is where your book falls in the market.

“I don’t think there’s anything like it out there” may also be honest, but if it’s true, more likely than not, your book doesn’t have a place in the market. Yes, your book is unique but it needs some parallels or both sales people and bookstores won’t have a clue on what to do with it.

So do some homework. Read reviews on Amazon and place your book in the context within four or five other novels. And honestly it would help if those other four or five novels were at least mildly successful. But please, pick novels that actually fit your book. Just because you like and were uninspired by Lori Wick, doesn’t mean your book links with hers. And, honestly, don’t even bring up Left Behind. Unless you’re actually writing apocalyptic evangelical fiction, don’t say the words. (And please, just take it a step further and don’t write apocalyptic evangelical fiction. I mean, why bother, we haven’t even buried the first 12 books yet.)

So that’s my post with my marketing cap on. Know your market. This is something you don't need to know when you start your book, but you should have a pretty good idea of it when you're halfway through. You don’t need to write to your market, precisely, but you do need to understand which readers will come to you. If you can discuss those things clearly and rationally with an editor, I promise it will go much better for you.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

What Happens If a Post Has Nothing to Do With Writing?

You’ve guessed the secret, I’m sure, that each day after saying something general and provoking, I’ll come back, turn the finger back on myself, make my own personal confession, and then move on. You’re smart cookies, each and every one of you. You see the gestalt forming, know the pattern as it emerges rather than after.

Here’s the problem with thinking deeper and reading deeper—in the life of the Christian it’s only half the equation. Or less even. We’re called to fully experience Jesus himself. Let His perfect nature transform our wounded, shattered one.

You know Lewis’s Meditation in a Tool Shed, right? Lewis enters a tool shed. A beam of light is coming through a dirty window and lands at his feet. Standing outside of it, he can study the beam of light itself and how dust dances through it. He can study how it illuminates everything in the tool shed. Or he can step forward, stare into the light and just “experience” it. No tool shed now. No dust. Just the blinding sun. There’s a balance we need to strike between studying God and trying to experience Him. For years I’ve been decent at the former and foolish at the latter. There is still so much distance I need to close and I don’t know if Albert Borgmann will get me there.

As with everything, it’s a path we all need to walk. Bless one another as we go on our way. And now our closing thought for the day:

Your mamma is so ugly, when she was born, the hospital put her in an incubator with tinted windows.

Please reflect.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Self-Flagellation Part II: We're Not So Bright Either

Yesterday, I tried my hardest to start a bit of discussion by saying that great novels emerge only out of years of work. I didn’t give much explanation, just said it.

You all did a lot of heavy lifting and brought up issues both of first importance and even tangential importance to the topic at hand. Know this: I’m not claiming any sort of high-ground here. Both my novels took about 12 months to write. Last time I checked, 12 months wasn’t years.

Here’s the hard part. Were they publishable at 12 months? Yes. I think so. Could they have been better after 24 or 36 months? Absolutely. I have no doubt. Would they have become works of genius after that time? A.) I don’t necessarily think that it’s the author’s place to think of his works in that way. B.) Doubtful, but who knows. God could have inspired me in that hard work to some substantial thoughts.

In the end, though, I didn’t do the work. I was content with “good enough,” happy with the advance check, and clearly didn’t relish the thought of lingering over word and phrase and paragraph for another 12 months. It was the easy way out. I don’t lay awake at night thinking about it, but neither am I all that proud. What I wrote, I completed as an act of worship to God, but I passed on the hardest work and, in some ways, that seems to cancel out the whole thing. A zero sum game.

Listen, I don’t have an answer for you in how long it should take you to write a book. But I don’t want us to give ourselves an automatic exit ramp in saying, “It’s just popular fiction” or “I’m just trying to write entertainment” or “I’m obviously not a genius.” You will make your choices just as I did. And we will continue to tempt “good enough” books with advances. But I wonder if any of us dare to see what actually sits in that place past good enough. When you’ve done pretty much what you can as a writer and you start to rely on inspiration—holy, we hope—to take it a notch further.

And that leads me to my thought for today.

Our books are shallow. Our themes are thin and don’t reflect the depth and complexity of the spiritual life. Nor do they reflect the AGES of classic thought that’s come before. We (myself included) are an arm’s length from some of the greatest thinking/Christian philosophers in history and yet we don’t make the time. If half of the battle is spending time over each word, the other half is a call to a deeper study of what it means to live as a Christian.

Deborah in The Master’s Artist makes a similar point today. Feel free to tackle her post.

New Link - Theology and Literature

Ryan McDermott, who from his blogger profile looks to be a rather hirsute fellow, has started a blog called Theology and Literature. I want to encourage him in it and encourage you to visit. I especially liked this post.

It's something we'll get into fully in Asher Lev.

Book Discussion for the week of June 21

Okay, I'm giving advanced warning on this. Given our discussion of genius and artistic obsession in the face of faith and religion we need to take a look at My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.

This book, I continue to say, should be required reading for any Christian before they even put a single word to paper.

It's an emminently available book. You'll find it in your libraries. You'll find it used nearly everywhere. There are also nice trade paperback versions if you want a bookshelf-worthy copy.

Anyway, let's make this our first true "book discussion." I'm giving plenty of advanced warning and our mythic discussion board should be up by then giving us a better avenue to chat.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Self-Flagellation Part I: We're Not Very Good Writers

I’m back in the office. And this time I’m staying. Thank goodness.

The last time I was at the YMCA in Estes Park I was near hypothermic after some very bad decisions involving a long hike to a frozen waterfall, lots of cotton clothing, and a 60 inch snow base. This time still brought snow but far less shivering. I got to meet some very cool people in the industry, chatted with a lot of very nice writers-in-waiting, and was allowed to spout off for two hours about emerging fiction and the importance of reading. To all who stop by from the conference, welcome! And join the fray should something catch your interest.

Today I’m going to talk briefly about something that’s been worrying me over the last few weeks. It came to a head in Grand Rapids when Donna Kehoe asked how I thought this site was doing. I said I thought it was going great, that real community was being formed. Both of these things I think are wonderful and don’t concern me in the least.

What concerns me—and troubled me after my talk on Friday about emerging fiction—is the general level of consensus I’m getting. Even at a “CBA” event like the CCWC, I still had about 90% of people in agreement with me. I knew there’d be some, but when it’s so overwhelming, but gut says there may be something wrong.

And what may be wrong is that I’m not thinking things through enough. I’m not going to provoke controversy without cause, but I think there’s room for further debate. You all are doing well with the topics that have been presented so far, and so I’d like to keep that going.

And so, I’d like to start with this:

Great novels take YEARS to write. Until writers start living and dying with every word, we’re just playing at writing. We’ll get by on talent but won’t make the leap to genius.

It’s good to be back.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Selling Your Soul to Random House

I don't have much time nor much thought for today's post, but I'll keep it on the theme of selling out by talking about what happens when you look at publishing for ABA.

The biggest fear, I think, of Christian authors is that ABA publishers would require them to neuter their spiritual message. I've heard from CBA authors who've written for the ABA and said that was true so I can't doubt them. But then I look at some of the amazing books of faith-filled literature and wonder how those got through.

I think the answer may lie in the actual spiritual content of the book. One of the most problematic things is to make issues of faith instrinsic to a story. Too often, they seem either added on or puffed up because the writer was self-aware during their writing. "This is my Christian section." And that stands out. And I think that's what gets chopped down, too.

I could be very wrong. There are probably solid marketing reasons for not wanting too didactic a spiritual message in a story. But again, if it can be removed, then it doesn't seem like the story was crafted right in the first place. It seems to me when faced with a book, a publishing house should have very little choice but to judge it on its merits. We like this story enough to go with the Christian content or we don't. Anything else and it seems like there are other issues at hand.

I'm gone Thursday and Friday to Colorado. If I can post, I will. Otherwise, take care. If you've emailed me recently, I won't get to you until I get back. I'm no ignoring you though.

Two New Links

The Master's Artist - Hosted by some voices who are regulars here, it's a new site but looks to have some solid posts already.

Lisa Samson- Not her author site, which promotes books by my competitors, but her blog on which she talks about life and mostly non-authorial things. Lisa is one of the standard-bearers for top-notch CBA fiction at the moment and a voice you should know. (And you can find her books pretty easily off her blog should you so desire. Not that I condone that sort of thing.)

These are both on the official link list to your right.

Birds Do It, Bees Do It

Joe at Word Foundry got his freak on and decided to talk about, well, we're all adults here, "literary nookie." As in, how does one go about writing a sex scene if one is trying to be realistic without being overly graphic.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Next Frontier In Selling-Out

I don't have a lot to say today. Instead, I'll bring up a timely issue—product placement. What with Major League Baseball annoying half of America by threatening to put Spider Man logos on the bases, it seems as though there's not many spaces that ads won't reach.

(Actually, I just noticed that our INTRANET page, which usually has a list of noteworthy newstories, today has an ad. I think that may just be an error.)

Anyway, it's odd that ads haven't filled the pages of books yet. It has happened. (See here and here.) But in general, it's been either below the radar or behind the scenes. And frankly, I'm not quite sure why. If you're a pulp novelist with decent sales and no literary pretensions, why don't you have your agent go to companies with fair proposals? It's not like we're not innundated in TV and movies? I mean, Cast Away is basically one big FedEx commercial. Italian Job did nicely for Cooper Minis. And ET was supposed to eat M&M's before Reeses bought his little glowing heart with a pile of cold cash.

Publishers Weekly has actually made mention of product placement issues in Christian books, particularly those with notable non-fiction authors, hammering T.D. Jakes' Cover Girls and the Kingsbury/Smalley novel Redemption. But those are more of cross-promotion than ad selling.

Either way, it's not the most wonderful of issues. I think it'll come up more and more. Maybe my next hero will just happen to use the New Revised Standard Bible as he happens to turn to a life-altering passage just when he needs it. Or maybe a scene with a neighbor converted by Testamints is just the key. I've got two kids who eventually need to go to college. Someone's going to have to foot the bill.

I have a feeling this could get nutty in the comment section, and while I welcome all your jokes and nonsense, let's also try to spend a little time focusing in on the actual ramifications of this in the midst of your "Why look at all those empty Levi's. We must have been Left Behind. Thankfully we have great jeans while we're here"-jokes.

Wonderful Article on Lower East Side library and its history

The NYTimes, which requires free registration to access the last week's articles, had this article on some old library reports found at the 95-year-old Seward Library and how they proved to be a fascinating glimpse through the decades both at the neighborhood and the people who came into the library. I'm a library-junkie so this was brilliant for me. (Thanks to Adventures in Bookselling for the link.)

BTW: I highly recommend registering for the NYTimes online. They're the premier newspaper for book talk and more than likely, I'll have more links from them. Also, you'll now be able to look at the Sunday Book Review, which is still one of the most potent forces in the greater book industry.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Sell Out With Me, Oh Yeah. Sell Out, With Me Tonight

There’s some good discourse going in the comments’ page from last Friday’s post and I will again take five seconds to lament the lack of a board yet. I promise it’s coming. (Yeah, so is Christmas!) Along about ninety other things to make this a fully-interactive, sharing and caring Christian writing community ruled with an iron-fist by your cold-hearted Dictator Dave.

Anyway, rather than respond in the comments, I thought I’d continue the conversation up here and pose the question: “What would it take for you to sell out?” It’s a question I recently had to ask myself—and no, not in reference to the Purpose-Driven Life novelizations. Darn Zondervan people haven’t taken me up on the offer yet.

I know some of you think of “selling out” as the worst of possible sins. I don’t think I’m quite so deeply entrenched in my idealism. I guess it’s how we look at things.

Personally, I don’t see the “creative process” to be quite so pure and untainted. I also don’t see it, in my life, as being solely owned by me. From nearly the first, it’s a collaborative and interactive process. I don’t see my writing as existing in a vacuum. Instead, I see it as a response. One of the wonderful ways of looking at the world of publishing is to think of it in terms of conversation. To take works through the eras that tackle a single thematic idea and trace of thread of thought and interplay as authors speak through the generations.

At the same time, because I view my writing as part of a long-standing tradition of communication, I want my words to be read. I want an audience. And that’s where things start getting tricky, because an audience brings money and money is, we all know, the root of all Rumsfeld…, I mean, evil. And if there’s a thing that’ll get people’s hackles up it’s compromising the creative spirit for money.

Where’s the line?

Your work, unless you self-publish, is not your own. It will be a collaborative effort. And the slope of give and take becomes slippery quickly.

“This sentence may trip people up. Let’s change it.” Okay, sure.

“This section bogs down. Readers will get bored.” Oh, umm, well, I guess.

“We think your chapter here is just a bit too graphic. You’ll scare people off.” Do you listen to this advice?

“You know, adding a female voice here might give it broader appeal.” Broader appeal! That’s slang for big sales and more money!

The same suggestions might come without a contract. I may even make these suggestions to give you the best opportunity for your work to be published by us.

There’s two important points here.

It’s your work. In the end, it’s your call. The best editors (and I’m not saying I’m one of them) will help you make productive compromises to your work that do not compromise the integrity of your vision for the piece.

It’s our publishing house. There are about 50,001 factors that go into accepting a book for publication including, for BHP, about 25 years of history, brand equity, P&L predictions, blah, blah, blah. We may ask you to compromise beyond the point with which you are comfortable. If that’s the case, then we’re not the publisher for you. We need to publish books in which our authors’ vision and our vision at least come close to coinciding.

The thing you need to know is that we can’t change our vision to match every authors’. But you should never feel like a sell out, in any publishing venture. But at the same time, neither should you consider the slightest compromise or change in your manuscript to be a sell-out of your principles. The balance, it appears, looks to be razor thin.

This is a cluttered week and I’ll be in Colorado toward the end of it. Hopefully I’ll be able to post from there. Otherwise, keep talking through things.

Where is your “sell out” point? Would you give your novel a happy ending for a $50,000 advance? Would you, as Vinita Hampton Wright talked about doing in one of her novels, add a female voice to balance a book and give it wider appeal? Would you admit, as Leif Enger did, that his primary audience for Peace Like a River were his two boys and his wife. His boys just wanted the book to be exciting and his wife just wanted it to make money. He thought those were as good as directions as any.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Stuck in a Rut

Please know this: as a Reader I have nothing against genre fiction. My genre of preference is mystery/suspense with horror and thrillers coming in next. I don’t read straight romance novels, nor Clavellian or Michenerian tomes, nor too many westerns. I pick up the occasional fantasy novel but don’t do science-fiction except for the brilliant Hitchhiker saga.

As a Writer, I would not be happy writing genre fiction. But that’s in no way meant to cast aspersions or judgment on those who do. What worries me more than staying in a genre is the full reliance or submission to a formula.

There is a publisher out there (who’ll go nameless) with what amount to formulas for their submission guidelines. Romances have to have (Stud + Beauty Queen x righteousness – nakedness) = Perfect Submission. It’s a policy that seems to work for them. It’s a policy that may be more strict for first time submissions, rather than for accomplished authors in-house. But it’s a policy which fundamentally treats writing in a way I have no interest seeing it treated.

I’ll look at genre pieces. We need genre fiction in-house. My passion though is for a storyteller with a tale to tell that doesn’t add up simply or won’t fit neatly into a formula. That’s when I’m surprised and challenged as a reader. These stories typically sell about as well as Jayson Blair’s memoirs, but they’re fiction that lasts—because it’s fresh and original.

That’s a simple thought for Friday. I wish you all the best in your writing. Come back Monday. I have no idea what we’ll be talking about.

Writing/Critique Groups

For all who have expressed interest so far:

Fear not, I haven't forgotten this idea. In fact, I'm making covert plans as we speak. I just won't get around to moving forward on things until after May 16. So you'll hear more about it then.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun: Two, Two, Two Genres in One

Let’s talk today about writing in two genres at the same time. You know, Historical Romance. Romantic Comedy. Peruvian Yak Herding Mysteries. Those sorts of thing.

On one hand, the writer, if she’s good can double her prospective audience by appealing to say both Peruvian Yak Herders and Mystery fans at the same time. On the other hand, she’s bound by most of the conventions of Peruvian Yak Herder stories and Mysteries and that may become restrictive at some level. (Usually, though, you don’t just “happen” to write cross-genre stories. Normally your idea makes sense for both genres and you’re not just forcing it in.)

Moving away from Peru and Yak Herders, let’s talk about actual books that seem to cross genres. Like always, these are titles that come to mind off the top-of-my-head and meant are simply to be a representative portion of what’s available rather than comprehensive.

American Gods - Joe at Word Foundry just finished this and brought it back to my mind. Here’s his review. Gaiman is a fascinating person in the publishing industry right now, juggling novels, children’s books, picture books, graphic novels, and even monthly comics. He’s Midas, and deserves every ounce of credit and praise because he’s just immensely talented. American Gods brought him his acclaim as a “serious” author as it transcends his more standard “fantasy” stories. Basically it blends myth/fantasy with a hard-boiled detective story. Only all the suspects and red herrings are gods—either new gods like “technology” and “fame” or old gods brought over by immigrants, who are dying as they are increasingly ignored or forgotten. This won’t ever see a CBA bookshelf, but it’s a super story at most every level. Another in this genre, oddly enough, is Gun, With Occasional Music (I love that title) by Jonathan Lethem, which features an rage-filled kangaroo. Don’t ask, just read.

Gain - This doesn’t really count, because it’s actually two stories, but Richard Powers gives us both wrenching family drama and clinical history as he examines generations-long rise of a chemical plant out East and the havoc it wreaks in one modern family’s life when a employee is diagnosed with cancer because of working at the plant. Splitting stories like this, is an “easier” way to blend genres as each is kept distinct and only the story threads are allowed to merge.

Moby Dick - This blends a whaling instruction manual with a revenge saga. A beloved book of mine.

Crime and Punishment - Write an 800 page book and you’re allowed to throw a few genres in. On the surface this is a murder-mystery (the detective being the eventual inspiration for Columbo). Beneath it’s an existentialist drama about one man’s tortured mind.

Every CBA Novel Ever - Yep, that’s right. See CBA is just another adjective prefixed to the description of the book. We have CBA romances. CBA westerns. CBA thrillers. Even CBA non-genre books, which as I said yesterday is a genre in and of itself.

I think that’s where some problems arise. As I mentioned, it’s sometimes hard to be bound too many rules. Or what happens when rules contradict each other. Romance novels, typically, call for disrobing and lotions and, well, let’s be adults here, “nookie.” Thrillers often lead to blood. I’ve been told flat out that CBA horror is a contradiction so complete that such an entity can’t exist. And to be frank, I’m not sure that’s wrong.

That’s why it’s so imperative to try and unburden ourselves of the CBA tag. It’s simply too restrictive. “Christian” fiction, defined broadly, is much easier to work with. Writing is hard enough without jumping through hoops that don’t necessarily even need to be there. Where and when, we need to rid ourselves of those hoops and write to both our and our story’s strengths rather than some pre-fab template for acceptable content.

Go and do likewise.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Rant-Free Wednesday: And the Genre of Non-Genre Books

As it is the Fifth of May, I’ll join my brothers and sisters in hot countries across the globe in doing my part to groove only with good tidings and mellow feelings today. Thus, no rants.

Instead, let’s talk about non-genre books.

First off, there’s no such thing. Like non-denominational churches, the fact that we use the word “non” in the title doesn’t negate the point that the book (or church) is going to fall into a particular group or category. Nobody is writing something so distinctly new out there. While it may not match at the species level it will at least find compatible partners in genus, order, or class level, if you allow a Linnaean metaphor.

So what links these books? Well, these are often called “literary” or “character-driven” books. So it must be the characters. I dissent. Instead, I defer to one of the core principles of all storytelling. It was spoken as gospel by my favorite creative writing professors (“Charles” and “Gavin” from a few days ago) and was reaffirmed by the cute MFA student who taught my introduction to acting class. Good storytelling is all about conflict. Or dramatic tension. Or “stakes.” Or whatever term you learned.

At the heart of every book there is something unresolved. It may be physically manifested as in a murder story where we need to discover the killer’s identity. It may be the discovery of love in romance novels. It may be the fulfillment of a quest as found in so many fantasy stories. But there has to be something. And the more you can get your readers to feel the need to discover that missing piece, quell that restlessness, or answer that lack of resolution—the more deeply they’ll follow your story.

“Character-driven” books or family dramas often internalize that tension within one of the characters. Whether it’s Richard Russo’s scamp father’s learning to truly love or Godric coming clean of his sins, we are drawn through the story as much by the lives of the characters as we are by the external events surrounding them. Just a warning, very few books pull off only internal stories. Typically there is a simultaneous “active” tension that goes along with the internal ones. The two often are inextricable from each other. Look at Chabon’s Wonder Boys or The Passion of Reverend Nash as examples.

When all is send and done, the duality of these books tends to defy easy explanation because their “active” tensions are usually mild compared with genre page-turners while their “internal” tensions are sometimes hard to put into words. “What’s it about?” “Oh, an autistic boy solving the murder of a dog*.” “Boy, sounds exciting.” “Well, that’s just part of it. It’s also about him breaking through the walls of his own consciousness.” “Yeah, sounds great.”

But they are great, very often. And “non-genre” book actually make up a huge portion of literature being published today. People read them. Oprah picks them. Marketing people hate them. And I want to see more of them in CBA, because they lend themselves much better to full examination of faith and spiritual issues than some genre books. So get crackin’.

And now I’m done. A whole post and not a single rant. I can’t promise how long it’ll continue.

* Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

CBA Stands for “Can’t Bristle Anyone”

Yesterday, I posited the question: If CBA Fiction is a genre and genres are distinguished from each other by focusing on an aspect of the writing process, then what aspect does CBA Fiction focus on.

At the time, I assumed my answer would be very simple: message. CBA Fiction is message-driven fiction. In the comments, you’ll discover at least one other person who agrees with that. In 24 hours, my tune has changed just slightly. I’ve gone from a major to minor key. I think message is dead important, but I think the name itself reveals the most important aspect to the genre. In my mind, CBA Fiction is audience driven fiction.

If mystery is a pure distillation of novel as plot, then CBA Fiction is a pure distillation of novel as product. We’re literally naming our customer base in the name of our genre. It’s just insane.

Why the customer more than the message? Because even the message—Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Hallelujah—isn’t enough if told in the “wrong” way. Want proof? Well…take a look around. This is proof. I’m here because message isn’t enough. If message was enough, then “not Christian enough” wouldn’t exist. Instead, it has to be the “right” message, as determined by our buying audience.

Pick an angry verb, and that’s what this whole set-up does it me. It chaps me. It irritates me. Etc. And yet, at the end of the day, who puts food on my table? Who’s going to help me afford my daughter’s upcoming surgery? Darn it, who gives me the quarters and nickels I collect to buy wine…an action that, if it occurs to often in our stories, but cause the nickels and quarters to stop coming. There’s a bitter irony in here that I spend half my waking life trying not to think about.

Do you know what will make that bitter irony disappear and stop the chapping? Seeing the industry move beyond “CBA.” That’s the only thing. And, as I’ve said before, it’s headed in the right direction. So that helps me sleep at night. Well, that and the pillow-top queen mattress bought and paid for through blood money earned in the heart of the CBA industry. What a weird life.

Monday, May 03, 2004

“Genre”—French for “Has Its Own Section at Barnes and Noble”

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but it seems a decent enough topic on a day when I have, literally, only one thought in my head and that thought (“Why is my office so hot?”) isn’t helping me pen this entry. So if you’ve read this before, fear not, I’m just plagiarizing myself.

Anyway, my take on genres is that they emerged, like finch beaks on birds in the Galapagos, through a Darwinian vise that focuses on aspects of writing.

Take any book and reduce it to its core components. You have plot, characters, their dialogue, the story’s setting, and the overall construction of the book. Genres pick one of those aspects and focuses on it—not necessarily to the exclusion of the others but certainly to their submission.

Here’s some further explication.

Fantasy, I think it’s fair to see, is setting-focused. If you think of the most memorable fantasy and sci-fi sagas in the world, you mostly think of their setting. Narnia is the perfect example. Or Middle Earth. There’s Discworld, from Terry Pratchett. Even the Wachowski’s Matrix fits that bill. This is fiction for empire builders—the true demi-gods among us who want, not only to tell stories, but to create new worlds.

Romance is character driven. XX and XY must realize the gaping holes in their hearts and XXXY all over the place until those gaping holes are filled.

Horror is focused on, of all things, construction. When you hear about ghost stories, you hear about mood. Mood, in stories, is partly vocabulary but it’s words passed through a vicious alchemy of pacing that knows just when to…to…to…JUMP! out at you.

Comic novels also need pacing, but they rely on the strength of individual scenes.

You’d think westerns would also be setting driven, and I guess that’s true at some level, but I think they’re also character and dialogue driven. There just seems to be “standard” patois needed and an iconic group of characters. I just don’t read many westerns, so I could be completely off here.

Any finally there’s the mystery. The mystery is plot-driven. It’s writing (hard)boiled down to its purest essence. The mystery is the plot and vice versa. At its most basic, all writing is “mystery.” What will come next? Will XX XXXY XY? Will Aslan bleed out? Will that thing that JUMPED out at him ever die? Only mysteries, though, are content to let plot be everything.

Okay, so that’s a gross simplification of genres but I think it gives us some fodder to play around with for the next few days. Where do our books fit into this scheme? What about those, supposedly, “plotless” literary books A Reader’s Manifesto demolishes? And what about CBA fiction? If CBA fiction is a genre (it is, I say so right here) than what’s its focus? I welcome your thoughts. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.