f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Guest Speaker: Day 1 of Heaven Lake

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

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Guest Speaker: Day 1 of Heaven Lake

Every now and then I want and need to get some other voices in this space. Today Alan Oathout, a reader and aspiring writer, begins a two-part look at a recent novel: Heaven Lake by John Dalton. He'll be back tomorrow for Part II.

Heaven Lake: Three Lessons and a Peeve

Heaven Lake tells the story of Vincent, a young man from Illinois embarking on a new Christian mission in Taiwan. His efforts to start a ministry house throw him into contact with a colorful cast of characters and present challenges to his faith, both expected and unexpected. When the stress of loneliness leads him into temptation, he chooses to leave Taiwan, accepting the offer of a wealthy Taiwanese businessman to travel across China and become the surrogate husband of a beautiful woman. Due to the red tape of international law, it is easier for Vincent to marry a Chinese, bring her back to Taiwan, and divorce her so she can marry the businessman than it would be for the Taiwanese man to apply for marriage directly. But, things never go as planned…..

John Dalton’s debut novel has a lot to recommend it, apart from any connection with faith issues. Tomorrow we’ll address the book from the specific viewpoint of Christian writers. For today, let’s look at three important lessons this book contains for fiction writers in general.

1. The one common thread among various reviews of Heaven Lake is an acknowledgement of Dalton’s way with words. His sentences flow effortlessly, with a rhythm and grace that never calls attention to itself, never distracts from the story. Quite the opposite. How many times have you found yourself jolted—momentarily pulled out of the story—when authors (or their editors) leave “clunky” prose in a finished novel? Fixating on a certain word, for instance, and using it repeatedly—even in close proximity. Inappropriate metaphors. Stilted dialog, where characters speak in English so grammatically precise it would put the Queen to shame. (some characters may need to speak that way to remain true to themselves. But not many) Or settling for a serviceable word, when a more vibrant one with the perfect nuance should have been substituted in the revision process. As one early entry in this blog suggested: taking the time to say things right, rather than just getting them said. I don’t know how many years it took Dalton and his editors to be satisfied with Heaven Lake, but I do know they took all the time they needed. And if you’re looking for good study material in the art of the sentence, this would be a recommended place to start.

2. Heaven Lake also deserves praise for including enough factual detail to enhance the story’s credibility without bogging the narrative in swamps of information. Now, I confess: I’m a detail junkie, with an enormous tolerance for chunks of information that turn other novel readers off cold. In a lifetime of wide-ranging reading interests, I can only once remember reaching the saturation point: some 125 pages into The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo launches into what surely must be the driest chapter in all of literature—twenty-four dense pages on the history and architecture of 15th century Paris guaranteed to reduce your pulse to unreadable levels. So I may not be the best judge of information overload. But I do think Dalton does such a masterful job of weaving in evocative details that by the time you turn the last page, you’ve absorbed a wealth of detail on Taiwan and China: cities, geography, courtship rituals, language, travel, psychology, poverty, and more. And never at the expense of the compelling story line.

3. Which brings us to the third lesson: It is a compelling story. In another of the early FIF entries, Dave wrote: “Why can’t we have both good writing and good stories?” Heaven Lake proves that you can have well-crafted literature and a page-turner sandwiched between the same covers. Dalton is one of those writers who could probably survive on his mastery of language alone. But he resists using words for their own sake, instead crafting Heaven Lake in such a way that the reader really wants to know: "What’s going to happen next?” As someone once said, break any rule you want, but never bore the reader. If your call is to write literary fiction with depth and realism, study the way Dalton achieves that while still maintaining pace, holding reader interest, and introducing plot twists along the way. If your goal is quality commercial fiction, consider Dalton’s ability to weave a memorable tale without sacrificing word choice and character development. Writers in both camps can find plenty here to emulate in their own work.

Now the peeve: Like many readers attracted to this blog, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I like most ABA fiction better than most CBA fiction. The reasons are myriad and sometimes complicated to analyze; many have been discussed already on these blog pages. Heaven Lake reminded me of one reason why, in comparison, a lot of CBA fiction feels so….well, juvenile to me. And since Dave was kind enough to let me have the floor for a bit, I’d like to mention it: Average Words Per Sentence.

Books for young people use shorter, less involved sentences—the younger the target age, the shorter the sentences. That stands to reason. Younger readers need information packaged at a level their developing brains can grasp. As we grow and mature, we become capable of processing more complex material, and can cope with longer sentences. Eventually, we reach the level where (In the words of Dr. Kristi Siegel of Mount Mary College) prose made up of too many shorter sentences feels “choppy, childish, or like a bad imitation of Hemingway.” When I first began learning about sentence length, I did a very un-scientific survey of my own, just picking up books from my shelf or the local libraries and calculating AWPS (I used a sample of fifty sentences from random parts of each book, counted the words in each, and divided by fifty).

Guess what? ABA novels typically fell in the 12-15 wps range. Comparable CBA novels contained around 10 wps or less. One of my least favorite CBA novels (The past winner of a Christy award, no less) fell to a woeful 7.19. But not all CBA material aims so low. Ezekiel’s Shadow, by a certain David Ryan Long, came in at a very ABA-respectable 12.47. Heaven Lake registered at 16.38, thanks in part to a monstrous, semi-coloned sentence of 102 words that slipped into the random sample.

No, I don’t get overly hung up on the numbers. Nor do I believe AWPS is by any means the only measure of a novel. But for me, the exercise helped clarify one reason why so many folks perceive the standard CBA novel as fluff. Many of these books—even hyped, award-winning ones—are written at a level appropriate to adolescents. And when adults accustomed to ABA fiction are handed a CBA novel, they may not be able to put it into words, but the difference will be apparent.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the spiritual side of Heaven Lake. Unfortunately, it’s at that point where the novel becomes an object lesson in what not to do.

Thanks, Alan. Nicely done. Sentence length is actually a thread I want to pick up again shortly in looking at complexity in construction and language in our writing.

For all those reading, if you're interested in posting a response to a F*i*F novel you've read lately, like Alan's done, let me know. Come back tomorrow for part two on Heaven Lake.