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

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.

Friday, April 30, 2004

Once More With Feeling: Where Do We Go From Here?

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer shout-out to start today’s post. For those of you who’ve never seen a television drama attempt a musical episode, if you can track down the show above, it’s worth a viewing.

Anyway, the question posed is: where do we go from here? This is Day 4 in our discussion of reading and I’d like to up the ante a little. It’s not enough to just blather on about it. We need to be reading each others’ work.

See, here’s the thing. I am a writer and I know, from many workshop experiences, that the most exciting day is the time when your own work is discussed. We live for that feedback. Writing is our true passion and we want to always be moving forward with it. Still, I think we need to see the imperative need for readers…and we need to fill that role.

So, why I’m trying to figure out is how people are going to do that in their own lives. Are most of you currently involved in writers groups elsewhere? It may not seem like it through comments but readership of this journal continues to increase daily. I don’t know if a larger, more efficient system of communication would increase interaction.

What I’m most interested in: Are you, as writers, interested in establishing a small critique group linked to this site? For that, you’d have to be willing to play the part of readers too, but it’d be a place where writers who share the same vision for the future of Christian fiction would engage each other, not philosophically as we are doing now, but with each others’ actual words.

I’ll be honest: that’s my vision for this site. I’m excited about the possibility of creating a place that provides encouragement and practical help for writers. I’m excited about seeing an idea workshopped for a few months and polished into a story we’d consider for publication. That’s not going to just happen overnight though. I need to know if you all are interested or if your creative commitments lie elsewhere. Feel free to chime in through comments or to me directly.

And have a good weekend!

Thursday, April 29, 2004

(in Willy Nelson or Julio Iglesias voice) To All the Readers I've Loved Before

I took five “creative writing: fiction” courses at Penn State. I had five different instructors. Today I thought I’d talk a little about my experiences as a novice writer and the things I liked/disliked about those classes. None of the five classes was remotely similar so we can examine each as a type and talk about the human side of reading/writing. All names, except mine, are changed to protect the innocent.

Instructor 1 – “Fiona”: I took this class, Introduction to Fiction Writing, my second semester. I’d guess the class had about 20 students. We each wrote and workshopped 2 short stories. Cleaning out the attic the other week, I came across one of the stories I wrote for this class. Painful, painful reading. I just shake my head.

Fiona was one of those nebulous “adjunct” or “associate” professors who help fill in the freshman/sophomore level classes at big schools. To be honest, what I remember most about her is that my stories would smell of patchouli when she handed them back. Overall, I’d say she played the part of advocate. We were 18/19 years old and pouring our souls onto the page. She did her best to help us see the quiet moments of honesty in the midst of our (my) pretentiousness, pointed out our major construction problems, and generally encouraged us to keep expressing ourselves. Pretty much what a non-tenured, introductory fiction instructor should do. I guess.

My classmates were less kind. And rightly so. I got hammered in that class like never before, mostly for a medieval gothic story involving a Humpty-Dumptyish boy and an insane chef. (the horror, the horror). It was the awakening my writing needed and from that wondrous instant I, a burgeoning artist soul alight, cast off the shackles of self-importance and devoted myself in staid humility to a writing void of affectation and artifice. It’s worked out well.

BTW: this was also the class I learned that it’s not “for all intensive purposes” but rather “for all intents and purposes.”

Instructor 2 – “Charles”: Junior year, fall semester. Advance Fiction Writing. 15-18 students. Again, 2 short stories.

Charles was the guy who broke through to me. A graduate of the Iowa workshop, he and I just had similar visions for what short fiction should do. I loved attending the class and I still remember a number of things he told us.

One thing was that we should stop trying to recreate scenes from our life in our stories. Rather we should try to take the emotion from the scene—the joy, the sorrow, whatever—and transfer it into a new setting, to fuel a new experience. I liked that. Charles also tried to get us to see that we needed to be writing for our characters—letting them dictate our story rather than control it ourselves. Good, solid instruction.

The interesting thing is that I never read a single thing the guy wrote. He was about as close as I’ve come to a writing mentor and yet I never tracked anything down. Didn’t seem to matter at the time.
One story from this class, “The Art of Packing Boxes” ended up taking the top fiction prize for the university that year. It was about a middle-aged man confronted by the belongings of his deceased estranged father and his sudden awareness of how he’s partitioned off portions of his life. My classmates were bored by it.

Instructor 3 – “Sylvia”: Junior year, spring semester. Honors Fiction writing. 12 students. Two short stories.

Lovely woman was Sylvia, and a talented author. Mediocre teacher at best. In this class, there were four or five other students with impressive talent and I valued their feedback far more than my instructors. I don’t know what the problem was. It always seemed like she found fault with minor issues that were too easily fixed whereas my classmates got to the meat of the story. This goes to show that writing talent does not translate into reading prowess. Overall, a disappointing experience.

At this time of school I was simply steeped in the literary arts. I was an editor for our literary journal and was hosting literary readings at coffee houses. Like I’ve mentioned before it’s always easier to pass your own work through committee when your el Presidente. My best friends typically weren’t part of the literary scene and always taken a bit aback when they attended these things. I soon won them over with my readings of a story whose first scene ends with an ailing basset hound retching all over the porch.

Instructor 4 – “Gavin”: Senior year, spring semester. This class had some fancy name which basically meant it met once a week for three hours straight. 20 students, two short stories.

Gavin published one piece of experimental fiction in his career. I tried to read it, but it was beyond me. He was actually a Ph.D. rather than an M.F.A. though and got by with the department by writing a number of papers and monographs. Gavin was eccentric and either vaguely lycanthropic or vampiric, tearing into your stories with a pen that seemed to drip blood with its red ink. Gavin taught me two things: 1) I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was. and 2) Hard work could make me better.

We all need a Gavin in our writing lives, because to be frank, we’re simply not that good. He was honest and clinical in his assessment of our writing. But, he was treating us as writers. We weren’t students any longer. That felt both empowering and like ice-cold water at the same time. Probably the most important class I took at Penn State, though.

One of my stories, which I’m still tempted to revisit, tries to use the gathering spots of animals (monarch butterflies, spawning frogs) as a metaphor. I’m still not sure for what, though.

Instructor 5 – “Ken”: Senior year. Spring semester. Senior Honors thesis advisor.

This was a debacle on the grandest scale. We had 3 fiction creative writing professors at one time at Penn State. I needed to find a thesis advisor before I signed up for the class. Gavin wouldn’t take me because I hadn’t yet been his student. Charles, who I truly wanted, was on sabbatical. I couldn’t imagine having Sylvia and so I went to the newly hired Ken. Scrambling to find his place and get grounded in the department, he agreed.

The one nice thing about the experience was that I proved to myself that I could do this writing thing on my own. Ken and I just didn’t talk much. And when we did, it was mostly with odd expressions on our faces as though the other person were speaking, say, Swahili. I didn’t get him. He didn’t get me. He left my writing alone (except to suggest a change in title to one of my stories) and the whole package ended up winning the Honors award for creative thesis.

This was the experience that showed me that short fiction probably wasn’t going to cut it. Most stories students turned in were 8-12 pages. The two stories I turned in for my thesis were 25 and 60 pages respectively. And thus was born a novelist.

I think what Ken proves is that, in the end, there are going to be people who just don’t get what you’re doing. They’re not bad people (though I’ve never managed to pick up one of Ken’s books); they’re just missing you. And that’s fine. Just try not to have them be responsible for the culmination of your college career. It’ll go better for you.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Eight Aspects of a Good Reader

Let’s take the Proverbs 31 approach by spelling out the characteristics that make a good reader. Find these traits in a person in your small-group and you should hold on to them dearly. Feel free to chime in with your own suggestions. I’ve ranked these in the order that they are most important to me—your own needs as a writer and a person might require a different order.

1. Honest – This is the core trait and should be first for everybody. As writers, we need to hear the truth about our work. Platitudes and fuzzy feelings will get us and our work nowhere. As readers, we need to respond honestly to whatever is put in front of us. As Americans, we’ve moved so far from honest critique that apparently we need to import people from Britain to be frank with us. Honesty doesn’t equal mean, however.

2. Discerning - “I didn’t like it.” “Really? Why not?” I don’t know.” That’s honest, but not helpful. Discernment in this case is the ability to provide useful feedback that we can use to make our piece better. It’s an informed response that states what was communicated to a writer. As I’ve mentioned before, as writers we only control what we intend to say. How it comes out is interpreted by our readers. Discernment is idiosyncratic though. Three readers may have three different responses. That’s why multiple readers are best. Discernment also implies an understanding of story, if only intuitively. “I didn’t like that part because it was slow. I felt this character wasn’t fleshed out enough.”

3. Well-Read - This discernment needs to come from somewhere, and I think it mainly comes from previous reading. The more books a person reads, the more they have to weigh against. This can be problematic in that their expectations are super-high (these people tend to be overly critical) but at least they have a basis for their feelings. In the same vein, this can be genre specific. You’re most likely to get help for your mystery novel from one who knows the genre well.

4. Tactful - We all need to develop thick skins as writers. That said, readers need to be aware that these words on a page represent much more than just that. As writers, we’re invested in them. Speak the truth in love.

5. Open-Minded - We all have our likes and dislikes as readers. If we’re reading in critique-setting—be it in a writers group or even for a throw-away opinion on Amazon—we need to realize that our not liking something doesn’t mean its bad. The ability to find worth in something that isn’t necessarily our cup-of-tea shows humility. It’s an especially important trait for editors, I think, who often acquire works they might not otherwise read.

6. Thorough - I read fast. That’s a fine and useful trait to have as an editor. It lets me cover a lot of ground quickly when I need to and helps me plow through stacks of work. It’s less helpful in the actual “work” of improving manuscript. For that, slow and steady wins the race.

7. Creative - This probably should be higher. Creativity means taking discernment to the next step. Not just pointing out a chapter isn’t working, but suggesting a fix. “Creative editing” is NOT the same as writing, though. It takes a writers’ understanding of construction and craft, but it’s practiced with humility. Enger’s concerns surface here. As writers, we want things to carry our stamp, our voice. We might give suggestions that aren’t in tune with the spirit of the piece. I’ll say too that this is the part that freaks out a lot of writers when they hand over their manuscripts before publication. I can’t make that process easier for you. I can only suggest that your editors need latitude to be creative. If you fight against that too much, your work will suffer.

8. Encouraging - Finally, a good reader should spur you on. If they like your work, they should demand to read more. If they have problems with your work they should challenge you to improve. A good reader isn’t wearied by the sheer bulk of bad writing. Instead, he sees a future where struggling writers find their voice, learn their craft after years possibly of hard work, and turn in something that makes all their time worth while.
Go to Day 2 of our discussion of being a good reader.

Random: Interesting link and book related to vision impairment

Okay, so this is just random, but I've found this to be a highly interesting blog. It's about becoming a guide dog instructor.

In the same vein, the book Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel is a darkly humorous memoir by a man with retinitis pigmentosa. The hard cover version had an amazing dust jacket with raised letters you could only see in certain light that said, "You better start learning braille now," words spoken to Knipfel as a boy by a not-so-very avuncular uncle.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

This Just In! Leif Enger Warns of Nefarious Writers Group Subterfuge

Leif Enger, who lives in a quaint suburb of Middle-of-Nowhere, Minnesota, raised a few eyebrows in a talk at the Festival of Faith and Writing with his answer to a question about writing communities. Mr. Enger was asked how he found community in writing. He said he didn’t. He thought if he lived in Minneapolis he might, but for the time he did without. He went on to say that sometimes “writers groups” weren’t quite the boon everyone makes them out to be. They breed competition and ego and can often lead to situations where your group isn’t looking out for your best interest as a writer.

I’m sure all the writers groups who journeyed to the festival together liked hearing that and I can only guess at the many suspicious glances that were shared on busrides home.

Enger has a point, I suppose, though I think he overstates the menace of writers groups. Knowing many Christians, I think most might suffer from a lack of useful criticism. Besides, competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing and if someone’s trying to submarine your work either you ask them to stop, get them to quit, or take your writing elsewhere.

The point Enger didn’t speak to (and to be fair, this was a cast-off comment by the man, he didn’t dwell on the issue) is the problem inherent in the very name: writer’s group. Say you have eight people in the group. Well, at any given time, do you know how many should be acting as writers? One. The rest should be acting as readers. But the reading isn’t the important part to us. It’s the writing we focus on—our self-expression.

I said this in an earlier post: Anyone who calls a writer “humble” doesn’t understand the very nature of writing itself. There is an intrinsic arrogance to putting words to paper (or web page, thank you) and then trying to have them read. (And let me step forward, raise my hand, and go Pauline by saying, “I am the most arrogant of all. I’ve written two novels and I keep a daily blog. I’m one magazine column away from being the Ryan Seacrest of the literary world.”) The arrogance that impels us to write is not a bad thing. In fact, I should probably stop using the word arrogance because of its heavily negative connotations. Still, it’s a focus on the self that can become too consuming. In conversation, a person who only speaks is considered self-absorbed, a motor-mouth with no time for anyone else…known elsewhere as a “Bill O’Reilly.” The “conversation” of writers is much more stilted, shared over weeks not seconds and it’s far easier to just “talk.”

Our goal is to learn how to turn our “reading” into “listening.” (Man, that sounds like Dr. Phil.) We’re going to try to become good readers who are available not only to listen to the words of those at whose feet we sit (great authors with published books) but those with whom we are equals. (You, me, and everyone else at this blog.)

I think this touchy-feely garbage has been sparked by my mom not reading a poem I wrote as a six-year-old. She just glanced at it, wiped the excess Elmers off her hands, picked up the silver glitter macaroni that dropped to the floor, and shrugged with anhedonic pity. It tore my heart apart. I’ve never recovered.*

And that’s why I want to be a good reader for you all. I take this editing business pretty seriously. I need to think through what you all need as writers (besides a timely response which has been my nemesis so far) and how to approach the business—and it is a business—of reading professionally.

If this works, I think we’ll be in a better place to begin moving forward as a community of writers who are readers. WWAR! Like Susan Sarandon with a stutter.

*100% tangential fabrication. A good editor would've stripped this part out.
Go to Day 3 of our discussion of being a good reader.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Live…From the Southwest Corner of the Bethany House Building!

Boy, one weekend in Michigan makes Minnesota look…a lot like Michigan. Replace maroon and gold with maize and blue and you still have a big group of pitiable Big Ten fans who have nothing on the navy and white of my beloved Nittany Lions.

I return to Minneapolis having had a very nice time at the Festival of Faith and Writing. If you’ve the means and inclination for such a thing, I’d highly recommend that you keep tabs on the event for its 2006 incarnation. From the sessions I attended and the reports from many others, it seems to be more than worth than money, if you can spare the time and cover the costs of travel. Plus, we could meet then. And that’d be nice.

To those of you stopping by after having spoken with me or stopped by the Baker booth, I say hello. Browse around. Say “Hi.” Send an email. Hopefully we can continue many of the conversations and much of the discourse brought up by the Festival.

So this week, I thought we’d talk about the unmentioned side of the conference. It’s called the Festival of Faith and Writing…but what EVERYONE had in common wasn’t our writing but our status as readers. With all the hullabaloo about putting pen to paper and finding a publisher for that paper once it’s filled, I think we skip too lightly over the notion and importance of also being a reader.

In May I’m giving a lecture on developing our reading skills and so this is going to be a topic near to my heart. So let’s spend some time on it this week and see where it takes us.

A few more random thoughts and observations from the Festival of Faith and Writing.

Silas House (who sounds like he should be a character in a book rather than an author) said this about why there may be so many Southern writers: “When you have to defend where you’re from, you end up being proud of where you’re from.”

WordFarm, which I mentioned the other day, can be found here.

NavPress is going to get into Christian fiction. So add them to the list of publishers in that big tour we just took.

Grand Rapids is home to Eerdmans, Kregel, Zondervan, and Baker Books. Those Dutchmen sure like their Christian books.

There are few places quieter than a college campus at 9:00am on a Saturday morning.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

A quick note from Grand Rapids

Yesterday, had an opportunity to hear an interview with Leif Enger of Peace Like a River fame. Hearing authors speak is often hit-or-miss for me. Quite often, authors I love just don't impress me "live" and I find myself looking at their books a little different.

In this case, I'm one of the few who wasn't completely in love with Peace Like a River, yet I very much enjoyed the man and his interaction in this interview. Actually makes me want to pick up the book again.

A quote I enjoyed in response to why his characters didn't necessarily attend church in the novel. Enger said, "God is endlessly interesting. Church is not always so interesting."

As well, Enger said in the process of writing he's discovered that he can't truly commit to characters or find them authentic if he doesn't know how and where they were raised. This backstory, which often never makes it close to the book, is the kind of thinking that many of us may need to do if we're stuck in a particular spot or unhappy with a particular character.

Enger was quite down to earth about his writing and his life. He sounds like a very intuitive writer and manged to contradict many of the dearly-held myths about literature and writing. Good stuff.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Live from the Festival of Faith and Writing

As luck/chance/providence would have it, there's a web terminal just outside the exhibition hall and I've been able to grab ten minutes to come a type something.

I don't have any wonderful grand insight into things. It's a conference. People with a passion for writing and books and God and Jesus have gathered at Calvin College to try and figure some things out. Bret Lott gave a keynote address on Christian literature. I just attended a talk by Vinita Hampton Wright (she wrote Velma Still Cooks in Leeway on the creative process.

Her key point was to stress a self-awareness that we need to develop as writers to understand how we, individually, write. We need to understand what inspires us, what blocks us, and what can jolt us to action. It's not ground-shaking, but it's well-worth knowing.

The creative process is too often thought of as a grand mystery and we simply can't afford to treat it with such reverence or we'll be a slave to it. Neither should we completely control the process to the point where inspiration and mystery are meaningless. The balance between the two is the place where writers can thrive and their art will flourish.

A few quotes:

"Your first draft will never be good enough." Amen to that.

A few other observations from the conference:

Image and Seattle Pacific are moving forward with their MFA program. It's a limited residency degree. More information looks to be forthcoming.

Got to meet some folks from a new publisher called WordFarm. It's cool to see what people are doing in the industry. I wish them luck and will pass on some more information as I gather it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Day 3 of Godric—Seeing Angels

This is going to be a short entry. I'm traveling today, on my way to Grand Rapids for the Festival of Faith and Writing. To be quite honest, I have no idea of what to predict for entries over the next few days. I'd love to post a few thoughts but am hampered by not knowing precisely what technology will be available to me to complete such interactions. All I'll say is, if it's possible, you'll hear from me. Otherwise, I'll be back on Monday with a full report.

Let's talk about the supernatural for a moment, shall we? I'm assuming if you have any kind of orthodox Christian belief, you allow for the possibility of miracles. Our lives can be interrupted by the "impossible" because we worship a God who is all-powerful and omniscient and omnipresent. At the same time, he's created beings who operate not on a physical plane but on a spiritual one, who from time to time, come visiting on his command. (Or come crashing down after getting thrown out.)

What place do angels and the supernatural have in fiction? Godric has two such encounters that shape his life and eventually help lead him to faith. I've always been troubled by this kind of catalyst for change however. After all, what does it teach us—those of us who don't see angels?

My point isn't to ignore the supernatural, but I would warn against making these moments the point of transformation. Or, at least be aware of the consequences in that such life change may not have quite the impact on readers as it does to your character.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Day 2 of Godric - Is Swearing in Arcane English Still Swearing?

I don’t understand all of Shakespeare. I know stuff goes over my head. That said, I guarantee I understand about 95% more at the end of Act I than I do within the first few lines. The same thing even happens if I see a movie spoken in English but with a heavy accent or dialect. It simply takes me time to adjust, time to get into the rhythm and flow of the language. This pattern holds for Godric.

I’ve no idea where Buechner derived his “voice” in the story. I’d think manuscripts written in the 12th-century would be well-near unintelligible to us at this point. Instead, he concocts his own parlance for Godric, mimicking the complicated syntax and throwing in a parcel of unusual idioms to make it sound authentic. For me, it works. It was intelligible but you had to work at it enough that it didn’t seem anachronistically modern. So many of our historical novels fall into that trap. We have Bible characters speaking with 21st-Century voices. Drives me nuts.

All that to say, I spun my wheels at the beginning of the story and missed, the first time around, the fact that Mr. Buechner makes it quite clear on the first page that he has not written a CBA novel. Yes, we’ve entered the dread realm of “appropriate language” again. It’s an argument without foreseeable resolution, its two camps entrenched firmly across from one another, stalemated.

The book begins with Godric talking of his friends, of which two, he claims, were snakes named Tune and Fairweather. I admit to getting stuck on these two friends, thinking them to be actual friends who turn out, later in the story, to be the villains or betrayers. Nope. They’re actual snakes. The hissing kind. And while they may have some historical or symbolic significance, my time trying to turn them into humans distracted me greatly from the fact that Mr. Godric doesn’t mince words much, especially around topics we might otherwise be coy about today.

Seinfeld, which mastered the art of talking about something without actually saying the words, once tackled the topic of cold water and “shrinkage” and Godric is more direct.

“I spied [the snakes] now and then, puddling my way home like a drowned man from dark Wear with my ballocks shriveled to beansize in their sack and old One-eye scarce a barnacle’s length clear of my belly and crying a-mercy. It was him as I sought in freezing Wear to teach a lesson that he never learned nor has to this day learned….
My point here isn’t to titter over anatomy descriptions (although this passage brings back terrible memories of falling through the ice of a stream into water up to my chest) it’s to merely point and show how one Christian artist took his stand.

Buechner’s Godric is living in a time, assumably, immune to today’s FCC-upheld prudishness. There’s no disassociation from our bodies that we’re able to achieve today. In fact, for a holy hermit living in the woods, the very functioning of the body is #2 on the list of topics, right under the thought life that may very well cause said body to betray you. (Hence poor Godric trying to shock his privates into submission.) Buechner creates a setting, creates a character and the language follows. It’s natural, it’s not overly done, and it’s usually wrapped in enough idiom that you can simply ignore should you choose.

We typically don’t have such a luxury, especially if we’re writing contemporary stories. Sure we can wrap sex up in innuendo, but that might be worse or more prudish than refusing to mention it at all. In the end, the choice really shouldn’t even be yours. Your characters should speak for themselves. The language they use should emerge from who they are. That said, you’ll need to be prepared for the consequences should what they say run to blue. There’s a good chance an editor will ask you to change or strike such language. And then it’ll be your turn to choose a camp. And the long stalemate will claim another pointless victim.

The Midnight Disease

This article talks about the drive to write and reviews a recent book that explores the neurological, and sometimes pathological, part the brain plays in writing. Thanks to Jordon Cooper's website for the intial link.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Day 1 of Godric - Even Evangelical Fiction Authors Need a Patron Saint

In 1981, Godric was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and lost to a dead guy, namely John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces which is one of those books that I put in the category of “read it too young” along with Warren’s All the Kings’s Men, Austen’s Emma, and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. These are all books of which I know I turned every page and yet remember only very little. But that’s neither here nor there.

Godric and its author, Frederick Buechner, are roundly hailed as being a shining example of the intersection of art and faith. Lots of authors and readers I know rave about Buechner and going in I was a bit worried. Very often, such hype only leads to disappointment. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case with this novel. I enjoyed it very much and recommend it without reservation to all readers who journey here. In fact, I would recommend reading it sooner than later because of its high-ranking place in the canon of discourse on the topic of faith and fiction. It’s just one of those touchstone pieces of art that’s helpful to be familiar with.

What you don’t know about it perhaps is that it’s a 12th-century Tuesdays With Morrie. Take one very old hermit/holy man, add in one young monk writing down the man’s life and you have Godric. Only you have so much more.

The aspect I want to talk about today is the idea of hagiography.

Hagiography comes from the Greek word “agios” meaning holy and literally means a “story of holiness.” It’s the common term for any life of a saint and also has the connotation of being decidedly uncritical.

Godric is not a hagiography. Instead, it’s told, through flashback, in the first-person and seeks to tell the truth rather than let what the monk Reginald writes down become gospel.

The interesting part is that Godric was a real guy. Buechner picks a true life saint (see here for a encapsulated biography) and sees the man underneath the holiness. What we get in the course of the novel is both the path of one man’s life and also what amounts to his final confession. Godric has lived too long to be worried about false modesty at this point—he simply wants to unburden himself before death. To be free from the sins of his past he’s never been able to let go.

The last chapter of the book is the only told outside the first person. Godric is died and Reginald has picked up the story for what amounts to an epilogue. This is what he says:
“When at the instigation of Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx, of blessed memory, I initially undertook to record this history, [Godric] made violent objection, reviling himself most passionately and reciting in multitudinous detail the sins of his youth. He aspired thereby to demonstrate his unworthiness of any such biographical endeavor, but his better judgment at last prevailed, and in the end he gave his blessing to this work. This I set it forth now in confidence that the world will be greatly edified by the example of this most estimable man.”
Reginald’s tact to do this is to simply smooth the rough edges, skip the saucier moments, and transform every sin into virtue. He’s one of those eminently smackable people who tells you that a “frown is just a smile upside down.”

And you know what? I can think of nobody better to serve as the patron saint of CBA. (Even if he’s a fiction of Buechner’s imagination.)

Our stories are not novels of true life. They are in their own way, hagiographies. We pretend our characters have blemishes or flaws, but they are cosmetic. Fixed up in a jiffy toward the end of the book without need for even Extreme Makeover or The Swan to intervene. We don’t have heroes however who are revealed as deeply sinful or willing to be shockingly honest. Which is strange, because so far as I know, each of us is deeply sinful. Our thoughts betray us, even if our bodies or words don’t. We’re just not willing as artists to hold up that mirror. (Which may say something about our own lack of awareness about the depths of our own sin. A troubling thought.)

So we have our choice. We can be content with the poor reflection in the dark glass. Content to pray to the statue of St. Reginald the Bland—who can turn Godric into Morrie—or we can pray that our dark glass goes clear for a moment and that we can truly see, no matter how painful, the truth of who we are. And then revel all the more in the grace afforded us through Jesus that such reflections don’t find their way to heaven.

Another Recommended Film

I didn't see this film this weekend. I saw it months ago. Maybe even six months ago. For some reason this weekend, it came back to me, hard and strong. It's called Heaven and stars Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi. Directed at a very different pace by the guy who did Run, Lola, Run and written by Krzysztof Kieslowski of the Three Colours Trilogy (Red, White,, and Blue), it's a meditation on the grace we can offer each other here on earth. Blanchett owns the screen throughout the film and there's some lovely scenery.

Another P.O.V. - First-person Plural

I hadn't even thought of this one. The NYTimes Sunday Book Review (requires free registration, but well-worth it) has an article about stories told, not from the "I" perspective but from the "We" pov. Worth reading.