f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 06/01/2004 - 07/01/2004

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

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Day 3 of a New Writers Group – Like Pilates for Writers

Right now, it sounds like this is going to be a fiction writing group. I think that’s a fine way to start, though, should it prove successful I think there’s ample possibilities for offering poetry and creative non-fiction wings, should you have writers with interest/expertise.

Sticking with fiction, however, I want to suggest something that runs extremely counter to everything CBA seems to stand for and that is I think focusing solely on the novel may be to the groups’ detriment. This group needs to champion the short story.

And I think I hear a hundred voices go, “What? Where will that get us?” Stick with me for a little.

Remember in the old days when people served apprenticeships that didn’t involve rich men with bad hair? Remember when young boys who wanted to make say, barrels, would find the local cooper and train under him? Well, by and large, we’ve given up on that process, especially in writing. It’s very much, “Find your own way.” Sure we have mentors and writing groups, etc, but we’ve managed to discard what I consider a CRUCIAL formative aspect—writing the short story.

This is the place to experiment with tone and point-of-view and a hundred other things in a convenient to read 1200-word story. It’s an exercise, a bit of training, that pays off in a thousand solid ways down the line. And this isn’t just for beginning writers. I feel strongly that even “professional” writers who’ve published books still need to be flexing their muscles in the short story.

As well, turning an eye to short stories may very well offer you a commodity, which I think is currently being swept out the door like dross when with a little polishing they can be honed and refined and turned into something precious. Whether it’s an annual chapbook that could sold at your eventual conferences or even a partnership with a publishing house (start with us, we’ve talked about this idea) to begin offering up the best in Christian short stories, your group turns the “work” and “exercise” into a productive venture that not only offers the group exposure but the individually touted authors as well. Is this going to be a huge money-maker? Never. But if the goal is to fill the need of developing fiction artists, then I think it’s an absolutely vital position to take.

Again, like the focus on craft or the need for reviews, this may not seem an easy or popular road, but it’s one that isn’t being trod (tread? treaded?) right now. Begin filling these spaces and the need to separate yourselves from other writers groups becomes irrelevant.
We’re getting toward the end of the week. Tomorrow, I think we’ll look at the notion of meeting together and my suggestions on that end. Then, on Friday, like any good pastor would, I’d like to wrap up with some calls-to-action. The “writers-group-alter-call” so to speak. So begin thinking now if you’d like to get in at the ground level of this movement. I may only end up playing Moses to somebody else’s Joshua, but I don’t think there’s going to be forty years of wandering before the promised land is reached either. So pray and think. And we’ll all talk more tomorrow and Friday.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

New Look

Well, I updated the look of the site. A bit fresher I think.

I've changed the sizes of the fonts now. Does that work better, or is it still too small?

Discuss the new writers group

The conversation is here.

Day 2 of a New Writers Organization – Setting Yourselves Apart

Goat. Sheep. Goat. Sheep. Sheep. Goat.

Welcome to, what I think, is going to be the thorniest problem that is going to be faced in getting this organization off-the-ground—and the most important, too. Defining yourselves.

Why do I think it’s the thorniest problem? Because it’s the one where our vocabulary begins to break down and our language becomes very imprecise. It’s the one I dance around every day in what I’m doing. It’s the one that other editors at other publishing houses are struggling with, too. What are we to call this “new” kind of non-CBA-ish Christian fiction? And does it necessarily matter?

When I started talking about this I used the words “emergent fiction” but that was simply co-opting some popular jargon of the time, and while there are still solid parallels, it’s a link that only confuses the issue.

“Literary” is another way to go, but that can be a pejorative term in a lot of circles. Plus, who’s the final arbiter of what qualifies as “literary”? Is there an “average-word-per-sentence” quota that needs to be met? A certain number of metaphors per chapter? Does this exclude genres like romance and mystery and science-fiction, few of which ever get tagged “literary”?

What I have found in the months I have been doing this is the opposite of what I expected. I expected everyone to be a touch piqued that I’d even suggest the need to do something new. The old worked, why not stay with it. What I’ve found shouldn’t have surprised me, though, and that is that almost NOBODY wants to be doing the same old thing. Pretty much everybody thinks that their work is different and pushing boundaries, at least on some level. And, that’s fine, I have no problems talking with everybody. But it’s going to get messy when folks are joining the organization who don’t have quite the same overall vision.

So, the question is raised does the organization need to be defined by the kind of fiction it supports. Or would it be better off being defined by guiding principles at its core? I think you know my answer.

If this organization can do one thing to set itself apart, it can preach and teach CRAFT. (Art will follow. Craft must come first.) Message is not an issue here. Get a bunch of Christians on the same discussion board and message is going to come out. It’s part of us. It’s needs to be watched. It needs to be prayed over. Discernment needs to be practiced. You need solid, mature believers in key positions. But it shouldn’t be the core of the group. At the core of the group should be CRAFT.

(And this gets back to why solid critique of books--CBA and not--seems to be so intrinsic to the cause. It's a vital part of learning more about writing. What works and doesn't. To ignore this would seem like missing out on a huge chunk of possibility.)

Writers conferences talk about craft some, but not enough. Too often, they talk about it as a mere tool that can be exploited on the way to getting published. That’s backwards thinking. Craft is it. Writing is all there is. Getting published should only be the cherry on top. That’s a hard way of thinking, especially for a group of aspiring writers, but if you keep that focus, I think you will set yourselves apart.

What say ye?

Monday, June 28, 2004

Day 1 of a New Writers Organization: A Faulkner of Writers

You know how groups of animals have names—a pride of lions, a murder of crows, a parliament of owls, a potterybarn of lemmings—well, we need to think up such a name for writers (beyond conference) because for being such a solitary enterprise we sure do seem to flock together a lot. And that’s good, in most cases, though when all is said and done I do worry that there’s more talking being done than writing. (Here, too, actually. Stop reading this and go write!)

Anyway, beyond that little caveat, we’re going to spend this week (as a group) discussing what’s important to you guys as writers and whether these things are distinct enough for you to marshal together and make an impact on both CBA and ABA stores.

This work is actually being spearheaded by folks outside of faith*in*fiction. My role is to just shoot my big mouth off right now since I have the platform and let you guys do all the heavy lifting.

So here’s my first thought: Don’t Just Make This a Writers Organization

There are lots of writers organizations out there, both secular and Christian. I don’t know that any truly exert huge amounts of influence on an industry. Forming another group of writers, no matter how passionate, won’t really gain you too much of a voice unless members begin churning out bestseller after bestseller. (Which is a possibility. I don’t mean to look askance at your prospective talents.)

What’d I’d consider is making the organization two-tiered and concentrate, especially early on, on reading as well.

Andy Crouch of Books and Culture has a new article out that looks at both the Christian Writers Guild and the Calvin Festival of Faith and Fiction. It’s a good read, and it’s this portion that really god me nodding…
And then there are books—stacks and stacks of books at the tables of dozens of publishers and at least three conference bookstores. Festivalgoers throng the aisles of the exhibit hall, talking, buying, reading. In Colorado Springs, there were—I counted—35 books for sale. Sixteen were by Jerry B. Jenkins. What everyone at the Christian Writers Guild had in common is that they all were, or wanted to be, writers. But what everyone has in common at the Calvin Festival is that they are all readers.
Is it possible to be a writer without being a reader? Yes—but probably not a good one.
This focus on reading is why so much of what we do here is based around books that’ve already been published. It’s why I gave a lecture on “Reading Better for Better Writing” at the Colorado Christian Writers Conference.

You all seem to be good, insightful readers. That’s a strength you can begin to flex right now.
What I’d love to see is for any new group to begin exerting their influence on the quality of books in a three-fold way.

1. I’d love to see sales of challenging Christian fiction increase so publishers will publish more.

2. I’d love to see someone take up the charge and begin actually critiquing CBA fiction, both for artistry and message.

3. I’d love to see new books come from this group (preferably to my attention, thanks) so that we can publish you.

Writing and publishing is a slow business. WestBow right now is trying to build a fiction wing overnight by poaching authors, running contests, and planning a cut-price low-end fiction line. Best to them, but I’m not that’s the way I’d go about it. In the same way, there’s going to be expectations among any new fiction group to see “results” right away. The most quantifiable results I think you could see would be not on the writing side of things but on the reading side.

We’ll get to other issues later this week, but I wanted to run this flag up the pole and gauge your reaction.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Day 5 of Asher Lev - Genius!

There are people out there who operate differently from the rest of us. They are geniuses. It can be in business or art or science or music. They operate on a different level.

Do we believe this? And if we do, are they beholden to the same rules of life as the rest of us?

We’ve talked about Asher a little too much like he was a normal kid with a gift. I don’t think Potok intended this. I think Potok intended this gift to be miraculous, a once in a generation kind of thing. It’s not lightly that Lev is being talked about with Picasso, Monet, Chagall and other artists who define modern Western art.

Perhaps it’s just artistic license, but geniuses just live life differently. They are driven, some would say compulsively, to perfect and practice their gift. Take it away from them and they would be very different people. Asher tries to bury his drawing talent at one point and it nearly breaks him. Is that true with us? I know I am no genius, but I can’t fathom what kind of a person I’d be without writing.

And what happens when to take a prodigy and place him in a situation where that particular gift is rendered useless. Potok shows us how Asher reacts to his father’s disapproval. It tears the boy apart. Movies are filled with these situations. October Sky, Billy Elliot, and even Bend It Like Beckham are just some recent examples of societal pressures trying to stifle the gift of an adolescent. Langston Hughes asked the question in his poem in a different way in “A Dream Deferred” and one of the lines was co-opted by Lorraine Hansberry for her newly revived play, A Raisin in the Sun.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


Asher’s dream, his gift, seems to sag and weigh on him.

I guess I don’t see genius as having any particular bearing on this issue though. We all have talents and needs for self-actualization. How we balance those needs versus the demands of our culture and community and, more importantly, our family is the hard work of living.

Next week we're going to go back to the issue of making an impact in CBA. There are some very dedicated and passionate people who don't seem to be satisfied merely with talking about things. They want action. And so we'll use the new discussion board as a forum to talk vision and direction--and whether CBA can even be changed.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Day 4 of Asher Lev - Mere Faith

My senior year in college I was activities director for my college fellowship group. Part of my responsibilities was to organize a fall retreat. Life at this time was hectic. I was buried in my senior thesis, was supposed to be studying for the GRE’s, and had all the details of the retreat to work out as well. So it makes perfect sense that I should write a very short play (skit, really) in the midst of all this.

The point of this play was cribbed largely, if not entirely, from one Clive Staples Lewis. At its core was the notion that we should not let “Christian” become a modifier for something else. We are not Christian Republicans or Christian editors or Christian feminists. Faith demands that we be Christians first, foremost, and only. Mere Christianity. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

And for a good deal of us, a good deal of the time, that makes a lot of sense.

But then you place it against something that seems to make the same demands of primacy and we have a battle. We begin to use words like “idol” or “false gods.”

Art, I think, can play that role. I think it strongly plays that role in Asher Lev. The Rebbe thinks he’s pointing Asher down the path to being a Ladover Artist. There is no such path, however. Asher is torn between the demands of his art and the demands of his religious tradition (not his faith, however, which is a different thing.) And what becomes of him? Let’s look at the book’s first page.

I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all—in the way that I am painting.
Look at that contradiction. “I am this. I can’t be this.” It’s like the Magritte painting, Ceci n’est pas un pipe. He goes on.
So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitors, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.
Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty, I confess that my accusers are not altogether wrong: I am indeed, in some way, all of those things.”


One definition of art, I think, is “truth communicated.” So, it’s sets itself up as a quest for truth, which I hope we agree is noble and not, in and of itself sinful. As Christians, we trust that God is truth. So, in essence, there really should be no problem. It’s a syllogism. ARTISTS want to talk about TRUTH. GOD is TRUTH. Therefore, ARTISTS want to talk about GOD. And they do so and sign a big contract with WestBow publishing and everybody is happy.

But that’s not the case, right? In our fallenness, we’ve no longer got a collective sense of truth. Instead, we’re isolated, each seeking God on our own, relying on each other as best we can to help parse out what all the big questions mean. Theologians come up with answers, answers make it into creeds and liturgy, these things define denominations, and suddenly you have a rule book OUTSIDE of God’s word. The pages nailed to a door in Wittenburg were all well and good, but in the end they are not what we’ve taken to be Canon. (Even the Canon itself gets scrutinized but that’s a ball of wax best left to seminaries.)

Anyway, what then is the artists role in this?

Asher saw his role as being to “communicate truth.” To “show the pain in the world.” In pursuing the truth about the anguish his mother felt at her family, he turned to the most representative anguish in the world—the crucifixion. There is no contextual salvific meaning in the cross—only sacrifice and pain. He turns to is for its “passion” in the Mel-Gibson sense of the word. He is not telling a story. He is trying to crystallize a moment of anguish.

Yet in doing so he challenges the very foundation of his religion. Now, we know the Bible. There isn’t much in there about not painting. Much of the Judaic tradition is extrapolated and/or expanded. That is “religion,” which as we’ve seen through the centuries may or may not be “truth.”

He still considers himself an Orthodox Jew. That is his faith. But others don’t anymore. In the end, he is left only with his charge from God to continue on. A charge, it appears, that has more weight than any years of tradition.

Go to Day 5 of Asher Lev.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Faith in Fiction Discussion Board

Most of the talk about Asher Lev is going on here. Come join us!

Day 3 of Asher Lev - Some Writing Tips Drawn From the Novel

Today we’ll look at pure nuts and bolts.

One of the things that stood out to me this time was Potok’s dialogue. It’s crisp and flat for the most part. He rarely uses attributions and I don’t know that there is an adverb in the book. Yet we get meaning, we get layers of implication. We read between the lines. This is good stuff.

Repetition. Some of you have already noted this. Potok certainly repeats actions and behaviors—not only the rituals of the Jewish faith, but the daily rituals of the Lev household. It can get wearying at times, but by having this repetition it allows for a writer to make small changes significant. If Asher’s dad DOESN’T make orange juice for instance. Or when prayers aren’t said, that’s significant. And you need the repetition to set those things up.

Passing of time. Asher grows up in this story before our eyes. Potok makes us aware of this mostly through the dialogue (“Is my papa angry?” at first, later dropping the “my”) and the developing complexity of expression. I think it works pretty well.

I don’t necessarily know what to say about the book’s divisions. The first section ends with his father’s departure for Vienna. The second section ends with his mother going away. Slowly we’re left with Asher. Alone. I think it’s good to have those psychic pauses in there letting us know—“here is a break, something is going to change.” It’s all about pace and flow in the novel—two things I consider myself a raging amateur at.

For more on pace, reread the climactic “gallery scene.” Check out how that reads. There’s no paragraph breaks. We’re drawn through this with a gaining momentum. Much of the set-up plays out in two long paragraphs. Finally we’re drawn into the scene with Asher addressing his father. Honestly, my heart rate went up during this scene the way it does during exciting parts of mystery/suspense novels.

And, just to mention it: one of my favorite scenes is Asher getting back at his classmate for the nasty poems by drawing the boy Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. Cracks me up.

Go to Day 4 of Asher Lev

Weird POV

Just when you think you’re Mr. Smart, Mr. I-Know-About-Books, you sit down with a novel, reach page 35 and say to yourself: “I have no clue who the narrator of this story is.” And then you talk to your wife and she admits to not knowing either.

So it is with perhaps the least likely of culprits: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. Early on she uses “we” in the narration, giving you the sense that it’s a first-person narrator. Turns out that the “we” is not an “me + everyone else” but rather a non-corporeal “we” that seems to stand for the “book club” as a group. Weird stuff. (It may be a device Austen herself used from time-to-time. Can’t remember it though the Jane I’ve read.) Anyway, the rest of it is in a very omniscient third-person narration that often switches in a blink. Honestly, it’s driving me to distraction. That the book seems to have no point isn’t helping matters.

Only a lovely little section about a woman remembering the laziest mom in the world has saved the book. For the moment.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Upcoming Books of Interest

PW's Religion Bookline, a great and free newsletter, mentioned some interesting "spiritual fiction" titles coming out of BEA. (Book ExpoAmerica, the huge book convention that just ended.) As always, I can't comment on the quality, just passing along the info.

Caramba by Nina Maria Martinez.

Coal Tattoo by Silas House. (Upcoming, no release date yet.)

Day 2 of Asher Lev - Rendering the Incommunicable

One of the interesting dynamics about Asher Lev is Potok’s inversion of some typical tropes. This is a “spiritual” book in that it is set within a community of faith. As we’ve noted in a discussion however, the religious elements of the book are often told with a dry, matter-of-fact tone whereas what truly becomes mystical is Asher’s gift.

Art is where Potok spends his most time trying to express the inexpressible, and to me he does it wonderfully. I am not being humble when I say I’m the worst artist on the face of the earth. That’s pure truth. I have a 14-month old who draws better than me, so the world of drawing is very foreign to me. And Potok welcomes me in far more than he does in the world of orthodox Judaism.

The moment Asher grinds a cigarette to use the ash for shading, his filling the notebook for his mashpia, his drawing of his mother nearly falling out of the boat. All of these have a bit of an electric feel to them, a vibrancy. And it contrasts so much with the leadenness of worship and prayer.

There’s an interesting exchange late in the book (I can’t find it right now) when Jacob Kahn talks about the Rebbe, who he obviously admires, and how the Rebbe cuts Kahn slack by saying that his art is his worship. They seem to agree about this but then they also agree that it is not quite the same as actually praying to God.

I think that speaks to the heart of the central tension of this book. Asher is obviously torn between two worlds and one comes off so much more appealing than the other. The question I guess is whether you remain trapped between two such worlds or if you’d ended up simply choosing one.

Go to Day 3 of Asher Lev

::

Just as yesterday, discussion continues here. Come join us!


Monday, June 21, 2004

Well, That Didn't Last Long

WestBow Press has cancelled it's "Fresh Start" promotion.

In the famous words of Mayor Quimby on The Simpsons, "If that's the way the wind is blowing, let it not be said that I don't also blow."

Day 1 of Asher Lev – The Dangers of Rereading a Book

The first time I read My Name Is Asher Lev, it was for a woman. I was deeply in lurve with a gal and as happens at such times, we spent much of our energies trying to get to know each other and trying to let ourselves be known. As with most couples I know, part of that involved sharing songs and movies and books and “art” that meant something to us and that we wanted to share. I got her to watch Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire and she suggested I read My Name Is Asher Lev. Knowing already my interest in the intersection of art and faith, she thought I’d find it interesting. And was I going to say no?

My memories of that first reading is that for the first 150 pages I kept wondering what this woman had found quite so compelling and what she’d thought I’d find in it. I have a fairly ingrained disinterest in orthodox Judaism, perhaps because having grown up in New Jersey it didn’t seem quite so “alien” or “fascinating” as it might to others. And so the story seemed mostly to be about a little boy staring out his Brooklyn apartment window.

The book changed on a dime for me the moment Jacob Kahn met Asher. When they exchange drawings outside the Rebbe’s office, I could sense that this was a pivotal moment for Asher. Now the gift would be examined more fully and not simply be left to run wild. The book was a tour de force from that moment on for me. As an earnest fellow with aspirations of art in my writing (I was then in the midst of my first novel), I found myself connecting with Asher. Certainly I wasn’t in his situation or facing the disapproval of an entire race of people, but the practice of any kind of creative expression sets you apart a little bit. So I felt I knew what he was going through.

That was 1997 or early 1998. Six years have passed and I am in a different state—figuratively and literally.

I have moved to the Midwest. I am married to the woman who told me to read the book. I have completed and published two novels, neither of which shook the world. And more importantly, I am now a father, twice-over. It was harder just to find the time to read Asher Lev again let alone rethink what it means.

And there is a danger to rereading meaningful books or rewatching meaningful movies or listening to that so that seemed so important isn’t there? So much of life is contextual—something is important for a moment and doesn’t seem to stay for the long haul. I’ve reread books I loved—particularly as a high schooler, undergrad—that now seem so overwrought or superficial. And this time, I’d signed you all up for the ride as well and a small part of me wondered if I’d really remembered Asher Lev right. Maybe it was just the whole being in love thing that had made the book work for me?

Simply put, I still love this book. I still think it should be required reading for any and all artists of faith (Muslim, Jew, Ba’hai, Presbyterian, I couldn’t care). I hope you all found it meaningful as well.

My reading did change, however. I found Asher a far less sympathetic character than I remembered. Still fascinating and compelling, but a bit of a griper as well. And I choked up at the most unexpected of times—it was the day before his final exhibition and his father is nearly overcome by pride for his son…but still has no idea what awaits him. I found a real poignancy in that moment, because I knew how fleeting it would be.

I still found the beginning slow, though I let myself linger a little more this time with young Asher. Perhaps it is because I am now a father, but I enjoyed the interplay between parents and son. I still felt the book’s momentum shift with the introduction of Jacob Kahn. And this time, the end hurtled toward me. My nerves sang, knowing what was coming in the final climax at the art gallery. It’s a devastating scene.

So that’s my take on it as a reader. I think we should talk about it as such first. Remember, we have five days on this, so we can take it slow. No need to burn all our thoughts on it at first.

I know on Thursday and Friday, I’d like to talk about what I see as the central issue of Asher Lev, at least as it involves us, and that is the notion of whether we have the freedom within our faith to fully practice our art.

Go to Day 2 of Asher Lev

::

Also, I promised a discussion board for this and here it is.


Thursday, June 17, 2004

The Best Reading I've Done This Year

In lieu of a post I'm going to point you to a speech by Frederick Douglass given on July 5, 1852. Blew me away. Where would this speech be given today? If there church decided to stand up against AIDS in Africa or the war in Iraq (if it felt so led) where would the platform be for this kind of eloquence? We have become a sound bite nation and are paying the price at the level of discourse and exchange.

This one, by Bono, is also pretty good. At least for contemporary standards.

(Irony alert: complaining about sound bites in a blog, whose very form is devoted to such things. Just wanted to point it out myself before others made fun of me.)

Online Reading

Here's two opportunities for some free reads. One is definitely entertaining. The other, I wrote, so I can't pass judgement, but it was certainly fun to write.

Prodigy by Robin Parrish - A serialized novel at a culture/entertainment site written from a Christian worldview. Good writer, fun story. You'll probably need to register to see the chapters, but it's free to do so and worth stopping back.

Copyright by me - This isn't all that close to a representative sample of my fiction. Instead, it was an odd little idea that burned at me until I finally just put it down on paper. The site will be coming down soon, so get it while it's still hot.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

All Worked Up

It's always nice to get riled up at the end of the day. Gets the heart going again, I guess.

Anyway, I stumbled across an ad on page 143 of the latest Christian Retailing from WestBow Press that I think could use some comment.

The ad says:

Individually, we've sold millions of books and movie tickets.

Together, imagine what we can do for the right fiction author.


Then there is a picture on an invitation on which it says:

An Invitation to Current Best-selling Fiction Authors Who:
* Have sold more than 100,000 units (total) in the last two years
* Would like a major Hollywood director to review your next story for screenplay consideration
* Are writing mainstream novels from a Christian worldview
* Are interested in a new publishers and agent relationship for your next contract


Go to www.westbowpress.com and click on "Fresh Start" [no button at current on website] to find a submission form as well as to review the terms of this invitation.

There are then three logos:

Yates & Yates LLP - The agency of representation for many of today's most recognized and successful authors
WestBow Press - The new fiction/entertainment division of Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Ralph Winter - Producer of X-Men, X2, and Planet of the Apes

In small print--All inquiries will be treated with complete confidentiality. This offer would apply to future projects after the completion of any existing publishers/agent relationship. Contract will be at the sole discretion of WestBow Press, Yates & Yates, and Ralph Winter--with no additional commitment implied.

I honestly don't know where to begin. I guess it mostly comes down to perception. Working at a rival house, I find this, well, blood-curdlingly tacky. But I'm sure I'm wrong. What say you all? (Or anyone from WestBow?)

How is any of this in the best interest of authors?

Do agents and publishers normally team up? Is this not a conflict of interests from which the author would see no benefit?

Isn't there a difference between a director and a producer in Hollywood?

Can someone tell me the last CBA novel to make it to feature film that didn't star Kirk Cameron?

I suppose I'm simply bitter seeing what amounts to the NYYankees of the Christian publishing world basically dangling dollars in order to (re)launch (yet again) their fiction publishing program. But, hey, the Lakers lost this week showing that not every megolith finds full success and these aren't the stories I'm after anyway.

So at Bethany House, I promise only that your book will be treated first and foremost like a novel--not like a screenplay-in-waiting. And that you will be treated as an artist, not a commodity to be bought. And I promise that we consider the notion of DEVELOPING and KEEPING authors in-house to be incredibly important. Also, I promise that we believe in the promise of NEW authors--not just bestselling authors. That's just our publishing philosophy. If it seems appealing, let's chat. If not, there's lots of other people with whom you can talk.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Reader Contributed AWPS

Alan Oathout, who started this whole AWPS thing, contributed these and I thought I'd post them. He used 200 sentences pulled from random places at the back, middle, and front of the books. Sounds even more acceptable than my numbers. Range was the longest and shortest sentence he counted.

Remember we're just posting numbers right now. We're not drawing conclusions yet.

Master & Commander by Patrick O'Brian - AWPS: 20.1 (range 1-99)
Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins - AWPS: 10.16 (range 1-30)
Cape Refuge by Terri Blackstock - AWPS: 10.3 (range 1-48)
Vanished by Alton Gansky - AWPS: 9.12 (range 1-29)
True Devotion by Dee Henderson - AWPS 10.51 (range 1-38)
At Home In Mitford by Jan Karon - AWPS: 12.86 (range 1-56)

Hospitals, Deadlines, and Spider Bites: Moving Past the "Hateful Week of Crappiness"

Last week, well, last week wasn’t one I’ll cherish for the rest of my life, let’s just leave it at that. There’s more to be said, but it’ll wait for another time and day.

Instead, let’s look ahead a little.

Next Monday we start discussing My Name Is Asher Lev. It’s not too late for you to pick up the book and read it. Think about it and come join us on Monday. My goal is to have a bulletin board set-up where we can post longer responses/thoughts. So look for that as well. You’ll be given all directions you need.

We’re going to be discussing the book from a number of points of view. We’ll talk about it as readers—discuss the story, what we liked, what moved us, etc. We’re going to talk about it as writers—why did Potok do certain things, what can we learn from it, etc. And we’re going to talk about it from a more general viewpoint as a treatise on art and faith. There are a lot of interesting points that the book raises about the two areas of life and I think we need to dwell on them specifically.

I’m hoping some of the other bloggers out there (Master’s Artists, Word Foundry, Lisa S. and more) will pick up the topic for a day or two during the week as well, just so there’s a wider breadth of opinion. We’ll see what happens. If it goes well, perhaps we can start it as a bi-monthly thing.
On the flip side, it’s an interesting time inside the publishing house right now. I’m in the process of taking a deeper look at a few projects and this will help us begin spelling out a more thorough philosophy for what we want to do as a company with these books. Sex, swearing, faith issues—it’ll all start coming out in a round of discussions. And in the midst of that—CBA. Which is what it is.

We’ll talk about something the rest of this week. Don’t worry. I just don’t know what yet.

The Power of Oprah

The #1 paperback for the NYTimes, USA Today, and Publisher's Weekly?

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Not implying anything but I wonder what the "most bought/least read" book ever is? Other than the Bible obviously.

Any guesses?

Saturday, June 12, 2004

And Now I'm an Arachnist

It's 2:00am. I've just been bitten by a spider. This probably isn't using a blog to it's fullest, but really I've got little else on my mind at the moment.

Here's a website with a picture of the spider and a description of what it feels like to be bitten.

Bites by yellow sac spiders generally produce instant, intense stinging pain, not unlike that of the sting of a wasp or hornet. This may be followed by localized redness, swelling and itching; these manifestations may or may not evolve into a necrotic lesion, but when that occurs healing is usually complete within eight weeks.
I'll just say that the "pain of warp or hornet sting" is not so far off, except that it's more like if said hornet or wasp just continued to sting you, continually, in the same place, for like 35 minutes straight. And I gotta say, I'm looking forward to the necrotic lesion part of this. Because I really need a big, dying hole in my arm right now.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Essay Link

FoFiF (Friend of Faith in Fiction) Jules has an essay posted at The Literary Christian website. Stop by and peruse their stuff. They have another essay "contest" link up if you'd like to write on the topic.

One More Writer Blogging

Cindy Martinusen, a name you might want to check out, has a blog.

The Revolution to Come

This doesn't have much to do with literature as it does with blogging, which is a part of digital media reshaping the future. Rex Miller at Next-Wave gives a taste of how he thinks the digital revolution is changing not only communication but humanity.

Thanks to Jordon Cooper for this link.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

The Rain That Should Be In Spain is Falling on Minnesota

Seriously, we're going to have so many mosquitoes this summer. It's like the Pacific Northwest has migrated for the season and set up shop over my house. Except without all the pine trees, Cascade mountains, and Microsoft employees.

I have nothing much to say on the blog-front today. Life has been too hectic to dwell too much on such topics. Hopefully tomorrow.

I did read most of a book while in the hospital yesterday. It was called The Rule of Four and was written by two Ivy-league grads. It's made some bestseller lists and I think it may be riding the DaVinci Code craze a bit. In some ways, a more "human" book than Dan Brown's tinderbox. A bit of a strange book, too. A review called it Fitzegerald by way of DaVinci Code and that's not too far off.

At it's barest bones, it's a love letter to Princeton University and the lives of college students. It's also got a touch of academic-porn to it. If you're turned on by undergraduate theses, advisors who can recite, in Latin, obscure portions of primary texts, and little lessons in Renaissance learning then this book is your Debbie Does Dallas. And yes that is the weirdest metaphor ever.

Anyway, it's only marginally worth your time. Fine beach read. Some interesting literary/academia puzzles. But a bit too much of "the best years of my life at Princeton"-feel to it for me to fully enjoy.

Remember, in a few weeks: My Name Is Asher Lev

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

"Of Course!"--Surprise and Inevitability

Deborah wins today's bonus points, which can be saved and traded in for the acclaim of your peers, for her comment on the post on endings.

(BTW: Joe at Word Foundry took another pass at the topic and it's got some good thoughts on "twists.")

Anyway, back to Deborah's thoughts, they echo something I think I've heard before. Or I'm just experiencing an awful case of deja vu. Anyway, the premise is that the best endings are paradoxical--being at once "surprising" and yet "inevitable." To me, great books end with you saying, "Of course!" but only after not having a clue what was around the bend.

The surprise comes from the final culimination of your characters as people and some last response or wrap-up as they face whatever it is they've been up against. The inevitabilty comes from remaining true to those characters all the way through. They can change, but it needs to feel real to your readers.

Joseph Heller's Something Happened stands as my primary "Of course!"-book. It's got a pretty shocking ending--the "something" that happened--that really stunned me my first time through.

I think great literature ends with paradox, because paradox is perhaps the primary realm of human experience. The Christian faith is rife with it--both on the sin side and the grace side. And it's something we chafe at all the time. It's the bit we're always trying to spit, trying to turn things into one or another, frustrated that two, apparent, contradictions are existing at the same time. Fine literature always gets to the heart of the human life and so it's no surprise that it does so by revelling in a mystery on the way there.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Lamb: AWPS

Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Christ's Childhood Pal Biff clocks in at 15.9 wps.

The End.

Joe at Word Foundry talks about endings.

The most absurd ending for me EVER is for a spy/techno-thriller called The Day After Tomorrow. (Has nothing to do with the movie.) Anyway, there's a secret being kept throughout the entire book and it's finally "explained" in this 752 page book's last sentence.

And this goes to something Chris asked in the comments section and here about "Twist/Surprise Endings." He got some advice at one point to avoid them.

I don't precisely parrot that advice, but we need to at least be conscious of two things.

One: they're damn hard. So hard in fact that they need to be modified by a third-tier swear word. (I will explain levels of swearing someday. It's a study in pseudo-Pharisism by a buddy and I trying to figure out what we could and could not say in certain kinds of company.)

You have two options in pulling a surprise ending. First, you can try to bury the clues in the text. Do it well and readers will love you. Do it poorly and they'll think you're an idiot. Your other option is to simply hold onto a crucial bit of information. Arthur Conan Doyle did that a lot. In one of my more Rain-Man like moments, I read every Sherlock Holmes story out there one summer and he just never gave you enough information to solve the case yourself. Royally annoying after a while.

Two: this isn't a movie. Assuming you've written a book of any length,(in short stories, you can try the bait-and-switch) readers have invested themselves in your story and characters. It's not an hour-and-a-half lark. They're not particularly looking to be yanked around...unless you set it up that way early on. James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential packs some big surprises at the end. Many mysteries do. Michael Connelly is like reading a C.S.I. episode. You're always digging through red herrings, before he suprises you. But those stories set you up to expect twists. It would make a lot less sense if Boo Radley suddenly turned out to be Atticus in disguise, you know?

So, in response to Chris, I'd never say you shouldn't try a surprise ending. In fact, if you're writing a mystery you pretty much have to take some sort of stab at it, but you just need to make sure it works.

And don't put your big surprise ending in the last sentence or some idiot like me will turn to it, read it, and discover just whose head is in the big box everyone is after.

Friday, June 04, 2004

As I Sat Counting

Okay, I began my little experiment on AWPS by counting the first few pages of Richard Russo’s Straight Man. I finished 111 sentences and stopped. I have no idea if that’s enough of a sample-size (somebody with a stats background can let me know) but Straight Man ended up with a 17.5 awps.

I’ll do this with various books of the next couple of weeks. If you feel so compelled you may send in your own results.

Anyway, the sudden burst of inspiration I had while sitting there counting reflects something I’ve thought about for a long-time in regards to much of CBA fiction. There’s a lot of dialogue.

If there’s a distinct difference in the AWPS between books, part of it is going to attributable to the amount of dialogue, because, in general, people don’t speak in long, complicated sentences. In the pages of Straight Man I counted there are only snippets of dialogue and in those snippets are 1 word sentences. 3 words sentences. 5 word sentences, etc.

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of dialogue. I see lots of manuscripts that have pages upon pages of it. I know every book is different, but my upbringing/schooling taught me that dialogue should only contain a few absolute essentials. Everything else should be relegated to narrative. That may or may not be “right,” but that’s my particular bias and so I’m sensitive to the amount of dialogue in a particular book.

(Dialogue that consistently carries out the purpose of exposition is the most grating to me. See The DaVinci Code for a concrete example of that.)

Anyway, this will be just another topic for discussion at some point. What exactly constitutes a “scene.” How do we enter one? How do we transition from “scene” to “narrative,” and how do we link scenes together with narrative to form long, rich chapters?

Great weekend to you all.

Just an alert, I have no idea how next week will turn out. I have both a freelance deadline looming and my youngest daughter will be having eye surgery on Wednesday. The deadline is fine, a nuisance, but fine. We’re greatly optimistic about the surgery, but it’s unnerving. Your prayers, should you remember us, would be greatly appreciated.

Anyway, just me making preemptive excuses should I be a little rattled next week.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Is This Math or Art: Talking About the Quantification of Writing

I got more than a few emails addressed to me in the wake of Alan’s post by readers of the blog who weren’t so sure about the metric of AWPS (Average Words Per Sentence). I don’t think Alan was equating the quality of writing with long sentences, but merely pointing out an observation that had occurred to him in reading books across genres and industries.

As a baseball nut, I’m powerfully aware of the importance of statistics. I’m also very aware of many people’s abhorrence of them. Baseball right now is in a period of great transition when a lot of common conceptions from over 100 years of the sport are being challenged by “nerds” who’ve come up with metrics that show pretty rigorous predictive value. It’s amazingly compelling to watch the revolution occur and yet spectacularly frivolous as well given that it’s a sport. (For a bestselling and layman’s treatment see Michael Lewis’s Moneyball.) Anyway, lots of people get frustrated when you start trying to quantify something that normally isn’t quantified, but we can’t just ignore the numbers.

The problem is we don’t have accurate numbers right now. Or at least I don’t. And, in the case of books, we need to be comparing apples to apples. Are CBA books always shorter? Doubtful. There’s tons of ABA books written each year. But, in acknowledging that a great number of our “adult” fiction titles are read by smart young girls with concerned mother who love the clean content, then it’s perhaps not out-of-line to wonder if there’s something to Alan’s rudimentary ponderings.

So, I’ll embark on a little experiment over the next weeks and months of tackling a handful of books a week. Trying to match apples with apples, oranges with other citrus. And we’ll see what we can learn.

The next thing we have to decide and the most common critique of AWPS is that it is meaningless. A long boring sentence does you no good. A short intriguing one does. It all goes back to diction and syntax—the words you choose and how you string them together.

I’m not sure I entirely buy that though. I think that’s the “old school” way of thinking. Obviously books are out to do different things, but I my guess (and this is all a guess right now) is that the more fulfilling and satisfying a book, the more the need for complexity of expression and thus the need for longer sentences. Will it bring us 100% correlation between quality and AWPS? No. Mostly because quality in books is far less quantifiable than quality of, say, second basemen. But if we’re all saying that the books that challenge us (CBA and ABA) are the ones with the complexity of thought that leads to longer sentences then maybe there’s a need to begin thinking through the issue a little more.

So that’s an entire MS Word page filled and I’m not sure I’ve even said anything.

I guess I’ll just say: “let’s see.” This may prove to be one fruitless goose chase. It won’t be my first time.

(BTW: here’s an odd little page about computer spellcheckers/grammar checkers and some of the options they offer. AWPS and AWL—word length—are often the two variable used in determining reading level. So I don’t think we’re completely off-base here. We just need to determine if there’s some magic level that separates “good” books from “bad” ones.)

Best Author Blog Out There

Neil Gaiman

It's not really about writing, although he keeps his fans up-to-date with his WIP, but rather about his life and mostly about interacting with his massive and slavishly devoted readership. He doesn't need to do it and yet he does. For all his fame, he's maintained an excellent (and humble) relationship with those who've made him Neil Gaiman!

He's quite the wit when he wants to be and ends up with some of the greatest links you've ever seen. From recent posts, I very much enjoy his conversation with his daughter.

(If you've never read Gaiman, I suggest checking out his Neverwhere first. Or American Gods. Just a warning, he's not where you look for theology.)

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Guest Speaker: Day 2 of Heaven Lake

Alan is back with Day 2 of his look at Heaven Lake. Just a brief warning if you're dead-set on reading the book, this one gets more into the specifics of plot. If you want your reading to be completely fresh, come back after you've read it.

Where Have You Gone, Reverend Casy?

The first one hundred or so pages of Heaven Lake present Vincent as a young man on a mission (literally, as he arrives in Taiwan to start a ministry house). Dalton pulls off a trick worthy of applause when he portrays all of his early characters—saints and sinners—in very real, human terms. Unlike some ABA novels, the Christian characters are neither mentally unbalanced nor flaming hypocrites. They are real human beings, presented sympathetically with both strengths and weaknesses in abundance. They’re normal, recognizable believers, and the everyday Christian mixture of hope and doubt is nicely illustrated. At the same time, the unbelievers can also be drawn realistically, because we’re in the ABA market. So we meet Alec, a self-confident, hash-smoking, world traveler who exercises his sharp wit and profane vocabulary to our missionary hero’s great discomfort. Vincent’s internal struggle to “love the sinner and hate the sin” during his early days in Taiwan struck me as both poignant and accurate.

At that point in my reading, I emailed Dave, rhapsodizing. A few pages farther on, I got a rude awakening from this engrossing “fictional dream.”

Having been forewarned by the blurbs on the back cover, I was expecting a turning away from Christianity. As a reader, I’m okay with that—it’s part of the human experience and it’s one facet of the great “dialogue of faith” Dave endorses in these pages. And, given the skill of the writer and the painstaking setup of the main character as a fervent, deeply committed believer, I anticipated an intense story about one man’s journey from belief to unapologetic atheism.

Vincent does indeed “repent” of his faith. But instead of a gut-wrenching, prolonged battle of the soul, he accomplishes this momentous change of heart in the time it takes most people to change their socks. In approximately twenty-five pages, he makes Peter’s big denial seem like a hiccup.

You’re wondering what astounding psychological earthquake could produce such a rapid and total renunciation? Did he read The DaVinci Code? Did he get a hold of a bad Testamint? No, it was—are you ready? A few nights of sex with one of the teenage Asian girls he was teaching English. I’m not making this up. In a mirror image of all the hokey conversion scenes you’ve ever read in a CBA novel, after twenty-five years as a model Timothy, Dalton’s protagonist gives in to temptation once, and drops every vestige of faith without a backward glance. The logic appears to be: Sex with a teenaged girl feels good because I am lonely—therefore—This whole God thing has obviously been a hoax. No, I don’t get it either.

Angst? Nope. Guilt? Not to speak of. Remorse? Only when his face is turned into raw squid by the girl’s adult brother. In the remaining 300+ pages we get, literally, only a handful of references to his abandoned beliefs, and none of them are particularly meaningful (to him or to the reader).

Ultimately, the whole renunciation of faith “bit” feels like a thin plot device. Because the God nonsense is behind him now, and his ministry is ruined, Vincent is freed up to undertake the real mission of the book: an eventful trek across China in order to marry a Chinese woman of great beauty (He’s paid to be a surrogate husband by a Taiwanese businessman, and I’ll stop the explanation there before I spoil it.)

For the Christian writer, I would suggest dividing the book into three parts, rather than the author’s five: The first 125 pages are a beautiful model of what Christian novels might be, freed of limitations about content and how nonbelievers are rendered. The next twenty-five pages could only please a Bertrand Russell or a Frederick Neitzsche by the speed in which Christianity is relegated to the trash bin (Please understand, even in this section the prose itself is still superb. Since it has recently been established that we are adults here, I can bluntly say that the scenes involving snuggle-bunnies are written with humor and a focus on meaning, not mechanics. If you’re interested in that topic, as recently discussed in these pages, it’s worth your time to check it out). The remainder of the book was a captivating story. If you mentally block out the protagonist’s history, as if Vincent had never been a Christian, it’s a very worthwhile read.

To close, let me share a few things I’ve considered while thinking this novel over. I’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

1) People can change, sometimes in dramatic ways—belief to unbelief (Heaven Lake), self-centered to God-centered (Godric), mental turmoil to peace (Crime & Punishment). Theology tells us this is true, psychology tells us this is true, and—at it’s best—fiction makes us ringside spectators of profound change in characters we come to know and love.

2) Change is usually a slow, difficult process. There might be a better fictional example of this than Gone With The Wind, but I can’t think of it right now. How many bumps, bruises, and shocks did Scarlett absorb along the path? Through years of hardship, we see her—and an entire nation—change with the times (Ashley Wilkes represents those unable to change, and it’s hard to say whether he or Scarlett endure the greater pain). While most novels don’t allow their authors the luxury of having an epic-long span of time to work with, it’s still to our advantage not to treat our character’s changes lightly.

3) When change appears suddenly, it is usually preceded by numerous events/influences leading up to an abrupt decision. One of Dave’s favorites, Andres Dubus, is fond of showing us this truth. Dubus frequently revisited the pain of divorce, often starting with the traumatic announcement of the breakup, then working backwards to show the events leading up to this moment of change. If there’s a sudden change in a character, let the reader in on the underlying reasons.

4) When change appears suddenly, without just cause, it rings false. “Just cause,” of course, will be a subjective evaluation for each reader. But we’ve all seen CBA conversion scenes that were too easy—too slick. With Heaven Lake, we see the other side of the same coin. Remember Reverend Jim Casy, from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath? He, too, left his ministry under similar circumstances. But we can accept his change of heart as convincing because his doubts took hold of him gradually, and he wrestled with the implications—with deep emotion and extensive thought—before shedding his faith in Jesus.


Again, my thanks to Alan for taking time to put a few thoughts to the page. He gets bonus points for mentioning Andre Dubus.

Tomorrow we'll come back to Alan's mention of words-per-sentence and this blog's recent insistence on trying to force the written language into the rigid structure of mathematics.

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.