f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 09/01/2004 - 10/01/2004

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

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Knowing Where You Stand

For me, Dave Egger’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a complete mixed bag. Some stuff I loved; some I hated. Egger’s not only wrote the book, though, he also was quite involved in the design and packaging. (The notion of which would give many of us here at the publisher screaming nightmares.) Anyway, among the many random things he threw in was, on the copyright page I believe, a Gender Identity Scale. It was marked from 1-10. One was Homosexual. Ten was Heterosexual. Eggers’ ranked himself a seven.

This cracked me up. It’s so random and meaningless and yet so perfectly evocative.

Where would I rank on that scale? I’m married with two kids. I know what the I-formation is in football. I once broke up with a girl because the night before I hung out with guys and ate wings and had way more fun than I was having with her. I don’t loofa.

On the other hand, my mom once gave me Strictly Ballroom as a Christmas present. I have somewhat fancy leather shoes from Italy. I can sing lyrics to lavish Broadway musicals. I admit that Jude Law is obviously attractive. I have a favorite flower. Julia Roberts appalls me.

So what am I? An 8? A 7? In that area, who knows?

The bigger point is that there are many very important issues (and my point isn’t saying that gender identity is one of them) for which there seem to be two poles of distinct thought. And where my views fall somewhere in the middle.

People like Mark and Lisa and Michael at Master’s Artist have been chatting over some of the topics recently. The folks at that, now officially, insane WestBow-short story-comment board, have been arguing over others. These, obviously, are the issues worth talking about. And knowing where we stand seems critical.

I thought next week we’d take Eggers lead and set up some Scales. The Art/Commerce Scale. The Writing/Plot Scale. These are areas where, despite what we want, there are NO RIGHT ANSWERS.

I’ll be interested to see where I end up placing myself because I find myself in many of these arguments understanding both sides. And I hate being a 5. It seems so much more noble to be a 1 or 10. It means you stand for something. The only thing I’m 1 or 10 on are my wholehearted passion for Jesus, my extreme dislike for Julia Roberts, my unequivocal devotion for kalamata olives, and my newfound, and growing, loathing for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football team.

So tune in next week and see where you stand. Tomorrow: the story of how I once autographed more books than Janette Oke and T. Davis Bunn. Combined.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Sure to Offend Someone

This week marks Banned Books Week as anointed by the ALA. This is a topic that gets many folks, often from a variety of backgrounds, in a deep panic. The Harry Potters and lesbian mommies and Huck Finns and menstruating teens are trotted out by all sorts of camps to scare us into thinking the world is ending or scare us into thinking our intellectual liberties are about to be completely shut off.

On this topic, I tend to side very heavily with the First Amendment. My ethics are situational to be sure, but I cherish our country's freedom to think and say things that others may not like without someone imprisoning me or putting a bullet in my head.

Of the Top 100 Banned Books from 1990-2000 I have read about 22, I think. To Kill a Mockingbird is #41. Sigh.

On a related note, I personally am thinking of starting Books That Should Be Banned Club. Not for content reasons but for artistic homicide. Books that just murder the English language and the form of the novel. My novels are certainly up for consideration but the two inaugural offerings are Meg by Steve Alten and The Carrier by Holden Scott. Bad, bad, books.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Source Material

There are some stories whose framework is so timeless that different artists in different generations can pick it up and take the material for a spin.

I just finished the book The Food of Love by Anthony Capella. This fun book, chock full of food and sex and Italian countrysides, is Cyrano, except word-smithing has been traded in for cooking. I watched a movie recently, The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute, that turns the Pygmalion story in upon itself to for an emotionally and morally bankrupt look at the ways we let people change us. Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres moved King Lear to the plains. Bridget Jones moved Austen to the 20th century.

Every once in a while Christian novels take a Biblical story and retell it in a modern setting, but we haven’t much explored classic set-ups to underpin our stories. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing that change.

I think somebody could do something with the sexual politics of Lysistrata. Or the lunatic satire religious hypocrisy of Moliere in Tartuffe. Or Chekhov’s dour poignancy in something like The Sea Gull or The Cherry Orchard revamped to explore Christian themes.

You have to know your source pretty well and the connections between the original and the new creation need to have a point. Plus, you should have some tricks up your sleeve in terms of the ending because otherwise you’ll simply be leading readers down a well-tred path they’ve walked before.

Any reinterpretations you care to mention? Any you'd like to see?

Friday, September 24, 2004

Day 5 of Lying Awake – Simple

It’s easy to look at this as simply another “crisis of faith” novels, but doing so misses the point, I think. Salzman is subtler and more elegant than that. Lying Awake is not about a woman on the knife’s edge of losing her faith—her faith seems not to be in jeopardy. Instead, she’s on the knife’s edge of having her understanding, and perhaps more importantly, her experience of God taken from her.

That a supposedly agnostic writer shifted to this position intrigues me but I think it makes some sense in looking at Salzman, the little I know about him. In his writings, the question is never, “Is faith real?” But, rather, “What is faith?” That’s the question I would love to be at the heart of my own writing. Not, “This is faith”—giving set answers. Or, “Is faith real?”—which is just as easily the fodder for nihilism. But, “What is faith?”

A million stories still wait to be told on that question alone.

Thanks for reading. I’ll come up with another book for early December perhaps. If you’ve suggestions, feel free to make them.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Day 4 of Lying Awake – Breaking the Rules. Making the Rules

Here is a truth in writing that I think we need to take more to heart. You make the rules.

Say what we want about rules of grammar and punctuation; rules of story construction and basic plotting; rules of characterization—all of these are only applicable on the broad level. At the specific level, the level of your novel, you control them all. But as Spiderman learned, Mary Jane is smoking hot. Hold on…I mean, “With great power comes great responsibility.” So let me give you some suggestions about breaking the rules. Or making them up on the fly.

One – For the most part, don’t. The standard rules work most of the time. Punctuation works. You can tweak grammar, particularly in dialogue, but don’t run rampant over it. There aren’t true rules for plotting, characterization, etc., but trust most of the things you know about those areas of writing.

Two – Do so only with a point. Like we talked about a few days ago about narrative thread. Have there be a reason, and a fairly straightforward reason, for switching things around on people.

Three – When you do make up a “rule” for reading your book, expect the reader to catch on only with repetition. The first time you try something, they may not get it or understand. Don’t have that first time be of vital importance to the story. Consistency is key.

Four – Be creative. Creativity, ingenuity, vitality. These, like good writing and love, cover over a multitude of sins.

Alright, so turning to our book for some substantive examples.

We already talked about one “rule” Salzman broke. He didn’t tell his story chronologically. Not a huge deal. Instead he gave us years and dates to help us place ourselves. And he chose his new narrative structure based on the fact that he needed his character’s past to echo her present. Straightforward. Not a problem.

The second thing I want to look at today is his “creation” of a rule. When I say this, I mean it’s something that happens in the text that readers must “learn” to understand the novel. In Russian novels, it’s often the shifting use of character names—characters can be called a few things. In some books, it’s different points-of-view. Do you have three narrators taking turns? (Poisonwood Bible) Is it a random assortment of narrators? (As I Lay Dying) What do readers have to know to get us through the story.

In Lying Awake I want to look at the use of italics.

Italics are used for quoted passages. Emphasis in dialogue. For book titles. We recognize those standard uses. As well, Salzman uses italics for Sister John of the Cross’s interior monologues. The book begins:

Sister John of the Cross pushed her blanket aside, dropped to her knees on the floor of her cell, offered her day to God.

Every moment a beginning, every moment an end.

The silence of the monastery coaxed her out of herself….

It’s not uncommon to place thoughts in italics. That’s a rule we know. His last use however is for sustained passages of thought that aren’t in the first person. These are, essentially, interior monologues filtered through the sustained narrative voice of the book. The first comes on page 42. Sister John waits in the hospital for her first doctor’s appointment. She wants to tune out an awful television program so she stares at the ceiling and lets her mind wander off.

The ceiling in the attic bedroom slanted in one direction, following the line of the roof. The asymmetry of it nauseated her if she stared up at it for too long.
The window faced east. In the mornings she lay in bed and watched specks of dust flash into being, drift without reaching anywhere, then blink off….

You see the slight difference, right? The first example is a direct quote from Sister John’s mind. The second is a narrative translation. And it’s used for the sake of flashback.

Flashback is killer for writers. How often do characters in novels drift into some very deep, very detailed flashback solely for the sake of helping the author out. Trust me, it happens a lot. Salzman must find that unnatural, so instead he makes the transition more subtle by giving us the flashback in narrative. It’s a little choice, but one that adds to the tone and voice of the piece.
I’m sure you all picked up on the rule, whether you noticed it or not. Thinking more closely on it, did you like his decision? Were those flashbacks—and there were quite a few in the middle chunk of the book—important enough to set apart? Should he have simply gone further back in time with his sections?

No matter your opinion, we must admit that Salzman got us to follow him. He created a rule for this novel and we learned it. That’s the interaction between reader-and-author that’s part of the magic of this business. Sure the more complex you get the more chance you have to lose folks, but I think it helps forge a bond between reader and write. The rule implies trust. It implies that we’re smart enough to get it. It’s one more tool for you to use.

Day 5 of Lying Awake.


Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Day 3 of Lying Awake - The Unexpected

I don’t know if it’s a rule or not, but it’s not the worst idea, when starting a book, to look at your genre or type of novel, think about expectations readers might have for the book and then try to confound those expectations, at least a little. This shouldn’t be such astounding advice, it’s essentially avoiding cliché, but I think I’m trying to suggest that you take it one step further.

Whether it’s giving a character an unusual hobby or flaw, writing in a unexpected foil to your main character, or writing small scenes that allow you counterpoint to your main themes or tropes, it’s all about shading and depth in your story.

Let’s take an example everybody knows. Indiana Jones. Not content to make him a superman, Spielberg/Lucas saddled him with a phobia that played out wonderfully over the three films. “Snakes. I hate snakes.”

In Lying Awake, the most unexpected thing in the novel was the humor. Ask me to name start naming adjectives that describe a monastery and I don’t think “funny” or “mirthful” would crack the top fifty. Same thing for nuns in general.

And yet.

We have Mother Mary Joseph and Sister John shaking with noiseless laughter when Sister John forgot to remove the napkin from her habit when leaving the scriptorium. We have Sister Bernadette warning Sister John that if she didn’t bring menus back after a trip to Italy she’d be sprayed with a water hose. We have the whole section talking about the place of humor in the world of a cloistered nun.

Compare this with the solemnity of tone and characterization in Mariette in Ecstasy. Salzman’s world comes off as more believable to me somehow. Humor is so engrained in our humanity that it must be a part—in some form—of such a close-knit group of people and that expression would be, as Salzman notes, the pressure valve helping them survive the “urgency, difficulty, and seriousness” of their mission.

Was writing humorous scenes Salzman’s main focus? Certainly not, but he offered them as waystations of humanity for us to identify more fully with his characters. For me at least, the life of any nun or monk, particularly a cloistered life, is practically off the charts in my ability to connect to it. We need those touchstones that draw us close to the characters. It could’ve been a lot of things, but the one that worked for me was Salzman’s sprinkling of humor. Like spice to a recipe, it is meant to enhance and support the meal, not become the flavor itself.

Go to Day 4 of Lying Awake.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Day 2 of Lying Awake – Structure

The thing I’ve not been crazy about lately in films, television, and books is what I’ll simply call abuse of narrative flow. This is when fairly straightforward stories are hacked into bits and told backwards and upside-down and every which way—for no discernable reason.

There’s a possibly apocryphal story of a Seinfeld episode (the one with the Indian wedding) that the production team found so lame that they decided to tell it backwards simply to invoke at least some interest and uniqueness to it. Balance this with a movie/short story like Memento where the fractured or non-traditional narrative thread grows organically out of the problems facing its amnesiac point-of-view character.

That said, I love complicated narrative threads. My second novel, Quinlin’s Estate, has a fairly complex structure modeled after one of the central images in the book—the labyrinth. A book like Godric takes off on the random wanderings of the mind of a very old man. You need to play an active part in piecing together the timeline of the book. It’s quite demanding on reader and can be a stone in people’s shoes.

Lying Awake doesn’t have a terribly complex narrative structure, but it’s not perfectly sequential so I thought we’d take a look at it today and see if we can figure out what role it serves and if it accomplishes its purpose.

First off, let’s be clear. We’re not talking about flashbacks (all though they’re involved in this book). Instead, we’re talking about the actual time-and-place of the point-of-view of every section and chapter as a whole as you move from left to right through the book.

Lying Awake begins in Section 1 on July 25, 1997 and ends Sept 8, 1997. Section 2 dips into the past, 1969, for one day, Sept 14. Then it jumps to 1982 for one day, July 16 in Section 3. Next in Section 4 it jumps to 1994 for one day March 27. It then picks up from Section 1 in Section 5 with Sept. 9, 1997. We’ve returned, on page 119, to the next day after page 69. This goes to Sept. 14. Section 6 is interesting in that we don’t change years. We stay in 1997, Sept 26, through Oct 5. Section 7 stays in 1997 also, Oct 15 through Nov. 1.

So depending on how you look at it, either we’ve gone three months with some flashbacks or twenty-eight-years.

The point is why. For this we turn to the Section titles.

1 God’s Mystery
2 The Call
3 The Desert
4 Rain From Heaven
5 Darkness
6 Surrender
7 Faith


We have two echoing patterns.

The Call. The Desert. Rain From Heaven.

God’s Mystery. Darkness. Surrender. Faith.

In both of these patterns, Sister John of the Cross is faced at first with a sense of yearning from God, an obstacle to finding answers, and then finally some resolution to those questions. Salzman’s main conflict is a nun faced with doubts about her faith when she learns an epileptic condition may be causing hyper-religiousity. That’s the core of the story and so he introduces it right away. Supporting it are Sister John’s hard journey to faith in the first place and the fact that she feels her interaction with God has been hard won through years of searching and yearning. Because we learn about that road after her condition, I think it heightens the impact of the choice she faces. Surgery, in essence, may take away the path she knows best in interacting with God. Straight-forward storytelling, in this novel, would take the focus away from her decision and simply turn it into a long path where this conflict is only slightly bigger than others faced. This would have made a subtle book even subtler, perhaps to the point of flat, and would have failed the story greatly.

Go to Day 3 of Lying Awake.

::

Want to talk more about Lying Awake than just in the little comment boxes? We have a discussion board (sign up is easy and free) for just that opportunity. Once question I want to throw out relates to structure a little. He chooses to name his chapters using the appropriate days from the Catholic Liturgical Calendar. Authors rarely make random choices, but I don’t know enough about the Liturgical calendar to understand his thinking behind the days. Got an idea? Talk it out.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Day 1 of Lying Awake – The Missing Poems

This is the way the mind works.

I first read Lying Awake a number of years ago and was taken with the quiet little story of what stands at the heart of faith. I mentioned it to people, recommending it as though I were the one receiving royalties, and came to think of it very fondly.

Through the years, whenever people asked me what it was about I said a nun who wrote poetry who was faced with a question of faith. I remembered it being thin but powerful and that there were moments of transcendence when the author had tried to capture the inexpressible. Months and years passed without me reading the book again and as I remembered it, those moments of transcendence became linked with the poetess nun. A few days ago I could have sworn there were snippets of poetry in this book.

Nope.

Mark Salzman talks about Sister John writing poetry. He names her collection—Sparrow on a Roof. Some of her thoughts drift to the poetic, but there isn’t a poem anywhere to be found. It’s a pretty slick trick to pull off. If you’re writing about a talented poet or short story writer or novelist and then have to unveil a sample of their writing you can come to ruin. Either it’ll suck or it’ll sound as if it came from the author’s pen. (see The World According to Garp) Or it’ll distract readers. (see Peace Like a River) So Salzman skipped that challenge entirely and instead imbued his book with a sense and feeling of poetry rather than the poems themselves.

Here’s a passage from Aug 6.

Sister John opened a fresh notebook and began to write. Adoration welled up through the pain, closing of the gap between lover and Beloved. The force of his presence curved eternity in on itself; it was not her love rising after all, but his love pulling her toward him. She fell upwards into brilliance, where all suffering was released.

In the fire of his embrace, all that was her ceased to exist. Only what was God remained.

I am

The cloister bell, the voice of Christ.

He spoke again:

I am

She tried to obey but was frozen in beauty, like a fly trapped in amber. She could not move.

Nothing exists apart from me.

Self had been an allusion, a dream.

God dreaming.


I edited an undergraduate literary magazine at Penn State for two years and let me tell you, we saw far worse poetry than the above, which isn’t even an actual poem.

Salzman doesn’t camp out in the oblique, however. Most of the book is grounded in sharp detail and so it makes the contrast that much more striking. The next scene in the book, in fact, is a wonderful moment where another sister sprays a blue jay with water so a wren can find drink.

Variety is the key lesson here however. If we can balance moments of our book (be they action, horror, comedy, transcendence) with equally striking scenes of a different kind, your work will have immediate breadth, if not depth, of accomplishment. And that’s a start.

Go to Day 2 of Lying Awake.

::

Jules from Master’s Artist sent me this interview with Mark Salzman published in the wake of his finishing Lying Awake. You’ll have to get a free day’s subscription with Salon by watching a little ad thing, but it’s an interesting interview.

Salzman, by the way, is a fascinating person. He’s done fiction and biographies. His Iron & Silk is wonderful. He’s a very passionate person who seems obsessive in his interests. It’s no wonder that this subject attracted him.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Word Game

One of my favorite words in the English language is milquetoast.

Using Joe Faust’s handy link to the online etymology dictionary I discover that the word is derived from a 1920s comic character created by H. T. Webster. In thinking about his character, a timid soul, Webster must have decided to simply link two very unassuming words (milk-toast) as examples of things that would never offend anyone. There’s a subtle genius there.

I could take this post down the road of naming our characters but I don’t think I will. Instead, I want to lament the English language a moment. It’s really not conducive to shorthand illumination of the subtleties of life. Unlike the Germans and their schadenfreude, say, we don’t have many of these magical words that mean bizarre but very tenable things.

The Atlantic Monthly has a column/game where folks try to create these kinds of words. I thought I’d rip them off for a moment and give you all a quick challenge, should you be so engaged.

I’ve been watching The Office recently on DVD. This is a BBC mockumentary set in a fictional paper company. It’s pitch-perfect brilliance. Laughed out loud more than I have in a long time. Also cringed a lot in pained sympathetic embarrassment for one of the characters. That’s the feeling for which I want a word. (Assuming there isn’t already a word. There may be and I’ve just not remembered it. Which would be embarrassing for me. And maybe you’re all at home doing whatever-that-word-is right on my behalf right now.) I want to know what to call the moment when you’re watching someone make an ass out of themselves and your stomach knots up and you just want to look away.

Anyway if you want to come up with a term, that’d be super. You could win a book maybe!

So that’s it for this week. No post tomorrow. Monday it’s on to nuns and poetry with Lying Awake. See you then.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Following Is a Paid Promotional...

We haven’t checked in with Joe at Word Foundry for a while one this site, so I thought I’d point you in his direction. I’m not directing you at any particular post but rather the concept as a whole. This is a man with a status bar in the left column that is tracking his latest WIP. His posts, as a whole, have been bursts about what he’s completed. This is a man moving forward.

I’m guessing (though I don’t know for sure and could probably just ask) that this ends up being a bit of a self-motivation technique. He’s laid the forward momentum of his book out for al the world to see. We’ll know, if we care to stop by everyday, whether the little bar stays at 17% or creeps forward.

There’s a lot of circumstances where motivation shouldn’t be a problem. You have either an assignment or a contract with a date and you need to meet that date. Outside those realms sometimes things get a little freeform.

I think that’s where writing community comes in. It can be difficult being alone in our writing. Who, after all, really needs these pieces written? The world certainly won’t end if another unpublished novel goes unwritten. You can talk yourself out of a lot of words that way. If it becomes too hard to make it alone then rely on motivating presence of others.

I feel a bit like Tony Robbins now. YOU CAN DO IT. YOU CAN ACHIEVE YOUR WRITING GOALS TODAY. Just dial this number and send $159.99 for my video series.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

A Built in Audience

One of the most pleasant successes we’ve had here at Bethany House is with a book called The Swan House by Elizabeth Musser. This is a coming-of-age story set in the Civil Rights-era south and is named after an actual historical landmark outside Atlanta called The Swan House.

CBA was held in Atlanta the year the book launched and we were able to not only set up signings at the convention but arranged a book party at the Swan House itself. The thing was a smash and soon the book was appearing not on Christian bestseller lists but on the Southeast list of Book Sense, which tracks sales at independent book stores. Eventually the book sold so well one month that it made the Book Sense 76 nationally. Now a few years after publication it continues to find a welcome audience in the south east, particularly in the Atlanta-region.

Now, this goes against all of our grand artistic feelings about inspiration, but such a setting is something to keep in mind when you write your novels. A landmark like The Swan House has a built in audience that Musser’s book tapped into directly. As the article below mentioned, it’s not easy to gain attention for your book and so any little opening helps.

This can be true of setting. It can be true, in some sense, of character. Beverly Lewis’ Amish novels have captured a large audience because of the fascination with the sect. (One warning: don’t count on denominational loyalty however. That’s not proven to be the case. It’s only the outlier sects—the snake-handlers and Puritans—who are interesting enough.)

Are their niches out there that you can explore and employ in your writing? This may be more marketing driven than you may be comfortable with but it’s an idea worth pondering.

21st Century Book Tour

The Stumbling Toward Faith electronic book tour.

I don't know if Renee is the first one to do this, but she's the first author to catch my attention doing it--mainly because she's "touring" on sites I read.

Anyway, this is an example of some progressive (and inexpensive) thinking on what it means to be an author in the digital age. Kudos to all for the execution of this. It'll be interesting to see if this sort of thing builds as a trend.


Monday, September 13, 2004

Life of a Salesman

It perhaps says a bit too much about my personality that sometimes I look at life and all I see is sales. Ford selling me a new car. CBS selling me more dead bodies. John Kerry selling me “change.” I swear I didn’t used to be this way. I think it may have come because I am this weird intersection of faith and business where, essentially, I’m making money off of my faith, but it’s not all that much fun.

In publishing, it’s basically all we see. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this industry is built on rejection. And rejection only comes when something is being offered or sold. So we have authors selling themselves and their manuscripts. Agents selling their expertise to clients and their clients’ projects to publishers. We in turn are selling ourselves to prospective authors and our books to booksellers. In that mix you’re bound to see exaggeration, twisting of the truth, biased statistics, and a whole host of shady information–even in Christian publishing. (As a copywriter we had a saying: you may have heard before: “You know where liars go, right? Yeah, the marketing department.)

None of this much jibes with the Christian life as I know it, though I’m sure there are books out there about self-promotion in God’s kingdom. It takes a constant battle of wills, however, to keep the mindset on the needs of others. Because that’s the basis of all this, truly. We have books that will entertain, enlighten, challenge, move, and deepen believers’ faiths. That’s a tremendous honor to have been given and to reduce, as happens how and then, to simply we have the next bestseller belittles it.

Even here. I started thinking down this path because I’m always aware of what’s going on at other places beside here. This weekend I came across Image’s new Forum and unfortunately my first instinct wasn’t, “Yay, another wonderful opportunity for conversation and the furthering of the dialogue on art and faith.” It was: “Crap. Competition. Good competition.”

I think I’m over it. Here’s the website to check them out. I’m sure it’ll be a terrific place to gather with a far broader group of thinkers and believers. I, in the meanwhile, have been given a new glimpse at the continued honor it is to write and converse with all of you at all. And so with, hopefully, your interests and needs in mind, I’ll keep pushing on down this path. Not selling–or not selling 100% of the time–but sharing and giving. Because it seems the better way. And I’d like to be able to sleep at night. So I can dream of your next bestseller and how, together, we’ll take the bestseller charts by storm leaving every other publishing choking on our ashes. Suckers.

Welcome to the Book World...You May Now Weep Openly.

Long, long article. Very much worth it.

(And just to give credit, I came across this link at Jordon Cooper's site.)

Friday, September 10, 2004

Recycled Post: The Curse of Writing, the Cult of Reading

(This post was originally posted on my author site sometime in 2002. It's Friday and I'm braindead so rather than say something useless, I'll steal from myself and hope most of you haven't read it before. )

I’ve started this essay three times now and it’s gone horrendously. Everything I say about living as a “writer” is coming off as either pretentious, precious, or simply boring and I am on the verge of bagging it. I’ll give it a go with one simple illustration and leave it at that.

This is the writer’s curse—that we write about life rather than living it.

In the wake of my daughter’s birth we made the proto-parental gesture of purchasing a video camera. It’s me who’s typically behind the lens and as she began to learn to crawl I found myself torn between trying to capture the moment on tape and frustrated that I was watching this all occur through a lens or on a screen. That video camera put enough objectivity between myself and my daughter that I felt as though I’d missed some part of the moment.

Writing is the same way, except the objectivity isn’t gained through a lens. Instead, we teach ourselves to pull out of certain “interesting” moments (stepping back psychologically) in order to gain enough distance to study and memorize what’s going on. Examples:

Breaking up with a girlfriend? How’s her jaw set? What are my hands doing? Are the people walking by noticing?

Waiting in a doctor’s office for a diagnosis? What’s the temperature of the room? How are the nurses reacting? Can I control my voice when asked a question?

These things then all get stored away to furnish interiors and landscape the exteriors of the worlds that make it to paper. It doesn’t happen all the time—at least to me. It may for the great writers. Perhaps they are always observing and cataloging and sucking up “life” in order to spit it out again on to the page. Perhaps, since it is the fuel that burns so brightly in their writing, they always hold life at arm’s length. And if so, that’s why it is their curse as well.

::

The cult of reading is similarly oblique and it’s aimed primarily at Christians though it has applications for everyone.

The cult of reading in the simplest terms is the tendency to let others define our experience and understanding—particularly with God. One book alone ALWAYS has the power to judge the heart and yet when our heart stutters in every other chapter of a devotional we read because of some well-turned phrase of unique insight we think that we’ve been changed. I disagree.

My feeling is that relationship with God, with an invisible, unprovable God, is difficult and we do our best to keep our lingering doubts bottled up. Therefore, what we’re responding to in well-written books about faith isn’t always the impact it has on our lives or the change it will bring so much as a thrilling acknowledgement that is HAS had an impact on someone else’s life—and therefore is real. Someone else’s faith is real and therefore, mine however small, must be, too.

But just as writing is life once removed, this is faith once removed and is only valuable for so long. We need to confront God Himself, alone and unshackled from the teachings of others—even those as seemingly wise as Lewis or Lucado or Wilkinson or whatever devotional flavor-of-the-month appeals. We need that faith to be real and ours alone.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Evolve or Die

You’ve heard perhaps that the largest retailer of Christian books in the world is now not a Christian store but the biggest company in the world: Wal-Mart. On some levels that makes sense. We’re not a huge industry so if the biggest corporation in the world pays attention to your product they’re going to eat bite off a pretty good chunk without trying very hard.

The concern among CBA stores of course is that Wal-Mart is able to buy at a better discount, offer the lowest price on the most popular titles which often forces Christian book stores to the brink or past the brink of existence. Independent book stores faced it with Barnes and Noble and Borders. Small coffee shops face it with Starbucks. Local Mexican joints face it with Chipotle.

But…

How many Christian books is Wal-Mart offering? There’s the rub.

Wal-Mart is taking on the cream off the top. They want Rick Warren and Ted Dekker and Beverly Lewis and the Left Behind boys and Dee and Lori and Karen and Terri and Francine and Tracie and all the other women writers.

What the CBA bookstore has to offer its customers is breadth and selection. The assumption moving forward has to be that readers—while they love the bestsellers—are going to search out other authors to sample. Wal-Mart won’t stock them. Target won’t. Sam’s Club will have less than Wal-Mart.

The real variety of choices will come at Lighthouse Books. Or whatever your CBA bookstore is called. For up-and-coming authors, for smaller novelists, for folks who’ve bestselling talents but simply haven’t hit it big…this is the pitch that needs to be made to CBA bookstores. We’re the ones who are loyal to you. We’re the ones to whom you should be paying attention. Sure Tim and Jerry are still going to move books in your store. But what you have to offer that can’t be bought for a better price down the road is my novel right here. We need each other. (At least until you sell enough of my novels so that I can be sold in Wal-mart too!)

(Disclaimer: This may be utterly wrong. If you've got more business sense than me--which is likely as I've met lemurs with more business sense than me--please correct my logic.)

Robert Sabuda

According to my Google search I've never mentioned this guy and I feel a bit remiss, especially since I just had a random thoughts post.

Put simply, he's amazing. He makes some of the most wonderful pop-up books I've ever seen. Great stuff and ridiculously cheap at Amazon once you see what's inside.

Twas the Night Before Christmas is our current favorite. They're usually stocked at BN or Borders in the children's section. Check them out.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Who Are You Writing For?

During my first upper-level writing seminar at Penn State I remember my professor asking us to spend a moment and write down who we were writing for. The question confounded me a bit because at the time I wrote as much for my own amusement as for any specific audience but it seemed entirely too self-absorbed to admit so I answered that I wrote for a good friend at a different college. (This friend once won the award for Best Backhanded Compliment by saying: "You're way funnier in writing than in person" after reading something I'd written.)

Going back to the self-absorption theme for a moment, I can't remember what other people wrote for their audience. Most probably said friends. A few might have said "humanity" or "the universal soul" since we were overly serious, writerly college undergrads. My professor read our answers aloud anonymously and didn't seem real pleased with anything we'd turned in.

Settling himself on his desk and adjusting his glasses, he looked out over us and said: "You should be writing for your characters."

We in turn looked back and, as one, gave a collective: "Huh?"

It's a truly memorable moment. I was expecting great insight and instead I was left with something that, on the surface, seemed to make no sense whatsoever. Mostly because I was looking at it from the wrong perspective.

Who do you write for? Asked that question and all I saw was the finished product. The book or the story or the pithy email that made my friend at Bucknell laugh. Professor Downs, however, was talking about the actual writing.

How do you TELL the story in a novel? How do you get from page 1 to page 350? For whom do you make the choice to kill off Ivan or send Harriet into Clive's bed? (I'm just picking names out of the air here, play along.) And the answer is that those choices shouldn't be influenced by what we think readers will like or what will play with the LOLs in Peoria but what makes sense for the sake of our characters.

One of the most common criticisms you see is: "That didn't feel true to that character." Or, "That decision felt false or contrived." Those are moments where the author may not be writing with her character's sake but for the sake of the story.

Which brings us to a strange question? Who's story is it in the end? Is it ours or theirs? I think you'll find that (and this is dependent on POV) for the most part, the great stories are owned by their characters. The marionette strings aren't visible. No hand up the Muppet's arse. But it's not necessarily easy turning our story over to them. We have places we want to go. Scenes we want to write. Sometimes we have the whole confambulation in outline form before we even write the first sentence. And sometimes that works. For lots of writers it does. But if it doesn't, if people are complaining that our stories are contrived, our plots predictable, then perhaps we need to just let our characters loose a little more and see what comes of it.

One lesson learned. And it only took a decade.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Joy, Redux

I’m not entirely happy with yesterday’s post. The problem is that I equated “funny” with “joy” and that’s obviously not right. So much of “funny” is built on pain that joy often doesn’t even enter the scene.

We do need funny works in CBA, though. I spent about five minutes fruitlessly trying to think of a Christian who’s made their living being funny. Dave Meurer’s pretty good. The guys who write for The Door can be.

But that doesn’t equal “joy.”

Perhaps it’s too intense an emotion to fully carry a novel. Maybe, as commenters suggested, it mostly comes in scenes and moments. Like the end of Andre Dubus’ story “Voices on the Moon.” Or Ray Carver’s “Cathedral.” It’s something that needs to flare—burn brightly and quickly. In an essay or poem—e. e. cummings has some joyous poetry, if I recall.

What are some other writings or works of art of any sort that speak to you of “joy”? Music choruses are the obvious place. Can that be replicated on the page or canvas? Who has succeeded for you?

So, in the meanwhile, I am now looking for both “joyous” books and plain “funny” books. They are not necessarily the same thing and I was incorrect for stating so yesterday.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

I 've Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy...

We were talking about this the other day in the office and it’s something I’d like to bring up here in the hopes of perhaps inspiring one or two of you.

There is a sense in which CBA Fiction offers a weird paradox. People, including me probably, accuse it of being unrealistically “safe and shiny.” Yet when you look closer, there’s no way we can we accuse it of ignoring the pain and suffering in the world because, by and large, it’s is chock full of pain and suffering. Books about abuse and addictions and divorce and depression and the list goes on. Seriously.

It’s the last chapter though that we remember. That’s the one that—depending on our persuasion—moves us or seems repetitive. That’s the one where most of life’s little earthquakes settle and the sun breaks through the clouds. That is the promise and power of God—hope through painful times.

One element I feel that we tend to miss in this kind of fiction however is the wonder and miracle of joy. Life is hard and must be overcome. Which is certainly the case. But it’s not the only reality. I suppose it’s hard to write a novel with conflict and drama that includes “joy” but if folks want to try, I’d certainly be willing to listen.

Most of us writers, we tend toward the introspective, the melancholic. The dark night of the soul is a weekly ritual for many of us. From a pure marketing perspective however that’s not great business. Readers’, whose lives are tough, may not be so inclined to wallow in such mire. A book that shines a honest light of joy, what a beacon that could be.

One of the most joyous series in CBA to me is Lawana Blackwell’s Gresham Chronicles. There’s some difficult circumstances that set the plot into motion, but the overall tone of the books are filled with delight and pleasure. I think it’s no accident in the world that her books did so well.

We need Oscar Wilde’s and Cole Porter’s and David Sedaris’. (Yes, yes. I know.) We need About a Boy and Straight Man and Harvey and Bringing Up Baby. We need to lighten up a little. We need to rediscover joy in our art.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

A Rejection Letter

Let’s get this straight. I’ve really not been an acquisitions editor all that long. Look at the archives and you get a rough sense of how long I’ve been prowling about with the editor badge pinned to my chest. Mr. Big Shot. So I’m really still learning—pretending I know more than I do and speaking extemporaneously on the rest. In other words I’m still earning my stripes, still figuring things out.

And one of the more surprising aspects of this work is how deeply rejection seeps through the entire industry. I once said that writing is, at the same time, both narcissistic and masochistic and I’m more convinced than ever.

The foremost rejection, of course, is the one staring the writer in the face. I won’t make light of it because I’ve faced it and I know you all face it. It sucks, there’s nothing we can do about it, and so the best thing is to try NOT to take it personally and move on.

And while I take no sick thrill from rejecting people, I admit that being on the other side of the pen has obvious advantages. What I never fully expected, however, was that the rejecting was just starting—and this time it’d be aimed back at me.

The problem is a vision for the book. When a book comes in, rarely is it in pristine, publishable shape. Rather editors need to see the potential in the book and begin convincing others of the better, grander, more saleable book yet to come. We envision edits and character shading. We get ideas for great covers. We see the book, published, in readers’ hands. Except—

An author decides to go with another company. They thank you for your enthusiasm, how much it meant to them. It was nothing you had done. It was them. They just need to go elsewhere. It felt, in other words, an awful lot like getting broken up with by a girl, only without all the returning of music CDs and T-shirts. So you just nod, wish them the best, meekly ask to see a copy of the book when it comes out, and then go back through the manuscript and try to lose yourself in the cold comfort that there were way more problems in the book than you’d noticed at first.

The other possibility is that your own company turns you down. I’ve yet to come up with an analogy for this one. It’s more like a bad family argument. Or the bickering between an old married couple. Past failures come up. Conflicting expectations are worked over for the ninetieth time. Gravy boats get thrown. Standard stuff.

The last rejection is failure on the shelves. Author is on board, company is on board. The book comes out and nothing. A mediocre review here. A chain buy-in there. But for the most part people couldn't care less. This feels most like raging against God, to be honest. Readers are this all-powerful, omniscient being to whom we bring our meager offerings. For reasons that may or may not be comprehensible, a book fails and what can we do but shake our tiny fists? But I’m not asking for pity. It’d be a bit like the cat requesting it of the mouse.

I just thought it was interesting. An industry permeated with rejection. Even here. Most of you won’t get to this point. You’ll stop at the first paragraph or scan through quickly. But I can take it. I’m tough. You can’t wound…(breaks down into crashing sobs.)