f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 10/01/2004 - 11/01/2004

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

Friday, October 29, 2004

Mulligan

Why don't we call it a week and start anew on Monday? I want to readdress the notion of conflict (in fiction, not in my life) and then just plow forward.

I want to take a moment and thank you all for your kind words and thoughts. Things are afoot here at BHP and it's my sincere hope that they all shake down for the best. To quote Ewan and Nicole: "Come what may."

In the meanwhile, here's a post I was pointed to that, despite the title, has nothing to do with singing nuns and Julie Andrews and has everything to do with Christian fiction: "A Problem for Maria."

Any thoughts? (Other than pointing out that I made two musical references in the span of two sentences and that perhaps I should knock myself down one notch on the sexual identity scale from a few weeks ago?)

Thursday, October 28, 2004

ECPA Publisher's University

Industry colleagues... anybody attending this? Baker Publishing is sending a chunk of folks from both the Grand Rapids and Bloomington offices and I will be one of those lucky souls. Would greatly enjoy meeting up with you there...and now this is sounding like a personal ad.

I'm a M/W/M, 30. 5' 11'', hazel eyes. 31 inseam. Somewhat largish ears. Lingering blisters from long run two weeks ago. I like walks along the beach, snuggling, cats, and people with a vision for where the industry can go with fiction.

I'm seeking SMorD/W,B,R,Y,O,P,G/MorF, ages 22-75, with good breath and time for riveting conversation about punctuation, snickering over worst proposals we've seen, and shared bitterness/covetousness over Left Behind. Unless you work at Tyndale, and then I promise that all bitterness shall be repressed.

Email me with your schedule and a recent snapshot. Please, no marketing or sales colleagues need reply... :)

Friday, October 22, 2004

Moral Books Day 4 – You’ve Chosen…Unwisely – Bad Choices in A Simple Plan

How do you feel about punches to the stomach? Slaps upside the head? How do you feel about willfully throwing your emotions into a meat-grinder or running full-speed into a brick wall? How do you feel about the music of Nine Inch Nails? The movies of Lars von Trier? The paintings of Edvard Munch? I ask these things because going with Scott Smith into his Simple Plan…well, it’s no walk in the park.

Mini-plot Synopsis: On their way to carryout their annual visit to their father’s grave site two brothers and a friend find a downed plane filled with cash. The pilot is dead. Nobody seems to be looking for the money. It’s the simplest thing in the world to divide it by three and just wait….

First off, if I’m honest, this is one of my favorite books of the last decade or so. I think I read it in early 1998 and it hit me like a 2 x 4. Remember the scales we did two weeks ago and how we talked about the balance between story and writing and how the great books are perfect 5’s? This is pure 5.

Told in first person from Hank Mitchell’s perspective, it’s just a relentless story. It’s as bleak and cold as the Ohio winter day on which it starts and as dark as the writings of James Cain, David Gaddis, Jim Thompson, or any other noir masters. And the amazing this is that it’s just continually shocking.

The reason is you and me, we’re Hank Mitchell. Look at that name. Hank Mitchell. Could there be a more common, everyman’s moniker. Hank Mitchell is a good guy. We want him to be a good guy. He’s not a sociopath trying to con us into liking him. He’s not evil incarnate like a Peter Straub or Stephen King villain. (An aside—woke up the other night fixated on wicked creepy scenes from Peter Straub’s lost boy lost girl, a book I read perhaps eight months ago. That’s when you know a book is effective, when it still freaks you out 240 days later.)

Hank Mitchell is a man who makes a bad choice. And then a second bad choice to cover the first. And then another. And then another. Trent Reznor called one of his album’s The Downward Spiral and there’s not a more effective image to describe the process. It’s a chilling examination of the simple morality of our choices. It’s also a chilling examination of how easily we can talk ourselves into something we know isn’t quite right.

The epigraph to the book—which comes from Mary Wollstonecraft, whose daughter would elaborate on this very idea to great effect—says, “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”

That’s a fantastic theme for a book, especially a book you’re willing to let end bad. Because there’s as much to be learned from tragedy—and often more—as there is from the happy life.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Moral Books Day 3 – Virgin or Whore? – Purity in The V Club

Honestly, you all have no idea what I go through for you. The debates I have. The people I annoy. The questions I ask. And now the books I read.

You see, I’m the father of two daughters and the last thing in the world I want to be reading right now is a book starring four high school girls that’s all about, well, the various levels of teenage groping. But I pushed through, because that’s the kind of guy I am…and because it was actually the book of our in-house youth editor and I needed to get it back to her.

Yes, The V Club is a “kids” book. I read lots of them throughout the year because A) they’re quick, B) I enjoy chatting with the youth editors, C) they’re often quite engaging, and D) that’s our future coming. The V Club by Kate Brian is listed as being for ages 14 and up, though you know it’s being read by younger audience. One quick look and you realize much has changed in youth publishing. The line between chick lit and teen lit is almost invisible. Only the age of the protagonist marks the distinction. The covers are slick. The stories are aggressive and edgy. Whether we want it or not, there’s a level of sophistication to older teen books than we’ve ever seen before. And The V Club is right on top of that trend.

Mini-plot Recap: The town’s richest widow dies and leaves huge annual scholarship for a student who meets specific criteria including academic excellence, service, extracurricular activities, AND personal purity. Four senior friends are all aflutter at the news—but what is personal purity? To stake their claim they help form the V Club—for students pledging abstinence. Will they all be members by the time the scholarship is awarded though?

The characters run the gamut. You have the wallflower who’s never been kissed. The girl with the steady boyfriend who is trying to make up her mind. The girl who made a mistake in her past and regrets. And the girl who certainly plays the flirt but hasn’t found the “right” guy yet.

I’ve always found the inner-workings of groups of girls to be mostly headache-inducing and the personal drama and “hip” dialogue in this book do little to stop that trend. None of this comes off as terribly realistic but I think it’s core readers would pretty much eat it up with a spoon.

And at the heart of the book beats a pretty interesting question—especially in today’s public schools. What is purity? Does it have a place in one’s life, especially outside of any religious context? What are we to do with this whole sex thing anyway?

I’m not sure most Christian parents would be thrilled with Kate Brian’s “answers” as presented in the book. But from an arguing perspective I’ll say that she comes down further to the conservative side than I expected hammering pretty hard on being “sluttish,” offering a sex scene that’s not fairy tale perfect, and talking about intentional chastity as though it’s something sorta noble rather than freakish. Overall, it’s stil a rather surface-level treatment of the topic—we never do learn the girls’ private definitions of purity—but that’s to be expected in the genre.

Sex is still the forbidden fruit in Christian publishing and I’m talking about adult books here not just teen titles. It’s the thing we’ve stayed most Puritanical about. Out-of-wedlock sex usually just destroys lives in these books…and I don’t know if that’s the case in the real world. It’s certainly a tough issue and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly but right now I think we’re approaching it with too broad of strokes.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Moral Books Day 2 – Be Good Now – Piety and How to Be Good

In a lot of ways I am not an ideal reader. Perhaps preeminent among the reasons is that my retention is incredibly low. I read fast; I understand what I read; I can respond to it either on a test or in a written review; I forget what I read.

Snippets stay with me of the things I really enjoyed, but I’m not one to remember large chunks or memorize passages.

Which brings me to our book for today—Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good.

Eating Crow, what with its looking through the past and focus on trying to do the right thing, seemed to be a combination of two Hornby books—High Fidelity and this one. Eating Crow, I finished the other night. It’s fresh in my mind. How to Be Good, well I can’t remember exactly when I read it and that’s emblematic of the problem I’m going to have today. Regardless, I’m pushing on. Just know that overall, the book is interesting and worth reading. Even if I’ve only general vagaries to say about it.

Mini plot recap: Told from the perspective of Katie, wife, mother, and doctor. This is the story of how a marriage about to fall apart—Katie has begun an affair—turns bizarre when the husband (who writes a newspaper column called “The Angriest Man in Holloway”) reexamines his life and, under the guidance of a guru, decides to become good.

“Good” in the case means not just talking, but action. You know how political candidates (not naming names) insist they’re going to solve crises in education, poverty, environment, etc? Well, David Carr tries to do just that, at least in his own little corner of the world.

The twist is that Katie, who’d longed for a change in her husband, can’t stand the new David. They’ve swapped roles, essentially, with him becoming an optimist and her the cranky realist and it drives her nuts. Worse, the guru (named GoodNews) has moved into their house is now affecting the kids, the neighborhood, everything.

Hornby’s rare gift is that he takes these high-concept notions and somehow keeps them earthbound. Where Eating Crow spun off into the stratosphere, How to Be Good is uncomfortably realistic in its treatment of a marriage turned on its head and how lives are altered when you start acting unselfishly, for whatever reason.

I fail miserably in remembering the downsides of books. I know that this isn’t a thinly veiled Gospel so the theology may make some of you cringe, but when I recommend general market books I do so with the implied notion that one shouldn’t expect gentle, harmless fluff.

The book, as far as I can remember raised at least two interesting question. First, it made me think about the number of books I’ve read in which one part of a couple (almost always the woman) becomes a Christian and how their light and life just shine to their partner. And soon he converts as well. Hornby played with that notion and it offers the possibility that some couples may very well be torn apart by one’s conversion.

Second, it plays a twist on the whole conversion story by having it viewed through another character’s eyes. David’s change raises a whole passel of self-doubt for his wife (who always had the satisfaction of, if not being a good person, than an least being better than her husband) about her place in the world. What does it mean to be “good” in a Godless world? Who are we measured against? Is it even worth trying?

Those are interesting questions. And seeing a talented writer like Hornby bat them around is a decided, if somewhat poignant, treat.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Moral Books Day 1 – Forgive Me – Repentance in Eating Crow

Almost all thoughtful fiction raises moral issues of some variety. In my various readings throughout the years, however, I’ve come across a number of books whose central topic or theme ties so closely into a moral principle that it makes for interesting discussion. How are general market writers dealing with “morality” when they look at an issue that seems so closely linked to most religious systems. Can we learn anything from their treatment that helps us in writing our own examinations of moral and faith issues?

Today we’re looking at the issue of repentance, specifically in the form of seeking forgiveness. The book is Eating Crow by Jay Rayner.

Mini plot recap: Marc Bassett is a vitriolic food critic who is known for his scathing words. One day however a distraught chef commits suicide in the wake of Marc’s eviscerating review and Marc, feeling guilty, seeks out the widow and apologizes. In doing so he gets such a rush of emotion and feeling that he’s soon digging through his past for more thing to apologize over. A man willing to apologize honestly is a rare thing and he soon captures the attention of a government agency examining the effects of apologizing in an international context for the sins of humanity’s past. Soon he becomes known as the sorriest man in the world….

This book reminded me greatly of Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good, which we’ll discuss tomorrow. It was this synergism that led me to start this week’s topic in fact. The main linking characteristic is the both books are written with a vaguely satirical lilt, Eating Crow’s just a little stronger than Hornby’s.

The implication of this seems to that these topics can only be written about tongue-in-cheek or absurdly because in everyday life, they simply don’t exist. Or don’t matter. I’m not sure either author is really wrong about that either. In America, at least, we don’t see people—other than athletes who’ve been caught using drugs—saying “Sorry” very often. In politics especially, an apology will only be turned around by the other party to be used as one of the final nails in your political coffin. So instead, we split rhetorical hairs or ignore the question or refuse to acknowledge mistakes.

Eating Crow wonders if it wouldn’t be better just to get it all out in the open. “The truth will set you free” after all, right? The book seems to play that card for a while, but its eventual view is a little more cynical. I suppose that, at its heart, it’s right to say that apologies for their own sake are worth very little, but that’s not exactly earth-shattering insight either. Perhaps the most interesting message the book seems to offer is that asking for forgiveness and being forgiven are definitely not one-and-the-same. We have no Godly absolution in this book, just the cold mean facts that sometimes in this life you may do things that invariably change your life forever. It’s an interesting reminder, especially in comparison with our understanding of God’s forgiveness, and I hope it might even soften our heart a little should we be withholding forgiveness. Even for a day. Even for an instant.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Day 4 of Stakes and Conflict - Raise the Stakes

And now we come to the mysterious beating heart of what makes a novel work or not. These are the things I want to be talking about on this blog and the things that, in the end, I feel a touch inadequate to address.

I wrote a book, after all, (Quinlin’s Estate) for which I’m not entirely sure the internal stakes that drove the entire plot were high enough. I tried to make them high. I tried to make readers feel Eve Lawson’s compelling need to try and save a historic estate from destruction but in the end I think readers may have shrugged and said, “It’s just a big house. Get over it.”

That’s not a fun place to be, trust me. (I think Ezekiel’s internal stakes were more readily appreciated. Ian Merchant, an author, faced with the feeling that he may never be able to write again may be more universal, as a lot of times what a person does helps define who they are.)

The key to making your stakes enormous enough rests in that last sentence.

You need to play psychologist-of-the-world for a moment, take a look at your story, and play to the most universal concern you can find in that situation. What are readers most compelled by in their own lives? If you can latch onto one of those fears or wishes or dreams or nightmares you have yourself some compelling stakes.

For Quinlin’s Estate, I didn’t set the stakes as “our universal need to save old buildings.” I tried to set them as, “what happens if the thing you place your faith in disappears?” That, I still think, works pretty well. The problem is that it was a harder leap for readers to make that Eve Lawson put her faith into a building than, say, a person. (Who knows? If any of you’ve read it, you can comment on my success or failure at this.)

I think novels offer self-proof that universality of stakes is what makes a great novel compelling. After all, Jane Austen hasn’t written in hundreds of years and yet here we are, still reading her, still finding ourselves mirrored in her characters. That doesn’t happen unless she chooses a timeless conflict.

After that, I think we step away from the stakes themselves and begin to look at supporting characteristics of the novel. How well was it written? How engaging is the story surrounding the stakes? And, as many folks have pointed out, how compelling are the characters for whom these “internal” stakes are important?

Emma Woodhouse, if not for her genuine selflessness and fetching naivety, would be insufferable in all her attempts to control those around her. Will Freeman’s subtle and usually humorous self-loathing actually helps us see he’s not quite so shallow as he wants to be in About a Boy. Their dilemmas are powerful to us because they are neither perfect (at which point the stakes are meaningless) nor so imperfect as to have your readers start greatly loathing them. (Which leads me to a novel like Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, where I couldn’t get past the fact that I disliked all the characters.) In the final tally, we need characters to be “us”—flawed humans with a fighting chance to better ourselves.

If nothing else, this gets to how amazingly intricate and inextricable a novel really is. Plot, conflict, character, writing—everything needs to be in its proper place and to a proper degree. We’ve been talking about internal and external stakes isolated from that fact. And while I think they’re dreadfully important, they’re worthless without all the rest of the supporting nuts and bolts.

But piece by piece hopefully we can look at the full-spectrum of what it means to write and be our most prepared to tackle this crazy world of novels.

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Continue to Day 5 of Stakes and Conflict.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Day 3 of Stakes and Conflict - What's at Stake?

For me, the greatest example of high stakes is from the film, D.O.A., the 1950s film noir. Basic plot: a guy is told he’s been poisoned. He has two days to figure out who did it and why in hopes of saving himself. There’s a thousand other great examples, but for me that one always takes the cake.

Simply put, life or death = high stakes. Love or loneliness is another big one. Truth or ignorance/ Danger or safety/ Justice or injustice: these all fuel the mystery field, often using death as an inciting incident as opposed to the stakes themselves. Success or failure is at the heart of many novels. Win or lose. Right or wrong. Guilty or pardoned.

Those are examples of stakes for what typically make up your “external” plots. Is Grisham’s intrepid-young-lawyer going to extricate himself from the clutches of The Firm? Are King’s protagonists going to escape the clutches of It? Is Emma Woodhouse going to win herself the clutches of noble Mr. Knightley? How about Bridget and Mr. Darcy? Is Hamlet ever going to avenge his father’s death? Will winter ever end in Narnia? And, for the love of all that’s good in Middle Earth, can somebody please grow a pair and throw that damn ring into Mt. Doom?

Now if a story is poorly told or filled with too much epic elf poetry readers may not end up caring about the stakes. But that’s a fault of pacing, writing, and other things—not the stakes themselves.

The problem is when somebody reads your manuscript and says: “But what’s the point?”

I see this happening mostly with character-driven fiction. Scenes can be beautiful; sentences can be eloquent; symbols can ring with the echo of angels. And yet the book just seems to be spinning its wheels, headed nowhere.

Chances are either your inciting incident isn't strong enough to overcome the inertia that is Page 1 of a book or your character has nothing at stake, at least in the eyes of the reader.

“Internal” stakes are a lot more complicated to describe. They don’t boil down so neatly into life or death, this or that, unless you’re writing a conversion story and the stakes end up being Heaven or Hell.

“Internal” stakes, most often have to do with overcoming something mentally or becoming fully-changed as a person. We all know how difficult it is to actually change and so this can make for some tremendous emotional fodder. Richard Russo writes books in this vein, taking scallywag men and giving them a second chance at being a decent father. About a Boy offers a selfish cad a chance to get off his self-imposed islandhood. Godric is the story of a man desperately hoping the truth of his life can be told.

Dramas are rife with “internal” stakes. Ibsen, Chekhov, Miller, O’Neill, Williams—the characters in these dramas often face incredible strains on their humanities, and in the great tragic tradition often fail to be changed.

Novels—let’s just say it’s harder to get away with that. Especially a CBA novel. Very few readers out there want to spend 500 pages with a person only for them to fail us. It’s real, but it’s depressing. But you have more than one character arc in your story, more than one set of “internal” and even “external” stakes. There’s no saying that it all must be sunshine and roses.

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That’s an overview of internal stakes. Tomorrow we’ll talk briefly about the $10,000,000 question—How to make something that’s vitally important to your character vitally important to your reader, too.

Continue to Day 4 of Stakes and Conflict.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Day 2 of Stakes and Conflict - External vs. Internal

I don’t have enough time today to make a full attempt at discussing stakes in a novel and their importance. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow for that topic.

Instead, I want to point out something that’s going to become important as we look at character-driven novels versus plot-driven novels. This is the notion of internal action and external action. Character-driven books are dominated for the most part by “internal” processes—thoughts, feelings, etc. In plot-driven books the what’s happening outside is most important. Usually a book has both an internal and external plotline and sometimes more than one of each.

In Dogs of Babel for instance, you have a plotline of a man dealing with his grief (internal) and also trying to teach his dog to talk (external). They are wrapped up in each other, but also distinct and readers want resolution to both. Often the climax of the “external” plot offers the resolution to the “internal” plot.

In Christian books the romantic plot is often internal, the spiritual plot is internal, and then there is also an external plot (murder investigation, war with a cattle baron, etc) that also needs to be resolved. Remember that when people complain about our books seeming a little thin. We almost always have at least one extra major internal plotline, so either the spiritual element or the romance seems cheap or thin. It’s something to keep in mind. (And why books that are written where the spiritual plotline IS the only internal plotline are so important.)

A final thought: these plots don’t have to instigated by the same incident. But as always, the inciting incidents NEED to be strong enough. A quick example is my own novel Ezekiel’s Shadow. The internal spiritual plotline is incited by an author’s case of writer’s block. The external plotline is incited by someone stalking the author.
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Continue to Day 3 of Stakes and Conflict

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Day 1 of Stakes and Conflict - The Inciting Incident vs. What’s at Stake

For the remainder of the week, I’m going to talk about books at the 1 end of the yesterday’s scale. For lack of a better term, they’re most commonly referred to as “character-driven stories.” Usually, these are the books whose plots can’t be neatly summarized. The reason why, depending on your druthers, is either because there’s “no plot” or “it’s all plot.”

Our discussion is spurred by a comment made by Becky in HaloScan from yesterday referring to particular stories in a recent short story contest. From what I can gather there were a lot of stories in which someone reacting to a parent dying was the story. There were so many of these that people started crying “cliché.” Becky’s query was how one could find high stakes—which dying parents seem to be--without falling into repetition.

It’s the most important question any author can ask. I’ll say it again. This is foremost importance. And there are no easy answers. But we’ll try to gain some ground.

I am the author of a dead parent story. It was called “The Art of Packing Boxes” and was written in 1993, I believe. It was about a chef whose estranged father had died, leaving him with a mound of boxed belongings to sort. (Original, huh?) At the same time, his daughter is packing for college. In the course of sorting all of these belongings, my main character is faced with the understanding that his life, as well, is neatly boxed. He has segmented family from work from this past that had included this missing father. And he feels like three separate people. And he has to decide if he’s going break down those walls and share his life with those closest to them or keep himself packed into neat and orderly containers.

The first thing to realize is that “dead parents” aren’t what’s at stake. Dead parents are, at best, an inciting incident.

Think of this in terms of chemistry. You have an inert solid that you want to do something: explode, fizz, turn color. To make this happens you need to add something else, something powerful enough to enact that change. That’s the inciting incident.

A parent dying—anybody dying—is an inciting incident. A wife’s death incites a man to teach his dog to speak English in Dogs of Babel. The death of dog incites a young boy to take a quest in Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime. A woman’s disappearance, and subsequent death, incites a pastor to question her faith in Passion of Reverend Nash. Lisa Samson uses death as an inciting incident in The Living End. Dubus’s "A Father’s Tale" is sparked by a hit-and-run accident. It’s not a cliché, though. Because you can’t talk about mortality without death in the picture. You need the memento mori. But you need it to be meaningful and powerful, too.

But to restate: these things aren’t what’s at stake. They’re the inciting incidents. (Tomorrow we’ll get to what’s at stake.)

Some other common inciting incidents:

Disease/Illness. See Lying Awake. Godric.

A new face arriving in one’s life. See The Risk Pool. Some Wildflower in My Heart. A Prayer for Owen Meany. The Food of Love. Most love stories.

An old face returning. See Nobody’s Fool.

A new opportunity. A failure. A tragedy. A miracle. A mistake. A discovery.

None of things can be the point of the story. But they can fuel the story. They can be the spark that ignites the story and helps push it forward.

A final point: these things we’re talking about, they are not unique to “character-driven fiction.” If you break down almost any novel, there’s an inciting incident.

Girl Who Loves Tom Gordon – ignited by a girl getting lost

The Firm – ignited by a seemingly-perfect new job opportunity

High Fidelity – ignited by a break-up

It’s not terribly hard to come up with the inciting incidents. You must simply be sure they’re powerful to bring forth the forward motion you want. It’s the “stakes” that are both devilishly hard and terribly important. And those stakes are what separate character-driven books from plot-driven books. We’ll get to them tomorrow.
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Continue to Day 2 of Stakes and Conflict

Monday, October 11, 2004

On a Scale of 1 to 10 – Ordinary or Extraordinary

I wasn’t planning to do scales past a week, but the topic I want to discuss fits pretty well into the whole dichotomous-ideologies-thing we’ve got going on so I figured I’d run it for one more day.

At one end of the mindset spectrum (10) is the person who sees entertainment as an opportunity to escape the “real world.” Day-to-day life is mundane and boring, thus they want transporting art that takes them outside-the-ordinary. The whole fun of reading a book or watching a movie is to see stuff you don’t see everyday. Thus you get thrillers and horror and suspense and science fiction and, even romance and mystery. You get, for the most part, characters acting predictably in unpredictable circumstances.

At the other end (1), you have men and women who see works of art as a chance to understand their lives around them better. They see the intricacies of daily living and find all the drama they need in the discovery of what it means to be human in the circumstances. Usually there’s a precipitating event that acts as a catalyst to start the ball rolling (even a death), but that event doesn’t usually have the “extraordinariness” that we see in the other novels.

I read both. I read vampire stories. I read dramas of trying to be a father. I read romances that turn the vagaries of societal expectations into fine humor. I read books where giant great white sharks jump out of the water to eat helicopters. And in the middle, at 5, are the amazing books that use the extraordinary to teach us about ordinary life or make ordinary life seem extraordinary. (see Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool.)

I will say one quick thing and then be done. Right now, from the manuscripts I see and we see in office, I think there are a lot of folks writing at the 7, 8, and 9 range. They’re wrapped up in the page-turning power of the extraordinary. That’s fine. All for it.

I want to point out, however, that there’s opportunity too for the quieter stories. Not clichéd ones about young widows or abused wives or doubting pastors, but stories about the complexities of life and the perplexing moments of faith and the transcendent. There are extraordinary stories to be told about ordinary people. (Not ordinary Roman gladiators or ordinary police investigators.) And if you’re writing one, I’d love to talk to you.

(Again, just for clarification because I always get blamed for stuff—genre does work. People like fast-paced books. I’m not disparaging fast-paced books. I’m looking for well-written fast-paced books. I thought a special shout-out to the quieter books was in order, though, because I’ve seen far fewer of those.)

Friday, October 08, 2004

On a Scale of 1 to 10 – Answers or Questions

I was thinking a lot about this topic on a recent trip out east as I reread Lying Awake. I really, really, really, like that book. Even more the second time through. And part of what I so appreciated about it was that Salzman let me draw my own conclusions about Sister John of the Cross and her faith.

When I got back I really wanted to launch into a week about how I think that’s the point of novels. Letting readers draw their own conclusions. I wanted to argue that, too often, CBA novels have answers, even whispered, at the ready for readers to discover like Easter eggs. And ABA novels, too. The DaVinci Code and Left Behind are one-in-the-same to me. A single perspective put forth without balance or examination.

I wanted to draw a comparison to standing philosophies on evangelism. There is a camp that feels that street-corner evangelism, four-spiritual laws conversion is the way to go. There’s a second camp that says we need to focus more on tuning ourselves to Christ, becoming like Him, because people will be more deeply changed by drawing conclusions themselves about faith from our example. What we say—the answers we offer—they mean nothing if our lives don’t back them up.

Where do you folks stand on this issue?

Are you writing God’s answers for (insert hope, joy, grace, salvation) into your books or are you writing a story that invites a reader to—I think as someone said on the discussion board—see through another’s perspective, if only for 350 pages. Do you think God calls us, sometimes, to write his answers? Or is that merely propaganda?

The reason I never moved forward with the discussion is because, frankly, I felt like I’d be arguing out of both sides of my mouth. On the one hand I deeply believe in the power of the novel to teach through the lives of its characters rather than the lessons of its authors. On the other, it seems that we have to be able to intentionally incorporate Christian themes into our books without being accused of propaganda.

Where’s the line for you? What side are you on?

Thursday, October 07, 2004

On a Scale of 1 to 10 – Nurture or Nature

Given that our subject matter comes from the sciences today, here is a hypothesis:

Outside the world of writers, most people think writing is a God-given talent because it comes as a struggle to them. Inside the world of writing, we all cling to the hope that it is a learnable skill…because we see writers who are so much better than us and that seems to be our saving chance.

Disagree or agree?

On the actual topic, I’ve vacillated and waffled more times than (insert appropriate political candidate here.) When I first started writing, I seemed to have a natural affinity and so it seemed like a talent. Later, in college, my writing seemed to improve mostly by work and listening to teachers and workshopping so I began to see it as a teachable skill. My experiences in writing my own novels seemed more reliant on talent since I was flying without a net. Hearing the diligence and intense workmanship of authors I really love, though, I see how I short shrifted my stories in some ways by not “working” on them harder. Finally, my job as an editor has brought me into contact with many writers who have the dedication…and yet I still can’t publish their books, that I’ve swayed back toward talent.

So what I’ve learned from this is that it’s gotta be a yin-yang, balance-thing. Duh, right? Obviously you need to be talented. Obviously you need to work hard. I doubt many of us meet that perfect balance though. I know I don’t work as hard as I need to on my writing. I have never been a perfectionist and, unfortunately, “good enough” often works for me rather than try to push on toward “great.”

But that raises some uncomfortable questions.

A.) What is “great”? How do I know if I reach it? What if I can’t reach it?

The answer we hear time and again is: “Do your best. That’s all that can ever be asked.”

Well, what if doing your absolute best still gets rejected by publishers? Is that truly your best? Couldn’t you learn a little more somehow and improve and do even better next time?

Surprise, I have no easy answers for you. I think it just goes to show you A) How frustrating and deeply personal an experience writing for publication can be. B) How badly we need our priorities in line so rejection never becomes devastation.

And finally, I think we all need to come to some private and realistic understanding of where we stand in terms of our ability AND how far study, hard work, and learning the craft can take you. If you miss on Manuscript One there’s no reason that you can’t build on that and find success with Manuscript 2. What I don’t want, is for this to turn into American Idol where I become Simon taking pot-shots at self-deluded writers who think their masterpieces should be published because frankly it’s not healthy and there’s no way I would ever look good in those tight shirts that he wears.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

On a (New) Scale of 1 to 10 – Ministry or Worship

Let’s introduce the faith element to the equation in today’s scale. (Remember, these are new scales daily. What happened on yesterday’s scale is irrelevant.)

Many of you, I’m presupposing given the nature of this site, are Christians. Most of you are writers. I know you’re contemplative folks who tend to think things over, so I’m guessing at least once in your life you’ve thought about your writing as it relates to your faith.

So what did you decide?

As an editor, I see a lot of people who’ve decided that their writing is a ministry, a calling, a mission. Sometimes, they go so far as to mention that they’ve been supernaturally alerted to this calling and that I’d do well to heed the will and spirit of God and publish their 1400-page fantasy novel that will no doubt convert all remaining hold-outs. On this scale, these folks are a 1.

A 10 would be someone who would never consider sending me their work. Why would they? It’s not for men. It’s for God. It’s a part of their worship as much as prayer or music or any variety of things. 10s probably aren’t visiting this site, but if they are, a huzzah to you. There’s something understated and nice about people writing things in the quiet of the heart for God’s ears. It’s like locking yourself in a closet to pray rather than beating your breast on the street corner.

After that the scales shift a bit.

From my experience—and this should make all the rational sense in the world—most dedicated unpublished authors are doing this as much out of a sense of “worship” as anything. “I want to be published, but I really just love writing and want to keep doing it.”

Published writers, meanwhile, are confronted by the fact that what may have been conceived in the quiet of their heart is suddenly out in the world, beating its breast on the streetcorner. And depending on the response, it can open your eyes to the ministry of a book.

Ministry is always the trump card in these debates. We can argue all we want about the relative merits of various books but when men and women start writing letters to authors saying, “Your book changed my life. I’m a Christian because of your book,” what can you say in response? To God be the Glory. That’s about it. (Or, if you’re slightly more cynical, you can glom a quote from a coworker of mine who says, “If God can use Balaam’s ass…)

For my part, I’ve written on this topic before…and before again. It’s one of the foundational moments in my “writing career.” I pieced together an essay that was the first thing that went on my author site and later plagiarized myself fully in my blog on a Friday I was too tired to think up anything original.

I think it probably places me at about a 6 or 7 on this scale. I love being published, don’t get me wrong. I love the feedback I have with readers, even the loon who accused me of being a Mormon because I set some flashbacks in Ezekiel’s Shadow amid Zion National Park. But in the end, that’s not what gets me through the writing.

How ‘bout you?

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

On a Scale of 1 to 10 – The Story or The Writing

Way, way back at the turn of the year I took a look at a little book some of you may have heard of, The DaVinci Code. In the midst of that conversation I mentioned B.R. Myers’ Readers Manifesto, a razor-sharp work that excoriates a handful of contemporary writers for being ponderous, wordy, self-satisfied wordsmiths who wrote eloquent gobbledy-gook that went nowhere. If you think I’m an opinionated blowhard, read Myers who I disliked even when I agreed with him.

Anyhoo, Myers kvetched that we were only feeding this insidious cycle of arty novels by handing over awards to these people while ignoring books that had, say, an actual plot.

I have no idea what this had to do with the DaVinci Code, but it becomes relevant in our discussion today. I think this may be the day on which we have the most surface-level agreement and the deepest nether-depths differences.

Most of us would agree, I think, that we’re trying to write a compelling story, well told. That’s our aim. We want to be 5s. Great story, superb crafting. We want to be just like….

And with that single step we’ve left the shallows for the deep end where nobody agrees any more. Because A) We all have very different definitions of “good” when modifying writing and story and B) Those definitions are likely going to change even within a reader’s mind depending on the book.

Stephen King. Wallace Stegner. Glen David Gold. Colson Whitehead. Anne Tyler.

I may think all of these writers are “good” but the reasons are different for each one. And I don’t want them to write like each other.

In some ways, it’s odd that we’re even having this conversation when it comes to others’ writing. After all, if something is published, don’t we expect that it will meet some level of story and writing competency? Should there be 1s out there who care little for craft and just whether the pages are turned? Or 10s who write prose so dense and turgid and pointless it could put an vampire to sleep at midnight.

As a reader, and you’ll be shocked by this, I have a higher tolerance for writers dallying with the craft than for a Crichton trying to turn a film treatment into a novel. I don’t think I read 10s, but Richard Powers has to be a 8 or 9.

In writing: I think Ezekiel’s Shadow was written at about 6. I had to cut long chunks of verbosity and lovely descriptions of shrubbery out. Quinlin’s Estate was probably a 4. The plotting became so involved that I felt I had less room for pontificating.

Who are some brilliant 5s in your mind where plot and writing sizzle and serve each other?

Would your rather write a book praised for its artistry but ignored by the masses or a title that PW kills but sells well?

Can you improve either your writing or your storytelling?

Monday, October 04, 2004

On a Scale of 1 to 10 – Market or Muse?

We discussed this topic of few weeks ago: What Do You Write?

On one extreme, a 10, is the writer who is stricken with a story and unable to ponder anything but the opus brewing in his mind. This is how we end up with book about albino whales and coffins being used as flotation devices. These are the misunderstood men and women who are discovered to be geniuses after their death from typhoid or as they’re starving to skin and bones in the poor house. You’ve heard of them, but you may not have gotten around to reading them yet.

On the other end of the spectrum, at 1, is the writer who studies the market, studies trends, and writes a book that no marketing, editorial, or salesperson could turn down. They know the economics of the game and the simple fact that a book that isn’t read is just ink and paper.

The same author can fluctuate on the scale. John Grisham writing A Time to Kill? Probably a 7 or 8. Grisham writing The Client? Probably a 2. A Painted House? 6, perhaps.

We don’t necessarily look at sales figures, though, as the end-all determination of this category. Certainly writers have “can’t miss” ideas that miss. And certainly there are writers who have their idiosyncratic scrawlings hit the big time. (Don DeLillo’s Underworld, for one.)

Like we’ll discover with most of these scales, those on opposite ends tend to disparage one another. Those writing from the muse look down their scabarous noses at the “hacks” who do it just for the money. “Pompous self-important literati,” comes the reply, “you wouldn’t know a good idea if it fell from the sky.” And so on.

I’ve written two books. I’d rank myself as a 4 for Ezekiel’s Shadow and an 8 for Quinlin’s Estate. In general, I lean toward the upper-end of the scale. My own philosophy is that I’d rather swing for the fences and write something folks haven’t seen before than something they’re expecting.

Where do you rank? Hack or Pompous? Market or Muse?

What do you read?

And does one guarantee better books?

Friday, October 01, 2004

Friday Thoughts

A few clarifying points from yesterday.

1. I like dahlias. But…for the semi-manly reason that there are two solid noir works featuring the dahlia. The Blue Dahlia is an Veronica Lake film and The Black Dahlia is a hard-boiled novel by James Ellroy.

2. My wife pointed out that I left her and the kids off my list of things I scored 10 on in favor of olives. Not my shining moment as husband and father. I’ll pull a Spinal Tap and say that, on the matter of my wife and kids, I score an 11.

::

Today, I’ll start with a little lesson in overselling. At the end of yesterday’s article I promised a story about how I signed more books than Janette and Davis combined. Today, I’ll tell that story, but it’s not terribly exciting. I had a good grab line and nothing to back it up. That’s the worst place to be in marketing. The product needs to match the promise.

Anyway, my first book signing ever was in-house here at Bethany House. They wanted to celebrate the release of Ezekiel’s Shadow with me and so we arranged a book signing. It coincided, however, with a visit by Janette Oke and T. Davis Bunn and the release of their first co-authored book together, The Meeting Place.

So after a company lunch, a table was cleared and Janette, Davis, and I sat down. Folks were given two books: The Meeting Place and Ezekiel’s Shadow. We signed for about a half-hour, said good-bye, and I went back to work. An hour or so later a co-worker snuck into my office, carrying my book. “I didn’t want theirs,” she said, “so I didn’t stand in line.”

And hence, that day, I signed one more book than Mr. Bunn and Mrs. Oke combined. They have, however, out-sold me by a bit.

::

Two more points about that book signing.

1. About a third of the way in I looked up, nodded at the person waiting, and realized: The name of this person has completely left my head and it’s not coming back. We were in different departments; we didn’t interact much; I’m not great with names. Poof! Gone! Makes one feel like a bit of a jackass. Sufficed to say, every time I see her now, I greet her by name.

2. When Bethany House was owned by Bethany Fellowship, which runs a missions college, we had students helping out in our warehouse and customer service as Work-study jobs. One of these kids came through the line handed me the book and asked, “Could you make it out to my mom?”

So I did.

For Mom, Hope you enjoy. David R. Long.