f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 11/01/2004 - 12/01/2004

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

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Back to Characterization (Day 5) – Identifying With Your Characters

I was going to start a piece today about character description. Instead I’m going to post an essay I wrote for my now-defunct author-site. It’s a touch scatter-shot and references two sources you probably haven’t read (one of which I've referenced before in our POV series here) but it’s something I want to address first before moving on to physical description tomorrow.

Positive Identification

Pardon if this gets digressive, but this month’s thought arrived from a few varied sources.

The first was a slim book I recently finished by a British author named Magnus Mills called Three to See the King—a title, that despite its obvious Magian connotations, I’m not sure I can even explain at this point.

The second is a meta-graphic novel I read years ago for a psychology class about the very process of understanding comics. This was titled (for good reasons) Understanding Comics and was written/drawn by Scott McCloud. I’ve had an off-and-on fascination with the form for many years and highly recommend the book. At the very least it shows the benefits of an artist understanding the underpinnings of his craft.

The final source is the parables.

:::::::

In his book, McCloud defines two principles of comics.

The first he calls, “amplification through simplification.” His point, if I can summarize, is that by drawing an “abstract” or “simplified” character , artists are able to focus readers’ attention on specific details. By stripping away details which would otherwise distract us, what remains is amplified simply by being the only thing a reader can focus on.

His second point, related to the first, is that this stripping process also creates a universality of imagery by which a multitude of people are able to relate to the character on the page.

Graphically he explains it like this: when we see a photo or a photo-realistic drawing, we see it as the face of another. When we see a simplified cartoon (Charlie Brown for instance), we are more likely to see own reflection. To quote: “The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled…an empty shell that we inhabit which enable us to travel in another realm.

And this relates how? I’m getting there.

Three to See the King is an odd book. Truly odd in a way I’m not sure I can even explain. I recommend it, though. The one thing I took from it, however, was a sense not of reading a story about a bunch of characters, but one about myself…and a bunch of characters. Mills created a world in which the protagonist, unnamed (of course) is everyman-ish enough that we don’t read about his life…we enter it.

The story in a nutshell (don’t be weirded out):

There’s a guy who always wanted to live in a tin house at the bottom of a canyon. On his journey to do so he found a perfectly good, but empty, tin house sitting vacant on a plain. And so he decides to live there instead. One day a woman (Mary Petrie) shows up and joins his isolated, but acceptable life. Friends visit. They all live in their own tin houses miles apart, but have heard rumors of a great thing being done just over the horizon. There, it is said, a man named Michael Hawkins is building a canyon so he can live at the bottom of it. Our man’s (our) world is turned upside-down. What should he/we do now?

Other reviews I’ve read have linked the story to a retelling of Genesis. It’s there, but I don’t think you can call it an allegory. It is however a meditation on marriage, friendship, and isolation in the modern world. It’s a story about vision and yearning, a story about leaders and followers, a story about the very things we need to live. Reviewers used the word “fable” but in reading it, one other word kept coming to me: PARABLE.

Look at Jesus’ stories. Why do they go over so easily with children? Why could he tell them to multitudes? Why are we always discussing “our role” in them? Simply put, because of McCloud’s ideas stated above: amplification by simplification and universality.

Parables are filled with men and women just like us (or just like the Jews of the time) in everyday situations. Sure some poor, some were rich, but for the most part they were generically “us.” And when we read the stories we don’t sit back and watch, we don’t read of something happening to someone else, we become part of the story. We step into the world Jesus was spinning and in doing so He forces us to learn the lesson each story has at hand. It’s amazingly effective.

I don’t really have any grand point in all of this. But it’s an astounding trick, to be able to not only pull a reader into your story but force them to be participants in what is happening. I don’t personally see typical fiction as the place to do it (Mills’ book is the most extreme example I've come across) but you should be aware of how much you want us to relate to your main characters. Are we to simply stand on the side and watch? Are we to stand alongside? You can vary your readers place in the story by the amount you make your main characters accessible. (A more typical example are the “detached narrator” stories like The Great Gatsby, in which a nominal everyman tells the story of someone great—and warns of the perils or joys that attend such greatness. And we stand alongside the Nick Carroways, experiencing it with him.)

It’s just another tool for authors to use, another trick to be aware of as you’re reading.
::
Continue on to Day 6 of Characterization.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

First days back from long holidays are always a bit busy, so I don’t have as much time to post today as I will later this week.

Today I’ll take a moment to post about the book I’m currently reading: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

The book is a fantasy and yet written as though it were almost a history text or an engaging biography. (There are even footnotes.) It is essentially the story of two men—two magicians—who are determined to bring back magic to England. Reviews are calling it “Harry Potter for adults” though I know tons of adults who read Harry Potter. I see it more as “fantasy for people who read David McCullough’s John Adams.

The best biographies in the world—and Adams is always mentioned as one of the finest recent books—read with the urgent drive of great fiction, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that a fiction author could borrow the style.

A few other notes:

  • Placing your two main characters on opposite sides of a important issue is a fantastic (and very easy) way to introduce lots o’ conflict. Consider it.

  • I think a more agile mind than mine could easily draw lots of metaphors and analogies from the book, using the contrasting ideologies of the two main characters as reference points for the current modern vs. post-modern discussion going on in the church. I should like someone to tackle it for Books and Culture.

  • I have no idea if this book needs to be 800 pages long. Probably not. But there is something wonderful about simply immersing yourself in a story that lingers and winds and fills itself in. It feels more substantial in a time when quickness and immediacy seem all that’s recommended.

:::

Tuesday Update

Finished the book last evening. Very satisfying read. Obviously there's a ton to learn from it if we dove in, but there's also a ton that, on the surface, seems anachronistic. How many editors do you hear clamoring for Regency-era, fantasy novels that approach 300,000 words and read like historical biographies? The lesson here: nobody knows anything in publishing. And, in the end, great stories are still king.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Day 4 of Characterization – “I Was Wrong”

Fooled you.

This post is not about me being wrong. I am wrong, quite often in fact, but we’re not going to dwell on those moments today. Today we’re going to talk about the little trick of letting your characters be wrong and how that can bring some much needed “reality” to your work.

I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record but I first realized this trick in Richard Russo. In his Straight Man, his main character, a professor, looks at one of his colleagues as an adversary. By the end of the book, this character who had originally played the role of “villain” turns out to be something completely unexpected. Or think of Boo Radley in Mockingbird. (Yes, these are the only two books I can draw examples from. I need more time to read at home. Anybody want to babysit for a month, or three?)

I liked the trick so much I borrowed it wholesale for my novel Quinlin’s Estate. Many readers say their favorite character is the one who goes from perceived threat to friend. Partly, I think this is because such a transition ensures a richness and vibrancy to their character. Also, the path from “bad guy” to “good guy” is one that specifically places the character in readers’ good graces. We almost like the character more because of the distance they’ve come.

Likewise, a character can fall. We sometimes choose poorly in our friendships. Or our romantic relationships. The “unwise” boyfriend is a staple of women’s fiction, but I don’t think we’re ever truly surprised when the bad boy turns out to be bad and stable Mr. Darcy must swoop in to save the day. It’s harder for an author to turn a character who we initially like into someone unlikable. I’m actually having a hard time thinking up examples. Anybody want to help me out?

Anyway, this post is mainly talking about how secondary characters can change. The key though is that their change is reflected through your protagonist…and thus he or she must say, “I was wrong.” We talked about change on Monday and admitting you were wrong or you failed is a significant, but also small, example of change that can occur.

Too many characters are always right. (Re)read The DaVinci Code and see how many times the main character is wrong. There’s one (supposedly) HUGE unveiling at the end, but that’s not being “wrong”—that’s being bamboozled by a sociopath. The entire book simply reinforces the main characters’ “rightness.”

That’s fiction, not life. Life is mistakes and misreadings and misinterpretations and generally being a prat because we all see through a glass darkly, our eyes seeing mostly what we want to see. So don’t be afraid to let your characters be wrong—they’ll seem all the more human for it.

::

Go to Day 5 of our discussion of Characterization.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Day 3 of Characterization – The Protagonist Paradox

In first-person books or third-person limited manuscripts I see there is a, perhaps, unexpected trap into which many novelists falls—their main character is indistinct.

It’s probably the last thing you’d expect. Here’s a novel starring this character and yet because the bulk of the narrative focus is filtered through their perspective they become flat, their voice muted in our need to “drive” the story. They become themselves, but they also become our mouthpiece as well…unless we’re really careful to keep in their voice.

A few (very random) suggestions for establishing an authentic, engaging, but not overwhelming voice:

1.) Repetition of phrases. Most of us have little pet phrases that we use in conversation. Create some unique ones (or borrow them from someone other than yourself) and sprinkle them throughout, especially in dialogue. I wouldn’t worry about putting too many in…easier to take out, than add.

2.) Write in some real person’s voice that you know well. You’ll end up adapting it to your needs, but it might give you the flow you need to start.

3.) This may sound fanciful, but pick a style of music you think best represents how your character “sounds” and play that music when you write.

4.) Stop writing when the only sound in your head is your own voice.

I’m sure there’s tons of other ways, too, but I don’t want to start playing writing coach. I will turn the question around and ask “What’s worked for you?”

I’ve faced this paradox in my first two books and I’m facing in my current work. Side characters will often drop right into their “voice” and yet I’ve not fashioned out a distinct enough place for my main characters to speak. It’s a weakness of mine as a writer, so I want to make sure to let you folks, who may have found more success, speak out.

::

Go to Day 4 of our discussion of Characterization.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Today Is...

...not my birthday. I'm actually a Gemini, so we have seven more months.

Today is, however, the one year anniversary of faith*in*fiction. Here's where this all started.

Today is also the day when I'll share a little good news: I'm going to be around for a lot longer.

The past year has been a bit of a tryout on my part in terms of my acquistions and editorial acumen. I've actually spent a good portion of my time here at BHP in a marketing capacity. The tryout is over and I'll be headed to the other side of the building. For good.

This will mean a few things.

A.) I get to remain sane. You may have sensed some frustrations in the past weeks. Much of it grew from a growing schizophrenia in my positions here at work.

B.) I will be able to spend the requisite time needed to respond in a more timely manner to acquisitions proposals. If there's one thing needed for acquisitions, it's the time to actually sit down and read. I had that in chunks but not nearly enough.

C.) My acquisitions vision will expand. For very practical reasons, I will be looking for fiction that fills needs across Bethany's publishing goals. The precise focus is yet to be 100% defined, but I'll probably be looking at men's fiction (mystery, thrillers, etc.), contemporary fiction, etc.

D.) I get to keep f*i*f going.

The $1,000,000 question, of course, is: What about Christian fiction that stands outside the CBA genre?

We have about $750,000 of that question answered right now. I can't say a lot about it at the moment, but we're moving in some very, very, very! encouraging directions. I've gone from convinced that it would never fly at our company to seeing that the day when it's possible is perhaps only right around the corner.

In the meanwhile, what we really need to see are the manuscripts that force us change policies. The greatest affector of change would be a book so undeniably powerful that we'd be willing to throw the rest of the $250,000 in to make it happen. (Figuratively, of course. No way in God's green earth that you're getting a quarter-of-a-million for one novel ;)

Anyway, so that's that. Here's to the next 365 days together. Get writing.

(If you've any questions, feel free to post them.)

::

BTW: Next week, to both take a week off from blogging and to celebrate our 1 year anniversary, I'm going to be running "re-runs" of 5 or so of my favorite posts. If you've only been around a short time, now's the time to delve into the archives.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Day 2 of Characterization – Hi, My Name Is…My Name Is…My Name Is…

You come for the writing discussion, but you stay for the Eminem references, I know.

Today we’re going to talk about what’s in a name. Really, there’s only one way to name a character—think back to all your baseball cards from the early 1980s and pick one player’s first name and another’s surname. Easy as pie. Any other method is crap.

Wait, you disagree?

Of course you do. We all have our own methods. I don’t really want to get into the hows of naming a character (although writers method are interesting—I do the baseball one on occasion) and instead want to focus on the whys.

Why did you choose that name? Here’s some possibilities…

A) It’s symbolic or allusional. Job or Ishmael. Eve or Holden or Blue… It can be done, but you risk veering toward heavy-handedness. I don’t want to see novels featuring Becky, Sarah, Abe, and Jake. Unless, possibly, if they’re satires.
B) It’s evocative. I think romance names shoot for this with all their Coltens and Rafes. Often this just invoke giggles.
C) It points to heritage. Juan and Diego are different characters from Xavier and Mischa.
D) It just sounded good. Hi, welcome to my world.

I cannot remember where the name Ian Merchant came from. Eve Lawson…well, Eve’s name needed to link with another character in the novel whose name came first—Evangeline Graveston.

The think I like about both of the names, though, is that they are both “normal” and yet “unique” all at the same time. I’m not using John Smith but I’m using Germand Ovaltine, either.
If you want to play with a character’s name, a nickname is often a good way to do that. “Scout” for instance…her real name is Jean Louise Finch. But isn’t she much more of a Scout?

When push comes to shove I think it’s a bit like naming your children. If you love the name, go with it. Others might not…but if your character grows into it, people will learn to like it. But don’t be afraid to change, either, if everybody hates the name. After Margaret Mitchell’s first name for her feisty heroine? Pansy O’Hara. Good things can come from flexibility.

::

Go to Day 3 of our discussion of Characterization.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Day 1 of Characterization - Chchchchanges….

You come for the writing discussion, but you stay for the David Bowie references, I’m sure.

We’re going to talk about characterization for a while. No clue how long this is going to take, so we’ll just stick with it until the end. Here we go.

At home I’m currently reading a book on the wine industry called The Accidental Connoisseur. Nothing spectacular at the moment and hardly as irreverent as the subtitle suggests, but there was an interesting observation made by one wine maker in discussing his industry. (I’m paraphrasing.) He basically says that there are probably 2000 integral factors that go into actually making a superior wine. He thought he knew and could control about 15. He figured the great wine makers worked with about 25. After that, it just became too complex.

I feel the same about writing. Somebody once commented how they liked looked at “stakes” and “conflict” but wanted to discuss characterization because you can’t have those things without characters. Except you can’t have interesting characters without those things. Or setting. And none of it means anything unless you can actually put it to paper with syntax and diction. In other words, we have all these elemental areas of fiction that all have to, essentially, develop simultaneously for fiction to be great. Like the wine-maker above, I feel like I understand a handful. I see how great authors manage even more. If you were to ask my feelings on characterization, I don’t see it as a particular strong-point of mine. But it’s essential and we need to talk about it. So, together, we’ll see what we can discover.

So that’s what I’m reading at home. I watched a film this weekend—Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset.

It is, above all, a fascinating look at characterization. The sequel to the small, dialogue-driven, independent film Before Sunrise, the latest film essentially picks up with the two main characters as though nine has passed. And nine years has passed. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are both nine years older than they were in 1995. Their lives have changed. The world, as a whole, is a very different place. And the characters, while they feel very much the same, have changed, too. They’ve gone through loves and disappointments. One has gotten married, had a child. And what we’re left with are recognizable characters who’ve changed, tangibly. It’s powerful. (Partly, I’m sure, because I’m about the same age as these characters and my life has changed as dramatically in nine years and my hair is graying and my knees ache sometimes and part of me feels completely new and the rest feels 21 or even 14.)

Novels allow for that kind of change, too, and not only over long series. (Think of Harry Potter. One of Rowling’s real miracles has been letting Harry and Ron and Hermione grow and change and yet still remain true to who we loved in Book 1. But she’s had 2000+ pages to work at it.)

I guess a question arises: Why is change an elemental part of characterization? To me there’s two ways to get to know a character. The first is in relation to all of the other characters and the second is linearly, through time, as they change.

There’s a place for static characters. Long-running mystery series, for instance, usually feature a detective who is more or less the same from book-to-book, regardless of the body count that’s face. Harry Bosch hasn’t changed all that much for me in all the reading I’ve done of Michael Connelley. I doubt, though I could be wrong, that Kinsey Milhone of the Alphabet books has changed much.

Other characters change dramatically—sometimes in an instant, sometimes over genreations. Gabriel Conroy quiet ride home with his wife from a party in The Dead will change him irrevocably. Anne Tyler and Maile Meloy pack family sagas into their books in which children age, become adults, gain identities, etc.

And it raises an interesting question for me—are we allowing enough time for change to occur.

It seems to me that fiction is deeply in favor of the BIG CHANGE, i.e. love or death or illness or (in our books) confession completely alters a person in a heartbeat. This is powerful change and dramatic. It’s the lightning bolt rather than the geologic change of water running over rock.

That’s the method employed by Tyler and Meloy. It’s used by Richard Russo in The Risk Pool. Dickens in David Copperfield. Irving in A Prayer for Owen Meany. There is “richness” in the books, a special depth of feeling that we experience by spending a long time with characters.

Big change or slow change. Neither of these is necessarily better. What we need simply to understand as writers is how to carve out that appropriate “season of change” for our characters so that readers fully experience the difference that is supposed to be so crucial to our characters. Sometimes those do happen in a day, but I fear that too often we treat “faith” as something that can change in a day and then remain rock steady forever after. We are more about a moment of change and not the life-long impact.

::

So that’s it for today. How about that for a random leap into characterization. Tomorrow we’ll begin a more systematic look at this by talking about names. I just was thinking about change in characters what with Tyler’s book and Before Sunset and it seemed like a good option.

::

Go to Day 2 of our look at Characterization.

Book of Interest

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I've not read this yet but have seen a few reviews and all have been deeply complimentary. The plot summary sounds like it might have interest for this site.

I will soon be disappearing into Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Day 3 of Saint Maybe – A Start on Characterization

Next week I’d like to start another “nuts & bolts” discussion by looking at characterization. It’s a topic some folks have already made a running head-start into here and I don’t know that I’m any better informed that they are about it, but I’ll make a few points and hopefully we can learn how best to bring our characters alive on the page.

(BTW: if you’re not part of the discussion board, take a moment and join. There’s some very nice dialogue going on there that goes well past just dumb internet chatting you see so many places. I’m all for dumb internet chatting on occasion but to have actual discourse seems like something to celebrate...and engage.)

Anyway, today we’re going to look a bit of characterization in Saint Maybe. This one stood out for me because it’s a topic I’d recently discussed with an editor in-house in regards to one of his projects—the dilemma of the unreflective character.

How, in other words, do you enter the narrative mind of a character who isn’t naturally reflective? Because there are people like that in the world. To write them off as poor potential characters seems, well, lazy. But they do present challenges.

Anne’s answer is to simply give her unreflective character the few pages of narration in the book. Doug Bedloe, the father (natch), is a man of his generation. Whether through nature or nurture he’s a quiet, solid man who doesn’t let himself get wrangled into the complications of the world. Here’s Doug “reflecting” on a night class he took to occupy himself:

“It turned out, though, that he didn’t have a knack for discussing things. You read a story; it’s good or it’s bad. What’s to discuss? The other people in the class, they could ramble on forever. Halfway through the course, he just stopped attending.”

The first thing to notice is that this IS interior narrative. Doug does have an inner monologue. Nobody, sans some kind of mental disorder, is without an inner dialogue. The key is simply that what tracks through Doug’s head is simply different from most people. He doesn’t dwell on the intricacies of personal interaction. He doesn’t stare into the depths of his own soul. He doesn’t spend much time lingering in the past, or looking too far ahead. He pays more attention to what’s happening NOW, around him.

It’s funny that I chose “unreflective” as a descriptor for these characters because, in fact, they make ideal mirrors. A perfectly flat mirror offers a wonderful reflection—sans judgment—on all that happens around them. This is a special kind of character whose “unedited” commentary allows readers to make their own assumptions about what’s happening. Nick Carraway, in the Great Gatsby, is a “witness narrator”, however he’s full of judgments. Forrest Gump, on the other hand, simply passes on information as it comes to him. Same with child narrators, often, as they don’t fully understand what they see. (Think of Scout’s reflections in To Kill a Mockingbird.)

Doug makes a fine narrator for one section, but it would have greatly changed the book to have him as the only narrator. And that’s the problem my colleague ran into with a recent novel. This was a single narrator book told from the perspective of a taciturn and unreflective character. The overwhelming sense a person had in reading it was of distance. You felt blocked off from knowing the main character. That can be a powerful effect…but it doesn’t lead to a sympathetic character. And it’s hard to lead readers through a book without a sympathetic hero.

Tyler avoids that issue. She merely sets Doug up as a foil, a placid center, for the rest of the characters. I don’t think she saw much more hope for him in terms of his narrating through the complications of the family. Even Doug himself admits it.

“‘We’ve had such extraordinary troubles,” Bee [his wife] said, ‘and somehow they’ve turned us ordinary. That’s what’s so hard to figure. We’re not a special family anymore.’

‘Why, sweetie, of course we’re special,’ he said.’

‘We’ve turned uncertain. We’ve turned into worriers.’

‘Bee, sweetie.’

“Isn’t it amazing?’

It was astounding, if he thought about it. But he was careful not to.”


::

One unconnected question. How do you feel about named chapters? I’ve never been a fan of them. Anne has named hers and they bother me mildly. Any input?

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Day 2 of Saint Maybe – Unorthodox and Proud of It

There’s a church in Saint Maybe and it’s very much a church that could exist in the real world. But it doesn’t, it’s fictional. Imaginary. Not real. I’m stressing this issue because it’s doctrinal teachings are unorthodox.

The Church of the Second Chance is a small community of believers who believe in some things that fly in the face of both main-line and evangelical models. The church has tried to prohibit sugar, alcohol, tobacco and other unnatural stimulants from being used by parishioners. The church also has a deep focus on faith lived, not just said.

Here’s a description of the church as heard from the perspective of a young boy listening to its history.

“He liked hearing about Church of the Second Chance…how Reverend Emmett, an Episcopal seminarian and the son of an Episcopal minister, had gradually come to question the sham and the idolatry—for what was kneeling before a crucifix but idolatry?—and determined to found a church without symbols, a church without baptism or communion where only the real things mattered and where the atonement must be as real as the sin itself….”

Atonement is one of the driving themes of the novel. Members of the church must stand up in service during a time called Public Amending and confess their sins. Then, in their life they must try their best to atone, physically, for those sins. Another passage, after the pastor tells a character that simply apologizing for his sins doesn’t mean he’s forgiven.

“ ‘…anyone can do that much! You have to offer reparation—concrete, practical reparation, according to the rules of our church.’

‘But what if there isn’t any reparation? What if it’s something nothing will fix?’

‘Well, that’s where Jesus comes in, of course….Jesus remembers how difficult life on earth can be,’ Reverend Emmett told him. ‘He helps with what you can’t undo. But only after you’ve
tried to undo it.’”

This is the kind of theology unlikely to make you any friends with most denominations around the country. But I think that’s just the point. Anne Tyler knows what’s standard practice. She knows that a Protestant pastor when asked by a believer if asking for forgiveness is enough will always say: “God has forgiven you.”

Tyler throws a curveball and has her pastor say, “Goodness, no.”

A.) It’s engaging. B.) It leads to fertile ground for a novel.

The question is whether it’s ground we can or should walk on as “CBA Christian” authors. Notice that the book doesn’t disallow grace, but it’s certain a Jamesian, contextual grace—dead, if not for works. So this isn’t really heresy as much as just a doctrinally tenuous position.

One answer might be that we can use this set-up…so long as, by the end, the “correct” doctrine is in place and we get a little sermon about the true nature of grace and Jesus’ atoning blood.

Saint Maybe, you shouldn’t be surprised, doesn’t take that tact. It does cast a discerning eye on the church and its policies—especially through the years as characters age—but there’s never a systematic theological dissertation. And I was fine with that. But others might not be. A sin unrepented might sway a nonbeliever. A worrisome doctrine might convince the wrong mind.

What’s our responsibility in this issue?

::

Go to Day 3 (final day) of our discussion of Saint Maybe.


Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Day 1 of Saint Maybe – Literary Does Not Equal Incomprehensible

Hello, all. I’ve returned from the Windy City awash in new and sparkling information from the ECPA Publishing University. There were good parts (meeting colleagues from other houses) and bad parts (somebody commenting that the blogging community should simply be ignored) and parts I’d rather forget (i.e. “webinars” and “incentivize” are not words.)

On my flight in I finished Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler and so I thought we’d spend a short week on it.

It was a rare book about which I knew virtually nothing before starting it. I didn’t read cover copy, only head that it was worth reading. In some ways it’s a very straightforward story—a family drama of guilt and forgiveness and reconciliation that plays out steadily over about 24 years—and in others ways it surprised me. Characters I assumed to be minor were suddenly narrating entire chapters. Characters I guessed would be important vanished. It kept me on my toes.

The other comment I’ll make today is that it’s a wonderful book to examine in terms of whether it is “literary” or not. This is a debate that always rages. (It’s progressing here at the moment, actually, a thread that is VERY worth your time.)

I think Anne Tyler qualifies as most people’s example of a literary author. She won the Pulitzer. The review acclaim at the beginning of this books is five pages along. And yet her writing is deceptively simple. There’s almost no showiness to either her language or even her syntax or diction. It’s all very straightforward. Still she manages to create unique voices for each of her characters and draws you through twenty-four years of a family’s life without all the sturm and drang that accompany so many family dramas. Let me quote you a representative passage:

“In the dining room, Lucy bounced the baby on her shoulder while she talked with Bee. She still had her coat on; she looked fresh and happy, and she smiled at Ian without a trace of guilt. His mother said, ‘Ian, hon, could you fetch the booster seats?’ She was laying a notched silver fish knife next to each plate. The Bedloes owned the most specialized utensils—sugar shells and butter-pat spears and a toothy, comblike instrument for slicing angel food cake. Ian marveled that people could consider such things important.”
What Tyler does, consistently, throughout the novel is stay true to her characters’ voices. Told through their third-person perspective, she does not “novelize” their thoughts as many authors do. If a word is not in their vocabulary it doesn’t enter the narrative—hence the “comblike instrument for slicing angel food cake.” Ian didn’t know what it was called and so he couldn’t name it…even if Anne Tyler the author could.

It’s a rarity, I think. I’m rereading Richard Powers’ Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance and he takes a completely different tact. His inner-narration is interpreted through his incredibly verbose authorial translator. It’s actually a bit distracting, this time around. The book I loved the first time through now seems concocted and a tad overwrought. Tyler’s book has a freshness and naturalness to it.

Just something to think about. Literary certainly doesn’t need to equal incomprehensible.
::
Go to Day 2 of our discussion of Saint Maybe.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Two Birds...One Post

This post on Salon by Andrew Leonard(you'll need a free day's pass to read) interests me because it's something I was wondering about the election and something I worry about with this site...and our growing community.


Early this year, as part of the Howard Dean campaign's postmortem, David Weinberger wrote a piece in Salon criticizing the argument that the Internet facilitates echo chambers. Echo chambers, so the argument goes, are places where like-minded people talk to one another, nobody ever changes anyone else's mind and true diversity of opinion is exchanged for an infinitude plenitude of ideologically identical communities. The Internet, say critics, is really, really good at providing logical support for such places.

Weinberger's central point is that there are good reasons to have gathering places for like-minded individuals, one of which is that people who agree on founding principles can then move on to discuss more subtle nuances that are themselves diverse -- a bunch of Kerry supporters thrashing out get-out-the-vote strategies, for example.

That's all well and good, but the problem with the argument, I think, is that it underplays how easy it is to let an Internet site of like-mindedness form a nice, soft cocoon of intellectual safety around one's head.

I think we're in danger of being in the same boat here at F*i*F. It sounds like a lot of people all talking about doing something new and special in Christian fiction...and yet we're not being heard by all the folks out there who A) don't care or B) don't think they want something new. These are the people who are going to cast their vote against a "revolution" by not buying the books that come down the line.

How do avoid becoming an echo chamber? How do we more effectively bridge that gap between the voices here, which are passionate and valid, and those who aren't listening? Because, in the end, I don't know how much we can accomplish without them.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Day 5 of Stakes and Conflict - Feeling Very (or Not-So-Very) Conflicted

A week or two ago during our look at “stakes,” a reader asked what the difference was between “stakes” and “conflict” was and whether you needed both. At the time, I answered that, so far as I understood the terms, they were the same.

And I do think they are often used interchangeably. But after some more thinking, I’ve decided to refine my definition and talk about something that gets thrown-out with the bath water in much modern storytelling.

Call it the “happy-ever-after dilemma.”

You’re watching a film, a romantic comedy starring (most likely) Reese or Jennifer or Kirsten. What’s at stake for this heroine is “wuv…twoo wuv.” Those stakes should be high enough and universal enough to drag us through…and yet the movie seems a bit bland. The problem may be that we know what’s going to happen. We know that the girl is going to get the guy…and so while the stakes are high, the CONFLICT or DRAMATIC TENSION keeping the two lovers apart is negligible.

I wonder if we run into the same problems in writing about faith. A character is questioning God in a book from a CBA publisher. What are the odds that said character will have their faith renewed by the end of the book? The stakes, again, are high. It’s the conflict, the dramatic tension that’s the problem.

I think this raises its head significantly in genre fiction because, for the most part, there are rules that need to be followed. Murders should be solved. Bad guys should be put away. Love should be found. Quests should reach a rousing conclusion. Evil should perish. You can’t write Lord of the Rings and have Sauron triumph.

With that in mind, you need to raise the very armies of Mordor to face your protagonist. If we know things are going to turn at well, we need to at least either be uncertain for a minor instant or not know how they turn out well.

And finally, we need to look at the riches to be mined in books where the answer to a story’s stakes are not foreseen. Having read a lot of Richard Russo, for instance, I thought I knew where his Empire Falls was headed. I was very wrong. Lying Awake, I think, makes the conflict and tension of the book almost as important as what’s at stake itself. Asher Lev, I think wrings great drama out of the conflict raised as Asher pushes forth toward becoming an artist.

When all is said and done, though, you do need stakes and conflict. One without the other…and your story is flat.

::

So that’s it. Tomorrow there’s this little thing going on called the Presidential Election. Please vote. I’m off to be a good American in another way by donating blood. If you are able to do that, too, and haven’t in a while, please do. They’ll give you juice. And cookies. It's like kindergarten, but with a few more syringes and surgical tubing.