f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 03/01/2005 - 04/01/2005

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

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Day 4 of Details – Precise Language. Exact Wording. Particular Phrasing.

Perhaps the worst definition we learn during our formative years in school is for the word "synonym." What is a "synonym?" Well, we were told in first or third or fifth grade that a synonym is a word that means the same thing as another word. Vast and enormous mean the same thing. Spunky and sassy. Scared and afraid. Boring and NASCAR. You get the idea.

A little later in school they try to sneak in the fact that words have denotations and connotations but that’s in high school when you’re listening more to your hormones that your teacher and so many of us enter our adult life thinking that, should we need a bigger word to "smart up" our cover letter, we need only open the holy grail of synonyms—the thesaurus—and select the longest word.

We in the writing trade know that’s a fool’s thinking. English is a problematic enough language without rendering obsolete what small distinctions remain between words. Our goal as writers is to rediscover the precision that may be found in our native tongue…and to put use it to our benefit.

To me, this is a topic that need not be applied the first time through a story. Your goal in your first draft is to simply get the words down. There’s not a chance in Hades you’ll get them all correct, so don’t slow yourself down lingering over synonyms for "disgust." Think about simply using your "highlighter" option in Word to mark the spot for further thinking…or better yet, plan to hone your language during the second draft.

Specific words not only enhance details, they truly do make the difference in the voice of your characters. Too many men and women speaking plain, vague language turns your book into a literary box of Nilla wafers.

This second time through is your pas de deux with your thesaurus. A few paragraphs ago I disparaged their use a little, but really a good thesaurus is one of the crucial tools a writer needs.

Look for places to substitute in new words…but choose them based on their definitive meanings and their sound on the page. These are the little flourishes that will bring zest and zing to your book.

Art & Soul Conference at Baylor University

Thursday April 7-Sat April 9 I will be down in Waco, Texas, at Baylor University's Art and Soul Conference. I'll be splitting time between a few things but should be around the Baker Publishing Group table if you'd like to chat or talk to me about a potential project.

I'll also be on a publishing panel Thursday at 3:30pm along with John Wilson of Books and Culture, Jon Pott of Eerdmans and Lil Copan of Paraclete. For those who don't know those names, this is the equivalent of a basketball line-up featuring Jordan, Magic, Bird, and, well, me.

Raise Your Hand...

... if you pull up extra close at stop lights when the minivan in front of you has a fold-down TV monitor, just to see what they're watching. Yesterday it was The Little Mermaid, I think.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Day 3 of Details – Another Kind of Description

Sometimes details aren’t enough. Either the thing you’re describing is too convoluted to capture or mere words sound dull bringing out its essence. In cases like this writers often turn to another form of detail—the metaphor.

Metaphors, well, metaphors can be seen as a metaphor for novels themselves. (Or a synecdoche since they’re part of the whole. I don’t know.) When metaphors are done well they transcend the words that compose them. They illuminate and expand, in a flash, that which they capture.

In the way a novel can capture a life in 300 pages, a metaphor can capture something indescribable in ten words.

On the flipside though, the way a novel can plod and bog, a metaphor can sink under its own intentions/pretensions. Or simply not make sense.

When I think of metaphors in writing I think of two gentlemen: Raymond Chandler and Tom Robbins.

Here’s Chandler in The Big Sleep (which is a metaphor itself) on orchids: "Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption." If that doesn’t make you want to take two fingers of whiskey and call the next woman you see a "dame," we can’t be friends.

Tom Robbins, well, I don’t have his books in front of me, but open to almost any page and you’ll find a manic, imaginative metaphor that will evoke something in your mind (often something mildly corrupt), if not precisely what he wants.

I think there are at least a couple of good recipes for great metaphors. One thing they almost all rely on however is surprise. Six-day-old Diet Coke is perhaps the only thing flatter than a lame metaphor.

How you achieve that surprise is the test of the metaphor. Do you go for hyperbole? For oxymoron? For paradox?

Are there metaphors (or authors) that spring to mind in this discussion? Post your favorites.


For those in need of inspiration rather than tips and advice, this is a wonderful book for any artist. It's a kids book, but the message at its heart should resound with us all.

ish by Peter H. Reynolds

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Day 2 of Details – James Fenimore Cooper Syndrome

(Sorry this is late. Blogger's been testy today.)

I have read only one JFC books, as those of us in the know call him, and it was The Deerslayer. There’s not much I retain from my reading—it was assigned in high school—just random things. Natty Bumpo. Chingachgook. And the fact that Mr. Fenimore Cooper felt it necessary to describe every single freakin’ leaf in upper New York State.

I’ve been to Cooperstown. Pilgrimmaged there in fact to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s a lovely area. One of the most beautiful in the country, I think. Still, one need not describe every single freakin’ leaf.

This is James Fenimore Cooper syndrome.

It strikes the best and the worst of us. My first novel was 150,000 words after my first draft. I cut 30,000 words before publication—mostly long, portentous and portending passages using the weather to foreshadow dramatic events to come. Those were easy cuts.

These tend to be detail overload. You’re writing a book starring a nuclear scientist, you’ve researched fission, you’ve visited a reactor, you’ve watched Silkwood—and thus you want to show off a little. That’s perfectly natural. Just believe your readers and editors when they point out that this paragraph here, the page-long description of the smell of uranium, it’s boring.

You are beholden first to your story and characters, second to the writing, and third to the details that fill your book.

Three great tips for including details in your book.

1. Make them crucial to the plotChop Shop gets away with telling us about maggots, because it’s important for us to know about maggots to understand the plot. We’ll pay attention to something if we realize it’s crucial. Like the way students ask, “Will this be on the final?”—that’s your reader.

2. Make them crucial to characterization – Be it a physical description, or more likely, an idiosyncratic trait, these details help fill in your characters.

3. Make them unignorably interesting – We’re all suckers for well-written, interesting passages. So if you find a bit of history our or a detail about whales that doesn’t seem to fit in your novel, but is simply fascinating—cram it in somewhere. Make them concise and well-written. But do include them.

Tomorrow we’re going to look at the place where detail and metaphor merge.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Little Things

We see a lot of manuscripts here at Bethany House. Because of that bulk, one of the things that stands out most, in any manuscript, is something we haven’t seen or read before.

It can be a plot.
It can be a setting.
It can be a compelling voice.

In fact, it can be as simple and small as a single detail in your story.
The reason details stand out, is because, for the most part they can’t be faked. When we’re writing about something or someplace we don’t know very well we write vaguely and indistinctly. Details emerge from familiarity with our topic and that familiarity comes in three primary ways.

1. First-person Experience – If we’re writing about someplace we know or somewhere we’ve been, details from our memory help provide dimension and authenticity to our descriptions. Visiting your geographical setting seems like almost a prerequisite.

2. Research – If you’re a novelist, most likely you’re a researcher, too. Unless you’re writing a book steeped in a world you know, you’re probably going to have to look up some facts. These can be extensive—say, if you’re writing a historical novel. They can be minor, if you’re merely checking facts on a city where your book is set. The thing here is that the more research and the better research, the better chance you’ll find those imperative details that bring your story to life

I finished Tim Downs’ Chop Shop this weekend. He isn’t a forensic entomologist and yet didn’t skimp on the details. How? Research.

3. Imagination – If you’re writing a fantasy or science fiction story, you alone are supplying the details and facets of your world. But imagination brings to life even contemporary fiction set in our childhood house. Characters need interior lives and exterior skin. Real lives need dramatic envisionings to make them suitable for fiction. This all comes from the imagination.

Jim Crace, a fairly acclaimed author, barely did any research for his work Quarantine, preferring to conjure a harsh desert landscape out of his imagination. This gives the work a slightly "other-wordly" or dreamlike quality because the details are his alone.


There’s a reason why many writing instructors tell writers to "write what you know." It’s because it’s the easiest, on-hand way to introduce details. Research can be time consuming work and relying on the imagination is sometimes tricky business for novices. Personally, I think every author needs to rely on all three methods for each and every book. The more unexpected and evocative details the better.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about working them into your story.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Day 4 of Meaning – Tips

It’s Good Friday, so I can’t stay long and won’t keep you long. We have a Tenebrae Service tonight at church…something I’d never heard of before now.

Here’s some tips to consider as you write the very guts of the story…those portions that really get to the heart of your novel.

1. Try not to have them in long sections of dialogue. The eloquence that often comes out in these sections is…unbelievable. This works in plays because all characters get to be more eloquent than their nature. In books, I think characters get a couple real nice "eloquent" lines, but if it’s too much it seems unnatural and scripted.

2. Don’t quote or paraphrase from a sermon you heard or a book that touched you. Because unless you have the most amazing and original pastor ever, if he said, it’s probably something that’s been said and heard elsewhere. Ditto for books.

3. Don’t do it in a dream.

4. Do just write exactly what you mean, as long and detailed as you need. And then go back and edit that. Boil it down to a shining, gleaming point. We’d rather be pierced than bludgeoned.

5. Do dare to have your meaning be difficult to understand and idiosyncratic, yet emotionally stirring. A life changing occurence is not a clinical thing that can be written on a blackboard. It’s much more like getting your heart ripped open or your stomach kicked in by a jackboot.

6. Do open yourself up to the Spirit’s leading here. I don’t pretend that the words I write are transcribed from God’s pen to mine. But if there’s ever an area I’d like as much divine input in as I can get, this would be it.

So there’s six quick tips. Have a soul-enriching Easter.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Day 3 of Meaning – Answers

Yesterday we discussed how changing the questions our novels approach can lead to novels that tackle themes we’ve not seen quite so many times. The problem is that, in writing about faith, authors want to tackle the big themes.

What happens to faith in the midst of suffering? (The Passion of Reverend Nash)

How does faith change us? (Asher Lev, Godric)

What is faith? (Mariette in Ecstasy, Lying Awake)

I agree with the person who commented yesterday on the importance of precise and unique characters in helping the "meaning" of the book seem unique as well. Looking at the books above, one unifying characteristic is their very strong characters. We get to know these characters at a depth that goes beyond merely the platitudes we might hear on Sunday. And the final take-away answer we get may feel the same, but the experience of the character learning that lesson feels fuller and richer.

This, I guess, is the point. These novels really aren’t supposed to instruct. Their supposed to reflect or illustrate. We’re supposed to walk alongside characters and see them making choices and thinking things through. And it’s the journey that matters as much as anything.

A character who reaches a conclusion that’s a simple platitude becomes nothing more than a sounding board for an authors’ viewpoints. This is when books—all books—get slammed for being preachy. I’m not talking solely about CBA novels here. There are many, many novels that do this. (The Lovely Bones, in my opinion, is one of them.)

What we need to discover is whether there are tips for making a character’s "journey" more authentic. Are there ways of ensuring that whatever is learned by a character is earned through the novel, and not synthetic? We’ll spend tomorrow thinking this through.


Go to Day 4 of Meaning

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Day 2 of Meaning – Big Theme, Little Theme, What’s This Book Mean?

A little shout-out to those who enjoy Dr. Seuss’s ABCs. I read it a lot now.

There’s lots of ways to write books. You can start with an interesting character. A great plot idea. You can also start with a theme. Now "thematic" books often get a bad wrap for being overly ponderous, but I think they are legit. You can write an interesting novel looking at the question of: "How has technology isolated us from our fellow man?"

That’s a fairly narrow theme.

I think books—CBA and ABA—tend to have problems when the themes they choose are too broad. And I can say for certain that CBA books, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, tend to choose the same big themes. God’s faithfulness. Our failures apart from Him. These don’t just appear in published novels, but in the myriad of proposals we see everyday. At their core, the books all seem to end up pronouncing the same things.

So is the problem with the question or the answers?

Both, I think. Today we’re going to focus on the question.

If you change the question being asked at the heart of a novel, you will invariably change the answer given at the end. My feeling is that these questions should be "smaller" in scope and more open-ended in terms of their answer. The word I think represents them best is intricate. Small, but complicated. Yes, Tolstoy wrote War and Peace and Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment—small themes, neither—but today is a different world and we’re not Russian giants.

In my writing, the most intricate theme I’ve attempted surrounded the question of "What does it mean to lose something before you had a chance to experience it?" This was short story. The character was a high schooler with testicular cancer who learns he won’t ever be able to have children. There’s no single answer for that question—just the understanding the character came to…and the opportunity for the reader to answer the question in their own mind.

Does this make any sense? I feel I may be harping on something others don’t care about.

I guess in the end, I’d like to ask: "What questions can we raise in our books that won’t lead to answers readers have heard a thousand times, if not in other novels then certainly from the pulpit?" God is faithful. We know that. Let’s take a look at something else for a moment.


Go to Day 3 of Meaning.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Day 1 of Meaning - Who Is Wise Among You?

One of the hallmarks of Christian fiction is that the protagonist invariably learns a life lesson of some sort. Usually this involves a character either: A) Realizing he needs God in his life or B) Realizing he’d forgotten that he needs God.

Rarely do either of these realizations come out of thin air. Usually they are linked to the plot of the story, often the very theme of the novel. Very often the realizations arrive in one of a few ways.

1.) Character hears a sermon and/or randomly flips Bible open to extremely relevant passage. Words pierce the soul, as the Bible is want to do.

2.) Sub-plot character either living circumstances that mirror or are exact opposite of the main character’s situation. Main character learns from their example or lack-thereof.

3.) Wise person (often older) gives stinging advice in excellently phrased dialogue. The truth in what they say brings characters to reverential silence.

I’m guilty of 1 and 3 in my own writing, so I hope this doesn’t seem like casting of stones. I also thinks it’s a critical topic. When we’re talking about the reality or honestness of a book, this is where many fall apart. Mine do. And I also think the frustration people often have with Christian books stems from these segments. These are often the portions of the novel that seem to have neon signs around them blinking: "MEANINGFUL MOMENT!" and "PAY ATTENTION NOW!"

So let’s talk about the passage of wisdom in our novels. And in novels in general. Most are written with some kind of point/message, so how do some come across as effective while others like a 2x4 to the head.
Go to Day 2 of Meaning.

Gilead Wins National Book Critics Circle Award

Major prize for Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. So it does pay off to spend twenty-three years on a book.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Foundational Books - #3

Oh, such a long meeting I just exited. Long. Long. Long. Break for cheesecake. Long. Long. Long. But productive.

Only now I don't have tons of time to reminisce about books from my past. So I'll choose a series of books I've recently picked up again to go through with my oldest daughter--George Selden's group of Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse titles, including the Newberry Winner A Cricket in Times Square.

The full extent of my memory of these books can be summed up in one word: liverwurst. I had never seen or heard the word before when I first read the books. And yet there it was. Chester Cricket looking into a picnic basket and seeing his favorite food: liverwurst. Now ignoring the entymological problems of a cricket liking liverwurst, just look at that word. How wonderfully evocative a word is that! Granted, it may not evoke the most pleasant of reactions but it's one that really taught me about the "sound" of reading and writing. How individual words sound. How sentences sound. How characters sound.


The great thing was that when I eventually matched up my youthful impressions of the word with the real substance, they matched almost completely. What else could liverwurst be but what it is?

Reading the books with my daughter was a delight. Tucker Mouse has a nice Brooklyn/Bronx rhythm to his voice and there's some playfulness to the interaction with the characters. The best of the books, however, is one I'd never read before called Harry Kitten and Tucker Mouse and tells the story of the characters meeting and becoming friends. It's a love letter to NYC--the greatest city in the world--and has some beautiful descriptions that I treasured even if my daughter didn't get them. She does want to visit someday, though. And when we do we'll go to Times Square and think of crickets and cats and mice.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Foundational Books – #2

Hardy Boys? Nope.
Nancy Drew? Are you kidding?
The Bobsy Twins? Hah!

No, my formula series of choice was the Three Investigators series. (BTW: I know the internet is full of these insanely devoted fan sites to obscure things. But it’s always fun when you find one for something you used to like.)

Somehow linked with Alfred Hitchcock, the series just looked cooler back in the 1980s when I was reading such fare. Hardy Boys looked fuddy-duddy and Nancy Drew was a girl, so it was me and the investigators.

I remember little of the stories. Virtually nothing of the writing or characters. Ah, but the covers. Going to the fan site and clicking around among the covers brought me back to the days when my mom would take me to a book store and I’d get to pick one out. Sure the cover oversold the story a bit—like comic books, really—but darn it, I know I had a couple of good hours of reading ahead of me.

And that’s not a joy or pleasure I’ll undersell or ever diminish in any way. Yes, I may not have been reading the greatest books in the world, but I’ll tell you that becoming more “discerning” hasn’t done much for the joy I find in reading. Frankly, few books make me feel that giddy with anticipation these days. That’s certainly my loss.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The Books That Made Us

In the 21st-century, for better or more likely worse, we are our taste. We're defined by the things that we like. Blogs are only reinforcing this trend...and while it's a wonderful decentralization of power in terms of whose opinion matters, the practical outcome is that we will become defined by those tastes.

That said, what about those foundational works that formed us and go beyond taste? I think we'd all agree that we have likes and dislikes for things that move past pure "opinion" into something a little more mystic. We like a song that has long since gone out of fashion for instance. Or treasure a movie that nows seems dated. Some of the pieces may even hold up over time, but our love for them simply can't be explained on their merit alone.

Given that we like to talk about books at this site and that I've got nothing else pressing, I thought we'd spend a week chatting about them.

One of my foundational series of books were John D. Fitzgerald's GREAT BRAIN series. Man, I loved those books. Set in 1880s Utah, the books were narrated by John D., presumably the author's childhood alter ego. Mostly they were the misadventures of a young con man (Tom) the narrator's older brother who is too smart for his own good.

I've read a few recently and was delighted tha the books really hold up well. There's plenty of humor and adventure and history to entertain. Lots I realize I missed too, in particular the problems of religion that the Catholic Fitzgerald family faces moving into a primarily Mormon land.

What I find deeply interesting now is the character of Tom. He's an anti-hero in a lot of respects. What were you supposed to learn from this kid who benefitted from letting others trip over their own idiocy?

Mostly it was an early lesson that not all characters (and thus not all people) were going to be "good" or "bad." Tom was gray as can be. And also that fiction need not be idealized or sanitized. And not even always sympathetic. But always interesting. And true to their nature.

What's ONE of your foundational books? (Remember we'll be doing this all week.)

Friday, March 11, 2005


The four-part series at this blog, passed onto me by Tony Woodlief, is one of the more moving things I've read recently.

Start with Mar. 2.

And that's it for this week. We'll meet up again Monday!

Tough Business

From a more recent Entertainment Weekly article detailing some books with HUGE expectations that have failed (including Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons) comes the information that The Pope's latest book, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, has sold only about 40,000 copies so far, as reported by Nielsen Book Scan. The Pope! Are you kidding me? How are we supposed to turn an unknown author into a best-seller if the Pope can't even reach 100,000?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

What Is True, What Is Noble, What Is Pure, What Is Hip…

When critiquing the emergent church movement, one popular opinion is to state that in many cases, it’s often as much about style as substance. Candles are lit; liturgies are recalled; new arrangements of classic hymns are played—but the core substance is not too different from the modern church. Or if anything, watered down.

Andy Crouch used this critique as the not-so-subtle subtext to his article “The Emergent Mystique” which appeared in Christianity Today. Cool hair simply can’t be all there is to this conversation, or it’s just not a debate worth having.

My guess is that that there are people who don’t like Blue Like Jazz very much. Spiritual memoirs are a difficult thing—essentially you’re battling against yourself. How can you write with passion about the change in your life without sounding like a bragging blowhard. Start chattering too much about how your faith is “authentic” because of this, this, and this and the implication is that my faith ISN’T authentic. Also the sheer fact that one is writing about the need to look beyond your own small life—in a memoir form that promotes solipsism…. Well, it could’ve been a train wreck.

What I think saves the book is that Don Miller writes this mostly as memoir. This isn’t a Christian living book. Not a lot of “Six steps to authentic faith” or “The four P’s of personal growth in Christ.” Frankly, this book feels fresh to me because it, mostly, avoids just those pitfalls.

It was about a year ago that I realized that 98% of books published in CBA, INCLUDING FICTION, have a self-help component. There’s a lesson—spelled out—to be learned. There’s a message that will bring us closer to God. There’s a new path of faith that we’re looking to try.

Few are the books that simply offer us an uneditorialized life and allow us to draw our own conclusions. Check out the writings of John McPhee if you want an example of the kind of book I describing, where we are given insight into the human condition through an in-depth exploration of a subject (Shad for instance in Founding Fish. Or orange growing in Oranges.) and those passionate about that subject. Or check out the documentaries Brother’s Keeper and Hell House. These works have impacted me much more than agenda books—even those with a benign message of “expanding my territory” or “living my best life now” or “being driven by purpose.”

The “problem” comes in that Miller has thus left out the sign posts to help us “interpret” his book. And so we’re left to decide on our own. Why does Don Miller mention some of the things that he mentions? Like the pipe smoking. Or his pastor friend who swears. Or even brief descriptions that his neighborhood has lesbians in it.

As I see it, our choices are:

1. Don Miller is writing about his life. These things are in his life so they make the book.

2. Don Miller specifically mentions these things to make a point about his life as a Christian. That pipe smoking doesn’t mean you can’t have faith. That it’s possible to be a pastor and swear. That he’s willing to live in a neighborhood with lesbians rather than sequester himself from them.

3. Don Miller is mentioning them because they sound hip, dangerous, cool, etc.

If you think #3 is the reason, you probably won’t like the book. If you think #2 is the reason, you may not like the book, depending on how you feel about those issues. If you think it’s #1, you’re annoyed by this whole paragraph.

My take (and this just MY reading and my NOT knowing Donald Miller) is that all three decisions come into play. But for me, most of the book seemed #1 or #2. Only a few details seemed like they were mentioned merely for the “it/hip” factor.

And so it is with our own writing. Yes, we can throw a gay character into our novel. Yes, we can have a chaplain who sings bawdy drinking songs. Yes, we can have a character who knows a Sex on the Beach from a Slippery Nipple. But why? And if, too often, our answer is #3, our book is not worth the time we spend on it.

And thus we are done with Donald Miller. Go read the book.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Don Miller Part Deux

Driving home last night I had a terrible feeling that I somehow missed the point with yesterday's post and when I reread it today, indeed, I did. Missed it completely. Missed it, in fact, in the same way I’d chastised others for missing it by focusing on content out of context.

If you read yesterday’s post knowing nothing about Blue Like Jazz you might be wondering about my praise for the book. Do I like simply the book because Don smokes, hangs out at Reed College, likes people who swear? Hardly.

This happens a lot with me. When you have to talk about widening content avenues, you end up sounding like some big supporter of drinking or smoking or sex or drugs or whatever controversial content we feel is being left out, unrealistically, of Christian novels.

The point is to simply end the discussion of contextless content altogether. Or at least make it broad enough that I don’t need to spend hours debating the spiritual significance of the word “hell” appearing in a book. But the conversation WON’T go away, the debate WON’T disappear, and so I simply become stuck on one side of the debate rather than being able to talk about what I really want to talk about—which is the CONTEXT of the book. The story in a novel. Or the life revealed in Don Miller’s memoir.

I’ve become so used to merely staying on one side of the argument that yesterday, without really even being in a discussion, I managed to fully miss the point.

At its core, Blue Like Jazz is not about smoking pipes or doing drugs or people who swear or listening to cool music. It’s about Don Miller’s faith journey. His realization that his own long-standing self-absorption was a symptom of “original sin” that was keeping him from following Jesus fully. His community of friends around him who challenged and pushed and provoked him. His later understanding of grace, and his inability to accept love.

It’s about Jesus and the Christian life and one man trying to figure it out. It’s about a passion for trying to live like Christ, not how others want you to live for Christ. It’s about reaching out in love to those who might think otherwise. And for all those reasons I greatly appreciated it. And it’s for THOSE reasons that I recommend it.

It’s a book that I think (if it isn’t already) will become a touchstone work in the growing emergent movement along with A New Kind of Christian by Brian McClaren.

I’m not going to completely let it off the hook, however, because I think there’s some ways in which it raises interesting points about how a work is responsible for its content. Or at least the context in which that content is presented. And I think there’s a few ways to read the context—overt or subtle—of Blue Like Jazz.

Dave Eggers

Because the post below reminded me a little of McSweeney's, a literary magazine (and now publisher) started by Dave Eggers I thought I'd post to this interview with him about this book industry. It's at Salon.com so you'll need to watch a commercial to access it.

Reading the interview, particuarly the portion about why he established inner-city tutoring centers--well, it actually sounds a lot like Donald Miller. Coming to understand you're not the most important person in the world and turning your abilities outward is at the heart of Blue Like Jazz.

Ankeny Briefcase

This is some good news. Here's a new literary and music journal focusing on finding new artists that is coming out of the Burnside Writers Collective. This is a group made up of some "emergent" voices like Lauren Winner, Chris Seay, Don Miller, and some others.

Check Mick Silva's blog for more info.

(Also, now that I think on it...please consider the slight irony that all the folks starting this thing up are non-fiction writers.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

What If Donald Miller Were Fictional?

I’ve never met Don Miller, purported author and main character in spiritual memoir Blue Like Jazz, so it’s entirely possible that he is not real. Just because a person’s name is on a book doesn’t mean much. George Sand isn’t real. Lemony Snicket isn’t real. Perhaps Don Miller is a similar fiction.

But no…it turns out that I know real people who know the real Don Miller. He’s alive, a breathing, flesh-and-bones guy (supposedly a good guy, too) living out in Portland or somewhere doing his thing which includes being the author of the new Searching for God Knows What and the big-buzz-book Blue Like Jazz.

I’m coming late to Jazz so I’m won’t claim to be doing anything but bandwagon climbing. I heard about the book months before at ECPA Publishing University and more lately it’s been chatted up elsewhere, most noticeably at Mick Silva’s blog. Which makes this post merely the latest to use Don Miller’s name in some weird heading that has very little to do with the man’s book or self.

What I’m trying to figure out after reading Blue Like Jazz is: A) How did Miller get away with it? and B) At what point can we use the book as proof of what is possible?

If Donald Miller—the Donald Miller that appears in Blue Like Jazz—were a fictional character, my gut is that there’s very few CBA publishing houses that would accept him as is. He smokes for one, fairly unapologetically. Doesn’t deny drinking or doing drugs, though mainly in the past. He hangs out mainly in a bastion of liberal, tree-hugging, communist ‘shroom abusers—and loves it. He dares to question our Unimpeachable President. He’s rough around the edges. Maybe doesn’t shave quite as often as we’d like. Gets a kick out of people who swear.

Does this remind you of any characters you’ve seen in our fiction? Nyet. And yet this book came out from Thomas Nelson, the #1 Christian publisher in the world.

Now granted, it’s not for CBA fiction readers. It’s an emergent voice, though to pigeonhole him like that is…blah. So the people who dare to pick up the book are ones whose tolerance is unlikely to be quite so dainty. The thing is, it’s out there and I’m assuming it’s doing very, very well.

But it’s not fiction. For a long time, sales and marketing people have said that there is no confluence of postmoderns or emergent readers. No way to reach them en masse. Does this book—and A New Kind of Christian—begin to shift that thinking? And does it mean anything for fiction?

Here’s the thing, Miller in his book makes one scripted apologetics pitch. And it’s not the C. S. Lewis version of almost mathematically proving God or the Josh McDowell pitch of archeologically proving God or Lee Strobel’s journalistically proving God. Instead he looks at the structure of story and its resonance in human life as a proof that there is an archetypical “story” in history that sets the pattern for all the stories to come after.

Story! Freaking story! This guy is a book guy. A writer. A word lover. And we’re supposed to believe this audience--his audience--doesn’t also love those same things, of which fiction is a dear and deep part? Hogwash!

So as Mick Silva and I and many others have been wondering, where then are the stories? The memoirs, sure. The creative nonfiction, sure. But fiction, too. That’s what I can take across my desk. Because, frankly, the debate is very nearly over. We simply need the proof now. And proof only comes in black-and-white ink on white pages.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Get Thee to the Discussion Board!

As is more and more common around here, the real enlightening dialogue is being led by others at the faith*in*fiction discussion board. Do you know about this board? If not, check it out, sign up, and enjoy the interaction.

There was a discussion on the distinctiong between Christian Novelists and Novelists Who Are Christian.

There was some give-and-take critique of writers' ever-important first three pages.

The most recent conversation is about something I said on Friday. To be tacky and quote myself:

But remember, most novels aren't about deep surprise in the plot of a book. Instead our pleasure comes from the emerging details and characterization on the journey through those plots.

Some people are daring to question whether this is, in actuality, you know, correct. Can you imagine the gall? No, seriously, it's a really good discussion, because I think it explores some of the question of why we read, what we're expecting, and then how we turn it back again into our writing.

I think it also explores just how intrinsic characterization becomes in plot. You can't truly do one without the other. To explain a little further what I meant, I think we can look at plot on a couple of levels. Tell me the plot of any mystery. Tell me the plot of any romance. You can. In the most overarching sense, you can because external conflict and plot are pretty well interchangeable. Therefore, in most books the girl and the guy are going to fall in love, the bad guy is going to get caught, and the world is going to be saved.

That said, I definitely agree that we need surprise in HOW we get from major plot point to major plot point. As folks have pointed out, so many of those surprises emerge from our characters. Certainly there can be narrative twists--they are always welcome--but how many freak tornados or random shootings can there be in a story before we begin to use the dreaded word: "contrived."

That's a word I use a lot in reviews. Instead of feeling a story emerges organically, I feel the author's hand pulling the strings. This is contrivance. All stories have bits and pieces that are contrived, but mostly we should let our characters guide our stories.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Day 4 of Complexity – Monk, Cal Ripken, Tricks, and Clues

1. Though on the outside they’re both detective shows, there’s a vast difference between the shows Monk and CSI. Monk is a detective story, while CSI is a procedural show. And if you ask me to talk about them at a story level, I’d say that while CSI is flashier and glitzier, Monk—when done well—is the more elegant.

Here’s the reason: Monk, usually, shows its cards upfront. There’s a mystery to be solved and you’re given all the clues to solve it. CSI is all about procedure and normally there’s some crucial piece of evidence that needs to be found before the right criminal is apprehended. It’s a cheat—a way of prolonging suspense artificially by keeping viewers intentionally in the dark.

Monk risks losing its suspense by allowing viewers the opportunity to solves the crimes. There are episodes where I’ve known within the first five minutes. The only pleasure then comes in watching it to the end with my wife to prove how wonderfully smart and talented I am.

The thing is, I couldn’t do this at first with Monk. Only in watching a full season did I pick up the little tricks they used to innocuously introduce important clues while learning to ignore the red herrings. Fact is I’m not wonderfully smart and talented. Any twelve year old willing to ruin an episode could play the same game and learn the same tricks.

(I remember quite vividly reading all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories one summer as a thirteen-year-old and realizing about fifteen stories in that Doyle never quite shows all the clues. There was always one footprint or bit of tobacco that Holmes sees but doesn't mention until the end. Drove me nuts. And yet I read them all.)

2. Cal Ripken is one of the greatest shortstops ever. He revolutionized the position in the early 1980s. Shortstop was once the realm of lithe, quick, light-hitting glove men. Ozzie Smith springs to mind. Cal Ripken is a large dude. Power hitter. No blazing speed. Yet he played the position wonderfully and the reason is because repetition and deep understanding of the game allowed him to place himself in the right spot to catch a ball—before it was ever hit. Those little tricks and clues made his lack of quickness a non-issue.

3. This post has wandered afield, as things do on Friday. It’s mainly about seeing through complexity. I think that’s what should happen to us as we begin to improve as writers and readers. The sheer undertaking of a novel may seem daunting when looked at it as a whole. The skills and tricks and clues that we pick up from reading and writing, however, should help begin parsing the novel down into manageable chunks.

At the same time, they should make reading a more interesting pastime. Have you ever tried to write out where you think a writer is going with a book? Try it sometime. Look at the clues and predictors left in the text and see how close you can come. It should help you gain confidence in planning the overall structure for a book. But remember, most novels aren’t about deep surprise in the plot of a book. Instead our pleasure comes from the emerging details and characterization on the journey through those plots.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Day 3 of Complexity – Degree of Difficulty

Writing a novel isn’t the platform diving or figure skaing or Olympic gymnastics. Despite what certain critics may say, you don’t actually get more “points” for completing a novel with three POVs, fractured narrative, and without using the letter “F.”

Instead, the focus becomes “why.”

Why are you telling your story through three POVs?
Why are you using fractured narrative?
What’s the point in not using the letter “F”?

Everything that goes into your book should be there to support the overall vision you have for your book. When that’s being accomplished, decisions aren’t made on the basis of complexity. Complexity emerges (or doesn’t emerge) from the scope of your vision.

I’ve written two novels at present.

One was told all in third-person limited. It started in early July and ended eight week later around Labor Day. There a mild flashbacks within the context of the story, but primarily it’s a straightforward narrative focused on a single man struggling with an internal and external problem. The subplots that exist are written within the framework of his perspective. The attention they receive in the story is the attention the main character is able to spend on them. Nothing exists outside of those eight weeks.

Book two was a different ball of wax. It starts in January 2000, is officially told completely in flashback, is officially all in first-person, except we’re also reading journal entry research written by the first-person narrator that cover 70 years of history and unearth the lives of two other women. One who is still alive and also appears in the present narrative. Book two took images of mazes and labyrinths as its central symbology and I tried to write a story whose narrative played out in the same way.

I’m never going to lift either book up as a paradigm of writing excellence. If nothing else, though, I think I completed books in which all my choices—like them or loathe them—were justified by the stories being told.

One thing I see in CBA fiction are fairly conservative and fairly simple narrative and structure choices. Lots of duel narrator stories—he said/she said. Lots of straightforward narrative, point a, to point b, to point c with maybe a flashback thrown in for back story.

I’ve already said that complex doesn’t equal good, so I’m not criticizing this. I’m merely pointing out the overarching limitations. We’re missing out on a lot of narrative possibilities. We’re missing out on thematic depth that comes through multiple narratives told in proximity to each other.

Your story may be simple and straightforward. Tell it well and that’s wonderful. But don’t feel like you can’t swing for the fences. Because, despite what I said at the beginning I think, as readers, that we do appreciate degree of difficultly. I think that Chinese puzzle box stories in which every piece comes as a surprise yet slips into place are a pure delight to us. So are books told in multiple perspectives that each seem as unique and distinguishable as our best friends. So are multi-layered books that take on a weight and gravity beyond the accumulation of their pages.

But in the end, tell the story the way it needs to be told. Staying true to that is always your best hope.
Go to Day 4 of Complexity

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Day 2 of Complexity – Fundamentals

We’re going to start in the world of sports yet again today…but we don’t have to stick with baseball.

We can talk about tennis. Or basketball. Really any sport.

The one thing that every sport seems to have in common is that people need to practice. Coaches set up drills. Players repeat movements or motions or plays or swings again and again and again. Good habits need to be formed, bad habits eradicated. These things need to become almost instinctual or reflexive.

We have no such system in place for writing. Instead, it’s generally assumed that one can simply sit down at a computer and write a novel. This is crazy talk. Instead, we need to understand that writing can be broken down into component parts. It’s a skill for which there are drills and practice opportunities availability.

It’s these foundational fundamentals that become the groundwork on which our writing careers are formed. Just as no pianist can play Chopin without first learning scales, nor sculptors attempt a Rodin without first learning to model in clay, so we won’t have the necessary training to turn out writing of excellence without, well, writing.

Here’s just four of the fundamentals we need to master.

Reading – I talk about this a lot, but you need to read. You need to read fiction. You need to read nonfiction. The Bible. Plays. Children’s books. Poetry. Anything that is well-written will be of benefit. You need to read broadly and deeply. You need to scale back on writing that no longer challenges, that reinforces clichés, that teaches you only things you already know.

Ideally, I’d say you should be reading two to three books a month. A book a week, if possible. Does that sound excessive? It’s 52 books. There are over 10,000 novels published a year. JUST NOVELS! You’re only scratching the surface.

Reading Intentionally – We also need to read with intention. We need to be aware of what other writers are doing. We need to pay attention to structure choices and POV choices. We need to “borrow” tricks that we like. We need to understand that this book didn’t emerge from whole cloth. This is as much a quilt as any book. It may seem seamless but we should begin to be able to pick out the subtle sutures and stitching holding the thing together.

Voice – Every time you write, you have the chance to create a voice. In your Christmas letter. In your email. In your note reminding your children to pack their own lunches. One of the things that has submarined our societal writing skills overall is simply that we were no longer writing. Letters were passé. We spoke on the phone. Or worse, just watched TV. Computers have actually brought writing back to us. Email (and now blogging) are returning us to the written word and so it’s time to actually employ for something other than forwarding dumb jokes or untrue stories about the president of Johnson & Johnson being a Satanist. Write to your friends in a decisive and immediate voice. Write your spouse spicy notes in a purr. Write forward in anger to some jackass with a blog, telling him you don’t need to be told how to write. These are drills, practice done in miniature. But again, it’s all about the repetition. The making of instincts and reflexes.

Story – Write a nine page short story. It should have a beginning and an end. There must be one character in a defined setting. There must be something at stake for that character and by the end there must be a resolution of those stakes. This is story at its most basic. Is it something you’ve ever even tried? Do you know how to go about doing it? If not, how in the world are you writing a novel?
Those are some examples of fundamentals. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how we build on these, adding complexity to everything we do.
Go to Day 3 of Complexity.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Day 1 of Complexity – Exchanging High-Fives With Myself

Thanks for bearing with me over the last couple of days. Very busy here.

I’m going to be talking about “complexity” over the next few days, especially as it relates to publishing, though I’m sure we’ll draw on other disciplines, too. I want to start, however, by stating the obvious—Complexity does not equal quality. There’s no correlation. Unless you’re talking about mazes or something, just making something complex doesn’t mean it’s good.

That said, let’s move on.

Last spring in a softball game, I hit a home run. Over the fence in left field.

I am not a big guy. People have been known to call me thin. I hit singles and balls to the gap that I might be able to turn into a triple. I fly out a lot, sometimes to the warning track. I don’t hit home runs.

Last spring, in our team’s first game of the year, I hit one. My only one of the season.

Hitting a baseball or a softball, on one level, is an extremely simple process. A bat is swung by the arms at a ball, and the impact sends the ball out into the field.

Hitting a baseball with maximum efficiency, however, is a whole other deal. It’s incredibly complex with feet, legs, waist, torso, arms, and wrists all performing simultaneously to generate the greatest amount of bat speed and torque while keeping the bat at the proper plane. Batters talk all the time about their “mechanics” and this is what they mean.

For one at bat, my mechanics were “right.” The rest of the time my hips “fly out” and I end up swinging mainly with my arms. And let’s just say that nobody’s looking at my arms and starting a steroids investigation.
What does this have to do with writing? Nothing. I mostly just wanted to crow with pathetic self-aggrandizement about hitting a home run.

No, actually, it does have something to do with complexity. To me, writing is a process, an action that’s made up of component parts that all need to be working in concert together for a book to succeed. Likewise, a book itself displays its own complexity as we read it, and therefore reading—and comprehending it—becomes its own process. These are the things we’ll talk about for the rest of the week. Most likely there will be more baseball metaphors. I can’t help it. Spring training is coming and baseball moves from the hot stove to the front burner.
Go to Day 2 of Complexity.