f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 01/01/2005 - 02/01/2005

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

Monday, January 31, 2005

Day 1 of Agents - Finding Nemo

Let’s get the controversial stuff out of the way first.

Do you need an agent to get published in CBA?

The answer is: No. The simple fact is that authors are signed who don’t have agents. And also, many successful published authors are still unrepresented.

But that tells only a fraction of the story. In the past decade agents have gone from “scarce” to an integral part of the CBA publishing landscape. Publishing houses are shutting off access to their slush pile (though mine is still open) and are attending fewer conferences. Agents are supposed to be doing the job of filtering manuscripts for us.

Many unpublished authors today don’t even look for a way into a publishing house on their own, they look to find an agent first. So with that in mind, we’ll spend a week talking about agents.
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If you’re a first time author and you’ve decided to select an agent, don’t half-ass the job. This is a crucial decision that you’re making here. Do your research.

Find out who they represent and how many clients they currently are serving. Gauge their knowledge of both the industry and of your particular story-type. Do they represent fiction? Do they know mystery or romance or fantasy or whatever you’re writing? Do they seem to “get” the story you’ve submitted?

Do you want to be a potentially big author for a lesser-known agent (and get a good share of their energy) or a smaller author for an agent with more name recognition who might not spend a ton of time on your book? Are you looking for somebody primarily to handle the business side of things or an editorially-minded person who’ll help out with your book itself?

There’s no right answer to these questions. The only thing, in the end, is that the agent must be looking out for your best interests. That’s their job. That’s what you’ll be paying them for, securing the expertise you’d otherwise be without.

At best, it’s a symbiotic relationship—like clown fish and the sea anemone where they live—you supply the manuscript/they supply guidance to make it more successful than you could have achieved on your own. When that happens, Nemo is safe, the anemone is parasite-free and the sea is one big party.

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Agents, if you have any particular comments to make, feel free to Email me. I'll post responses on Friday.
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Continue to Day 2 of Agents

Friday, January 28, 2005

Don’t Go Back to Rockville

One of the inescapable tropes of Christian fiction is the notion of “returning home” or “coming home” to find fulfillment. We published a book by that title, in fact, last year. And it’s not just a CBA thing. Culture in general is obsessed with this notion.

Ever watch the show “Ed” when it was on? Have you seen Garden State yet? Both of the entertainments use this set-up as their springboards.

It strikes me as somewhat unhealthy.

Basically the underlying message is:

A) We’re all pretty much unhappy where we’re at.
B) Life was better when we were teens.
C) The answer to my unhappiness is something (or someone) I left back where I grew up.
D) Plus God. I forgot about God when I moved away.

Now, finding God is never a bad thing. But to suggest that God can only be found in a certain place—which is the implicit idea—seems somewhat dangerous. Plus the whole thing feeds into the grating American theme that life is greatest from 16-22. The exultation of responsibility-free, halcyon living.

That’s an attitude that’s getting both 10-year-olds and 35-year-olds to try to be 19. Both are frightening in their own special way.

What’s my point? Mostly, that we’ve seen it already. And if it’s on the shelves, that means as an acquisitions editor I’ve seen it 10-fold on my desk. So, let’s put a twelve-month moratorium on starting any new “wounded person goes back home to lick wounds and start over stories,” okay?

Super, thanks.

Happy Friday. We’ll talk about agents next week.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Next Week and a Question

I find myself without much else to add to this week’s series of posts. I thought I would have more to say, but…not so much, it turns out. So either I said all that needs to be said, or, more likely, I was just rambling for three days.

So we’ll look to the future for a moment.
Next week, I’d like to spend a few days talking about agents. Not specific agents, of course, just the whole philosophical notion of the “agent.” And their role in your life and my life. Hopefully I’ll even coax some real-life agents to weigh in toward the end of the week.
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Today I’d like to end by asking for your favorite single character in fiction. Could be a short story, a children’s book, or a novel. But keep it in the written realm.

Who is it and why?

Mine is Donald “Sully” Sullivan from Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool. He feels as deeply lived-in as any character I’ve ever come across. He’s a wonderful combination of humor and compassion, who struggles mightily with his own pride. And he seems to have found a sly pleasure in living—even when he becomes his own worst enemy—that imbues the story with its rich humanity.
How about you?

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

My Favorite Song Right Now

Magnetic Fields: "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin"

It seems to have something wonderfully subtle to say about our/my sin nature.

Day 3 of Novel Writing – Why a Book is Written

Yesterday we put on tweed, snifted brandy, puffed away at our meerschaum pipes, and talked of a novelist’s highest calling—to craft a book that would only grow in stature as decades passed.

Today, we’ve got blue jeans, sweatshirts stained with strained vegetables, a water bottle, a bowl of pretzels, and a half-an-hour while the kids are asleep. Your choices are Regis, thirty minutes of Renee faking a British accent in the new Bridget Jones DVD, shiny, happy people in Us magazine, or Brothers Karamazov.

Anybody up for a little Dostoevsky? Yeah, didn’t think so.

How about Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? Perhaps, but wouldn’t Colin Firth be yummier?

Okay, how about the short chapters of Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club.

You know, that just might work.

Remember yesterday when I said, in bold letters, how books must entertain for a day but be written for eternity? I believe that. But I also know that often, entertaining for a day is both hard enough and reward enough.

Books that entertain for a day are the engine that make the publishing industry move, partially because of how disposable they are. The fact that they slip in and out of bestseller lists means space is available for more books to emerge.

Just how cynical you want to be about these books is up to you. Some are pure formula, written with less skill and grace than you might gain from an adolescent lemur. Some show sparkle and imagination in places but never stretch for much more. Others hit every mark and find their way into a warm spot in your heart, even if they’ll never be discussed thirty years hence.

Your book must entertain for a day. Whether fantasy or family drama, murder mystery or Regency romance, this is your book fulfilling its purpose: to be read.

Just What You Need...More of Me Talking

Chris Well author of Forgiving Solomon Long interviewed me for his blog on CCM magazine. It's Part I of a three-parter.

Check it out and check out Chris' book as well, about which I've heard some very nice things. Amazon has been reluctant to send me my copy, but I'm the rest of you will get better service.

Excellent Article on Art/Faith

Check out this post/article at InFuze from our friend Robin Parrish. Definitely worth your time.

"What I Learned at the Revolution"

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Day 2 of Novel Writing – Impact

When you write a novel, you’re obviously hoping your book makes an impact. You want lots of sales, if not for the readers, then for the fame, glory, and greenbacks, right? Nobody writes to be ignored.

That said, I think we sometimes overlook an aspect of impact in our touting of sales as the primary measure of a book’s value. What we overlook, because it difficult to predict, is a book’s legacy.

The Risk Pool by Richard Russo came out in 1988.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy came out in 1961.
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor came out in 1949.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett came out in 1930.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky came out in 1886.
Phantastes by George MacDonald came out in 1858.
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen came out in 1814.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe came out in 1719.

Here’s my pithy Tuesday saying: All books must engage readers for a day, yet should be written to gather readers for a century.

That sounds like a tall order, like I’m asking for all of you to become Jane Austen or Walker Percy. But that’s not it. What I’m asking is that we approach writing our novels the same way. What I’m hoping is that you see the value in trying your hardest to say something that lasts more than the blink that is most book’s existence.

That comes through wrestling with the language, crafting dimensional characters, and opening up a life. It comes through finding the universal but expressing it in an original way. It came come in romance (Austen) or fantasy (MacDonald) or adventure (Dafoe) or mystery (Hammett). That’s the highest you can strive for as an author. That’s the long-view that takes us out of seeing novels as merely “momentary entertainment.” That’s where a book’s fullest impact is realized.

And that’s why I’ll never stop sounding the gong for books crafted with that mindset.
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Tomorrow we’ll look at books as entertainment.
Continue to Day 3 of Novel Writing

Monday, January 24, 2005

Day 1 of Novel Writing - Beware Belabored Apple Metaphors

On the discussion board (free to join and filled with excellent conversation), a reader in addressing some conversation about the role of dialogue in books pointed out this interview with author Dennis Lehane at Powells—a wonderful site for book-lovers, btw.

I want to look at what he says here:

Whenever I see books about how to write bestsellers, I just want to ask, "Why don't you just call it, 'How to write a screenplay'?" I say to my students right off the bat, if there's not depth of language, if you don't bring some sort of music to your prose, if that isn't something you can put on the table, then please go do something else because it's the only thing that separates literature from any other art form. That's it. That's all we've got left. Hollywood can beat us in the car chases and the explosions and the high drama. All we have is language and the depth of character, the ability to take you through a life, as opposed to suggesting it.

Um, yes.

See, I’m tired of the debate between “literary fiction” and “genre” or “popular” fiction. I’m tired of arguing whether a book by Lisa Samson is more important than a book by, say, Ted Dekker is more important than a book by Anne Tyler. There’s so many stories to tell, so many reasons to write a novel, and so many ways it can be done that while it is still comparing apples to apples, it becomes an argument between Honeycrisp and Macintosh. A matter of taste, in other words.

From now on, the only discussion is: For your story how best do you employ that which makes a novel. The language, the depth of character, and the ability to take you through a life. That’s our goal here.

You people who join me everyday, I have to admit, you’re not who I was expecting. I thought the Flannery fans would come out. The Buechner disciples. Those who worship at the altar of Wendell Berry. Or Walker Percy.

Instead, we have an eclectic readership writing an eclectic variety of stories. Many of you whole-heartedly admitting that “literary” is not what you’re going for.

That’s fine. BUT…you’re not off the hook. See, you’re still novelists. You’re not, at least while you're here, short story writers or playwrights or screenplay writers. You’re writing novels and while one may be Golden Delicious and another Granny Smith, they’re all, at the core, apples.

And because so, we can learn as much from how Elmore Leonard crafts his razor-sharp dialogue as we can from how Richard Russo takes you through a life in Risk Pool. There is no room here to say, “That’s not applicable to me, I’m writing fantasy.” It’s all applicable, all worth learning. And so we will learn it together. Huzzah? Huzzah.
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Continue to Day 2 of Novel Writing

Gilead Gets Some Recognition

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson has been named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. This is a F*i*F book if ever there was one.

New Writing Contest

Matt Bronleewe and InFuze magazine are opening up the latest writing contest. This time writers are asked to pen an alternate ending to this short story.

For more information read Matt's post.

Have fun!

Man After My Own Heart

See, I'm not the only statistics geek out there. This guy at Dartmouth studied the Amazon star ratings to see what he could learn. Not sure why Harry Potter is called a "cult" series but other than that, the article is interesting.

Now if we can just get him using that computer to track ODP.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Day 5 of Imaginary Metrics – Wrapping Up

This is going to be brief today. Snow is piling up here and I don’t even want to figure out the metric that will show how awful my commute is going to be.

Instead I want to reiterate a few things.

1. No book will ever be judged by a statistic or single number. That’s lunacy.

2. Like any statistic, these metrics we’ve talked about have absolutely no value in and of themselves. They would only be useful when applied to a statistically significant number of books—and then only if a definable pattern emerged. My gut, obviously, is that if somebody crunched the numbers a pattern would emerge.

3. I’m more interested in what the metrics help us do. They help us look at our books in a different way. They get us thinking about our novels in total, something sometimes we have a hard time doing. Also they give us some objective measurements of our novels—and trust me every writer loses their objectivity about their own work.

4. In the end, it’s just another way of bringing intention and self-awareness to this process. Writing is hard enough to only rely on our instincts. To be able to write as well as we can we need to bring as much intention and purpose to the project as we can. I 100% believe there’s something inexplicable and “magical” that happens as the best novels emerge…but that’s only a small factor. The rest we can control and need to control.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Day 4 of Imaginary Metrics - Inside or Out

I should have you know that I'm being roundly mocked here in the office for this week's batch of posts. There is general mirth over the fact that I'm creating acronyms for metrics and statistics which don't exist. AWPS. ODP. LEKG. It was suggested that I start a glossary. And you know what, I just may.

But now I must sully forth, unheeding of such detractors.

Today's post is brought to you by the letters P, C, and I. Yes, it's PCI, the Protagonist Consciousness Indicator. It's basically a measure of how much time you spend inside your main character's head.

Two extremes:

Jamie Langston Turner. Her novels live in the roiling, digressionary thoughts of her protagonists.

Hemingway. His story, "Snows of Kilimanjaro," never enters a character's head even for a moment, instead merely recording what's happening as though a camera. For you fans of dialogue, the ODP for this story is probably 90%.

Again, let me be clear that I'm not advocating a single, golden number for this statistic. Instead, this is merely another chance to look at your book from a macro level to see if it's constructed the way you want it to be...and to see if it's constructed in a manner that suits it, compared to other similar books.

How do you figure this one out? This is gets broken down word by word and you'll need two differently colored highlighters.

The first should be used for things outside the mind of your character.
All dialogue is external. All physical activity is external. Any time we're looking at your character rather than looking through your character is external.

The second should be for things that go through the consciousness of your character.
Thoughts, feelings, dreams, etc...they're all internal. Most descriptions of things, if they are seen by your character are internal. You get the idea.

I have no idea if there's a golden ratio for these things. Given what we know about genre books and dialogue, it's my guess that literary books stay internal more so than genre. That's no exactly a radical guess.

And listen, my point is NEVER to put a number you need to hit for me to like your book. I love genre books. I love literary fiction. My point is always to remind you of what your writing so you do so with intention.

Plus, I think looking at your book in these ways helps you during edits. PCI, for instance, is a fantastic way to check your POV and voice. If you're third-person-limited, then all the narrative needs to be filtered through that POV. It should all be "internal." In third-person omniscient that narrative often becomes "objective"--in the voice of the narrator and there for external. Mastering this is the first step to fully controlling the voice and tone of your story...which is where excellence begins.
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Continue to Day 5 of Imaginary Metrics

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Day 3 of Imaginary Metrics – Monitoring Your Book’s Heart Rate

If a book is written properly, it seems that the reader’s pulse should echo the pulse of either the book’s protagonist or narrator. That’s the point after all, isn’t it? To give a reader some measure of the experience/pleasure/excitement that’s going on in the book? (Not to the same degree of course, we don’t want LOLs (Little Old Ladies) seizing up with heart failure because of a ripped bodice or LOM dying at the pages of a Clive Cussler novel.)

I’m not suggesting strapping readers into a cardio-monitor to measure the rise and fall of their pulse during a book. That seems excessive. Instead, I think we should just count the words in our sentences and plot them out on a grid.

This data would then become the book’s LEKG, it’s literary heartbeat.

A novel’s pace is going to be affected by a lot of things and one of them, I’m pretty sure has to be length of sentence. Short, declarative sentences help drive a reader through a story far quicker than long and winding proto-dissertations.

Pace is also increased by dialogue…which tends to be broken up into shorter sentences than most narrative.

A graph of the consecutive sentence lengths of your novel would essentially veer wildly up-and-down. Seventy-five word sentences could be followed by a two-word sentence. Hence the LEKG. However, I think in spots where pace is supposed to pick up and readers are supposed to be driven forward the graph would drift to the lower end of the spectrum as shorter sentences pile up against each other.

For one book, an LEKG would be meaningless, statistically insignificant. But what would we discover if we compiled data from all of Clive Cussler, Ed McBain, Ted Dekker, Elmore Leonard, Sue Grafton, and the rest. Would patterns emerge in the ebb and flow of their pace?

What about across Nora Roberts and other romance favorites?

What would arise from the plotting of so-called literary books? Does an Ann Tyler book look significantly different from a Flannery O’Connor? Is their a recognizable pattern to non-genre books?

The only thing I can predict is that most every book would bottom out at the end. Climaxes are always the core spot for action or passion or soul-breaking decisions. And if you write a book and its LEKG looks not different from start to finish, well you’re probably like me and pace is a weakness you’re trying to conquer.
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Continue to Day 4 of Imaginary Metrics.

Terrific Reference Site

My little look at imaginary statistics is essentially a lark. The real study of how language works and is used is centuries old. This is probably the best rhetoric reference site I've ever seen. So, thank you, Mormons!

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Day 2 of Imaginary Metrics – Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics in Dialogue

My point in all this is not to reduce a novel to a number or score. Never am I going to say that a book with 25% dialogue is better than a book with 29% dialogue. That’s silly.

My hunch, however, is that there are patterns out there in the world of books and publishing which we’re simply not keying in on. And if we can understand some of those patterns and what they mean to readers, that’s another tool we have at our disposal.

So today we’re going to start with ODP—Overall Dialogue Percentage.

This one is fun to figure out…you use lots of highlighter.

First, count how many lines of text fit on an average full page of text. Our production gurus (often overlooked but wonderful people who deserve our thanks) estimated that most typical trade paperback books average between 30-37 lines per page. Really it doesn’t matter, just as long as you know how many lines are in the book you’re counting.

I’m using Ezekiel’s Shadow because I have lots of copies and don’t mind highlighting one of them.

Next, go through the book and highlight the lines that include dialogue. (If you can, use only the pages fully filled with text. Otherwise you really start having to do math.) As you do this, count the number of highlighted lines. When you’re done add all your lines of dialogue and divide by pages*lines-per-page. Ta da! You’ve just calculated your book’s ODP. (You don’t need to count the entire book, but the fewer pages you use the less accurate your result.)

What will we find when we do this? Frankly, I have no idea. And since this isn’t actual science I’m not going to do a hypothesis and null hypothesis and all that jazz. Instead, I’m going to jump in with some guesses. (Which we’ll put to the test over the next couple of weeks.)

First guess: In general, genre fiction will have a higher ODP than supposed “literary” fiction.

Second guess: Most genre fiction will come in at 25% ODP. “Literary” fiction will be closer to 15%.

Third guess: The highest ODP genre will be…actually I don’t know. Maybe romance? Or mystery. What do you think?

Fourth guess: I will not find a book with a lower ODP than Jose Saramango’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Which, I think, might be .000.

Fifth guess: Within their respective genres, CBA books will have just a slightly higher ODP than ABA books.

Anybody else?

The data will come soon. I have no idea what, if anything, it will prove. I just wanted to float the metric today. There is a very high statistical probability that I’ll be proven very wrong in all this. But it’s kind of fun. (And let me know if you’d like to count a book for me. That’d be great.)
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Continue to Day 3 of Imaginary Metrics

Monday, January 17, 2005

Day 1 of Imaginary Metrics – The Tyranny of “Our Way”

People get cranky when someone tells them they aren’t doing something right (or well) that has served them (seemingly) just fine for as long as they can remember. Often, faced with a suggestion or recommendation to change, they can get down right irrational.

Case in point: me. My wife, (who’s rather the textbook definition of a “better half”) during the early months of our marriage, suggested at some point that the way I washed dishes might not be optimal. I wasted a lot of water. My reply, which I framed delicately and with much maturity was, “You don’t like how I was dishes? I won’t wash them.”

We’ve straightened me out a bit since then. I think. But the lesson stands.

The same thing has happened in the field of baseball over the last two decades. It used to be that statistics like Batting Average and metrics like Runs Batted In were the numbers by which quality play was quantified. If you hit .300 and had 95 RBIs, that was a heck of a year.
In the last 20 years, statisticians have been coming up with new statistics and metrics that are challenging old wisdom. They aren’t saying that using Batting Average is wrong—just that it is incomplete and does not provide the best data available to make judgments on quality. On Base Average, which includes walks, does a better job of speaking to a batter’s worth because it includes EVERY time a hitter is on base—and since you can only score when you’re on base, you need to speak from that position.

Likewise, RBI’s are fine, but they are more a comment on how often a player’s teammates are on base. Slugging Percentage becomes a more useful metric because it manages to leave out data that muddies the water.

Adding On Base Average and Slugging Percentage together gives OPS (literally, on base plus slugging) a very simple short hand method of distinguishing batter’s overall offensive worth. But you don’t see this reported in newspapers; you rarely hear it mentioned on television. And only some teams feature it in their own press materials.

Why? Because it’s new. And it challenges traditional statistics that have filled the backs of tobacco and bubble gum cards since baseball’s earliest days. That’s a lot of heritage to overturn.

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We aren’t fighting against centuries of statistics in looking at writing with a mathematic eye. Instead, we’re faced with millennia of not applying statistics or metrics at all to novels. Writing is art and craft and to dissect like the latest corpse on CSI seems to many to be as foolhardy as trying to catch gossamer. To others, the novel is like Schrodinger’s Cat, falling to pieces the minute you try to examine it.

I guess I don’t agree. We have centuries of writing available to us. What patterns might be revealed in the tapestry of all those words? What algorithms drive the beating heart of popular literature since time began?

Over the next four days I’d like to discuss at least four measurable metrics that I think would have a lot of importance to us. These are going to be theoretical, for the most part, but at their core will be an inductive way of looking at novels that may give us a new perspective on things.

Tomorrow we’ll look at a metric discussed briefly on Friday—Overall Dialogue Percentage. Is their a golden number after all?
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Continue to Day 2 of Imaginary Metrics

Bad Ground - More Honors

Library Journal just made its list for best fiction in 2004. (See the very end of the article.) Bad Ground is one of five books selected.

The other four:
Robin Lee Hatcher's Catching Katie.
Cindy Martinusen's The Salt Garden.
Reshonda Tate Billingsley's Let the Church Say Amen
James Byron Huggin's Nightbringer.

Congrats to all.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Day 7 of Dialogue – Too Little? Too Much?

Do you remember the great AWPS debate of 2004?

AWPS stood for Average Word Per Sentence. A reader had brought up the fact that, often, the more literary a book was considered, the higher average word per sentence it contained. This then led to a lot of counting and dividing and we had a list of books and their AWPS. It was all very… mathletic.

What I ended up personally concluding from that was that the main force determining AWPS was actually the relative amount of dialogue in a particular work. And that I preferred, in general, for writers to keep their dialogue pretty sparse.

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This is not the case in many of the proposals I see. I see gobs of dialogue. Pages, sometimes, with nary a break for any action or narration. It’s all rather pedantic.

We’ve talked a little about using Find/Replace to help your cause as a writer. Here’s another quick pan-and-can you can use. First print out your full manuscript, perhaps even single-spaced to help yourself. Then, simply scan through it page by page. Don’t read, just look at the pages. Narration is going to show up as chunks of text. Dialogue is going to be pinned, often, to the left side of the page. Unless you write long dialogue. If you see lots and lots of pages that stay left, you may want to go in and see two things:

1. Is this dialogue taking the place of explication?
2. Why do we need to hear this coming out of a character’s mouth?

Novels aren’t plays. They aren’t movies. They are narratives. And so they should be mostly, well, narrated narrative.

How much dialogue is too much? I don’t know if there’s a magic number or percentage. (Although there may be and I’m going to talk about statistics and metrics in writing next week.) In the end, though, your characters should only say the bare minimum they need to. Because nobody likes a person who simply runs on at the mouth.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Day 6 of Dialogue – “What You Talkin’ About, Willis?” – Dangers of Dialect

Here’s my rule for using dialect: Please, please…just don’t.

Okay, I know that’s too simplistic, so I’ll revise it: FOR ALL THAT’S GOOD AND HOLY IN THIS WORLD, PLEASE DON’T.

You can see I don’t feel strongly about this issue at all.

I heard somebody once said that the only writer ever who should use dialect is Mark Twain. Works for me.

To me, dialect is mostly a risk not worth taking... UNLESS

1. You know the dialect intimately.
2. You use it efficiently and precisely..
3. It in no way stereotypes the characters using it.

I don’t have the book with me at the moment, but one of the most wonderfully effective uses of dialect recently (if I remember correctly) was Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. That’s not fiction, though, it’s non-fiction and it’s the man’s life.

The problem is that people speak differently from one another. I’ve got NJ/Philly in my blood that no amount of Minnesota-nice is ever going to erase. “Ar-enge.” “Tor-na-ment.” “Wudder.” My wife, meanwhile, tortures the word bagel and my mom can’t say coffee.

And there’s enough of you from New Hampshire and Texas and Tennessee and Canada (and everywhere else) reading this blog that I know you say things funny, too.

So how does it make it to the page?

First, take a step back. Why does it need to make it to the page? Usually dialect is used mostly to ridicule people.

Second, it’s my contention that WHAT is said is far more important than HOW. So focus on learning the idioms and unusual phrasings of an area. Learn who says “soda” and who says “pop” and who, God help us, just says, “coke.” Most importantly, learn the syntax of an area.

This is the key right here: 70% of dialect can be accomplished merely through syntax. And 20% more through diction.

In Minnesota they said, “I’m going to come with.” Drives me nuts, but it’s part of the local dialect.

In NJ, it’s “going down the shore.”

Finally, if you need to use dialect, pick a few words and make it simple. “Y’all,” Youse, “Yo’uns,” “You all.” These are all different regional versions of that same word and can help bring authenticity to dialogue. If “g”s are typically dropped from “ing”, that’s another easy fix.

After that, the choice rests with you. But know that I have seen dialogue so atrocious as to make my eyes water. It’s been racist. It’s sounded wrong. It’s been awkward. One time it was just flat out incomprehensible. So, well, just really be sure about what you’re doing. And then don’t. I thank you.
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Continue to Day 7 of Dialogue

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Day 5 of Dialogue – Adverbs in Dialogue, When if Ever

First of all, thank you to all who responded to yesterday’s post so positively. Your trust is tantamount to me and I’m honored to have earned it.

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Today I did something rather unscientific. I browsed nine modern books to see how they treat adverbs in dialogue. These cover a range of genres (and forms, too) but all have been pretty highly regarded in terms of pure writing. There was a trend I noticed in the first three books the other day and I wanted to see if it continued.

The nine books were: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber. The Whore’s Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo. (Were you expecting someone else?) Cathedral by Raymond Carver. House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. Spartina by John Casey. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathem Lethem. Milk by Darcey Steinke. The Passion of Reverend Nash by Rachel Basch. And Tiger Lillie by Lisa Samson.

My results probably don’t mean much but here they are.

Most of the books had almost no adverbs at all in dialogue. (Most of them had little more than “he said/she said” actually and often no attribution at all, reinforcing the notion that good dialogue stands on its own.) If they did use an adverb, the word chosen seemed either:

1.) Specific – “stoically,” “wryly,” “gratefully” These words all tend to modify the dialogue in more precise ways, making the adverb carry its own weight. Boring adverbs like “angrily,” “thoughtfully” didn’t show up at all.

2.) Tonal – “quietly,” “softly”. It’s hard to get tone across (especially quietness) without punctuation or CAPITALIZATION!

The one book that seemed to have more adverbs than any other was Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. This could just be the author’s style. It could be the fact that the book uses much more dialogue than the others, thereby increasing the odds. It could be the genre—detective fiction—allows for it. I’m not quite sure.

So, can you take anything from this? If anything, run a FIND command on your document with *ly in the search parameters. Check how many adverbs you dig up. Check how many are in dialogue. If they’re popping up a lot you probably need to delete some and you may need to read through your dialogue to make sure it carries most of the weight of meaning and voice in your story.

(Somebody, I think it might’ve been Mark Bertrand, suggested the need for reading your work aloud at some point. It’s a good idea and I think this is one place where boring dialogue stands out.)
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Tomorrow we look at the thing that gives me more night-terrors than anything else in dialogue—dialect. Continue on to Day 6 of dialogue.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Bad Ground: A Call to Action

Something special happened last week that I didn’t comment on. Since we’re in the midst of a long series, I thought I’d break here and spend at least a moment on it.

Dale Cramer (who’s given an interview you can read here) had his book Bad Ground honored yet again. This time Publishers Weekly selected it as one of their best books of the year. (Unforutnately, it’s an internet exclusive that’s only available to subscribers.)

Publishers Weekly reviews, on average, twenty-five or so novels a week. That’s 1300 novels a year. From this massive list they ended up selecting 47 novels. (Plus lots of comics, nonfiction, religion titles, etc.)

Some other titles on the list? F*i*F mentioned Heaven Lake by John Dalton, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and The Preservationist by David Maine. The Narrows by Michael Connelly. Ha Jin’s War Trash. Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. Books by Peter Straub, Neal Stephenson, Philip Roth, and Nora Roberts. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

Frankly, it’s pretty rare air. So, I’d like to take a moment to congratulate Dale and his editor, Luke Hinrichs. Awesome work, gentlemen.

Moment over. Now, I’d like to get serious.

Dale’s book isn’t selling so well. I’m not sure that’s a confession I should be making here, but I am because, honestly, it should scare the crap out of us as writers (and publishers).

Here we have a book that had phenomenal prepublication reviews, was following up a decently received first-novel, has a superb title, a stark, evocative cover, and a decent, if not overwhelming, marketing and publicity campaign.

The Christian book buyer responds with stony silence. And because they do, the B&N, Borders, and Wal-Marts of the world pass by it. They skim the cream off the top of our industry, cherry picking books by pure dollar signs and not quality or merit. And so Bad Ground threatens to go quietly into the night.

Something failed this book. Perhaps it was us. Perhaps it was the industry. Perhaps it was the CBA book buyers. Or the Christian book buyers who clamor that they want well-written Christian fiction. Most likely it was a combination of all.

But listen, I do not want to let this book go quietly into the night. And so I’m going to ask a very dangerous thing.

If you have the means, I would like to challenge you to buy this book. Order it at your local B&N or your local Christian bookstore. Buy it online. Wherever.

I have been writing F*i*F for over a year now. I have specifically made this a place that doesn’t hawk the wares of my company. I’m risking your trust now because A) I believe this is a book that you will like. and B) We need this book to do well.

Listen, if we sell more BHP books, I will benefit from that. That’s the 800-pound-gorilla here. I can't do anything but admit it. But I think you know me. I hope you trust me.

Plus, supporting Bad Ground is not just good for BHP. It’s good for a whole lot of people.

It’s good for readers who want variety, who cherish both literary and storytelling excellence.

It’s good for writers who are doing things that don’t quite fit the standard mold in CBA. Because it will succeed and we can point to it and smile and convince our sales people that, "Yes, your wonderful book is one that also can find critical and popular success." And then perhaps we can publish your, just slightly out-of-the-ordinary book, too.

It’s good for other publishers. Expanding the breadth of books that the industry can support will only help other publishers broaden their lists.

Frankly it’s good for the industry. The other books on Publishers Weekly Best of 2004 are mostly massive bestsellers. It seems odd that the Christian industry manages to ignore its honor.

So that’s today’s post.

If you have the means, consider picking up a copy.

If you want to help in a different way, post a mention of Dale’s honor to your blog. Mention it at other discuss boards to which you belong. Spread the word, if you can.

This is, after all, a CBA author going toe-to-toe with the biggest names in the industry.

Thanks.

I won’t do this again for a long time, I promise. I felt strongly about it, though. That’s the point of the site after all, championing those titles that stand at the intersection of faith and literature. Tomorrow we’ll go back to dialogue.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Day 4 of Dialogue – Three Random Authors Sitting on My Shelves

What do Chaim Potok, Anne Tyler, and Mark Salzman have in common? They’re all authors who have books sitting on my office shelves. Which is convenient when I ignore my own plans to bring in other books. At least it gives me something to write this post on.

First, a section of My Name Is Asher Lev.

My father spoke English, Yiddish, or Hebrew into the telephones. But the second week I was in his office I heard him use a language I did not recognize. On our way back to the apartment for lunch, I asked him what language it had been.

“That was French, Asher,” he said.

“I never heard my papa speak French before.”

“I use it when I need it, Asher. I don’t need it around the house.”

“Does Mama speak French?”

“No, Asher.”

“Did you learn French in Europe, Papa?”

“I learned it in America. The Rebbe asked me to study it.”

“Didn’t the Frenchman on the phone know Yiddish, Papa?”

This is fairly representative of Potok’s writing throughout the book. Asher’s dialogue matures as he matures, but Potok keeps his attributions to a minimum. I saw one adverb used—“quietly.” Potok’s skill is to give a sense of the Yiddish dialect without resorting to accent or weirdly spelled words. For him, it seems all in the syntax. (The above doesn’t show what I mean, but trust me.) We’ll talk about dialect later this week, but remember that it’s not all in spelling words weird.

Second, from Saint Maybe.

Ian invited his parents to a Christian Fellowship Picnic.

“To a what?” Doug asked, stalling for time. (Who cared what it was called? It was bound to be embarrassing.)

“Each of us invites people we’d like to join in fellowship with,” Ian said in that dealy earnest way he had. “People who aren’t members of our congregation.”

“I thought that church of yours didn’t believe in twisting folkses’ arms.”

“It doesn’t. We don’t. This is only for fellowship.”

Again, very standard stuff. Normal but minimal attribution. Later in that section Tyler has Ian say something “mildly.” So there’s no ban on adverbs. The interesting part of Saint Maybe is that it’s told through multi-perspectives. And so different characters speak and are heard in a multitude of ways. For instance how a child hears you will vary greatly from how your father (the section above) hears you. All must be true to the character speaking and listening at the same time. Tricky stuff. Which is why Mrs. Tyler has won big awards and I haven’t.

Third from Mariette in Ecstasy


-- Were you surprised bythe tone?

-- She did seem cold.

-- Were you hurt?

-- Oh no! I was so pleased to see our dear God using my sister for my own holiness and good. Everything seemed to be saying to me, She will be a grace for you.

I’m cheating a bit here. Hansen does use unattributed dialogue. But also normal, minimal attribution as well. The interesting point of his unattributed dialogue is that it’s set apart. The above is it’s own brief scene. You’re given little context for the speakers. It’s a puzzle you piece together throughout the book. Who is talking? Why is this important? It works somewhat like voice-over narration in films, giving you information you might not otherwise get.

So that’s just three not too different examples. I’ll try to find others that go a little further afield for tomorrow.
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Continue to Day 5 of Dialogue.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Day 3 of Dialogue – Tin Ear

There are two extremes on which writers flounder when writing dialogue.

The first extreme is “unnatural sounding dialogue.” There are many ways dialogue can sound unnatural. It can be too meaningful, too poetic, too erudite, or too self-involved. It can simply be a conversation normal human beings wouldn’t have. (I find much God-talk in novels sounds unnatural in this way.)

Richard Powers, a writer I tend to enjoy otherwise, has a problem of making ALL his characters very witty, and in exactly the same way.

On the other side of the coin, are the naturalist writers. Those who only write what might come from a typical person’s mouth. They try to catch the exact words and nuance of everyday conversation…often ignoring the fact that everyday conversation is, a lot of the times, quite boring in its totality.

You and I might have a thirty minute conversation on what it means to live a thousand miles from any blood family. That’s an important conversation, don’t get me wrong. But you can’t tell me we’ve said thirty minutes of worthwhile words. We’ve repeated ourselves. Repeated each other. Told one story that only related peripherally. I see the novel’s function as distilling or filtering conversation to include only the worthwhile fragments of that conversation.

These should then should reach the page in the voice of the character that speaks them.

On Monday we’ll look at specific examples of dialogue from a variety of authors.
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Continue to Day 4 of Dialogue

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Day 2 of Dialogue – What’s the Point of Attribution?

There are no right answers on how to write. Most everything is allowable and even among big-time authors you’d get a hugely diverse opinion on what to put to page, how to go about it, and what it should look like. That’s why, in the end, reading writer’s guides is an interesting, but ultimately, wheel-spinning exercise. That’s why, in the end, this blog is only meant to engender conversation not speak from the mountain top.

Yet, even with that disclaimer, there’s one thing that I’ve seen more writers, more how-to books, more commentary agree on in novel writing than anything else—use the simplest dialogue attributions that you can.

Yes, you may know eighteen synonyms for “said” so that your characters can state and declare and exhort and extol and exclaim and all the rest…but I don’t think, for the most part, that they’re necessary.

The psychology and mechanics of reading are complicated things, but it seems that in the process of reading a novel, dialogue attributions essentially become invisible. Your brain takes the dialogue and the attribution together and you hear the dialogue in that character’s voice. Changing the attribution to “screamed” or “moaned” or a million other things affects how you’ll hear that dialogue. But you can make your attributions “visible” again by mixing them up too often. It ends up sounding overwritten and simply silly.

And if writing gurus dislike unnecessary dialogue attribution, then they really hate adverbial modification of dialogue attribution. Stephen King has an entire rant about it in his On Writing.
I’m not quite that militant, but I will try to explain why there’s such a dislike of adverbs. Simply put, an adverb is too often used when you’ve selected too weak or boring a verb. In the case of dialogue, an adverb is often used when your dialogue isn’t doing the work it needs to do.

Dialogue should, by syntax, punctuation, and diction, be read the way your character would say it. If you are constantly try to spice up or refine a line of dialogue with an adverb, (She said haughtily), it means you either don’t trust the reader or you haven’t refined your characters’ voice to a point where it’s distinguishable from narrative. Both cases are bad.

There are, of course, a million and one exceptions to this statement. That’s fine. If you want to boil this down, simply go with—“Use the LEAST amount of dialogue attribution NECESSARY.”—and you’ll be covered.
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Continue to Day 3 of Dialogue.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Day 1 of Dialogue - He Said, She Said – Attribution in Dialogue

Dialogue attribution (I’ve also seen it called dialogue tags) are those markers in fiction that help readers keep track of who is talking.

“That’s nonsense!” she said.

Exactly. Well, actually, it’s not nonsense, but the above is an example of dialogue attribution. At their most basic, this is their sole purpose—to help readers realize who’s talking.

Yesterday I mentioned using an unattributed form of dialogue. I’ve seen this done two ways. First, it’s simply open and closed quotes with no attribution. The other way is to skip quote marks and use an em-dash to set off dialogue.

— Huzzah! A fine idea, and it saves wear on your SHIFT button, too, not using so many quotes!

Right. Settle down now invisible voices I’m conjuring to make lame points about dialogue.

With unattributed dialogue, both reader and writer need to work a bit harder. The reader, frankly, needs to pay pretty close attention. No skipping around or you’ll have no idea who’s talking. The writer needs to hone her dialogue. Left with only the very words being spoken, these words must bring forth the character’s voice in the readers’ mind.

In fact, even plainly attributed dialogue must do that. “He said” doesn’t do any extra work for me, except possibly alert me to whose voice the last words were spoken.

A much larger topic is raised when we begin looking at the issue of modifying attribution. And my 2005 goal is to keep these posts shorter and get home on time more, we’ll tackle that tomorrow.

“Tomorrow! You didn’t give us nothin’. You suck, jerk,” he growled.

“Yeah, what a waste of time,” she interjected angrily, shouting at her computer monitor.

You see, I assume, what we’ll be dealing with.
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Continue to Day 2 of Dialogue.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Exercise in the New Year

In previous posts I’ve talked about the need to “exercise” our writing skills. A while back a group of you took this to heart and formed the Writers Workout Group. This group reads and critiques short stories and had a hand in the refining of many of the Christmas stories, I think. You can find more about it on the discussion board but it’s a worthy group to join and participate in.

Writing any piece is exercise in itself—tackling a theme like Christmas allows you to focus your thinking and hone your writing in a particular direction. However, it’s possible for the piece to exercise specific areas of the writing tool-box.

In my story, “Good Neighbors,” I tried two things. The first was restraint. I specifically wanted to write a story that held its hand close to the vest. From your comments, I may have held them a bit too close. The second tool was a form of dialogue (unattributed, unmarked) I’ve long admired but never used before. Granted, the idea was stolen directly from Louis Bayard’s Mr. Timothy, which I’d been reading. My story is short but I think even in those few words I got a feel for how to use this kind of dialogue. At least to some extent.

You can pick which tools you'd like to practice with.

POV is a great tool to exercise in short pieces. Try a piece in a fully omniscient authorial third person voice. Or go documentary style with an objective narrative POV.

Narrative structure is fun to play around with as well. Toggle between multiple perspectives of a single incident. Tell a story backwards.

The point of this is that while you are investing your time in very practical skill building, you’re not threatening your key project with attempts to work out the kinks. It’s like a baseball pitcher who practices a new pitch on his off-days and not during the game.

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Anyway, my dallying with dialogue means that it’s the topic we’re going to cover next. Perhaps starting tomorrow. Most published writers have very specific ideas about how dialogue should work and look and we’ll examine them and talk about the major pitfalls lots of folks fall into with dialogue. See you then.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Christmas Story Contest – Some Thoughts

In the end, I think 43 or 44 of you submitted stories. I read them all.

Of these, I selected my favorite 10 and passed them on to Robin.

Robin, in between completely re-launching his website and celebrating Christmas, read them and between us we came up with an imprecise ranking of the stories. Robin posted the top 5. I posted the others.

That’s the nuts-and-bolts of how it went down.

Behind the scenes though there was a little more happening. Here’s a glimpse:

1. You can’t run a contest, no matter how casual, without it meaning quite a bit to those who entered. I forgot this a little. BUT, please know that no matter how casual the outward appearance, I did take the reading of your stories quite seriously.

2. In the end, subjectivity rules the day. We had 10 slots to fill. For me, there were 4 stories that I thought were exceptional. After that, there were many, many, many more that were very good to good. I had to choose 6. So I cut the good stories. That left the “very good” stories. Still more than 6.

3. At that point, I simply tried select across as broad a range of styles and approaches as I could. There were a number of biblical retellings, a number of domestic slice-of-life’s, a number of Christmas-gone-wrong stories. I tried to cull from among them those that seemed to achieve, most successfully, what they were aiming at.

4. I am not a science-fiction fan. Fantasy, yes. Science-fiction, no. I don’t know that I’ll be able to get beyond this.
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In the end, I was very glad with the results. The stories were fresh and engaging. It seems like people read them and also read those that you posted on your own sites. My main goal (besides having content to fill a week I’d be gone) was having you read and respond to writing. I think that’s been achieved. Which makes me think it’ll be worth doing again in the future.
What do you think?

And, finally, I’m interested in my own blind-spots as an editor. Was there a story (not your own!) that you all read and thought I was simply insane for not including in the Top 10? Email me. If there seems to be a general consensus on one story, then I’ll post it for all to enjoy.

I am, after all, the man who hated The Lovely Bones and The DaVinci Code. Popular opinion sometimes eludes me.