f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 10/01/2005 - 11/01/2005

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

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Place of Sales and "Masters"

In the grand ongoing argument about what makes a novel good there seems to be one unassailable argument: "If you're a bestselling author, you're obviously doing something right."

That bit of logic drives literati nuts, but I think they have to concede the point. Successful writing is about communication and those whose books are picked up the most are communicating to the most people.

What is the "something" that these authors are doing right?

For many, many bestselling authors, the proof can be found in the page. They are masters of their craft. Grisham can teach you much about the legal thriller. Ludlum about international intrigue. Leonard about dialogue. Sparks about emotional conflict.

But at this point, we need to admit that writing and reading are not done in a vacuum. There is the world of "book publishing" that surrounds a novel which can be mastered as well...and many of the things bestselling authors are best at are outside the nuts and bolts of "writing."

For some it may be more in the marketing or niche they've gained rather than the words on the page. Others have a unique gift of choosing timely topics on which to write. (Crichton seems to have this special ability.) Others have concocted (by chance or hard work) a winning formula that draws readers back again and again. (But while you can study the power of "formula" you can't copy it, or you'll simply be derivative.)

These are important things to the business of publishing. They're crucial for any writer or publisher to think through. But they won't necessarily help you improve your story...and as aspiring writers that's really the biggest thing you control.

So be careful and confident in those who you call your "masters." And make sure you're learning the right things from them.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Linus

Watched It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown last night with the kids. Gotta say, the whole Linus-as-true-believer thing really undermines his credibility when delivering the words of Luke by heart at Christmastime.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Masters

I finished E.L. Doctorow’s The March this weekend. It’s a Civil War novel that weaves itself around Sherman’s March from Atlanta to Savannah and then up through the Carolinas. The novel tries a number of complicated narrative and stylistic feats, some of which have more success than others. But the place where Doctorow is infinitely confident is weaving history and fiction together. It’s seamless, rarely bogging down in factual details at the expense of story but rarely seeming thin or unresearched. It’s a vibrant world that is both history and fiction at once. (Remember this analysis of historical fiction?)

You can hundreds to go to a writing conference or thousands for a writing degree, but I’m not sure either of them offer the value that sitting down with E.L. Doctorow’s novels could to an aspiring historical fiction novelist.

So today I want to begin a conversation about the Masters. Who are the writers—working today or dead but relevant—whose books could become tutorials in themselves? Teaching us about particular genres or forms or styles. Doctorow, for instance, is a good nominee in the Historical category.

Twain’s always been held up for his use of dialect.

Could you do better than Poe, King, Lovecraft, and Straub for horror?

We could go on and on. (In fact I welcome you to do so in the comments or at the discussion board.) But besides just listing them out, we need to take another critical step—“critical” being the operative word. Yes, again we need to try to figure out the why? that makes these works and writers so successful in the facet we’re studying. We need to read and reread the books until we see the watchworks inside. So I think we’ll take a small stab at doing this tomorrow or Thursday. Just a small one.

And finally, toward the end of the week, I’d like to see who we’d look at as the master’s of Christian fiction—however broad you’d like to take that term.

ASME's Top 40 Magazine Covers

I apparently have nothing to say for myself, so I'll just keep posting lists. Here the American Society of Magazine Editors rank the most memorable magazine covers of the last 40 years.

Why some of these made it (#15, #20, #37?) I have no idea.

My favs are probably #6 (which I own), #7, and #10.

(And who knew The Economist could be so saucy? (#16) Good for the Brits.)

Monday, October 24, 2005

Ken Myers on the NEA

Ken Myers helps a student get a very good grade on her paper by providing this provocative answer to her question about how Christians should think about the arts and government support, thereof.

A fragment:
"One thing that the Church should do...is promote really good art criticism, to train people to make public arguments about art that rejects the relativism and skepticism of our time. Unfortunately, like their modern neighbors, most Christians don't believe that art has anything to do with objective value. Most Christians have accepted the modern idea that art is purely subjective, just an expression of individual (and thus arbitrary) likes or dislikes. And so even while they oppose the NEA on allegedly Christian grounds, they advance a view of the arts that has more in common with their enemies than they realize."

Covers

Covers are a complicated thing in publishing. They're at once dreadfully important and somehow completely superfluous to the actual point of a novel. In other words, I could read Risk Pool or Three Farmers on Their Way to Dance or James and the Giant Peach in a coverless book and still love the story just as much. So it's a balance on how much is at stake with a cover.

What you don't want is a cover that turns readers off. Like this one did for me--Wide Eyed by Trinie Dalton. This obviously was done intentionally and to appeal to an audience (the folks here think they like it) but it misses me by a very wide margin.

Slate on Ben Marcus vs. Jonathan Franzen

Slate summarizes the little feud going between Ben Marcus and Jonathan Franzen. Franzen you'll remember is the author of both The Corrections and some essays on the state of literature that we discussed: "Mr. Difficult" and "Why Bother?"

"Why Bother?" was published in Harpers to a significant amount of acclaim and was important enough in Franzen's career that it became known as the "Harper's Essay." The worm has a habit of turning, however, and so it's not without a small amount of irony that Ben Marcus recently took Franzen to task in the very magazine that helped establish his reputation in the essay, "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It."

Slate summarizes the entire imbroglio, references a few of literary history's other squabbles, and generally suggests everybody get a grip.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Dave the Lame Blogger

Sorry for the quiet week all. It'll happen now and then, particularly after more intensive weeks.

I'm diligently reading through the submitted short stories. Some very good stuff so far. I'm happy with what I'm seeing. And I think it's going to lead to a lot of interesting discussion. (At least I'm having what seem to be interesting thoughts and realizations while reading them. We'll see if they translate.)

Best for your weekend!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Time's 100 Best Novels Since 1923

Your standard water-cooler-fodder here. Why 1923? Apparently it's the year Time began. I have very little comment on this list other than that they didn't put their necks out too far.

(And here's there Top 100 films. Posted many months ago.)

This came via InFuze.

October Celebration of Christian Fiction

Dee Stewart is hosting this month's CCF. Lots of short stories from the contest. Lots of intruiging thoughts. Certainly worth your time.

Monday, October 17, 2005

This Week

...is going to be slim in terms of posting. Last week was great but I spent a bit too much time on it and need to catch up.

Here's an interview with Frederick Buechner from PW. Hopefully it opens for you.

There's an interesting point he makes about having difficulty writing now that he's in his 80s. There is definitely a creative drop off that happens at some point for almost everybody age-wise.

Friday, October 14, 2005

castlebuilder: a novel fragment

Peter Ray's story was going to be next. This is the portion I'd completed before pursuing Quinlin's Estate full strength. I like a lot of the set-up for this story but if ES and QE were tough for the market this would've been nigh unsellable.

Plus, what Ian discovery from Howard Kepler still gives me the willies.

If you're interested here's where to find it.

http://peterray.blogspot.com/

Day 5 of Ezekiel's Shadow: Closing Thoughts

Mark Bertrand’s summary of the week is posted here.

::

I’ve enjoyed this week.

I’m not putting on a brave face or pretending. This has been one of the best examples about what f*i*f is all about. Mark Bertrand put in a tremendous effort on behalf of this community, you all have taken the conversation in some good directions at the forums, and in general I think we’ve all been able to see something new by peeking beneath the skin of a book.

No I don’t think we’re going to make any sweeping realizations about the CBA market. One book’s flaws are its own. But if for no other reason than we’re talking about a book’s flaws with even-handedness and an eye to learning from them, I think this has been successful.

Personally I learned a lot as a writer. And a lot as an editor.

It raises some difficult questions for me as somebody in publishing about our role in releasing books that are flawed. CBA publishers have to be accountable at some level for what they put on bookstore shelves and I’m trying to figure out my own place in that argument.

I’ll close with a simple thought.

As an author, you (and your publisher) will dictate when a book is “finished.”

Together BHP and I made the decision that ES, in its form on your shelf or desk, was completed. We’ve seen there are flaws still in the book, but still the decision was made and I have to live with that decision today.

Am I happy about the flaws? Nope.

Are they fixable? Yep.

We’re they fixable back then by the writer I was? To some extent, probably.

Here’s one other memory I have of the process though—exhaustion.

Writing a book is never simple. It’s a long and grueling thing. Reading and rereading draft after draft. There’s a point we reach and decide, “I can go no further.”

The best writers I suppose have an extreme tolerance for this work, a practiced devotion to the story that won’t let them quit early, and the skills that help them strike closer to the mark the first time out.

ES progressed a long way from start to finish. My objective sense of the story was shot by its end and we were scheduled into a release date that made us dot our final “i’s” and call it a day.

Each book you write will endure the same thing, whether at a publishers hand or your own.

At some point, you call it “complete.”

Let’s train ourselves in all aspects so “complete” is a place we can be happy with.

::

What were your final thoughts on the week? Post them at the discussion board.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Book Idea Alert!

From Yahoo! Wasn't there just a movie about superheroes in high school? Well...

Good Gravy...

Okay, so I posted this link for five minutes. Thought better of it. Thought better of it again and finally just decided to let you decide.

Author Steve Almond opens a can of worms in Salon.com while confronting a blogger who dislikes him but ends up raising some interesting points in pages 4 and 5 about blogging in general. (There's some language in the article which might give you pause. Just as a warning.)

(One interesting aside: I know Almond only from his book Candyfreak. Which seemed so innocuous. And now this. Yeesh.)

Day 4 of Ezekiel’s Shadow – On Themes and Art as Exegesis

You're going to want to read Mark Bertrand's piece on Theme at his website first and then come back to visit here.

The most difficult part of the exercise is knowing how much to say about the “meaning” of the book. I’ve written this before but IMO the author is last on the list of folks who get to say what a book “means.” If you read the book closely and form a valid opinion, I have no right to say you’re wrong or misguided or missing something. If you’re missing something, was it even there to be missed in the first place?

And this makes me gun-shy to even speak to the “intent” of the book. I don’t want to affect your read of it. But we’re at the hard place where theme and meaning meet and I think it’s an important exercise to try and figure out, as writers, how we approach these things.

Personally, I think this is where the book has the most potential…and falls the shortest.

The simple reason: I was intentionally trying to say too much.

ES was a thematic book in my head. The thing I wanted to talk about most particularly was “being haunted by your past” and whether you could truly escape that. And so with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, I found images and characters who supported those notes. My greatest frustration about ES is that there is no melody and harmony to my plots and subplots. I have a four-part chorus worth of characters and ideas and I had them all singing the same melody. This was the inexperience of a first-time novelist.

So: Ian Merchant has a stalker who seems to have stepped out of the pages of Ian’s own books. A veritable spectre emerging from the remnants of his sin.

You have Katherine Jacoby, plagued by the notion that her father was a Nazi.

You have Kyle Turner, still harboring grudges.

You have Kevin Contrade, writing and rewriting some terrible tragedy, unable to move on.

You have Howard Kepler, running and running from whatever it was he did back in Baltimore.

You have Oakley’s mother-in-law, forever seeking water.

You have the passage from Ezekiel. A valley of dry bones who don’t remember what it means to live until God breathes life into them again.

It’s too much. Really, only Rebecca escapes this theme. She, and maybe Pete and Jaret, are the only characters who aren’t “haunted” during the book.

Mark says: “No one reading Ezekiel’s Shadow will come to the wrong conclusion about what the story signifies. But maybe they should.”

It crushes me to say this, but he’s absolutely right.

:::

On other things he’s said, I’m not as convinced.  So to spice this discussion up a bit, I will take umbrage/issue with one of Mark’s points. I’ve been a good boy, taking my lashes without a peep and now that we’re nearly done I thought I’d get petulant.

He says:
“Merchant uses them as any Christian would and learns from them what every Christian should. This is writing from a Christian worldview, but not a particular Christian’s worldview. What the imagery in Ezekiel’s Shadow needs is particularization. In fiction we desire what would, in theological terms, be inadmissable: private interpretation. First, there should be room in the narrative for Merchant to make of these things what he will—in fairness, there is, but perhaps there should be more—and secondly, there should be room for the reader to make something of it, too.”

I don’t disagree in principle but in practice, particularly in this book, this becomes particularly complicated. To whit:

Much of the art in Ezekiel’s Shadow (both Katherine’s and Howard’s) are direct commentaries on Scripture. Howard is literally photographing the Bible—perhaps the most private interpretation of Scripture imaginable—while Katherine has a few sculptures that tackle specific images or portions. Including the skeleton windchime from Ezekiel.

Ian as an artist is struck by these pieces, in particular because they seem to be offering answers to questions for which he has none yet. Howard and Katherine look into the Bible and find inspiration—Ian’s a new Christian for whom much of it is baffling. And the two questions he’s seeking answers for are: Can I write horror? and Who am I if I can’t?

In the end, he finds his answer in the basement, staring at Katherine’s sculpture—which illuminates a portion of Scripture. This is art as exegesis. I think it’s what we do both as artists and admirers of art.

Mark’s real complaint is that it is too “familiar.” That I have no answer to. If it is familiar to him, I can’t argue. But I’ll offer just a couple of things:

1. I’d been a believer for four years when I started ES. This was as much an exegesis for myself as it was for Ian.

2. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think most Christians in this country are terribly clued in to the imagery of dry bones from Ezekiel. Not to say I should offer facile answers or simplistic interpretations—and I may have done just that—but I think Mark’s a victim of his own Biblical proficiency at that point.

::

Let's hear your thoughts at the Discussion Board. Who's right? Dave or Mark? (And remember who theoretically could publish you. *hint*hint*)

National Book Award Finalists

These are like the polar opposite of The Quills....

The March
by E.L. Doctorow (Random House)
Veronica by Mary Gaitskill (Pantheon)
Trance by Christopher Sorrentino (FSG)
Holy Skirts by Rene Steinke (William Morrow)
Europe Central by William T. Vollmann (Viking)

I'm about to start The March. Don't know much about the others which is totally typically for the NBAs.

Rene Steinke is the cousin to novelist Darcey Steinke who wrote, Jesus Saves, which I reviewed here. She also may play keyboard in a punk band.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Day 3 of Ezekiel’s Shadow – My Kind of Writing

In his analysis of conflict and stakes at the heart of Ezekiel’s Shadow, Mark points out that the book does a fairly nimble job of avoiding those moments that would have amped up both. And thus drawn readers in more.

This wasn’t intentional. Instead, I think it’s related to both who I am and the things I like about writing a novel.

All in all, I’m not terribly emotional. There’s an axiom in popular fiction that if a book can make you cry and laugh, it’ll reach a huge audience. To me…well, that’s just not me.

I think it was Mark who recently wrote about the need to overwrite drama in his book to overcome his natural tendency to extinguish the fuel of compelling dramatic fiction. I have the same predilection.

At the same time, I was battling against the fact that those weren’t my favorite portions of the novel to write. Starting a dramatic thread and pulling it through 350 pages? That doesn’t drive me. I’m definitely not a “natural” storyteller—which is evident if you ever have dinner with me.

Instead, my interests (and strengths, possibly—I’ll let you decide) rest in the moments.

In writing both Ezekiel’s Shadow and Quinlin’s Estate, what I wanted to try and do were to create scenes or fragments or details that seemed “striking” —if to nobody else but me—and “original.” Things I hadn’t seen before.

So the book gets filled with tons of art, the stalker shaves his eyebrows, a lawn in Connecticut gets turned into a desert, a doll shop gets creepy, and Ian’s baptism almost leaves him drowned. I like all of that stuff. Linking them and connecting them and fitting them into the story was the “work” part of writing. (And often they’re linked best by theme rather than narrative.) The seams show and I didn’t put the work in to make them invisible before publication.

I think discovering what kind of writer you are will be important in moving forward in your own work. Finding stories that maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses might be helpful at first.

::

Share your own thoughts at the discussion board.

The Quills! The Quills!

Last night's winners. Yawn.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Day 2 of Ezekiel’s Shadow - Bad Ideas: Part I - Those I Could Control

(The way this will work best is for you to visit Mark Bertrand's site first. Read his post. Then come back here as I comment a bit on the points that he makes.)

::

Let’s start off with the dumbest thing I did while writing Ezekiel’s Shadow.

Ready?

I didn’t let people know that Cain escaped the fire at the end. It was in my initial draft but I needed to pare it down and somehow that detail was missed.

That’s the dumbest thing you did? Mark Bertrand asks agog, looking over all that he has written. Errrm, I disagree.

Ah, but you didn’t receive the mail. In the limited amount of correspondence I received after ES, more letters mentioned this omission than anything else. Take that, Mark!

(I was able, at least, to write back to all those tenderhearted people who were worried about Cain to reassure them that, yes, the dog perished.)

::

The second dumbest thing?

The second dumbest thing I did was think to myself, "You know what?" I’d really like to explore the lives of Peter Ray, Jaret Chapman, and Kevin Contrade in their own books. Like a linked series. And their writing group stories would play a part and it would all culminate in this grand finale with Kevin’s weird book that he keeps burning finally being told. Rock on!"

Obviously, that hasn’t happened. But when you say these things in your mind while writing, then suddenly leaving mid-sized plot points dangling seems far less problematic. Because darn it I’ll simply wrap them up in Book 2, 3, or 4.

Here’s some simple advice: unless you have a specific contract for sequels and some nod from the publisher, treat Book 1 like the only book.

::

One thing that may not have been dumb but didn’t end up working out and was intentional is the book’s structure. A prologue, eight sections that cover a week, and an epilogue.

Why did I do it? Partly because I’m anal and like structured things. When I write, you’ll often notice, I do things like say, A), B), and C). Or use bold face and bullet points. Outlines and tangible, skeletal organization work for me. They make sense.

The other reason is that it helped me write. As you’re writing the points in a novel when you ask "What comes next?" are the hardest parts. For me, what comes next was always slightly out-of-my-hands because what came next would be, well, Monday. Or Wednesday.

The problem is that the choice was a contrivance made for reasons that generally worked but weren’t totally for the sake of the story. If Mark thinks there were problems now imagine that in early drafts, I was writing portions for EVERY STINKING DAY FOR EIGHT WEEKS. You should see how many walks with Cain were left on the cutting room floor.

A connected problem is that the choice to tell the story over eight weeks wasn’t fully realized. I set it up so that Ian would have to turn in a rough draft and be forced to face his writer’s block. It was to ramp up stakes but still be realistic. (Nobody, for instance, would demand a story in just three days.) The problem, which we’ll deal with over the week, is that a number of factors collide to render that deadline obsolete. So instead of a ticking clock, counting down in dramatic style, I’ve got a puzzled author facing life without a deadline for the first time. Intriguing (to me) but less dramatic.

::

The last dumb thing that I’ll mention today deals with genre. It’s something that’s going to come up a few times over the next few days so I thought I’d address here.

Ezekiel’s Shadow is not a suspense novel that derailed and gave up its mystery. It’s not a literary novel that tried to capture people’s attention with a flashy suspenseful beginning.

ES was written, intentionally, so that early moments of suspense become a trigger (inciting incident) for an internal struggle. My plan, pretty much from the middle of the first draft, was to have the external plot (the stalking) dominate the first half but then lose primacy as Ian’s internal struggle with his identity takes precedence.

A.) I think I accomplished this.

B.) It may not have been the best idea.

C.) This joins a pretty length list of reasons why I’ll likely never become a bestselling author. Subverting classic genre structure for an intentional anti-climax–there’s some market issues with that choice.

D.) I’m not sure I could be convinced to reconceive the book as a thriller.

::

Have thoughts or comments or questions or critiques of your own? Sound off at the f*i*f discussion board!

::

Go to Day 3 of our discussion of Ezekiel's Shadow.

MegaChurch Architecture

A slideshow critique at Slate.com by Witold Rybczynski. A church we attended for a while built a new sanctuary and in the capital campaign literature specifically said the architecture was designed to echo places people felt comfortable like, "the mall or airports." I'd been having some philosophical differences with the church up to that point and that pretty much sealed the deal.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Day 1 of Ezekiel’s Shadow – Getting Started

Now that the day has arrived, I feel a bit like Abraham walking his son up the mountain, knife hidden behind his back. We’re pretty much at the top now and haven’t found Leif Enger tangled in some bushes saying, “Dissect Peace Like a River instead!” so I guess we’ll be moving forward. *sigh*

I want to make a few quick points upfront, however.

1. A lot of people at BHP worked hard on this book. In no way is this meant to be a slam on their efforts. Frankly, you should have seen the thing before their help. So I take full and sole responsibility for the book’s shortcomings.

2. This isn’t an act of self-loathing. I like portions of the book a lot. Re-reading it brought back many, many fond memories of its genesis. I think I can examine it now, eight years after writing the first word, and explore its weaknesses without too much psychic trauma.

3. I was twenty-three when I started this puppy. Unmarried. Living in a bleak apartment in Wayne, PA, and spending hours an evening at the local library, tucked in a back corner carrel writing on an old Apple laptop that’s so past obsolete at this point you’d cringe. Weird.

4. Red alert! There were portions of the novel I cringed at during my re-read. These are portions I remember not feeling totally comfortable about in the first place. If you don’t like it when you write it, chances are it’s not going to age well.

5. One of the questions I’m interested in figuring out is: “How much can a novel improve?” From where this started to where it finished was a pretty large leap. What I think we’ll show is that there was still a fair amount of leaping still waiting to be done. Could the novel, in its conception, have made those leaps? Was I enough of a writer to have made those leaps? These are all things I’m interested in discovering.

::

The greater portion of this discussion is going to be lead by Mark Bertrand at his site. Stop over today to read his introduction and the structure to expect for the analysis. You'll probably want to start with his daily posts and then head this way to read mine. Here I'll usually offer a bit of a response/explanation/excuse.

And of course, be sure to post your own thoughts and ideas at the discussion board forum. Which is now open for business.

::

Finally, remember the end goal of this isn’t to trash Ezekiel’s Shadow. That’s fruitless. Rather it’s to say: this was a decent book. This was a novel that gained praise. Even won an award. And yet it failed on some levels. Where did it fail? Were they fixable? And how could it have been fixed? And hopefully through this process we’ll all understand a little more about the magic that makes truly great books soar.

::

Go to Day 2 of our Discussion of Ezekiel's Shadow

Go to Mark Bertrand's Discussion of Ezekiel's Shadow

Gaiman and Clarke: Fantasy Interview

Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke (of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell fame) were interviewed together by Salon.com. Worth a read.

Here's a bit:

What about all the association with all those Tolkien imitators?

N.G.: That's so recent. One of the things I tried to do in "Stardust," and Susanna did do in "Strange & Norrell," is write a book for which there's an absolutely solid tradition in English literature, but it predates the idea that there was a part of the bookstore marked "Fantasy." When Tolkien published "The Lord of the Rings," those were books, published as books. There weren't "Fantasy" shelves because there was no genre.

S.C.: The fantasy we're both writing is drawing not just on the things that came after Tolkien, but on the whole of these things that came before. We're most interested in the things that came before the genre -- that's really it.

N.G.: Once people realized there was a genre, they started "doing" other people, doing Tolkien. They became faint photocopies. You get these great big books which are set in a medieval kingdom that is basically somebody's impression of what they liked about Tolkien, combined with what they enjoyed about playing Dungeons and Dragons as a high schooler. That's not what we're doing.

Still, you wind up being lumped with it because of the genre label.

N.G.: I don't know that there's any way around that besides market forces. I read a review yesterday in Bust magazine, which I'd picked up in a supermarket. I used to quite like it, but it looked like it had been bought by somebody and completely overhauled. They had some reviews in the back, and I said, "Oh look, here's a review of Kelly Link's new book. I wonder what they say." And what they said was that the book was really horrible because it was filled with things that were made up, zombies and things and a handbag with a world in it, and how could this possible relate to anybody's life? It was basically a review written by someone who could cope with neither similes nor metaphors.

Are either of us fantasy writers? I don't think so; we're both writers. But we make things up, and I like the privilege of being allowed to make anything up.

S.C.: It's about imagination. Jay McInerney did this interesting response in the Guardian newspaper to V.S. Naipaul saying that fiction is dead. It was quite good as far as it went. But there's this assumption in what he said that what you're writing about is the world now and that the important thing is to examine the world now. I kind of think, Why? Shakespeare didn't think it was important to write contemporary Elizabethan plays. Dickens tended to write about the society 50 or 20 years earlier. It seems to me that what writers are supposed to do is use their imaginations. Imagination is one of the most important things we have.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Starting Monday...

We'll be discussing Ezekiel's Shadow.

There will be daily postings both here and at Mark Bertrand's site. As well, there will be a new forum open at the discussion board to facilitate and organize conversations there.

Fingers crossed.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Three Sentences

(As we move toward our discussion of Ezekiel's Shadow, I thought I'd post an "article" that ran at my author website at at some point in 2002. That site is down now and I don't think too many of you have seen this so it's getting to see the light of day again.) (Also, this was when I was "promoting" the book rather than sacrificing for the sake of learning, so it's a little more upbeat than next week will be.)

::

In going through some files recently on my computer, I had the embarrassing pleasure of discovering something I thought had vanished—my very first draft of Ezekiel’s Shadow. Written—sigh—five years ago, (ed. note - Now eight years ago) I was surprised at how the words were simultaneously familiar and unrecognizable. There is certainly a reason most never made it to the printed page, but it was a nice reminder (as I begin the journey through Untitled Novel 3) (ed note. Still untitled.) of the journey that it takes for a book to take shape. That said, since many of you are interested in, but uninitiated about, the actual craft of writing, I thought I’d use this opportunity to look at the opening lines from my three major drafts and show how ES went from five words typed on an ancient Mac in a Wayne, PA, library to the book available at fine stores everywhere today. (ed. note - Nope. Out-of-print.)

::

Ian Merchant talked to himself.

This was my first sentence ever, and if I’m proud of one thing, it’s that I got the man’s name right. A good name, in a way I can’t fully explain, can help give depth and what the painters call chiaroscuro to a character, and, though I don’t remember how, I had Ian’s from that ever famous get-go.

I also knew he was a horror writer and I knew, like most writers, that he spent an inordinate amount of time by himself. And so into that solitude and silence I threw Ian’s own voice. The quasi-autobiographical reason comes a few sentences later, explaining that sometimes Ian speaks the words he’s written: He needed to hear things, feel their rhythm. That, in an unadorned sentence, is how I write. To me (and thus to Ian) writing is all about the rhythm of the words on a page and how that cadence captures everything to be found in a novel from voice to suspense to humor. It’s all about the words and the order in which they are placed, one after the other.

The great downfall of this beginning, of course, is that I was trying to write a suspense novel, not a meta-fictional argument in the form of a novel. The set-up left Ian alone too often (a tough, and generally boring, thing to be in a novel) and left me struggling to populate his world. Still, I plugged away for (timeout for some quick math, here) 204 double-spaced pages holding 62,498 words. Half of a book. Of which, I guess, I kept 40%. So call it 80 pages. 80 pages and a title, The Memory of Bones. That’s when I started draft 2.

::

Sitting alone on the train after a discouraging meeting with his publisher, Ian Merchant looked down and realized that, on top of everything else, he’d forgotten to polish his shoes.

Forgoing the minimalism of Ian Merchant talked to himself in draft 2, I apparently tried to cram as much information into the first sentence as possible. I have the recurring setting of the train to/fro New York; I have the implication that Ian Merchant is a discouraged writer; and I have the soon-to-be-relevant fact that his shoes are dirty. The shoes, it turned out, were last worn at the Arizona funeral of Ian’s spiritual mentor, the man whose death pushed Ian into the creative and spiritual funk around which the novel turns. This was Draft 2 (newly titled, at one point, The Book of Ian Merchant) and after all (and I do mean ALL) was said and done, the thing weighed in at 508 double-spaced pages and 159,248 words. For those who are wondering, this is a long book. Really long. It’s really surprising to me, sometimes, to think that I got my editor to read through the entire thing. Less surprising was his eventual response that he liked it, but that I had some (his words) “slow spots.”

And so I had to cut for Draft 3. And rearrange. And reconstitute. And one thing that was lost was my tightly crammed opening sentence. I don’t miss it particularly, because the change was necessary. But I didn’t change it because I disliked the opening, but because I needed to open somewhere else.

::

Ian Merchant tried to write of death but found no words.

I needed to open with Ian’s personal struggle. This is his story, 100%, it made no sense to try and look at it obliquely or come at it from angles. It’s a simple story of a man stuck in this thing from which he can’t seem to escape—and so why not throw him into it right from the beginning? Thus, the above.

The book also gained a new (and final) title as Ezekiel’s Shadow and most of draft three was spent compressing, tightening, and getting rid of slow bits. Many will argue (including my beloved 90+ year-old great aunt) that some slow bits still remain. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Regardless, I deflated it to 454 pages and 133,834 words. And so it remains. Or thereabouts.

For me, (to be overly simplistic) the key to writing is threefold. I need to enjoy the story in which I’m buried. (This is the easiest part.) I need to be able to hear and duplicate the rhythm of the language to which I want my story to dance. (This is the hardest.) And I need to remember that no word I write is sacred. Even a first line. This is the one that gives me the best chance for the best story to emerge from these thoughts God’s been willing to grant me.

Dale Cramer Interview - Podcast

You can check out a podcast interview with Dale Cramer here.

Speaking of Dale, we at BHP had the opportunity to host him for a few days last week. What a wonderful guy. It's so cool when you like your authors both for their talent and just as general human beings, too.

Dale told some fascinating stories about some of the things that have happened in his extended family after the publication of his latest novel, Levi's Will. (Which has some autobiographical and family connections.) I won't spoil them here because he may be writing them up/talking about them in the future, but it really does go to show the power books can have in real life.

Where Are You?

On the discussion board an industrial fellow (der Fieldenmarshal) has plugged into a site that lets you know where other readers/members are located. Check it out and think about adding yourself to the gang.

Short Story Contest Update

All the stories are in. In the end, there were about 75 or so submissions which is up over 50% from the Christmas story contest. Which is exciting. But it means a longer reading period, too. I'm aiming to made some kind of noise about "finalists" by the end of this month.

Thanks to all. If you have follow-up questions you can post them here.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Give a Second Thought To...

This is going to be a new running feature on the blog here. It'll be based on observations made by myself and my colleagues as fiction acquisitions editors who see a lot of manuscripts on a day-to-day basis. These aren't rules ("Don't Do This!") but rather gentle warnings. Like the title says, "You might want to give a second thought to ...x... because it's something of which we see a lot."

Today, you might want to give a second thought to naming your character something obviously symbolic. Yes, Grace and Faith and Hope are women's names. And popular women's names. But, these names appear very often in submitted proposals. They don't stand out anymore. (Likewise, Cain as a villain's name, appears quite often.)

Just an observation from the acquisitions desk.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Ezekiel's Shadow

The time is fast approaching to discuss Ezekiel's Shadow. In what has been a rather unsettling premonition, my dreams of late have been taking me back to the aimless pomposity of my college writing seminars. Mark Bertrand hasn't yet appeared as terror-inducing professor, but if these continue we may just have to call this experiment off. ;)

A quick word about the discussion: we're hoping to utilize the discussion board to full affect for this and involve as many folks as possible in the analysis. So, please join the discussion board if you haven't yet done so. Also, if you'd like to participate, you'll want to have finished Ezekiel's Shadow by Monday. We're not going through the book chronologically but taking it as a whole, so some early posts are likely to contain "spoilers" if you haven't finished.

I finished my re-read of the book (my first since turning in final galleys in late 2000) this weekend and it was an interesting experience. I think the book should lend itself to discussion pretty well and hopefully (along with the conversion stories) will give us some momentum as we turn our eye to topics further down the line a bit.

What's That?

Did Penn State play a football game this weekend, you ask? Why, yes, they did.

(I've adopted the Twins and the T-Wolves and even the Vikings though they're dismal. But I have a deep and abiding loathing for the University of Minnesota Golden Gopher football team that manages only to increase annually.)

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Tolstoy, Chekhov...Faust?

An interesting post from Joe Faust about the web's peculiar ability to provide information we never would have expected...in this case, that he's gained a bit of a following in the former Soviet bloc.