Monday, April 30, 2007

JSB: When the Devil Whispers

When the Devil Whispers

We don't hear much about honor these days. Most of the classic virtues, in fact, have fallen into a pretty sad state. Little taught and rarely practiced, they sit in rocking chairs in dusty bookshelf rooms, talking amongst themselves, remembering the good old days.

Personally, I'd like to see them back. Honor in particular.

I first learned about honor from my Dad, a World War II naval officer and lawyer, who taught me that honor was about things like not cheating when you know you can. And giving due respect to your opponent on the field if you were bested. Also showing up when someone who depends on you needs your help. I remember more than a few late night calls from neighbors, when a son had been arrested for drunk driving or fighting or running his car into a storefront window. Dad was there for these neighbors, generous with his legal expertise and time, because that's just what neighbors do for each other.

Dad showed me the right way to live and when I've fallen short, I imagine having to tell him about it. That hurts. But it is also what makes me want to do better.

I guess that's why the novels and movies I like most have something to do with honor.

Like High Noon. You know the story. Will Kane (Gary Cooper in an Oscar winning role) is the retiring marshal of a small Western town. He's just married a Quaker woman (Grace Kelly) and they're about to ride out to start their quiet lives together.

Then Kane gets the terrible news. The killer he helped put away has been pardoned. And he's announced he's coming to town on the noon train to take care of Will Kane once and for all. With three other gunmen to help him in his deadly task.

Maybe he should stay, Kane says. The townspeople herd him and his wife onto a buckboard and rush him out of town.

But a half mile later Kane pulls up the horse. He tells his wife he has to go back. If he doesn't, the killers will hunt them down. The two of them will be on the run for the rest of their lives.

But it goes even deeper than that. The really important theme is that Kane knows he won't be able to live with himself if he runs, let alone with his wife. He's a man who cannot live with dishonor, because to do so is worse than death.

He has to go back. And for this he risks losing Grace Kelly. Grace Kelly! Talk about a virtue holding sway over a soul!

The key moment in the film occurs just before Act 3. Kane has tried unsuccessfully to gather a posse. The town he had served so well has let him down. He is alone, and four gunmen will soon arrive to kill him. He will almost surely die.

In the livery stable he begins to crack. What has he done? He's given up a wife and a future, for what? For honor? Is that worth anything?

He sees a horse and saddle and wonders if he should just get on and get out.

In walks Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), the young deputy who has bristled under the shadow of the great Will Kane. A coward at heart, Harvey wants nothing more than to have Kane leave town so he can take over the role as the big man. He's even tried to take Kane's former lover for his own, but she now holds him in contempt.

Harvey sees immediately what Kane is thinking, and happily starts saddling the horse. "No one'll blame you," he says. "Sure, this is what you've got to do."

And in that moment Will Kane sees what he'll become if he leaves. His dishonor will turn him into Harvey. His life will effectively end, even if he stays physically alive.

Kane refuses to get on the horse. This angers Harvey so much he tries to knock Kane out. They fight, and Harvey is the one who ends up on the ground.

Kane stays to face the killers, and you'll have to watch the movie to see what happens.

But it is that one moment, that interior reflection, where Kane fights the most important battle. As the essayist Montaigne put it, "It is not for outward show that the soul is to play its part, but for ourselves within, where no eyes can pierce but our own."

In the Christian realm, honor has sometimes had a hard go of it, because of the sense that one should be humble and avoid the sin of pride. But this is a misunderstanding of the virtue. Aristotle made the distinction in his Ethics. One can be vain, he argued, by both too much esteem of the self on the one side, and on the other a put on meekness that does away with any ambition to do honorable acts. The latter "pusillanimity" was best captured by Dickens in the character of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. The smarmy Heep went about, rubbing his hands and bowing, claiming to be "your 'umble servant." Yech.

True honor is found in another literary classic, Moby Dick (yes, I said Moby Dick). Ishmael is astonished when Queequeg, the cannibal harpooner, risks his own life to save a young greenhorn from drowning. The astonishment comes from Queequeg's nonchalance about it all. He accepts no congratulations and seeks no reward. Just some water to wash off the brine and a place to smoke his pipe. Ishmael seems to peer into Queequeg's mind, catching the thought that we are all in this world together, and we have to look out for each other. That's just what people do.

Honor and duty are related, and when combined in fiction create a most compelling story. In a way, it's the heart of most great stories. Who a character is comes out in those moments when, under moral stress, he has a choice to make. Will it be honorable or dishonorable?

When Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) gives up the love of his life, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca, it is a transcendent and perfect ending. Blaine has made a sacrifice because to take another man's wife, even though she is willing, is too much dishonor to abide. They may not regret it now, Blaine says to Ilsa, but they will someday soon, and for the rest of their lives. In this way, the anti-hero Blaine becomes a real hero, and shoves off with his new friend, Louis (Claude Raines) to rejoin the war effort.

Contrast that with An American Tragedy, the Dreiser classic that was magnificently made into the film A Place in the Sun. Clyde Griffiths starts with one dishonorable act that leads to his inevitable downfall. Early in the novel, goaded by some of his fellow bellboys to visit a brothel, Clyde has a choice to make. He's curious but a little scared, because of his background. His parents were staunch Christian and brought him up that way.

Clyde, Dreiser writes, puts thoughts of his parents "resolutely out of his mind." Thus the choice is made.

After the experience in the brothel, Clyde has thoughts of shame, thinking back on his parents' teachings from the Bible. Yet the experience was "lit with a kind of gross, pagan beauty or vulgar charm for him."

Griffiths has made his choice. He goes on to seduce the tragic Roberta, consents to marry her (to save his own rep) when she conceives, then lets her drown so he can be free to pursue another woman.

As thoughts of seeing Roberta dead come to Clyde, Dreiser calls it "the devil's whisper."

I suppose that's the crux of the matter. The devil whispers and we are tempted to dishonor. Only a strong faith on the other side can withstand the assault.

When our characters show us the full fire of that inner battle we have the makings of great fiction. For whether the choice is ultimately for honor or dishonor, we will see the consequences and be instructed without being taught.

That, I think, is the purpose of art.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Ask the Authors: Friday

Where do you do most of your writing, and why?

I write at home almost always, unless I'm traveling. I do enjoy writing on an airplane, especially if it's a long trip. But when I'm proofing or editing I like to work at Starbucks. It gets me out of the house and gives me an excuse to drink high-calorie coffee. -- Rene Gutteridge

I do most of my writing in our sunroom that overlooks the backyard. Writing in an office on a desktop computer depresses me. Give me a laptop and the peaceful silence of sunshine and birds and an occasional ant crawling beneath the door. --Hannah Alexander

At home, either in my office or sitting in the patio swing. Why? Because it's where I feel most relaxed, where I'm surrounded by the things I love: pictures, music, my family, my's where I can watch the clouds dancing over the mountains; where I'm serenaded by the wind nudging our windchimes; where I take a break to dig my hands into the rich soil as I weed my pansies, roses, irises, and other flowers; where I can pause and watch my dogs exult in the wonder of play. It's home, where I'm energized and inspired. Karen Ball

If you're talking about the physical act of typing
words into a computer, that would be here in my home
office, as I don't have a laptop. But if you're
talking about the mental act of developing the story,
that would be everywhere: outdoors while I'm walking,
in the kitchen while I'm washing dishes, in the car
while I'm driving. I'm more or less mulling over a
story all the time, no matter what else I'm doing. --Ann Tatlock

My local Panera's coffee house. I laughingly have 'an office' there where friends know where to find me. It's great. All the coffee you can drink, free wi-fi and oodles of people watching for future story lines. -- Lori Copeland

My favorite Starbucks, because it has just the right mix of background noise and music, my table is in just the right spot and every now and then I get in a really good conversation with someone who may end up in one of my books. - James Scott Bell

Until a couple of years ago, my desk was a farm table in a corner of our living room. With four kids in a cozy, but small duplex, I didn’t have any other options. Now that we have a bigger house and only one teenager at home, I have my own sunny studio with plenty of storage and a tall window that looks out over our quiet street. However, I don’t confine my writing to my office. Something about a change of scenery really inspires me and gets the words flowing. So I write solely on a laptop that I carry from my studio, to the chair in front of the fireplace in winter, outside on the porch or deck (Kansas weather permitting), or often, to a barstool in the kitchen. I often write away from home, especially when I’m on deadline. Barnes & Noble, the library, a bed-and-breakfast, and even a bench at the park, have all served as wonderful temporary offices where the phone never rings and no dirty dishes or laundry ever call my name. –Deborah Raney

On the bed, in the car, at my cabin. On the bed, because I don't have an office. In the car because there's no internet. At the cabin because there's no distraction and I have three times the output there than anywhere else. By the way, my cabin is available to writers, artists and thinkers who need a space to create. I only charge the cleaning fee. (Sorry to get businessy on you all!) lisa samson

Almost all my writing is done in my home office. I do a little on my laptop, but I seem to work better in my familiar work space. -Robin Lee Hatcher

In my home office, though I work on a laptop, not a desktop. The coffee pot is close-by, as are my reference books, Ember the cat, and Clever Trevor, the golden retriever. And other than some faint music in the other room, it's blessedly quiet. I have to have the quiet. About the only thing that will shatter my concentration in a heartbeat is noise. -BJ Hoff

My home office. Because:
1). My stuff is there.
2). It's tax-deductible and
3). I don't like coffee.
--Angela Hunt

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ask the Authors: Thursday

How detailed does a setting have to be to ring true with one’s readers?

It all depends on the type of book you are writing. In some books, setting becomes as important as the main character. It can create color and tone and mood. In other books, setting is little more than a backdrop. How detailed your setting needs to be depends upon its importance to your story. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

Not very, as far as I'm concerned. A lineoleum floor here, a Turkish carpet there. And chairs. Chair styles speak a thousand words. I'm not sure why this is. But if you enjoy design, the chair seems to be the portal. It is important, to know the styles of furniture, I think. (Unless you're writing in first person and your character has no idea!) And precise colors allow you to present the feel, the emotion, of a room in only a couple of words. In any case, unless the characters are in a setting that's not one of their making or using, the setting is a wonderful way to develop character by showing their likes/dislikes, choices and habits. A cluttered room--a spare room, a room with a large bronze of Socrates, or one with a huge pile of board games in the corner. These tell us just as much about the character as they do the room itself. lisa samson

If you’re writing about an actual place, then detail—and accurate detail—is extremely important. Readers are quick to point out errors in a novel set in a place they know and love. That, along with the fact that real-life settings change so quickly, is why I mostly set my books in fictional places. But even a book set in a fictional Kansas town, must be true to Kansas and Kansans. As for detail, for me as a reader, it’s the little things—the curtains in a room, the sounds that make up a place’s “white noise,” the flora and fauna of a region, the scents in the air—that truly bring a setting to life. –Deborah Raney

I think the telling detail, the specific item that brings a setting to life, is crucial. You don't have to lard it on, but it has to smell real. Smell, BTW, is an underused sense in fiction. Use it. Read the first chapter of Bleak House by Dickens for a little course on writing setting and description. The details should do "double duty." Not just describe, but also create the mood or tone or symbolism that deepens your story. - James Scott Bell

There's all kinds of stories. If you're writing an in-depth historical you need a lot of details and facts to ring true. If you're writing a historical setting, then you flavor the story with light details. Same would apply to contemporary stories. Lori Copeland

Readers tend to fill in the blanks for themselves,
especially today's readers. We don't need much to get
the picture. In fact, tell us too much and we're going
to tune out. If you read 19th century and early 20th
century literature, you'll generally notice much more
detail than what authors offer today, and that's
because we no longer have the patience for it. Thomas
Wolfe wouldn't have a prayer in today's market. We're
used to sound bites, ever-changing scenes; we take in
our information in little snippets and that's how we
want it: Just tell me what I need to know and let's
get on with the story. --Ann Tatlock

I don't know that it's about being detailed as much as it's about being accurate. Representing it in such a way that we can taste, see, and smell it. Showing it with skill. That's what you need to focus on. Sometimes that does take a lot of details; other times, all it takes is well chosen, concise words. Karen Ball

As a writer, I want the reader to feel as if she is in that place, seeing what our characters are seeing, but I don't want to bore her with page after page of description. I try to use as few words as possible to portray the setting. --Hannah Alexander

As some of the others have said, it's the telling detail you want to include--the thing that reveals personality and character. And when you're revealing a settting, don't stop to give us a paragraph of description, but show us characters using and/or moving through the objects you want to describe. When describing the unfamiliar, show the object in use. Keep your story active. --Angela Hunt

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ask the Authors: Wednesday

Were you educated to become a writer, or is your training in another field (and just how necessary are writing courses, anyhow)?
I studied screenwriting under a mass communications degree, so I suppose I do have an educational background in it. And there is no denying that it was extremely useful. However, most of what I've learned as a writer has come from studying great writing and spending hours upon hours creating my own work. If you are a beginner, I would definitely recommend taking some writing courses. Many community colleges offer novel writing courses, and also writers conferences are a great place to add to your knowledge. -- Rene Gutteridge

It depends on what you mean by writing courses. I (Cheryl) have studied the art and craft of writing since I was very young. I studied book after book on novel writing, I took college courses on novel writing, and the English language study was a necessity--but it came easily for me. I did not get a degree in journalism, or in English, or in anything else, for that matter. I was self taught, but I did have to study hard for many years in order to be publishable.
Mel does not have a degree in journalism. He's a doctor of osteopathy. He did, however, take a special humanities course in college. I am the one who has studied the craft, and therefore I am the main writer. --Hannah Alexander

My degree is in Journalism and Multiple Languages. But my best training as a novelist came from reading novels and taking writing courses. How important are they? Very. Whether in an academic setting or at writers' conferences, you need the guidance and wisdom of those who've been there. It's easy to write. I see proposals from folks who write every day. But are they publishable? No, not many of them. If you want to write something that stands out, that's a notch above the rest, to write something that will change lives? That takes work and seeking help from those who know what they're talking about. --Karen Ball

My master's degree is in print journalism, as my
original dream was to be a magazine journalist. I've
never taken a fiction-writing class, other than what
was offered in the School of Hard Knocks (Reading the
Classics for Emotional Survival 101, Writing as
Therapy: Turning Your Inner Angst into Fiction 102).
Even so, learning how to write nonfiction in college
and grad school definitely helped prepare me to write
fiction. I think everyone who has natural writing
ability can refine that talent by taking classes--at a
school, online, at writer's conferences--and by
considering seriously the feedback of a seasoned
instructor. --Ann Tatlock

I wasn't educated to be a writer. Writing courses are okay, but I would place more emphasis on grammar and editorial skills.-Lori Copeland

Lots of English and fiction writing classes (and courses), but much more music background than anything else. I learned far more about writing from writing-and from reading. As to how helpful writing classes are--this can be very subjective. The effectiveness of a writing class largely depends on the instructor's experience, ability as a teacher, and how the class is structured. For fiction writers, there's no classroom like life itself. -BJ Hoff

I was a film major in college, so story and structure were drummed into me by osmosis. I studied short story writing with Raymond Carver and screenwriting with Paul Lazarus, a well known Hollywood producer. But I still had a lot to learn about the craft, and got most of it from writing, showing my stuff to people I trusted, writing more, studying good books on the craft and trying out what I learned, reading novels with intention (to figure out what the masters were doing), and writing, writing, writing. I believe the craft of writing can be learned. Your talent is given to you, but you can take it to the max by honing your craft. - James Scott Bell

Since I’ve always had an interest in writing, I took many creative writing and English courses in high school and college. I have only three semesters of college credit on my transcript, but have never found that to be a detriment. In many ways, I feel I’ve “earned” a degree in novel writing by virtue of the many workshops and conferences I’ve attended, the bevy of books on the craft of writing that I’ve studied, and even more, the gift of working so closely with professional editors. If I were recommending a course of study for an aspiring novelist, I’d say journalism and literature classes would be most helpful. –Deborah Raney

graduated with a degree in Telecommunications with a proficiency in Television Production. But my concentration within my concentration was Writing for Television and Radio. My senior thesis was a screenplay. I thought I was being edgy (I went to a Christian college--back in the 80's) by putting a video montage segment to Christopher Cross's Ride Like the Wind! How things have changed! --lisa samson

I was a voracious reader, and I learned my craft by writing, writing, writing and reading, reading, reading. I went to my first writers' conference just before my fifth novel was released. I wasn't educated to become a writer. That said, if you want to be a novelist, all knowledge and all education is valuable and you will put it to use throughout your writing career. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

I majored in English in college and my master's degree is in theology. But while I appreciate having a literature background, everything I know about writing and the business aspect came from reading books and/or trial-and-error. When I see how much is taught in writer's conferences today . . . well, I wish I'd had the same advantage. Still, writing skills are one thing . . . having something worth writing about is quite another. --Angela Hunt

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ask the Authors: Tuesday

Do you belong to a writing group — one that meets regularly so members can read and comment on one another’s work? Are these valuable?

No, I do not meet with a writers' group that reads and comments on one another's work. I tried a critique group once (about the time I was working on my tenth book). I learned that is not how I work best. About 90% of my books have been written without anyone reading a part or all of the manuscript before my editor saw it. The important thing is to learn how you work best. It is a process. You try new things to see if they work for you. We all are different. We all create in unique ways. Find what works best for you. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

No, I don't belong to a critique group. I think they are valuable to some people. But I've heard mixed reviews on that. I belonged to a critique group a long time ago, and while I'm not sure how much it actually helped me with my technique, it gave me impetus, and as any professional writer knows, we'd almost give up our firstborn for some impetus! lisa samson

No, I don't belong to a critique group and never have. I know that some people find them valuable, but I've also seen how they can perpetuate false ideas and cause people to endlessly second-guess themselves. Or maybe I just like to keep my work under wraps until I'm ready to unveil it. I do value reader input, but I prefer it in small doses. --Angela Hunt

I’ve been part of writers groups in the past, but most of the members wrote non-fiction articles, so I didn’t find it as helpful. My most helpful “writing group” is my critique partner (also a novelist) along with several readers who give feedback on each book. But I DO think writing groups can be valuable, as long as you realize that there will be differing opinions and only you (and your editor) can ultimately decide what is best for the story of your heart. –Deborah Raney

My writing group consists of: my wife. I trust her. She's great, has a good eye, and lots of influence. - James Scott Bell

No. I did belong to a group many years ago, and really enjoyed the camaraderie, but the group meets on Saturdays and weekends are reserved for my family. I think a group does provides encouragement and support to new writers. Lori Copeland

Yes, I do belong to a writering group, one that
includes several published authors and several
will-be-published authors. I love the fellowship and
I'm in the group because it's a chance to spend time
with some wonderful people. Oddly, though, while I
critique the writing of others, I don't submit
anything of my own to be critiqued. I never talk in
specifics about what I'm working on, not even with my
husband (who grumbles about that). Call it my own
personal taboo. Not that I don't need the input of
others, because I do, but that comes later when my
editor and other hired readers go over the work before
it's published. My own strange quirks aside, I know
many writers benefit greatly from critique groups such
as ours. --Ann Tatlock

No, never have. -BJ Hoff

No, but only because I've never been able to find a group where they just let me be a writer. Too often I end up being the "editor in residence." While that's fine when I'm expecting to serve that role, sometimes I just want to be a writer. Since that hasn't been possible, I've chosen to stay out of writers' and critique groups. I do thing they're worthwhile, though, for most writers. And I have a group of women who write and love writing that meets once a week for coffee. We're not a critique group, but it's great for fellowship and accountability. And they do read things once in awhile when I ask them to do so and give me feedback. But we're mostly about just being friends (and playing "Boggle," a great game for those who love words!) --Karen Ball

I belonged to two groups, neither of which did regular exchange of manuscripts for critiquing. I love these people, and enjoy their company, but I no longer attend these meetings regularly. There comes a time when you just have to write the book and stop talking about it.
Now, Mel and I do have brainstorm sessions with other writers once or twice a year in different areas of the country. These are meetings we can't live without, not only because we love the input with our writing, but because these people are also published authors who know the business and with whom we can confide. --Hannah Alexander

Monday, April 23, 2007

Ask the Authors: Monday

Welcome back to "Ask the Authors" week. If you have a question you'd like our panel to answer, send it to Enjoy!
Do you write to a daily quota? If “yes,” why? And if “no,” then how do you pace yourself and get a book done on time?

Yes, I have a daily quota. But do I always meet it? No. And then my daily quota has to increase in order to meet deadlines. Why do I have one? Because writing is how I support myself. If I don't produce, I don't pay the mortgage or buy groceries. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

Absolutely. What Robin said. --Angela Hunt

I have a loose daily quota while I'm directly engaged in a project. If I fall short, I redo the math and my quota goes up a bit. If I have a fabulous day, however, I still keep the quota the same so I'm ahead of schedule. --lisa samson

I usually start a book 6-9 months before deadlines and work at a 1000-words-a-day pace. Some days I’m spending more time researching than writing, so that fluctuates greatly. When I get to 2 months before deadline, then I’m starting to feel a little panicky: must-hit-1000-words-five-days-a-week. At about 4 weeks to countdown, I’m writing 7 days a week, 8-10 hours a day, hitting 2-3000 words a day and WISHING I wasn’t such a terrible procrastinator. But this just seems to be the way I work. –Deborah Raney

I write a weekly quota, breaking it down into 6 day chunks (taking Sunday off). If I miss a day, I know I can make it up on another. Currently I try to do 7200 words a week.This is the single most valuable lesson I ever learned about writing. Produce the words. Don't put in time. You can sit for hours at the keyboard thinking about writing or stressing over a sentence. Write the words first, get them down, then you can go back later and fix them. I start my daily writing stint by re-reading the words I wrote the previous day, fixing them as needed, then get on with my quota. I've also found that when I write first thing, the rest of the day goes a lot more smoothly. - James Scott Bell

I try to write a daily quota of half a chapter. Some days it works fine, others I fall short. I've learned to schedule two chapters per week Monday-Friday. That gives me one day to fill in when I fall short of my daily goal. Lori Copeland

No, I don't have a daily quota. I work with a fairly
detailed outline, so I know what I need to do and how
long I have to do it. Just from that I can usually
pace myself pretty accurately. --Ann Tatlock

I try, but I confess I don't often meet it. Daily quotas intimidate rather than motivate me. So lately I've just been telling myself "Write the scene, Karen. Let the word count take care of itself." That's helping. --Karen Ball

No. I write what I can as long as I can. I work mostly by scene. -BJ Hoff

I used to try for a daily quota, but it stressed me out too much. So I just make sure I write every evening--or at least I try. That makes for a very stressful deadline time with every book, but at least it's only for a week or two, not for the duration of the story. --Hannah Alexander

I don't use a daily quota. That often means as the deadline grows closer I am having to spend extra time writing. For me, though, to set myself a word limit is not very practical because I have to write in very defined times. Once the kids are home from school, my writing day is over. If I had a quota I hadn't met, I'd be stressed about trying to figure out how to finish it up. Instead, I really work month to month. I know about how much progress I should be making in the month. If I'm behind, the kids get to stay a day or so with grandma! -- Rene Gutteridge

Friday, April 20, 2007

Writers' Spaces: Lisa Samson

I'm so glad this is about writer's "spaces" not offices, because I haven't had an office in years. As some of my Charis friends here know, stuffing me into an office would be like stuffing me into a pair of size 4 jeans.

So my venues change. Right now I've been sitting on the bed a lot. There's my "credenza" or nightstand if you must be pedantic!I used to feel bad that I can't settle down into one space, but I don't any longer. It's not where you write that important, but what you write, and if you're productive in that space.

If you need a real office, a place all your own, I think it's important to create that space. If you've got a place all your own right behind your forehead like I do, then the physical space isn't important, as long as it isn't distracting. Can I get an amen from my friends in the ADD corner?

For me, the internet is my most voracious drain. I need to be away from it which is why my car is another hot spot. Right now I'm working on hard copy so I can be home. I have a tough time concentrating, so to be honest, the greatest "writer space" for me is found in something called a deadline! Now that'll do more to get you writing than anything else! I'm just not normal. But is anybody?

Don't answer that!

lisa samson writes from Lexington, KY. Check out her latest novel, Quaker Summer. She just got her hair cut really short and still isn't quite sure about it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Writers' Spaces: Liz Curtis Higgs is the site to visit if you want a detailed tour of Liz Curtis Higgs's study.
Liz combines the comforts of home with her Scottish library and her computer--and no telephone up in this study! She's learned how to keep distractions to a minimum.
Be sure to visit the link for a complete tour.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

AT: A Storm on Jupiter

Shortly after moving into my neighborhood, I met the woman who lives across the street. Ellen was warm and friendly, willing to engage in pleasant small talk. If I hadn’t known better, I might not have noticed the sadness--and a certain inner strength--that emanated from her.

But another neighbor had already filled me in. Ellen had lost her daughter on 9/11. Mother and daughter exchanged their last words by phone even as the plane sank down toward a Pennsylvania field.

During my brief conversation with Ellen, I just kept thinking about the storm on Jupiter.

See, we’ve known about Jupiter for a long time. It’s visible to the naked eye, so the ancient astronomers could look up and see the planet shining in the night sky. They knew it was there, but they didn’t know very much about it.

By 1665, stargazers could look through a telescope and see that a huge red spot was hovering over Jupiter’s surface. No one knew what the red spot was, though, because there was simply no way of zooming in on the planet to uncover its secrets.

But in 1979 Voyager 1 got close enough to take pictures. Only then did we learn that the spot is a cyclonic storm that, according to one theory, may have begun when an asteroid crashed into the planet. The storm is two to three times the size of earth with winds that reach 270 miles per hour. That’s one good-sized tempest, but as I say, before Voyager 1 we simply had no way to see it.

So what do my neighbor and the storm on Jupiter have to do with each other? Let me try to explain by first saying something about history and stories.

In high school history class, I was more inclined to pass notes to my friends than listen to the lecture on some long-ago and seemingly irrelevant event. I love history now, but I didn’t know it then. Somehow I couldn’t make the connection between events and people. I didn’t understand that the larger happenings intersected with individual lives in such a way as to make any sort of real impact. So we fought a civil war--so what? So the stock market crashed in 1929--so what? So we had to sweat it out when something was going on in the Bay of Pigs, wherever that was. So how many more minutes till class is over?

History told me what happened, but left me too far away to feel anything. I could see the events, but I couldn’t see the stories. I could memorize dates and places and numbers, but I couldn’t connect with the people. And I sure couldn’t peer into that place where most of life is lived out--inside the hearts and minds and spirits of men and women.

God bless historians, because we need them. But for me, sitting in history class was like standing under the night sky looking up at some distant planet. In the end, that tells me little about Jupiter.

What I needed then, and still need, is a Voyager to pick me up and carry me to the planet so I can experience what it’s all about. If I can see how big that storm is, maybe reach out a hand and just get an idea of the strength of the wind, then I’ll know the wonder and the mystery of that strange planet.

Writers--the storytellers of the world--are the Voyagers that carry me and you to the hidden places. That is, past the events and into the inner workings of people where the real stories are going on--into their thoughts, their fears, their brokenness, their faith. Writers show us the storms that spring up at the point where world events intersect human lives, sometimes with the force of an asteroid hitting a planet.

So now, what do my neighbor and Jupiter have to do with each other? The events of 9/11 are Jupiter. Grief and perseverance and faith are the storm that erupted within one individual when 9/11 collided with my neighbor’s life. A history book might give us the facts and the numbers, and we need that. But stories like Ellen’s take us to the planet itself, even inside the storm, to the place of trial and courage, hope and faith, and as creatures who are nurtured on the unseen, we need that even more.

Ann Tatlock is discoverable at her web page, .

Monday, April 16, 2007

Writers' Spaces: Athol Dickson

Recently we became enamored with learning about writer's spaces--the offices, corners, and cubbyholes where novelists shut out the universe and venture into their story worlds. We've asked our Charis Connection authors to share photos and comments about their writing spaces . . . and we'll sprinkle them in over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

The painting is a Victorian beach scene. My wife says I should face the window, but the people on the street outside are more distracting than the proper ladies with their bonnets and hoopskirts, and besides, all that sunlight behind the computer screen gives me a headache.

One desk drawer is missing. It was broken when we moved here, and I hope to get it back from the repair shop soon. Maybe it’s a metaphor for something. What does it mean when the alternative to a full drawer is not an empty one, but no drawer at all?

The trash can is full because I just paid my bills, and no, I do not pay them by throwing them away, it’s just there are a lot of extra bits of paper for some reason. Attention Al Gore: I am convinced the rainforests could be saved if you would please banish this.

The bright orange book is The Chicago Manual of Style, with which I disagree violently concerning the possessive form of nouns ending with an “s”.

On the far corner of the desk is an ingenious spinning book display, which can hold up to five open references at once, and was invented by Thomas Jefferson. The original is at Monticello. I believe Mr. Jefferson used his to a better effect, but one tries.

The little white things on the computer are “Post-Its” with reminders to do things. I like to pretend this method will inspire me to take action, but both of them have been there for many weeks. One of them has something to do with changing my address, and the other simply says, “Wicker.”

The back of the chair is broken and has been for three years. One day I’ll get another.

Athol Dickson is the author of The Gospel according to Moses and River Rising, and coming this July, The Cure.

Friday, April 13, 2007

JC: Herein Lies Treasure

Ever attend a writers’ conference with an agenda?

Most people do. If you’re attending writers conferences for strictly social reasons, you need counseling. Writers are people who get excited debating whether premier or premiere is the correct spelling of the word. We’re a group of people who are at our best when we’re alone and playing with imaginary friends.

(If you’re looking for fun, try a children’s pastor’s conference. I speak from experience. Now there’s a group of people who know how to have a good time!)

As a thirty year veteran of writers conferences, I’ve learned a few things about them. One thing I’ve noticed is that my conference agenda keeps changing.

At first, I attended conferences for the workshops. At the time, that’s what I needed.
Information. Practical stuff like—don’t use pink paper for proposals and don’t dot your i’s with little hearts. And ways to approach a publisher repeatedly so that she doesn’t mistake you for a stalker. (Sorry Susan.) That sort of thing. It was enlightening, but I came away unpublished.

After a while the speakers started repeating themselves. I wasn’t learning anything new. Obviously, I needed a new agenda. So I began targeting conferences not based on what was being taught, but based on who would be there. Namely, which publishers.

Armed with proposals and a thirty-second pitch that would take Hallmark’s breath away, I forced myself to sign up for those fifteen-minute private conferences. I looked the beast in the eye (sorry Susan) and acted like I knew what I was talking about.

It worked. I got published, which meant I had to come up with a new agenda if I was going to continue attending writers conferences.

Several months ago I attended a conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, hosted by Zondervan Publishers. It was by invitation only. Now, don’t get hung up on that part. It’s no more remarkable than a plant going from seed to bud to bloom. It’s the natural course of a writer. You’ll see.

I didn’t attend for the workshops. I didn’t go armed to pitch a proposal. My new agenda was to hunt treasure.

In any treasure hunt, it’s essential to know what you’re looking for so that you know when you’ve found it. It’s also essential to have a map. What kind of treasure hunt would it be without a map?

I found the map in II Corinthians 4:6-7: For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts…. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

The treasure? The light of God. The location? Walking jars of clay. Armed for adventure, I boarded the plane for Grand Rapids.

The hunt began in earnest with a handshake or a hug from each receptacle in which the treasure was reportedly buried. With each greeting, I reminded myself, “Herein lies treasure. All you have to do is look for it.”

To say I struck gold is an understatement.

Buried inside Angie Hunt, I found a heart sensitive enough to be moved by a prayer for an ailing pet; in Jim Bell, I found the unbridled enthusiasm of a little boy eager to share his toys with friends; in Randy Ingermanson, intellect with wit; in Robin Lee Hatcher, a wounded healer; in Terri Blackstock, a red-headed spiritual warrior with a Southern accent.

In Karen Ball, I found the rarest of breeds—expert editor and compassionate friend; in Davis Bunn, dressed up Christianity with a touch of class; in Tom Morrisey, the proverbial friend who is always there when you need him; in Don Brown, understated ability; in Clint Kelly, gentle persistence in the face of great obstacles; in Al Gansky, a friend who has seen you at your worst and doesn’t turn away; in Brandilyn Collins, a sparkling professional, both literally and figuratively; in Bill Myers, the heart of an artist with the soul of James Dean; and in Gilbert Morris, a smiling patriarch.

There were more. Sue Bower’s passion for fiction. Joyce Ondersma’s bottomless supply of graciousness…

I have to admit, of the three writers conference agendas I like this new one the most. While formerly I came home with knowledge or dreams of contracts, this time I came home with treasure.

As is often the case with riches, the more you have, the more you want. We’re a greedy lot. And so I may not wait until the next writers conference to go treasure hunting again.

I can’t begin to describe the thrill of looking someone in the eyes and thinking, “Herein lies treasure.” And this from a man who describes things for a living.

Jack Cavanaugh's latest releases are The Puritans, The Patriots, and The Colonists. Look him up at your favorite online bookstore.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

TM: The Three Big Lies of Writing, part 3


Over the last couple of days we’ve laid to rest—at least I hope we’ve laid to rest—two of fiction’s biggest lies. And today I would like to address what I feel is the biggest lie of them all:

If it’s Christian, it cannot be Art.

This is not only a lie; it is a blatant lie. If it isn’t, then “The Last Supper,” the “Pieta,” and virtually every important painting, statue and museum-quality sketch created from the Renaissance through the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is junk.

And they aren’t. Yet most are Christian in subject matter or message.

Skeptics might say that this applies to the visual arts, but not to literature. Which leaves them hard-pressed to explain A Pilgrim’s Progress, The Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost. Indeed, for centuries, western civilization went through a period during which secular writing was in the decided minority. It’s only in relatively recent times that the matter has been reversed.
But boy, has the tide ever changed.

Write a good Christian novel today, and you’ll probably get a good review. But it will probably end with the phrase, “Those who enjoy reading Christian (place your genre here) will no doubt enjoy this book.”

I would so like to be reviewed without the disclaimer.

To secular publishing, the year is 1960, they’re rock-and-roll, and we’re country. And we are at least partly to blame for this ourselves.

I recently had lunch with an agent friend (not my agent) who congratulated me on my most recent novel and asked when the next one was coming out. When I told him it would be out in 16 months, he looked appalled.

“That’s too long,” he said.

Says who? Where is it written that readers will forget you if you go more than 8 months without a new release? And even if it is written somewhere, then why do we not forget John Irving (who quite often goes four years between novels), or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (generally two to seven years between novels, and most recently no new novel in the last 11 years). Even J.K. Rowling is permitted two years between books and still considered prolific.

That’s because art doesn’t come with an expiration date.

Even if it takes a bit more time, even if it means that our publishers may occasionally produce a catalogue without one of our books listed, I think we as Christian novelists have a holy mission to prove our critics wrong. We must refuse to write books that are simply good, and we must instead put in the hours and months and even years required to write books that are well and truly great.

Why? Because we are instruments of the ultimate Creator. He made the mountains, the sunset, the sinuous curve of the breaking wave. He made nothing that is less than marvelous. And while he loves every effort we make in his name, I think that we do him the most honor when our work reminds the reader of His work.

There are writers doing just that sort of work today. I count several of them as my friends. And I applaud what they are doing because, even though they may not be shattering the records on the best-seller lists, and even though their bookshelves may not be groaning with awards (odd as that may seem), they are the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats. They elevate our body of literature, and that, I believe, pleases the one for whom we write.

Many writers are doing this already, and if you are one of them, then I encourage you to keep it up. Show that what you do is not a fluke. Stack the evidence for your art so high that it cannot be ignored. Press your craft to the point that no critic on earth can conscionably do anything but give it its due.

Let us not produce just great Christian novels. Let us instead produce great novels that happen to be Christian. And then let them be recognized as such.

Without the one-sentence disclaimer.

Tom Morrisey .

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

TM: The Three Big Lies of Writing, part 2


We just got done examining one of writing’s three big lies—the idea that writing is recorded thought. If you disagree, go back and read that post. We’ll wait right here for you. But if you don’t, or you read it already, or you couldn’t care less, let’s move on to Lie Number Two:

Writers should write what they know.

This wet blanket has been hurled at every aspiring writer that comes down the pike. The smart ones shrug it off and soldier on.

Yes. I know. Melville sailed on the Acushnet and gained the experience he needed to write Moby Dick. The 12-year-old Charles Dickens pasted labels on jars of boot-black to support his family while his father was in debtor’s prison, and lived the life that provided the foundation for Oliver Twist and a number of other novels (none of which, by the way, has ever gone out of print … man, I hate that guy.).

Point taken.

Yet, on the other side of the coin, A. A. Milne resided at Crotchfield Farm, not The Hundred Acre Wood, and his life seems noticeably devoid of talking teddy bears and ebullient stuffed tigers. There is no record anywhere of Jules Verne traveling via submarine, yet he ignored this and wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. If writers only wrote what they knew, no child would ever thrill to The Indian in the Cupboard, or The Velveteen Rabbit, because no writer has ever seen a toy brought miraculously to life. Indeed, there would be very little science fiction, no fantasy or speculative fiction, and the literary world would be a drab and narrow place.

I’m thinking right now of an amazing novel that I read back in the ‘Seventies, a book by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Left Hand of Darkness. In it, a trade representative is dispatched from Earth to a planet called Winter, on which the people are essentially without gender, only assuming the male or female characteristics once a year, when they come into season. The protagonist (the earthling) realizes that he has no precedent for dealing with genderless people, so he arbitrarily decides to treat his Winter guide like a male. Then, when they are stranded in a lonely outpost, the guide comes into season and turns out to be … a woman.

Now, I don’t care who you are. You haven’t lived something like that. It is purely a product of the imagination. And although I have not looked at that book for years, I still remember it as brilliant.

If you have a list of writers’ maxims above your desk and “Write what you know” is up there, please, take it down. Now. Tear it up. Burn the scraps.

There. Doesn’t that feel better?

Writer, whether it’s something you know or not, the very next book you need to write is the book that you have been longing to read for years, but have not read because it does not yet exist. Write that book. Make it your mission to fill that hole in the body of literature.

Write what you love.

And tomorrow, we’ll get to the biggest lie of all.

When he's not writing, Tom Morrisey is diving, reading, and riding his Harley . . . but not simultaneously. Check out his books at .

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

TM: The Three Big Lies of Writing, part 1


Jesus said, “If you hold to my teachings, you are really my disciples. Then you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8:31-32)

Jesus was speaking , of course, of Truth—capital T. But the same principle applies to the other truths of life, and the enemy of truth is lies. So to emancipate us as readers and as writers, I’d like to spend the next few days exploring writing’s three big lies: mistruths that keep our works from being what they could be. And today I’d like to start with a very elementary one—one that shapes the very nature of how we work and how we read:

Writing is recorded thought.

I was first told that in junior high. At least that’s the first time I remember hearing it. It was a preamble to a grammar course; a sentence represents a complete thought, and a sentence is the smallest complete unit of writing, so writing must be recorded thought,

Eminently logical.

Absolutely wrong.

Let’s think about this for a moment. When I pray, my end of the process is thought shared with God. Now, prayer can take several forms, and corporate prayer (when I pray in the company of others) and petition (when I take my needs to God are both, indeed, word-based and could be written out on a page.

But what about when my prayer goes to a higher level? What about when it becomes a pure exchange of love between my Creator and me? I often pray in this manner; in fact, when I stay in prayer for an hour or more, it is usually just this sort of prayer. Yet no words are exchanged, and if asked to write down verbatim what just transpired, I would absolutely and utterly fail. Such thought is pure emotion and resonance.

And prayer is by no means alone in this regard. When I think of my wife and my family, when I think of my friends, I am thinking in feelings, rather than words, and while feelings can be described on paper, they cannot actually be recorded. I would hazard a guess that thoughts such as this make of the vast majority of what passes through the typical person’s mind during a day, so defining writing as recorded thought doesn’t seem to work.

What then, is writing?

Take a look at the following two sentences:

Hee dee ti tweedle twiet; eek ta da!

… and …

Froom toogh, blah toog rah goom….

Now, let me ask you: which one is the happy sentence, and which one is the gloomy one?

If you answered the first and the second, respectively, then you are in accord with every single workshop participant I’ve posed this question to. Yet there are no real words in either sentence. No intelligible thought is being conveyed. Still, the reader “gets” it; I can write the first sentence on a piece of paper, leave it on the ground, and the person who comes along and picks it up will probably picture a happy creature, skipping along.

Yet these sentences are not collections of thoughts. They are collections of sound.

And that’s important, because that’s what writing really is.

Writing is recorded sound.

Understanding this is, in my estimation, the first and most basic principle writers must master to take their art to the next level. And by “writers” I mean everyone who puts words on paper. How words sound and work together is a concern that is not solely the province of poets and lyricists. It applies to fiction, to essay, to the report on the bake sale that you write for the church newsletter. It applies to everything that we write.

Here’s why. When we read—really and truly read, rather than skim—we have a little person who speaks to us in our heads. When the writing is good, the voice of that little person is pleasant. And when the writing is great, that little person sings.

Thinking of writing as sculpting with sound is a principle that should be in every writer’s repertoire. This is the reason that smart writers read their writing aloud and listen to it. This is the reason that even smarter writers have someone else read their writing aloud to them, and listen for where that person stumbles.

Or if you like tech, you can have your PC do it: save your writing as a Microsoft E-Book and use the Microsoft B-Book Reader Text-to-Speech (TTTS) Engine (available free at read it to you in a Stephen-Hawking-like voice. Since the computer will not try to “help” the sentences with its voice, you’ll hear the clinkers immediately.

So writing is not recorded thought; it is recorded sound, and we should write and read accordingly.

If that liberates you—that was our intention here. And tomorrow we’ll move on to writing’s next Big Lie.

Tom Morrisey writes from sunny Florida. You can check out his work at .

Monday, April 09, 2007

JSB: Rhino Skin

If you write for any length of time, especially professionally, you will come to know the inevitable bumps and potholes that dot the literary road. It may come in the form of a rejection letter, a bad review, an angry reader e-mail, a personal jab from a family member, or any of a number of other slings and arrows.

This hazardous highway stretches from the moment you decide you want to write all the way to your grave marker. At the beginning stages, when you are unpublished, perhaps your Cousin Winifred remarks over the pearl onions at Thanksgiving, "You want to be what? A writer? You? How quaint. Pass the gravy."

Then, after you are published, the same cousin may aver, "They published you? Oh, well lots of people are getting published these days."

Cousin Winnie knows a lot of ways to get under your skin. Which is why you must begin to develop the skin of a Rhino.

Rhino skin allows you to feel the hits but still get on with the important thing, the writing. All writers need such a skin.

So how do you get it? By writing and remembering a couple of things.

The first thing to remember is that the greatest writers of all time have been slammed in print. Many examples of this have been collected in a wonderful little book, Rotten Reviews by Bill Henderson. Here are a couple of my favorites.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1892, said of Emily Dickenson, "An eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village—or anywhere else—cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar. Oblivion lingers in the immediate neighborhood."

Nothing of Mr. Aldrich, to my knowledge, remains in print.

The eminent Clifton Fadiman, in The New Yorker no less, said of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! that it was "the final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent."

Great call, Cliff.

And then remind yourself constantly that you are a writer because you write. No one can stop you. There are many more people who do not write yet feel perfectly at ease sniping at those who do. When such a snipe comes your way, remind yourself that you are the one putting yourself on the line, opening a vein, walking the tightrope, singing a solo under hot lights. You are part of a courageous bunch who are all about doing. Teddy Roosevelt's famous advice applies to writers:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Get in the arena. Go at your writing with all the devotion and love and enthusiasm you have. When darts come your way, keep writing. Pray.

Be a Rhino. And write some more.

You can learn more about James Scott Bell at

Friday, April 06, 2007

AT: The Quiet Years

Thirteen years. That’s how much time there was between the day I started writing fiction and the day I saw my first novel in print. Three years past a decade. The span of a person’s entire childhood. More than one-fifth of our allotted 70 years.

Any way you look at it, it’s a good long while.

And you can be sure I lived every day of it wondering whether I’d ever be published. For part of that time I was in graduate school studying the literary luminaries and aspiring to be like them. For another part of it I was on staff of a magazine, spending my days editing articles and my nights scratching out a few pages of fiction with what energy I had left. After I got married I quit the magazine and, for several more years, looked for all the world like a housewife with a pipe dream.

But I went on reading great literature and I even read a couple books on how to write great literature. To strengthen my vocabulary I diligently recorded new words and their definitions in a notebook. I wrote, and I rewrote, and after that I wrote some more. When I finished one manuscript and still felt dissatisfied, I put that story aside and started another.

And I sometimes turned my gaze from the computer to the window and wondered what on earth I was doing. Why wasn’t I a nurse or a teacher or something that made sense because people like me don’t become published novelists. Sometimes I got down on my knees and asked God, “Are you sure--I mean, really sure--there isn’t something else I should be doing?”
Because, from the looks of things, it seemed as though I wasn’t doing anything at all, other than wasting my time, which in the end amounts to wasting your life.

Early on in those years, the Lord placed in my path a man known as Bishop Huntington. Not the man himself, who was long dead, but some wise words of his that had long outlived him. I read his words and knew they were for me, and afterward the Lord brought them to the forefront of my mind again many times, because I needed them.

“We complain,” Huntington wrote, “of the slow, dull life we are forced to lead, of our humble sphere of action, of our low position in the scale of society, of our having no room to make ourselves known, of our wasted energies, of our years of patience. So do we say that we have no Father who is directing our life, so do we say that God has forgotten us, so do we boldly judge what life is best for us, and so by our complaining do we lose the use and profit of the quiet years.”

Now, I’ve never designed a building or done construction, but I do know this: If you’re going to build a building to last, you have to go down before you go up. That is, you’ve got to dig a deep foundation before you start putting up the walls.

Now that I’m five novels up and cementing in a sixth later this year, I can look down and see what those quiet years were all about. They’re the foundation. They’ll all underground and no one will ever see them, but I wouldn’t want to be building my career without them. That was where I refined my writing. More than that, that was where God refined me, making me ready for the task ahead.

The only time wasted was the time spent complaining. The remainder of those 13 years is nothing but profit.

Read more about Ann Tatlock at .

Thursday, April 05, 2007

PH: No Easy Way Out

For those writers who, unlike my dear prolific author pals who drop books like dogs in a puppy farm, I thought it might help to start a discourse for those who are more interested in talking about the process instead of the calendar. This is for the writer struggling with time and creativity and the process of unpacking a worthwhile story.

The book on my nightstand, actually sitting here at my desk at this instant, is Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (1999). Esquire calls it “The best novel of the year . . . utterly original and deeply moving.” Since my current WIP, Painted Dresses, is populated by a peripheral character who is one-tap-off-center, I was drawn into the worlds of books like Motherless Brooklyn. (A faith-based novel offering a mentally complicated protagonist is Finding Alice by skilled author Melody Carlson.)

Motherless Brooklyn unfolds in first person, so Lethem’s language is coded by the mental Tourette’s Syndrome explosions of thought and repetition. Motherless Brooklyn cannot be squashed into a genre; yet it feeds the hunger of the detective fan while satiating the palate of the reader who is easily bored with genre fiction. Try and fit this onto a front cover take-away line: The story is a detective/sort-of-satirical literary fantasia; oh, and a multi-layered humorous murder mystery about orphans in the city.

I like novels that drive the publicity person nuts with worry over how she’s going to pitch it to the public. There’s no easy way out with Lethem’s books. His protagonist defies archetypical fictive models. (I think I just made up a word.). Each one is unique, a personal aesthetic exploding from a fertile imagination. Lethem’s artful trick was to create a character like Lionel Essrog with whom the non-Tourette’s afflicted reader can identify. At first glance, you might think that that’s all Lethem is giving us, a detective with Tourette’s. But he’s also giving us, well, us. The character is confessional, therefore comfortable describing himself, so we’re invited freely into his world. “There’s a lot of traffic in my head, and it’s two-way.” His environment is everyday life, but described artfully: (I woke up early, having failed to draw my curtains, the wall above my bed and the table with melted candle, tumbler quarter full of melted ice, and sandwich crumbs from my ritual snack now caught in a blaze of white sunlight, like the glare of a projector’s bulb before the film is threaded.) His worries about others' perceptions of him are also accessible to us, another transcendent element. But Essrog’s curious perceptions of life draw us into his colorful interior monologue because he’s not like us; a protagonist’s unique perceptions and inner conflict is prerequisite for compelling fiction. When Lionel talks, the words coming rapid fire like paint bullets energizing the story with color, we know we’re entering a world that rises above the genre of a detective novel. He makes it look so easy and that is the beauty of a unique fictive world. I don’t know how long Motherless Brooklyn took to write, but there are five years between Lethem’s novels.

For a story to rise above genre becoming art, it has to be given time to breathe. It needs both the wild as well as the transcendent elements that act to surprise and satisfy the reader. There are times when a story will pour out of you, but then, because your expectations are high or because you’ve temporarily lost your way, you have to set it aside and let it season or marinade or simmer, or whatever you prefer to call your time of reflection. (I garden) A novel doesn’t season parked in a hard drive. It seasons inside the imagination of the writer, occurring when you reflect on life outside of the fictive world you’re creating; slowing down and returning to look at the story after a bit of time has passed will make the difference in your perception. You might be missing a key element that will spring up from seemingly nowhere after a time of waiting. But if you had rushed through it without reflection you might have missed the whole mystery of process. No easy way out.

Patricia Hickman writes tales of hearth, home, and havoc—wild and warm stories of faith. She blogs about road trips in bad cars at . Painted Dresses is probably coming out November 2007.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

JC: The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Fiction

Do you listen to your manuscript before sending it to a publisher?

James Michener did. Eight times. Imagine that. Here’s a man known for his King Kong-size novels, yet before sending a manuscript to his publisher he read it aloud, or had it read aloud to him, eight times. The very thought makes my lips ache.

Why would he do such a thing?

Back in the old days it was against the law to read silently. You could be burned at the stake for such a thing. I learned this little tidbit while researching my historical novel, Glimpses of Truth. (Not a shameful plug, because it’s out of print.)

What was the big deal? For a population largely illiterate, the idea that words could be passed from one person’s mind to another person’s mind without sound was considered witchcraft.

In a way, it is magical, isn’t it? The realization that I can project thoughts and images from my mind to readers around the world and beyond my own lifetime is one thing that attracted me to a writing career.

Today, we reward elementary school students when they progress to the point where they can read without moving their lips. And we associate having something read aloud to us with old age and senility. But I contend there is benefit to hearing your stories read aloud. Good writing sounds good.

During the writing of The Hiding Place, husband and wife team Elizabeth and John Sherrill could not agree on a style for the story. So they each wrote a couple of chapters and let their editor decide. (Poor editor. I often wonder how much marital counseling experience he had.)

While the two authors sat across the desk from him, the editor read one manuscript, then the other. He thought a while, then picked up John’s manuscript. He said, “This is great writing. Any publisher would be proud to publish this manuscript.” Then, he picked up Elizabeth’s pages and said, “But this manuscript sings!”

Why read your manuscript aloud? To see if it sings. It may be the difference between getting published and getting rejected. But there’s more to it than just getting published.

Not long ago a group of German physiologists did a study of Homer. (Not Simpson! Come on, stay with me here…) They were intrigued by the fact that ancient audiences would sit for three hours listening to a poem. What they discovered is fascinating.

They learned that the rhythm of Homer’s writing has a direct physical effect on an audience; that it synchronizes with the natural beat of the human heart, and that not only is an audience able to listen for hours at a time, but afterwards they actually feel refreshed.

Homer wrote in Greek, using a rhythm that has become known as heroic hexameter. The English equivalent is iambic pentameter, the stuff of Shakespeare and Milton, writers who also wrote long popular works that are still enjoyed today.

Try a little experiment. Take a simple nursery rhyme. Read it aloud and feel the lilting, calming effect of the rhyme. Now, alter the rhythm by rearranging the words. Same words. Different order. With the rhythm disjointed, the calming effect vanishes. The rhyme may still make sense, but it no longer sings.

Now, I’m not advocating that we turn our novels into epic poems, but at the same time, I think there’s something to be learned here. For example, if iambic pentameter has a calming effect on a reader, wouldn’t its opposite be a good way to write a heart attack scene? Is it possible to write the scene in such a way that the reader actually shares a simulated physical experience with the character—something that goes beyond sympathetic concern?

It’s a concept worth exploring, wouldn’t you agree?

Besides, wouldn’t it be nice to pick up the phone one day and hear an exuberant editor on the other end saying, “You know that manuscript you sent me? It sings!”

Jack Cavanaugh, the author of more than twenty novels, including Dear Enemy (Bethany House) and the supernatural thriller, Death Watch (Zondervan).

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

LCH: Loving the Labor

Those of us who write fiction have not taken the easy path. W. B. Yeats called writing, “The fascination of what’s difficult.” But then, we didn’t choose to write fiction, we were called to write fiction. For most of us, telling stories is cellular; it was there when we were “made in the secret place,” when we were “woven together in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:15). We do not decide to become storytellers one bright, sunny afternoon; storytelling was part of our being from the very beginning.

For me, the actual writing process itself is the reward. The intense research, the time spent on character development, the crafting of the story, and the fine-tuning of each sentence—that’s what makes my heart sing. Holding a finished book in our hands is wonderful, and receiving letters from readers can be very encouraging. But unless we enjoy the work itself, done in the solitude of our writing studios, we’ll be hard-pressed to finish one novel, let alone a series. As Katherine Mansfield said, “Once one has thought out a story nothing remains but the labour.” We gotta love the labor, the actual work of writing.

I remind myself that God has already written every story I’ll ever write: “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord” (Psalm 139:4). Our job is to listen for the Spirit’s leading through the process. I keep QuickVerse open in Windows so I can go to the Bible for encouragement or direction with the click of a mouse. If, as I’m writing, the characters don’t sound authentic to me, if I can’t hear them breathing, if I don’t taste their tears and feel their sorrow, then something is not right, and I start the scene over.

The hardest thing is throwing out those hard-earned sentences and paragraphs. I move them to a file called Save This, simply so I won’t feel the time and effort were wasted. Those words are still on my computer; they’re just not in my story. Every now and then I’ll realize that some piece of dialogue or turn of phrase that didn’t work in Chapter 5 is a perfect fit for Chapter 25. But most of those words never see the light of day. For the 135,000-word novel I just finished writing (Grace in Thine Eyes), there are 12,000 words of unused material sitting in Save This. I edited those words for the sake of the novel, but kept them for my sake. Henry Miller is right: “Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.”

God has placed in our hearts very particular stories that we alone can tell. Our labor of love is to sit down at our computers, take a deep breath, and write.

Liz Curtis Higgs, author of Thorn in My Heart

Monday, April 02, 2007

JK: To Move

To move, that’s what fiction is all about. As a young writer interested initially in poetry (wretched little poems is what I wrote) I never imagined other people would one day read my work. During my school years, teachers would often read my answers to tests out loud to the class and while that moved me (I was horrified to be singled out) I didn’t know if my words ever moved other students. When I became a mental health director some years later with writing as a career quite far from my mind, I found I could move people with my words. I’d write about problems in the mental health system and what we needed to correct them and receive calls from legislators or state administrators asking what they needed to do to keep me from sending those letters that made them sad and angry all at the same time. I’d moved them to notice and better yet, to actually make a call. Often, change would occur and I was grateful.

So making the leap to fiction shouldn’t have been so surprising, I guess. Someone once told me that if a writer can move people with an essay, then they can write fiction because fiction is about emotion; it’s about touching people; it’s about moving them in some way, hopefully in to action that might make a better world or even help someone make a personal change for the better.

I think that’s why I have such trouble with some of the films and some of the popular fiction today that seem to celebrate deaths of children, gory images that move a viewer to leave the theater perhaps; or worse, glorify death and destruction. I’ve given myself permission to leave those movies unfinished and to put down books that are going that direction for the same reason. As a writer, I want to move people but I want to move them toward compassion in a world of conflict. That doesn’t mean I’ll write about sweet things or people – life is full of conflict – but I want to leave the reader with a sense of hope and where to find it.

Jane Kirkpatrick