Wednesday, October 31, 2007

BJH: Hope in a Doubtful Age

In Reality and the Vision, Calvin Miller wrote an essay titled "Ray Bradbury: Hope in a Doubtful Age." He discussed some of the reasons Bradbury's works appealed to him and had deepened his understanding of "how to get along without the burdensome world at hand." In this same essay, he stated that optimism is "Bradbury's great gift to a despairing culture" (and to Miller personally).

That's an observation that resonated with me. I've always appreciated Bradbury's enthusiasm, his positive portrayals of goodness and hope. Many of his stories are written--or seem to be written--with a childlike faith that allows us to share his excitement and his optimism. There are times when I can almost sense him rubbing his hands together, his eyes sparkling with anticipation as he works.

I find that that's something I look for in my reading choices. In novels and short stories, I seem to gravitate toward the writers who don't leave me feeling hopeless or helpless but instead let me enter a fictive world that's made up of at least a few characters I can like and even cheer for, a world that offers hope instead of total, bleak despair, and a world in which no matter how difficult or challenging life may be, there's more to it than misery.

I'm not talking about obligatory happy endings. No one in today's world can be fooled into believing that "real life" will be free of trials and heartache, so why would we expect the arts, fiction included, to ignore the reality of suffering and sin, wretchedness and hopelessness? On the other hand, I don't believe that it's at all "realistic" to paint life as nothing more than a succession of meaningless disappointments and tragedies. Some would argue that the "literary fiction" of today is altogether void of the optimism of a Bradbury, but I read widely in both, and I'm convinced that you could make the same argument for much of our commercial fiction as well. It's a matter of searching out authors whose work doesn't deal in unmitigated despair, whether you prefer "category," mainstream, or literary.

John Gardner said that "in our pursuit of greater truth we have fallen to the persuasion that the cruellest, ugliest thing we can say is likely to be the truest. Real art has never been fooled by such nonsense: real art has internal checks against it. Real art creates myths a society can live by instead of die by, and clearly our society is in need of such myths." (On Moral Fiction)

That's why, like Calvin Miller, I appreciate writers like Ray Bradbury--writers acclaimed for their genius and their mastery of craft, writers who are thoroughly familiar with the classics as well as the literary achievements of today, writers who continue to reject mediocrity as they create stories that search for morality and spirituality, at the same time offering excellence--and hope.

BJ Hoff is the author of the Mountain Song Legacy, An Emerald Ballad, and An American Anthem.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

NH: Felt Life

I’ve just finished reviewing another pile of fiction manuscripts. Sadly, I had to reject most of them. A few, though, made the first cut, which means I will re-read them more closely and may ask one of my trusted colleagues here at Harvest House to offer a second opinion.

Of the manuscripts I rejected, some are actually quite good—but just not appropriate for Harvest House. Others were not so good—but not so bad either. Ten years ago we might have published them; but nowadays with fiction so competitive, we really have to be more selective in what we publish. Readers are (well, I hope anyway) becoming a bit choosier about the quality of the fiction they buy.

And then there is the third category of rejected manuscripts: those that are just not good at all. And if I could find one common denominator among these manuscripts, I would have to say they simply have no life. They are plots, they are stories, they are pages of a would-be author’s typing, they are perhaps many things—but they are dead on the page. Even so, sometimes when I read one of these manuscripts, I see promise. On these occasions I wish I had one of those machines Dr. Frankenstein invented where he could put a lifeless body under the zapper, push a button, and jolts of electricity would somehow impart life to the corpus.

However, as any good writer knows, giving life to a manuscript is not easy. In fact, I wonder if any writer really understands the process of giving life to words on a page. I’m quite sure there’s no step-by-step process. As Somerset Maugham said, “there are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

I do have a couple of hunches though. First, we know that different authors write their novels through a process that works for them and is often unique to them. Some outline their novel first, while others start with an idea and write their first draft in a stream of consciousness effort. Some authors rewrite as they go, others wait until they have a complete first draft, then go back and edit. Others can even skip around; working on chapter six one day and chapter sixteen the next. So I suspect that imparting life to a novel can be done in different ways too. I can well imagine the revise-as-you-go author requiring his or her muse to supply the necessary life as the writing occurs. The race-through-the-first-draft author may wait until the second or third go-round to call the muse into action.

A second hunch is that life in a novel comes more naturally to a character-driven novel. After all, “life” is in the characters, mostly. We say that a character leaps off the page, or is memorable long after the turn of the final page, or draws on our sympathy. We root for the character, because we believe he or she really exists in the way a character should exist in a novel.

The point that a character is sympathetic (mainly that we are sympathetic to the character’s plight) probably works best for me in defining what I mean by “life” in fiction. An author who simply has a good plot, but has no sympathetic character to carry out the plot is at a disadvantage, it seems to me. Creating a character with “life” surely comes about because the author has first known this character internally and felt the necessary sympathy long before the first word is typed on page one.

One of my recent novels to edit was The Battle for Vast Dominion by George Bryan Polivka. This concluding book in the three-volume Trophy Chase Trilogy is just as full of “life” as the first two volumes. After his final look at the galleys, Bryan told me he once again broke down reading the climactic scene (as did I when I edited it). Fortunately, Bryan had the requisite tissues at hand. Bryan once said that he began this trilogy at least a decade ago. All those years of living with lead character, Packer Throme, in the back of his mind, no doubt added to the emotional impact he felt at this critical scene in the final volume. No doubt his feeling it first, enabled him to write it in such a way that I, too, would feel it—and ultimately every reader as well.

Another author I edit, Roxanne Henke, wrote her third novel, Becoming Olivia, about depression. The main character, Olivia Marsden, is a Christian. She’s a mom and a wife. She’s also very, very real to the reader (who, by the way, first met Olivia in Roxy’s first book, After Anne). When Olivia’s depression becomes apparent in Becoming Olivia, the reader feels it full force. Not surprisingly, Roxy wrote Olivia’s experience out of her own battle with depression. It rings true. It has life. And Roxy’s many fan letters from readers who identified with Olivia are a testament to the life Roxy imparted to her protagonist during the writing.

So I have one final hunch about this topic. It’s that sometimes the grist in the mill for a “sense of felt-life” (a term author Henry James used to describe this fictional necessity) in our novels is the pain God allows us to experience ourselves. What we feel intensely as human beings can, if we’re authors, be transmitted to others through our fiction—fiction that is full of life.
Aha. There it is. Dr. Frankenstein’s invention for imparting life to the lifeless does exist. It’s what we call pain….or joy….or sadness….or anger. For the writer, our life experience—especially our emotional life experience creates in us the mechanism through which we impart life to our fiction.

So Mr. Maugham, I offer as rule number one: A good novel should impart life. And this life is imparted as we allow our own emotional history to bleed full red onto the page before us (and then wisely edited by a trusted editor!).

One rule down. Two more to discover.

Nick Harrison acquires and edits first-rate fiction for Harvest House.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

NH: Brooding

The other night my wife and I went out to dinner. After our meal, she announced that she wanted to go the nearby mall for about an hour. No problem for me. Right across the street from the mall is a very delightful Barnes & Noble. An hour in a bookstore is right up there with an hour-long massage. So off we went.

As is my custom, I headed first to the new books, envying the editors of some and thanking God I was not the editor of others. Next came the bargain books (and it was easy to see why some once promising frontlist titles were now “bargains”). Then I checked out the “staff favorites.” As usual, no one working at Barnes & Noble reads the type of books I enjoy (nor do any of them read Christian books, apparently). Then I wandered over to the Christian fiction section and turned all the Harvest House novels face out. I won’t tell you whose books I had to turn spine out in order to accomplish this. Then I took a few minutes to read the first few pages of our next book group selection to see if it’s going to be a good read. (It is). Finally, nearing the end of my hour, I made my way to the magazine racks. Among the writing magazines was the most recent copy of Paris Review. I’ve long admired their book-length collections of interviews with famous authors and skimmed through an interview in this issue with Norman Mailer. Not too far into the interview I had another one of those “aha” moments we writers get when we read something that rings true to our writing experience.

“I usually need a couple of weeks to warm up on a book,” Mailer said. He also said that sometimes he “broods” over his book before and during the writing.

I like that. He “broods.” If I were to name one common problem among much of the fiction I see in my role as an editor, it’s that the author has clearly not brooded long enough over the story either before beginning the book or as it was written.

Brooding, by the way, is not research. I know many novelists put in the necessary research before beginning their book….but I wonder how many put in the necessary brooding time. An unbrooded book is pretty easy to spot. Simply put, it has no life to it. It’s just a story—a lifeless story. Brooding imparts life into a story. Brooding allows an author time to get to know his or her characters. It also allows the writer time to get to know the story not as a set of events unfolding but as fictional history that the author and reader experience as reality.

How does brooding happen? Most authors will say that their books begin with just a single idea. Either a “what if” or a character who appears to them or some other small seed of a story. So the brooding starts when the seed is planted. Brooding continues as the seed idea is watered and given the sunshine of further imaginative thought so that it can grow into full bloom—sometimes (but not always) before the author even types page one.

Some women novelists compare this brooding time to carrying a baby. An expectant mother, no matter how eager, wouldn’t want to deliver her baby after only three, five, or even seven months. No, she wants that baby to wait until full term (even though the final weeks can seem endless), because when the baby is finally delivered, it’s far more likely to be a healthy baby than if delivered prematurely. So too with a book. A successful brooding period results in a healthier book.

What then does an author do while brooding? How does brooding happen? Does an author simply sit on one’s hands or play video games until the brooding process is complete? No, of course not. A good author knows that the time spent brooding brings results during the brooding process, in addition to after its finish.

For that reason, a notebook is indispensable during brooding; because, as an author broods, insight begins to somehow mysteriously happen—and sometimes at the most unexpected times and in the most inconvenient places. For some reason, this insight that comes during brooding will come at no other time in the creative process of writing a novel. Other valuable insights may come then, but not brooding insight. That’s why it’s important to capture this valuable insight while it’s fresh. Write it down the moment it occurs to you.

Brooding over the actual manuscript is encouraged too. Brood over the open document on your computer. Type snippets of dialogue that come to you. Revise scenes. If brooding is going well, your characters will speak to you during this time. Listen to them. They may suggest new motivations for their actions….or, if you’re brooding particularly well, one or more might even rebel against your predictable plot and reveal their true story, much to your surprise.

So don’t think of brooding as a passive time. A good writer’s mind is always active, always considering, always tinkering with the work at hand. Stephen King in On Writing refers to this as the “boys in the basement” doing their work.

One might think that this warm-up or “brooding” time becomes easier as a novelist progresses, but interestingly, Mailer says that these days (he’s in his 80’s and has been writing successfully for more than 50 years) his warm-up time for a new novel can take up to six months. Six months! That’s far longer than when he began writing all those decades ago. And I suspect if we were to ask Mr. Mailer, he would tell us that the brooding process cannot be hurried up….rushed. Just like a pregnancy.

Yes, there are successful writers who can churn out a book (maybe more than one) in less time than Mailer broods over his books, but as I read these novels I often wonder how much better they might have been had they been properly brooded over. And if you’re a beginning novelist, you may already know how hard it is to find a publishing home these days, simply because of the intense competition. If brooding will improve your fiction—and I believe it will—then it will give your novel a distinct advantage over the many unbrooded (and lifeless) novel manuscripts that come across editors’ desks.

As I set Paris Review back on the rack, my wife arrived to pick me up. She had a great time at the mall, she said. But I had a better time. I had been reminded of an important lesson about writing fiction. I also realized why I had failed so miserably two years ago during National Novel Writing Month ( when aspiring authors are encouraged to “write a novel in thirty days” I need at least that long to brood.

Don’t you?

Nick Harrison edits fiction at Harvest House Publishers . . . when he's not brooding.