Reformation Day

Today is Reformation Day, in honor of Martin Luther and the Reformation that resulted from his 95 Theses nailed to the church door in Wittenberg.

No, I will not be preaching sermons or dissecting doctrines.

Despite its flaws, I enjoy the film Luther, and think the filmmakers did a good job telescoping time and telling an epic story in only two hours. Catholics may not like the film so much, and even many Protestants aren’t happy with it, but I offer solely my opinion.

And one of my favorite songs by Wes King is “Martin Luther” (from The Robe, 1993):

VERSE:

On the eve of All Saints Day

The year was 1517

Absolution paved your way

A piece of silver set you free

One man stood from the rest

Was compelled to confess

CHORUS:

I’m gonna light me on fire

Flames of truth are burnin’ me

I’m gonna light me a fire

The world will come to see

The truth that’s changing me

VERSE:

The chapel ceiling’s austere

No man would dare question Rome

Superstition and fear

Woods filled with fairies and gnomes

The door of Wittenberg

The truth was finally heard      (chorus)

BRIDGE:

image from noiseofthunder.com

I cannot

I will not

Recant

I cannot

I will not

Recant

Here I stand

VERSE:

Five centuries have come and gone

His flame has not been forgotten

‘Cause today I sing his song

A Mighty Fortress is Our God

With growing certainty

This truth prevails in me      (chorus)

Some celebrate Halloween. I celebrate a transformed me.

Raising the Bar: Does Your Writing Sink or Soar?

Think your editor is unreasonable and demanding?

Think he hates you, your writing, every breath you take, and probably your grandmother, too?

Consider the situation from his point of view, and ask yourself, “Why should my work be read by the world?”

To help gain perspective, read this post over at Keanan Brand’s Adventures in Fiction blog: “The High Cost of Too Nice: An Editor’s Rant“.

As I see it, an editor’s job is not only to encourage writers, but to challenge them, to draw from them better and better work. It it isn’t to be so “nice” that they don’t feel the sting of failure, or that they never confront reality: “You’re good, kid, but you’re not there yet. Do it over.”

The cost of “too nice” is lazy, naive, or ill-equipped writers, as well as disappointed, annoyed readers whose online and word-of-mouth reviews will cost book sales. More importantly, readers will have little or no respect for authors who produce below-the-bar work.

And what of the publisher’s reputation? Or the editor’s?

Agree or disagree? Have a rant of your own? Post it here, or over at Keanan’s blog, and let the conversation commence!

Moments

A friend reminded me of a story snippet I wrote a few years ago, which sent me on a hunt for other old things among the stacks of yellowing paper. Sometimes, I read my old writing and cringe at its clumsiness or pomposity. Sometimes I smile, remembering the moment.

This poem is one of those moments: Driving home from work one clear night, I looked up to see a crisp sliver of moon, and thought with a laugh, “It looks like a needle.” The poem composed itself, but I had to keep repeating it until I arrived home and could write it down.

Seamstress

I turn my face up to the sky

and watch the slivered moon

hang upon a blue-black night

like the spindle of a loom.

If sky were cloth, and I were skilled,

and stars were buttons bright,

what a wond’rous garment we would yield,

and hem it up with light.

c. EE, year unknown

The next poem is not a moment but the culmination of years, an understanding friendship. This friend and I no longer speak, except through occasional “hi, how are you” messages sent via my mother whenever she happens to see him. Sometimes I wish I had honored the poem’s last line. But if friendship is valued, so should be the truth.

Secret

Turning the envelope in my hands,

staring into space,

I see things that are not there—

a beloved face,

brown eyes, the sunlit room where he stands,

laughing, watching me.

Will courage rise? Will I dare

hope to ever be

more than confidante or casual friend?

Phone calls and letters and inside jokes,

shared smiles, birthday cards,

minds so akin we forget the time,

conversation marred

by what remains unspoken—

a delicate dance

of reaching out, holding back, a mime

lest life send a lance

to pierce the bright dream and make it

end.

I seal the letter, write an address.

What is left unsaid

ensures friendship will endure,

its heart still unmet,

mute, a gift speaking more than a kiss

though less than the truth.

I will love and never tell.

c. 2006, EE

Journeys

urban meets rural, October 2012

I’m daring.

I take photos while driving.

Just point the camera ahead of me and shoot, hoping for the best. After all, there’s no way I’m holding it to my eye to frame the perfect shot. Most of the time, after sorting through them, I toss nearly all the photos.

Some of them, however, turn out well, such as these autumnal shots taken a couple evenings ago, one on the way to my first errand, and the other on the way home after my business was ended. The sky, while overcast, was interesting, and cast a different light as the evening progressed.

hazy evening, bright foliage            October 2012

Sometimes, I point the camera out the side window, but with far less useful results. Still, despite clutter and darkness, this shot shows the moody sky with a hint of light in the west:

cloudy sunset, October 2012

I wish I could document all my journeys. Remind myself where I’ve been, how far I’ve come. Remember there’s still a road, that this is not all there is.

Ohio farmland, September 2012

But that, I suppose, is what stories are for: They are signposts, maps, siren calls.

There’s a world to see. Pack light.

Expectations

Happens all the time: I expect one thing but get another.

I like simple things. Direct things. Pretty’s all right, too, but that’s subjective and can be a trap.

at the Crescent, 2011

The fireplace pictured here is, in reality, simple: a mass of bricks laid out in a plain pattern intended for functionality rather than form. But even functionality is questionable, because the heat from the fire doesn’t translate into the room. The friendly flames lead me to expect warmth, but, in the end, deliver only cheery light.

After the fireplace was built, ornate overlays were added, drawing the eye away from the original stolid, mundane appearance. It’s trying to be more than it is.

An aside: The circular decoration conjures the image of a pipe-smoking hobbit with his feet propped near the fire.

Ever read a book that’s trying to be more than it is? As if the author thinks he can distract us with the pretty-pretty lights so we’ll be too dazzled to realize how shallow it is?

I’ve watched movies like that — many in the superhero vein, but many based on bestselling or classic literature, as well — and left the theater with a sense of disappointment that I might not even be able to articulate in that moment. Hope had been deflated by something I could not quite name until later, when the dazzle had dimmed and reality could shine a sharper light.

Under a pseudonym, I write sprawling fantasy with deep history and mysterious characters. One thing that’s helped me create the world is to simplify the language in which it’s presented. The original version is heavy with complicated sentences and old-time wording. Now, drafts and drafts later, and with the second book almost complete, some of that remains, but more as flavor than as the whole meal. Readers of the early drafts had difficulty wading through all the verbiage to get to the story. They expected a compelling tale but encountered a murky mess.

I was so enamored of the trappings that I forgot to tell a story readers could understand. I forgot to make it simple.

There are books known for their parts: evocative settings, witty dialogue, realistic characters, exquisite detail, elegant turns of phrase. Some are known for their provocative subject matter, grand themes, epic scenes.

Done well, such books can envelope readers in a rich world of imagination, one which those readers are reluctant to leave.

But is there a quiet, simple book that speaks more than its gaudier neighbors on the shelf? Why?

Blue Zoo

There’s a new site for writers who need inspiration, encouragement, and training:
Blue Zoo Writers, formerly The Writer’s Handbook.

It’s conducted by Philip Martin, author of the excellent volumes,  How to Write Your Best Story (read a review here) and A Guide to Fantasy Literature, as well as proprietor of Crickhollow Books.

Martin is also an editor, speaker, and publisher, and can be contacted via Great Lakes Literary.

Writers can subscribe to receive blog updates via e-mail, and there are tips for young writers, as well as core advice for those of us who have been pursuing this craft for a while. Martin will be adding a list of resources as he continues to build the site (which is already chock-full of good stuff), and would likely welcome any input from other writers and editors as to books, groups, classes, etc., that might serve the writing community.

I met Martin several years ago at a writing conference, and enjoyed our conversations — but, of course, I’ll talk to any writer at any time about anything remotely related to writing! — so I encourage everyone to go on over and strike up a dialogue.

When Your Writing Isn’t Loved

What do we do when our work is denigrated in some way?

Do we believe enough in our own skill, in our own stories, to keep writing despite our detractors?

Recently, someone asked an editor I know to review his book which is slated for publication by the end of this year. Here’s their e-mail exchange, edited for brevity and to keep the conversation on-point:

Editor: “Gotta be honest: I’m having a hard time coming up with diplomatic feedback at this point, so I’m just going to be straight-up. As much as I was intrigued by the premise of the book, I don’t believe the novel itself is living up to its potential…Sorry to be so negative. I really want to like this book, but I can’t finish it. The reader side of me is disappointed, but the editor side is in agony.”

Author: “I apreciate your honesty. That is what I wanted…You are the first to give a completely negative or even mostly negative review. I asked for brutal honesty and that is what I am getting…I believe what you have said, yet it does not surprise me that Im still getting positive reviews. There are plenty of best selling authors who speaking from a literary point of view should not have passed 10th grade English. If my novel sells well I will likely fall into that category…

“The script writer for the TV show Grimm is one of the 12 reviewing the novel…I sent the novel off to alot of people before the publisher ever saw it including the guy who wrote all of the dialogue for the games: Middle Earth1, Middle Earth 2, and  Shadows of Mordor. He loved it and so did the other people. I would not have let it get this far if I had been told anything like this by any of the dozens of people who have already read it. I am sorry that you did not enjoy it.”

Editor: “I have no illusions about you being happy with my response…and I understand that it’s late in the process for any revisions to be made. I’m glad that you’ve received so many positive reviews. That’s always encouraging…

“Like you, I have no formal training. All mine is the result of simply being a writer for over thirty years. Despite other reviewers’ doctorates, television experience, video game expertise, etcetera, I have nearly two decades as an editor in this field, and can only speak as I find.

“I wish you well in your endeavors.”

What would you do if you were the author in this situation? Would you harbor resentment to the editor? Blow him off and listen only to the positive reviews? Or would you halt the presses and look once more at the manuscript?

Until last year, I belonged for several years to a small, productive writers group. We met more regularly than some of us wrote, but we were all pretty prolific, considering life intrusions and such.

A fellow writer almost physically flinched whenever it was my turn for the group to read/critique my pages. While praising me afterward, or outside of the critique session, this person squirmed in her chair, sighed loudly, and repeatedly declared, “But I don’t understand.”

It’s as if a mental roadblock was instantly constructed, and nothing I wrote would ever be clear enough for this particular reader.

Of course, in the interest of clarity and of doing my job as a storyteller, I would go back and check my sentence structure, setting, character details, dialogue, etcetera.

Turns out, it wasn’t the writing, but the genre, to which she objected.

Nothing fantasy or science fiction-y would ever penetrate her roadblock. This person was not interested and therefore refused to open the mind wide enough to allow for a story set anywhere but in the solid present. No other worlds. Just this one.

I could not trust that writer with my work. It would not receive proper criticism.

A friend has very nicely told me on a few occasions that many of my ideas have already been done. That’s almost more deflating than all the “I don’t understand” writer’s wincing and fidgeting! After all, when one’s imagination seems no more creative or original than coming up with stuff that’s already been done, what is left to the writer but the underlying, unspoken understanding that perhaps it’s best if he just stops writing, especially if he can’t contribute something new.

Another writer once told me this:

“I read somewhere that there only like 32 stories in the world and that all stories are simply the individual author’s spin on those 32 stories…I also read that Shakespeare never wrote an original story, that all his plays were based on pre-existing tales.

Truth is, it’s all been done. But the way you do it will be different than anyone else. And better than most.”

vck

What would you do? Would you keep writing?

Would you loudly defend your work? Or would you quietly close your notebook and put away your pen, and look around for some other outlet for your creativity?

My newest endeavors have yet to be seen by eyes other than mine; I learned long ago that a story shown too soon may succumb to exposure and die before being truly born. I may talk about it a little, but it will not be trotted out before the world until the story is able to stand on its own feet and face the critics with me.

Note for Women Writers Creating Male Characters

Early in 2011, while in my old truck and heading home from work, I was listening to David Jeremiah on the radio. He was conducting a study series on the Song of Solomon, and listed four things husbands need from wives:

1) cheerleading

2) companionship

3) comfort

4) a confidante

c. Keanan Brand

I’m not married now, nor have I ever been, but knowing what I do of men (my dad, brother, colleagues, friends), that struck me as a logical list, not just for understanding relationships but also for writing believable characters.

Can’t tell you how many times I’ve read “male” characters who behaved and spoke almost identically as their female counterparts. Almost all those men were written by women.

Note to my gender mates who also happen to write fiction: Men ain’t the same as women.

Pretty basic.

They don’t think the same, emote the same, behave the same, communicate the same. They may have the same

c. Keanan Brand

emotions, desires, and ideas, but may express them differently, or may take different paths to arrive at similar conclusions.

When in doubt, ask male friends or family members to read your work and allow them to give honest feedback. (My brother is one of my beta readers, and he tells the unvarnished truth.)

By considering your characters’ differences, you’ll make them more believable. You’ll know their goals or their logic, which will in turn lead to interesting tension, conflict, unexpected story events. Characters will start surprising you. As a result, your writing will improve, and your readers will thank you.

Querulous Questions

Ever feel as if you live your life having to explain yourself to everyone else?

Decisions, actions, speech, beliefs — it’s all up for criticism and debate.

Political aside: What gives anyone — especially government, colleagues, mere acquaintances — the right, authority, or need to know everything about us? Is there anything personal anymore in this Orwellian world of satellites, drones, CCTV?

When someone asks impertinent questions of you, is your first reaction, “This person cares about me”? Or do you mentally apply any of the following epithets: nosy, rude, gossipy, out of line?

If knowledge is power, the more someone knows about you, the more power he has. There are people who must be “in the know” about everyone and everything. We’ve probably all learned long ago to recognize the work-place gossips and trouble-stirrers.

Despite knowing exactly what’s going on, are you compelled to respond? To play the game?

Why do we cede power to these people?

And what makes nosiness versus privacy a Penworthy topic?

As writers, we walk tightropes, balancing realism with fantasy, dialogue with prose, showing with telling. Yes, there are times when telling is more useful than showing, especially when the story portion we’d show is boring or nonessential for character or plot.

Still, knowing we walk these tightropes where balance is essential, do we also feel compelled to explain everything? That leaves little room for the readers’ imagination. We’re responsible for answering the questions we pose — that’s only being fair to the audience — but doing the readers’ thinking for them results in boring books.

One of the joys of reading is an engaged mind. The best books might even be called brain candy or literary feasts. They’re tasty and filling and yet leave us wanting more.

As writers, we pose questions in our novels — what if? what’ll happen next? why? how? who? — and readers turn the pages, seeking answers to those questions. That’s our power as writers.

In writing and in life, which questions will you answer, and which will you leave wide open and mysterious?

Respect Your Audience

Go to any writers conference or seminar, and you’ll likely hear someone rhapsodize or rant about the relationship between an author and his editor: it’s a team, a marriage, a buddy film; it’s tug-of-war, dysfunctional, hell.

Once upon a time, I was part of the head-in-the-clouds, creative masses who float along on a fog of self-important naivete, thinking their words are sacred and immutable. Editing would somehow besmirch the purity of imagination and kill the muse.

So what if a writer had difficulty spelling, remembering the rules of grammar, or constructing cohesive paragraphs? As long as he could tell a compelling story, what was the problem? A good editor could fix all the small stuff.

But then, after resisting advice — those other writers just didn’t “get” me or my work, or those editors were trying to make over my manuscripts into soulless wastes of paper — I lost a series of contests, experienced unexpected rejections.

And then, as a reader, I was assaulted with a succession of poorly-proofed or poorly-edited novels — the literary version of a 2×4 upside the head — and I realized the value of craft over “pure creativity”.

In other words, I entered the real world.

Many books with stellar jacket copy don’t deliver the goods. I’ve been sucked into the vortex too many times to buy a volume without first reading several pages. After many years as an editor, any residual trust is gone. Used to be, if a book was published, the reader could expect that the text be error-free, at least, even if the plot was full of holes. Now, with the many desktop publishing programs available, and myriad electronic and self-published books flooding the market, the amount of error-filled and poorly-written material has greatly increased. (To find well-reviewed, recently self-published books, read this list.)

I’m not saying that traditional big-city publishing houses are the answer for writers seeking an outlet for their work. Independent presses and self-publishing are both excellent for authors desiring a measure of autonomy. Many classic or famous works of literature were self-published. (In your childhood, did you enjoy the Peter Rabbit stories by Beatrix Potter? The yarns of Mark Twain or adventure tales of Rudyard Kipling?)

I am saying that, in addition to telling great stories, writers need to study their craft and polish their editing skills. And, if editing is not a strength, hire an independent editor. Please. Hire an editor.

Or, if your manuscript is under contract with a publisher, don’t fight the editor assigned to you. Yes, there are times when a writer must defend his work against those who would mangle and deform it, but those instances are rare. Most editors want your work to succeed. Consider what they say. Look at your work objectively. Realize that the manuscript is malleable. It can be changed, often for the better.

Realize, too, that significant re-writing is in store. An editor may request additional scenes, additional research, stronger passages. However, the effort and polish conducted on the front end of the publishing process will not only yield better sales but a better reputation for you, the author.

Note from an avid reader (my mother) who would like writers to know the following:

I’m amazed by the number of college graduates and twenty-somethings that still don’t understand common language. Someone recently asked me what agony meant, and someone else didn’t recognize iniquity. As writers, know your verbiage and know your audience.

Don’t dumb it down to where we’ll say, “Duh! Of course! Anyone with common sense would know that!” or use such specific jargon that only those in high academia would know what you’re talking about. Just use everyday language, if that’s what the material warrants.

There is one author I will never read because she demeans her characters and thereby demeans her audience. Respect your characters. Another author I won’t read inserts page after page of inconsequential garbage — characters’ soliloquies — that does not move the story along. I would not read them, nor recommend them to others.

Word of mouth is still the best marketing tool there is. Respect your readers by producing quality work, and you’ll never lack an audience.