All posts by Penworthy Press

Penworthy Press is a collective of independent authors

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.

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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.

Facing the Sky review, part 2

I had intended to post this part of the review for Facing the Sky (also available on Amazon.com) a few weeks ago, shortly after reading the book, but life intervened, plans were changed or forgotten, and now it’s the beginning of October. Zoiks!  (Read part 1 here)

Rainee Grason’s story is told inside-out.

We meet her as a teenager, facing the sky, feeling God’s love in the warm rays of the sunset. We overhear her thoughts about her boyfriend, their relationship, the rape.

One line of copy from back cover states, “She realizes she does have a choice — she can walk away from the imprisoning walls of the unhealthy relationship, but how?”

As events play out, she says goodbye to Gideon and hello to Cole. About a third of the way through the book, however, after she and Cole are married, Rainee pushes the curtain even further back, all the way to her earliest childhood memories, and reveals what led up to the night she stood, sixteen and pregnant, facing the sky.

Teenagers and adults alike will identify with much in this true story, including the themes of worthlessness, hurt, shame, abuse, teen sexuality, awkwardness, fear, alcoholism, the desire for a better life.

This is an excellent book for mothers and daughters to read together and discuss. It reminds us that even the darkest night doesn’t last forever, we are worth more than we think, and God is waiting to lead us into the light of a new day.

NOTE: Fathers and sons can also benefit from this book, because it addresses — obliquely yet clearly — the importance of strong, kind fathers and husbands. It is in the embrace of Cole’s understanding and strength that Rainee is able to heal at last, after she is suddenly confronted by matters she thought long resolved. By reading her story, young men may also see the painful, tragic results of selfishness and pride: many girls used, even raped, their lives forever marked by Gideon’s sexual desires.

Rainee Grason is available for speaking engagements (youth groups, writing groups, churches, etc.), and can be contacted as follows:

c/o Precious Grace Publications

PO Box 340953

Beavercreek, OH 45434-0953

pgp@PreciousGracePub.com (in subject line: Attn Rainee)

(937) 429-2084

Audio and paperback versions of Facing the Sky are available:

$16 for paperbacks

$35 for 8-CD audio sets

(Price breaks are available for larger orders)

 

Taking Issue: A Lesser Writer?

The following quote is from today’s issue of Shelf Awareness, a daily e-digest regarding all things book:

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid: A Novel by Shani Boianjiu (Hogarth, $24, 9780307955951). “An utterly explosive debut, this novel in stories follows three young women who serve in the Israeli army, and it is not for the faint of heart. Boianjiu is not interested in preaching politics or rehashing battle scenes as a lesser writer might; she sticks to her characters, tracing their often uncertain progress toward adulthood. There are no pat endings here. The army, compulsory to Israeli citizens, is not, after all, some summer camp. No matter how you feel about the conflicts that Boianjiu describes, you will be riveted by her fresh perspective on them.” –Danielle DuBois Diamond, Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex.

What struck me, aside from the intriguing summary of the book, was the reviewer’s statement about “a lesser writer”.

It happens all the time: Given the same set of words in the same language, people often say — and mean — very different things. What the reviewer intended by “a lesser writer” might not be what I interpreted when I read it. However, I cannot read the reviewer’s intentions, only my reception of those words.

Here’s what they say to me: If one writes battle scenes or promotes an agenda, one is not a good writer.

I am all for leaving agendas at home and telling good stories instead. That’s not what we get, however, because we writers are human, and what we think, feel, believe bleeds into our work. That’s true of everyone, not just writers. Our actions speak what our mouths may not.

One writer might present his agenda in clumsy, heavy-handed verbiage, while another might be more subtle about it, but the “preaching politics” happens all the time, and much as I might disagree with much of those views, I have to give credit to good writing where I find it. Sometimes, that writing belongs to someone whose politics are entangled in a story I find intriguing. A lesser writer with opposing views will not keep me interested in his story, but a good writer may.

As for the other charge — that of writing battle scenes — I must vehemently disagree. Hand-to-hand combat, a sprawling battle , every kind of fight, is a challenge to write well. The author must keep the reader’s interest, must keep the scenes real, and yet not let the action become too play-by-play so that the reader’s eyes glaze over and his mind numbs. Excellent writing is required.

So, I am left to interpret the reviewer’s words as her personal preference. She simply does not wish to read about battles and politics. A preference, however, is not a fact. Therefore, her “lesser writers” may in fact have great skill, and tell fascinating stories. They should continue to do so.

Secrets, a review

I hadn’t planned on reading a romance novel this past weekend — I was feeling more of a science fiction vibe — but there are several historicals and modern romances in the stack of stuff I’ve promised to read and review, and Secrets has an interesting premise, so I dove right in.

And am I glad I did. Before this book, I’d never read anything by Kristen Heitzmann, but I certainly will in the future.

Excerpted from the book’s page on the Bethany House website:

The old villa needed what Rese Barrett could do as well as any man on the crew. Trained by the best, she had honed her skills with a passion for quality, an eye for detail, and no room for compromise. Renovation was her joy–taking something old and making it new without changing the heart if it. But this time the inn she restored was hers, and this time she worked alone….

Chef, musician, and spellbinder, Lance talked his way into her plans before she’d even made them and had Rese telling secrets she’d never before revealed.  He spoke of faith as if he could touch it, but how much more was left unsaid?

My daddy is a carpenter, and my brother and I worked for him at various times in our childhood and young adult years, doing anything from cleaning up nails and sawdust on new construction sites to painting the walls of historic homes, so I appreciated the renovation and woodworking aspects of this story. I could well identify with this passage from chapter two:

The whine grew to a pained wail that set her teeth on edge in a way it never had before. It passed with a breathy whiff of new maple, mingling brazenly with musty damp and age. Rese breathed the scent that had filled her lungs more comfortably than the purest air. She let go the trigger on the miter saw and examined the fresh cut on the section of molding, then approved it with her fingertips.

Maple, oak, and cherry had been her companions as long as she could remember. The plane had molded her palm; the chisel had developed her eye and fingers. She knew her way around any power tool on the market, had shot nails, routered trim, sanded and carved and finished every wood worth using. She’d also laid pipe and run wires, though it didn’t compare to working the wood. Nothing did.

Heitzmann, Kristen (2004-09-01). Secrets (The Michelli Family Series Book #1) (pp. 17-18). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.

It was even more interesting that the female lead is the carpenter, and the male lead is the cook, a nice juxtaposition of roles that fits well with the characters’ personalities. I enjoyed a few giggles at his frustration over her lack of reaction to his excellent cooking. There’s also a spritely elderly neighbor, Evvy, who gains amusement by watching the young folks next door work out their differences and solve the mysteries of their pasts even as they bring two old structures back to life.

They were no longer in sight, but she stood at the window drawing the inch of fresh air in with small, pathetic breaths. She still imagined herself a robust, mite-sized dynamo, in spite of the cane, the aches, the time it took to do any small thing. Young at heart was a cliché, and Lord knew, her heart was as old as the rest of her. Youth, however, was a matter of perspective.

It might truly be wasted on the young, as the saying went, who had too little experience to see clearly. Take the angst-ridden pair next door. Without perspective, it was easy to squabble over little things. All that energy, and so little temperance. Evvy chuckled. That was what made them so much fun.

Heitzmann, Kristen (2004-09-01). Secrets (The Michelli Family Series Book #1) (p. 52). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.

I enjoyed this many-layered novel peopled by interesting, believable characters. Lance’s and Evvy’s faith is strong, and they share it with the other characters, but not in a heavy-handed or preachy way. Nearly all the characters change and grow, even the minor ones I didn’t necessarily like. Heitzmann tackles tough topics — abuse, mental illness, organized crime, family relationships, forgiveness, trust, love, faith — but does so without the shallow melodrama I’ve come to expect from novels in this genre.

Another thing I appreciate is her grasp of the subjects she includes in the story. She either researched or had first-hand knowledge of carpentry, construction crews, mental health matters, Italian cooking, and more. I enjoy stories that are enriched by the author’s knowledge of setting, careers, skills, time period; deft handling of those elements helps me trust the author.

One thing I’d change if I could: the proofing. I’m an editor, so one thing that affects my enjoyment of a novel is the smoothness of the text. There were some unclarified pronouns (which “he” or “she” did the author intend?) in a couple places, and sometimes the actions of one character were paired with the dialogue of another, which made for hiccups in reading, pulling me out of the story while I detangled who was talking or what was happening. Some of the errors could have been formatting glitches in the e-book. Those instances are few, however, merely cosmetic flaws in an otherwise well-told tale.

Secrets was published in 2004, and is the first in The Michelli Family Series, followed by Unforgotten (2005),  and Echoes (2007). Read more about the author and her work at her website.

What’s My Motivation?

When I was a young writer — and I do mean young, as in elementary school and junior high — I had a difficult time understanding the advice from teachers and other writers that my stories needed more conflict in order to be interesting, and that my characters needed logical reasons for doing and saying what they did. They had to be real, not just dolls I arranged as I wished.

The difficult advice did soak in — finally. It took my reading a particular novel filled with serviceable but not artful writing, with an interesting premise that soon became flat, and peopled by characters the author pushed and prodded into roles that were awkward and not in keeping with who they were. There was a romance thread, for instance, that was painful to read, it was so forced and emotionally void.

I remember expressing my annoyance to my mother, who had read the book, too. We debated whether or not to read any more in the series, in hopes that the writer improved her craft between one book and the next, but decided we had better things to do and better books to read.

Decades later, I’m still learning how to write real emotion and believable characters. In addition to reading excellent work and striving to write it, I’ve learned much from editing the work of others. Sometimes, more than hearing or reading advice, we need to see it.

The aforementioned novel was in the forefront of my thoughts recently when I completed the second round of edits on a manuscript under contract for publication. The author can put together sentences and paragraphs, but her work suffers from the same ailments as that long-ago novel: illogical actions, skin-deep emotions, and redundant dialogue. I sent it back again with more notes, more challenges, hoping to pull excellence from a writer who has yet to break free of preconceived notions and let her characters act naturally, rather than pressing them into a tired, shallow mold.

A few years ago, I might have been kinder, gentler, in the editing. I didn’t feel I had the right or the knowledge to critique someone else’s art, especially that of an elder. Then one of those elders reminded me that we writers tend to elevate what we do to some level of squishy mysticism when it is, in reality, a craft. It must be practiced, honed, improved.

Not only did that statement help me to see my own work in a more pragmatic light, it helped me toughen mentally, and learn how to be straight-up with clients. My motivation changed from protecting myself to challenging fellow writers, from being merely a cheerleader to becoming a coach.

So, what’s my motivation?

As an editor, it’s helping fellow writers.

As a reader, it’s education or entertainment (and it’s great when they come in the same volume).

As a writer, it’s to — I hope — create stories that I can share with others. (It helps if I like to read my stories, too!)

If I motivate my characters, and allow them to act in keeping with their personalities, jobs, challenges, dreams, goals, abilities, obsessions, friendships, enmities, et cetera, my stories will come alive, and will be less likely to disappoint my readers.

Grammar Links and Other Writing Resources

Below are ten links to sites geared toward helping writers write well, and one site dedicated to helping writers publish, promote, and sell their work.

1) Grammar Girl: part of the Quick and Dirty Tips website that covers a host of topics.

2) The Grammar Curmudgeon: still-active website of the late Grumpy Grammarian; contains a wealth of information.

3) Merriam-Webster Online: free dictionary and thesaurus; an expanded subscription service is also available.

4) WhiteSmoke blog: WhiteSmoke is a software for folks who are learning English and need to write in that language, but there are some basic reminders for us native speakers.

5) Professor Malcolm Gibson’s Wonderful World of Editing: cartoons and humor and good advice.

6) Grammar-Quizzes.com: just what its name suggests; for teachers or independent learners.

7) The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: search the site or order the book. Excellent resource.

8) Every Writer’s Resource: links to articles, interviews, contests, magazines, etc.

9) Writer’s Resources: e-books, articles, software, and more.

10) BookBaby: one-stop shop for writers interested in self-publishing; includes free instructional e-books for download.

I’m always on the lookout for excellent resources, and am happy to share with others the ones I find. If you have any tips or materials that have helped you improve your writing craft, pass ’em on!

Facing the Sky book review, part 1

Last night, I met with an author and her husband (who also happens to be a writer, as well as an artist) to discuss her self-published book, Facing the Sky. She had wondered about trying to find a traditional publisher to reprint the book and gain a wider audience, but after reading her unconventionally-formatted but powerful true story, I realized she needs to retain control.

The book is her life story, centering on a specific time in her teens but drawing in her childhood and adulthood in a sometimes linear, sometimes flashback/flash-forward style that works well for the material. She is a Christian, so her faith is very much part of the story, but traditional Christian publishing houses would probably gut the book, redacting the harshest elements, weakening its power.

In fact, a local bookstore refuses to stock the book because of a particularly raw scene describing the author’s rape by her boyfriend in her early teens.

This disturbs me. Rape isn’t pretty. It happens, even to children. It damages the psyche and the spirit. But Rainee Grason’s story shows that redemption is possible — not only possible, but triumphant. Remove that ugly scene, and the power of the truth is lost.

I’ll be posting more about this book in the next few days, and will include ordering and contact information, for those who want to buy the book or request the author as a special speaker for an event.

Turning Down a Job

The contents of this post derive from a recent e-mail exchange with (at the time) a potential editing client. The premise of her novel is at direct odds with my beliefs. This is not the first time I’ve been approached to edit work opposed to my faith, politics, etc., and such a position is not a problem for editors who may have no strong stance on a particular topic. After all, a job’s a job, a check’s a check.

I’ve edited her comments to avoid giving away plot points, and I’ll provide no further commentary, but will let our messages do the talking.

Author:

My book is the redemption story of the first angel… . I’ve woven together many spiritual concepts from religions around the world and throughout history…In many cases, it seems the bad deity [Satan] is suffering from “first child syndrome”, thinking himself the most impressive and without equal. When the good deity [God] begins to care for or create humanity, the bad deity seems to throw a temper tantrum over not being quite so special anymore. It seems sad to me, as I believe if the deity would only look at himself a little differently, he would see that it is ok to share the parental attention.
…I do not know if this belongs in the premise, but the villain of the story is the archangel Gabriel.
…It really is a triumphant story. It’s about heartbreak, jealousy, and self-love, as well as forgiveness. I feel like this character–this sort of character–deserves a chance at forgiveness. Just about every single culture hates him!

Me:

When I was very young, preschool or kindergarten or thereabouts, I had a notion similar to yours: Satan’s bad, yes, but can’t he ever be redeemed? Took me a while to sort it out.

From your description of the book, you are not yourself an adherent of any particular religion, and so perhaps may not understand how or why people of faith will not welcome such a lenient perspective of Satan, or such a lowering perspective of God.

As a person of faith myself, my first thought on reading your description was a verse from the Bible: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter,” (Isaiah 5:20, NIV).

Therefore, I cannot in good conscience help — in any way — produce a book that is the antithesis of that for which I stand.

I hope you understand, and I wish you well in other writing endeavors.