“Phony Rules of Writing” is a brief, useful article about commands we should disregard. I have told many a writer to jettison these very rules and to do what the story / sentence/ paragraph requires rather than mimicking what their junior high English teacher taught from the textbook.
One shudders to recall those stilted, bloated, “perfect” essays with the introductory sentence, three-to-five main points, and the closing restatement of the paragraphs above it. And that restatement better not be boring! Nosirree. It had to be creative, original, dazzling, all while repeating what the reader already read.
When novelists try to apply that same structure to fiction, oy vey.
On social media, a fellow writer and fellow Christian posted regarding the weird zone a pastor must walk between complete honesty and diplomatic reticence, lest his congregants be offended by truth and kick him out, and how the same weirdness exists in the Christian publishing industry: Can’t offend the readers, so let’s publish this not-quite-truthful fiction because it’s “clean” and it’ll keep us in business.
Below is a comment I almost posted in response:
The lack of complete honesty is one reason I stopped working for a Christian publisher: I quickly learned editors were expected to praise, not to correct. After all, praise was encouraging, but correction was negative and mean. It was okay to fix commas, but not to suggest deep revisions. It was okay to talk to a young writer about his/her first novel, but it wasn’t okay to tell them they need to do much more research about characters / history / health matters with folks who were experts in their fields.
I started holding back and doing the diplomatic thing. After all, maybe I was too intense. Maybe I was too demanding. And, after a time of introspection and second-guessing, I admitted there were a couple of instances when I coulda said something a bit more diplomatically, but I also admitted that I had never not told the truth.
“Encouragement” and “praise” aren’t synonymous.
Encouragement, as seen from the word’s construction, means “to put courage into” someone, and (according to Merriam-Webster Online) “to make (someone) more likely to do something” or “to tell or advise (someone) to do something.” (Sounds like editing, to me.) Praise means “to express approval” — and in today’s language that also means accepting without question or revision the thing or the person being praised.
An editor can praise a writer’s creativity without accepting that the manuscript is publish-ready. Praise for storytelling does not equal acceptance of clunky dialogue or run-on descriptive passages.
All writers need to be willing to receive feedback that isn’t blanket approval. Otherwise, they may never see weaknesses in their writing or their stories. They may never understand what works already or what needs improvement. They may never understand why their books aren’t selling.
In other words, unless they are willing to learn, they will never grow in their craft.
There’s another reason writers need completely honest feedback. If they only receive praise but never encounter negative responses, they will never look at their own work critically and contend for it.
What does that mean?
If a writer must provide a reason for a line of dialogue, for a plot element, for a character, for a descriptive passage, he begins to think deeply about how the story fits together, about what’s necessary and what needs to be pruned. He begins to think like an editor.
That perspective, coupled with the fact that the author is the creator of the story, has great power in determining the quality of the final product.
They’d have to be oblivious not to know. It’s an almost constant ingredient in my conversation. (Yes, I am that boring.) I love writing. It’s “the hardest work I’ll ever love”, and I dare say this love of words and stories is a calling.
It has given me work and has enabled me to help and encourage other writers, whether they be students writing only to finish assignments or aspiring writers seeking to be published. It has frustrated me, too, and the arduous process has taught me to let go of perfectionism and to persevere.
Perfectionism is rooted in fear and pride, and it prevents progress. It is one reason I chose a pseudonym: If people didn’t like my writing, I could hide behind another name.
However, there were other equal or greater reasons for choosing a pen name many years ago:
1) minor stalking from a few creepy guys when I was younger and better looking (alas, alack, time has taken its toll);
2) identity theft (a close family member was impinged upon by someone with a criminal history who married into the family, and then my information became linked to that person);
3) my real name doesn’t fit well with the types of stories I tell (“Elizabeth Easter” sounds like a romance writer, and while there are sometimes love stories in my work, I mostly write fantasy and science fiction); and
4) a desire to keep my editing work separate from my writing, and some writers — offended by the editing of their manuscripts — have called into question my abilities. I didn’t praise them as they wished, I made suggestions they viewed as insults, or perhaps I told them large portions would have to be rewritten. Therefore, rather than examine their own work, they attacked mine.
It is this behavior, among others, that led me to resigning from a publishing house and to shuttering the freelance editing business. Online creepers and offended authors weighed my spirit, and outweighed the many times writers had been encouraged and grateful for my help. I needed to step back and gain a clearer perspective.
An aside: If we live our lives offended, and if we make decisions out of that offense or we expect other people to tiptoe around us lest they offend, we are shackling not only ourselves but everyone else.
I have been edited by too-lenient teachers and by snarky, overbearing fellow writers. Good editing is a delicate balance: telling the absolute truth while still being kind and encouraging. As an editor, I strive for that balance, but have not always succeeded. As a writer, I also struggle to receive less-than-kind feedback and apply it objectively.
Another struggle: Should I reveal my true identity?
Another reason for choosing a pseudonym — and a masculine one, at that — was to practice writing male characters. Despite the push of political correctness, science confirms that men and women think differently. No secret there. However, after much experience editing romance novels, I became weary of the heroes mirroring the heroines: men who spoke, emoted, and behaved like women.
Also, a male reader’s feedback on an early, rough, uncompleted draft of my novel revealed that my male characters spoke and thought too much like the female characters. The feedback was not delivered with any thought to my feelings, but it was honest, and I respected that.
I needed practice. I chose a masculine pen name, started a blog, wrote a short story and a science fiction serial, and joined social media. Although I am a heterosexual woman, I found it comfortable, easy, and freeing to write as a man. As him, I could say things that Elizabeth couldn’t, and I was heard. The people with whom I engaged in conversation online where mostly men, and we could express ourselves without the clutter of delicate emotions. There was respect and honesty that wasn’t commonly present in conversations with fellow female writers. And, until I revealed the truth to a select few, people seemed to accept without question that “Keanan Brand” was a man.
The advertising, spam, and inappropriate invitations have accentuated that notion. There are spam-bots and actual women who have sent indecent proposals. Oy vey.
Yet another reason for choosing a pseudonym: to test my storytelling abilities without the impediment of my soft-sounding real name. The results have been mixed. Female readers have not liked the battle scenes, the violence, and the lack of erotic scenes, while the guys have wanted even more action and less poetry. However, some men have responded well to the emotional elements — not only the love stories, but also the scene where one character contemplates suicide, and there are strong friendships and family bonds — and some women have said they liked the action and thought the story was suspenseful. They did not seem influenced by the author name, but male readers seemed more inclined to my story when it came appended with a masculine pen name.
The truth will out.
There have been times when Elizabeth crept to the forefront of Keanan’s posts, and a couple times Elizabeth signed Keanan’s e-mail.
Writers whom I respect and like, and what started as a casual crossing of paths online have, in many cases, turned into friendships. Those friends deserve the truth — though I will understand if they do not remain friends after having been deceived by my online persona.
Regardless of the consequences, the time has come to confess the truth. Keanan Brand is really a woman, and Elizabeth Easter wrote this book:
In response to a request for suggested topics to be included in a book, a conversation thread started in a group on Facebook as writers and editors weighed in with advice about the author/editor working relationship.
KB: “Patience, grasshopper!” Many writers I’ve worked with are first-time authors, and they’re unfamiliar with the process, the back-and-forth of revising, of how long that process can be and how many times a book may need to be proofed, edited for content, re-read from the beginning, etc. They don’t set the book aside for a time and gain a new perspective before working on it again. Rather, no matter my advice or encouragement to wait and do the hard work, they become frustrated and anxious, and often send off their book to publishers or they self-publish long before their work is ready.
EAP: When working with a publisher’s editor, first thing the author should determine (and this is mostly based on feeling) whether the editor/publisher is receptive to ANY form of author’s input and/or objections. If not — well, there’s only two choices for the author: withdraw you book (often not possible) or go with everything the editor wants. If the author feels strongly he/she will not be able to work with the editor, he/she can ask the publisher for book-contract cancellation…
If, however, you are assigned an editor who is ‘willing’ to discuss your (author’s) objections, then you need to choose – and choose wisely here I say – which things you’re going to quibble over… Pick your battles…Then make a case for why you want to keep what the editor wants you to change or delete.
While most of the editors profess to be working from the Chicago Manual of Style nothing could be further from truth. I’ve yet to meet two editors who agree on placement of commas. So, whatever small punctuation changes the editor wants, go with it… After all is said and done, do the professional thing and thank the editor for all his/her hard work and then do some soul-searching. Do you want to remain with this publisher or find another one or go solo? It’s actually a good place to be.
KB: When I was an editor with a publisher, I was the tough guy who had to tell authors to make significant changes — not because I was trying to make over their work in my image, not because their work was terrible, but because they were writing historical fiction and therefore needed to be true to the eras. One concerned the settling of the American West, and was crammed full of cliched characters and events that were more Hollywood than history. The other book was set in Israel during the occupation by the Roman Empire, and the author tried to turn Herod into a more personable guy than he really was.
So good editors will tell their authors the hard truths, even if those authors cry to me on the phone and later complain to the publisher, as the above two authors did. The first author backed out of her contract, because — in her words — her book was perfect as it was. The second author was going through other stresses in her life that added to her resistance to change, and she cried often, but she eventually made the changes because (I hope) she saw that I had only her best in mind.
I wanted more from these authors than they were willing to give. That, I think, is often a source of contention. The author’s vision (what he thinks he’s written) can be radically different from what the editor actually sees on the page. Therefore, in the author’s mind, the editor is just obtuse and irrational, and in the editor’s mind, the author needs to knuckle down and get it right. Somewhere between them, they can hammer out a pretty darn good novel.
PEH: The manuscript is like the author’s child, and the editor is like a teacher. The same way a teacher improves upon a student by giving him or her knowledge is how an editor works with the manuscript. The teacher is just making that student better.
Questions, suggestions, advice? Continue the conversation in the comments below!
I’ve been missing in action, out of touch with much of the rest of my life, rarely leaving the house but wandering it when I wasn’t occupying a corner of it, head down, writing a short story for a contest.
Yes. I abandoned everything else for a contest. And what a frustrating, enlightening, depressing, wonderful, horrible, encouraging few weeks these have been.
Writing a short story within determined parameters — word count, genre, deadline, etc. — can seem daunting or constrictive, but I like the challenge. It forces me to write differently than I do for a novel or for my own pleasure. On my own, I can take my time, let the story unravel as it wills, at its own pace and down whatever rabbit trails it wishes to explore. Those, after all, can be revised later, and there’s no rush. For a contest, however, there’s a set time and a set limit, and I must create something that plays well inside that fence.
This short story was harder to write than the two novels I’m currently revising or completing. There were times in the past four or five weeks when I thought, “It’s just a contest. It doesn’t mean anything. Why work so hard when there are other projects that need tending? This is a waste of time.”
But I couldn’t stop.
It’s an illness.
It’s aqua vitae.
For non-writers, let me explain writing.
It isn’t glamorous. There are no beach chairs and mojitos involved. There is a lot of hard work and head-desking and pleas for help from passing family members who really don’t know how to solve the plot hole, they’re just on their way to the kitchen, thankyouverymuch.
It isn’t all inspiration and grand eloquence. There is a whole lotta literary crap thrown down that must then be turned over and worked into the soil of verbiage until words come alive and a story grows. And then the branches must be tended, trimmed, shaped. That’s called editing. The shrubbery doesn’t need to take over the yard or overshadow the trees. It needs to be its own thing, and thats what revision/editing achieves. Writing is an ugly business — until it’s beautiful.
It isn’t holding a quill pen and gazing soulfully at the sky, although you’re free to do that if it helps. There is a lot of gazing at the sky, though, or at any nearby object or activity that has nothing to do with one’s story. Sometimes, one stares at strangers in airports without realizing one’s mind is centuries in the past while one’s blank stare is pinioning a hapless fellow traveler.
It isn’t neatly packaged in a daily routine. It is often elusive. If I stare at the computer screen or the blank notebook page for too long without writing, something must change. Words or ideas must sometimes be approached at an oblique angle, as if I were catching rabbits, so I do something to set them at ease – play solitaire, watch a TV show, read a book, take a walk, do laundry, take photos at the park, do research — and let the literary rabbits nibble grass or go about their business until they wander into my snare. Or within pouncing distance. (Sometimes I’m the crafty hunter, sometimes I’m his dopey, eager dog.)
It isn’tjust writing what you know. It is researching to learn something you didn’t know, and then writing about it. Writing can feel a lot like perpetual homework. I’m doing now the kind of work I avoided in school. How weird is that? But research can lead to unexpected discoveries, friendships, trips, and new stories. I did more research for the short story than I’ve done for the most recent novel, and in the process learned a lot about Japanese history and how apple trees were introduced to the country. Boring? Trivial? To some. For me, however, it flung wide the doors of imagination.
It isn’t all book signings, seminar speeches, televised interviews, or drinking coffee while looking hip at the local diner. It is being unafraid to call oneself a writer, being dedicated to one’s craft, and passing one’s wisdom to the next crop of writers.
Now that the short story has been sent to the contest, I’ve turned toward proofing a galley for another writer, and then I’ll be revising a novel, learning about e-book formatting, and maybe reviewing a few more books. Because, y’know, homework.
In Part 1 of “Telling Our Stories”, an adaptation of a presentation given to a female group of non-writers, I discussed editing, faith, and how and why God is a storyteller. In this half, I discuss why we need to tell our stories, and then I’ll share a bit of my own.
My favorite Bible stories teach and encourage me:
Mary, the mother of Jesus
Elizabeth, her wise cousin
David and Goliath
Elijah and Elisha
the Acts of the Apostles
and many, many more.
Jesus told parables involving women (the lost coin, the ten virgins), and there are several stories in the Gospels of His interaction with women:
woman taken in adultery
woman at the well
woman with the issue of blood
Mary at the wedding in Cana
the Syro-Phoenician woman
the women among His followers
The Old Testament is also full of strong female role-models: Esther and Ruth, of course, as well as Deborah the judge and Rahab who—even though she was a prostitute—came to trust God and was an ancestor of Jesus. The stories of Abigail and other women not only captured my imagination, but planted truths in my soul that helped me grow in my faith, even as a child.
God invites us to be storytellers.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
Whom He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy
Psalm 107:2 (NKJV)
Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe
Psalm 107:2 (NIV)
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. Deuteronomy 6:4-6 (NKJV)
But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:14-15 (NKJV)
So, why don’t we share our stories?
Pride? Fear? Distrust?
Perhaps we think people will judge us or won’t care.
Maybe we don’t know that our stories matter.
Maybe our stories are difficult—not just difficult to hear, but difficult to tell.
If so, here’s a secret:
Stories are only interesting if something bad happens.
If the hero never faces a challenge, never has an obstacle to overcome or an enemy to defeat, what’s the point? If Goliath was a wimpy little fella, why tell the story?
If it were a movie, people would fall asleep in the theater. If a book, it would never be read.
I’m not saying we should be happy when trouble enters our lives, but we can recognize it for what it is: another twist in the plot, another event in the story of our lives.
We’ll tell others about it later—how we faced down death, came back from the brink of financial disaster, survived homelessness or alcoholism or physical abuse. Stories are bridges between hopelessness and purpose, failure and perseverance, darkness and light.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Romans 5:1-5 (NKJV)
THAT’s why we tell our story.
I always wanted to be brave, but knew I was a coward.
I loved to read stories of heroes from history, heroes of the faith, everyday people who were strong and stood for what was right.
However, I wouldn’t tell the truth when I should, out of fear of the consequences.
In childhood and even into my twenties, I attended churches with intensely evangelistic environments that could be compared to high-pressure sales: no one was getting away without hearing our pitch.
I hid from that by—ironically enough—carrying my Bible on top of all my schoolbooks, hoping other kids would ask me about it without me having to approach them first.
I’d stand up for my friends, but mock my faith, my overweight appearance, my bookish ways, and I’d back down and hide.
At age four, a huge fear entered my life, and with it came nightmares.
In the early 70s, my cousin DJ and I witnessed a fatal accident while playing in our grandparents’ front yard. We’d wanted to play in the ditch, but the grownups wouldn’t let us because 1) it was muddy, and 2) it was outside the fence.
We heard a screeching crash, and looked up to see what looked like one car with two back ends. A drunk driver in a Thunderbird had rounded the corner and veered into the inside lane, crashing head-on into a family’s station wagon.
He was thrown into a blackberry bramble on the far side of the road, and survived with only scratches and a broken collar bone. As I recall, only the father and one child survived in the station wagon.
In the confusion to help the victims, someone handed me a blanket, and I did what everyone else was doing, and toddled out to the ditch so I could give one of the rescuers a blanket. Recall, I was only four, and this was before the days of 911 and rescue vehicles being coordinated in their response times.
I reached the ditch, and saw my father straddling a body with no face. Whenever he would push down on the chest, air bubbles formed in the blood where the face should have been. I held out the blanket. He reached for it, and then he realized who was standing there. He yelled at me to get away, and I thought he was angry with me. Only later did I understand he was trying to protect me.
From that day onward, I had a fear of accidents, of wearing my seatbelt or not wearing it, of being cut by glass or being thrown out the window or hitting face-first against the seat in front of me. Riding in cars was stressful for a good long while.
Much later, in late teens and early twenties, I lived in a long dark tunnel of depression. The first time, I was suicidal. The second depression was shorter, I recognized it for what it was, and came out of it stronger than before.
I’ve survived automobile accidents, workplace bullies, foolish choices, church gossip, and even my own family.
Shortly before my twelfth birthday, my maternal grandfather and my uncle resorted to violence to settle a problem so minor it could have been resolved with a conversation. It didn’t even bear mentioning.
And yet they held a knife to my eight-year-old brother’s throat, and guns to our heads.
They threatened to kill our parents if anyone came to get us. They disowned my mother, and said many other things best forgotten. Peace I cannot describe came over me, and I knew God was in charge. We were going to come out of there alive.
There’s more to that story, but I’ll tell you later.
In my twenties, a suicidal woman named Carol pointed a gun at me and my friend, intending to kill us and then herself. I didn’t move, didn’t speak, but just continued leaning against the window A/C unit and sent up a silent prayer. I didn’t know what else to do. Again, I was strangely calm in that moment. I was ready to die.
Carol put down her gun and wept. Many nights later, she was drunk and met me in the church parking lot, but wouldn’t look me in the eyes. She said the reason she couldn’t pull the trigger the first night, and why she couldn’t look at me now, was because of the person she saw with me, the person looking out of my eyes. Not me. Someone else was looking at her. She wanted the love she saw, but felt unworthy of it. Could I help her?
In my thirties, I hit an icy patch on the road and rolled my truck. The man who helped me get out expected to find a dead body. Instead, I blacked out only briefly. Although I had a concussion and strained muscles, I was cognizant and fully able to move.
When I look back on the events of my life—the miracles, the healings, the long troubles that seemed never to end—I can see the story God has been telling.
But only when I look back. It’s hard in the moment to see the story.
Stories are powerful.
They convey truth often better than a lecture, an advice column, or even a sermon.
And how are sermons illustrated? By scriptures and by stories.
Jesus used stories to point to the kingdom of heaven, to show people how to live, to show how much God loves us. However, to do so, He also showed us ourselves in our imperfections. In the parables of Jesus, people make mistakes or wrong decisions:
a rebellious son squanders his inheritance
a man forgiven his debt refuses to forgive someone else
bridesmaids arrive unprepared
wedding guests refuse to accept a generous invitation
For centuries, histories were kept alive by storytelling. Now we write history in books.
Strong stories often contain Biblical truths or concepts,
although they may not outright preach them.
I reiterate, stories are powerful.
People who might never pick up a Bible will pick up a novel.
Stories can reveal truth in ways that will capture the minds and hearts of readers who otherwise might never come into a church to hear the sermons.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not [overcome] it. John 1:4-5 (NKJV)
Stories spark the imagination.
They ask questions and rouse curiosity. They engage the mind.
Remember the disciples asking Jesus what His parables meant? The disciples were interacting with the stories. They were engaged.
Stories are why novels, role-playing games, stage plays, television shows, and movies are so influential in our culture.
To further answer the question, “Why stories?” read Dan Allender’s excellent book, To Be Told. In it, he shows how God uses our stories to guide, heal, and direct us, and to help us minster to others.
Remember when I said there was more to the story involving my grandparents and my uncle?
The police took my brother and me away from the house in the wee hours of the morning. The grownups said everything was my fault.
My parents considered pressing charges, or at least getting a restraining order, but because of what my grandparents and uncle told the police, I was afraid they would lie in court. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. I just wanted everything to quiet down and be normal again.
About a year or so later, my grandparents announced that my grandfather’s heart was failing, and begged to come see us. I tried to be cool about it, but I couldn’t wait for them to leave.
A couple years after that, near Thanksgiving, my grandfather died. Mom mourned him, but I couldn’t understand. Yeah, he was her father, but he’d been abusive to her, and he’d tried to kill me and my brother. I was relieved he was dead.
This August, nearly thirty years later, Mom and I traveled out west to see my grandmother and uncle. I didn’t want to, but I knew it mattered to Mom, and we’d had a trip to the West Coast planned for several years.
I’d forgiven my grandmother and uncle a long, long time ago. Yet, rather than accept the responsibility for their actions, they continued to blame me.
But when we walked into the rehab center, Grandma was sitting in her wheelchair near the door, and the first thing she said to me, tears running down her face, was “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” No blame, no lies, just repentance.
Life is messy.
It’s also full of blessing.
Life is hard, but God is good.
And that’s my story.
Think about the word destroy. Do you know what it is? De-story. Destroy. Destory. You see. And restore. That’s re-story. Do you know that only two things have been proven to help survivors of the Holocaust? Massage is one. Telling their story is another. Being touched and touching. Telling your story is touching. It sets you free. ― Francesca Lia Block
I know the truth of these words. Oh, the stories I could tell! And you—what is your story?
Our stories must be told. Not necessarily the fiction, the things we imagine, but the truth, the things that happened to us, the things we did.
Below is the first in a series of blog posts addressing the need to tell those stories. It was originally conceived as a presentation to a group of non-writers, then was abridged as a talk to a small Bible study group.
Although I originally addressed Christians, much of the material applies to fellow writers and to people in all walks of life, especially those who have dealt with tragedies, abuses, things they can’t find the words or even the will to reveal to others. Perhaps something written here will inspire them to open their mouths or take up their pens and tell their stories.
Since we came to know Christ, storytelling has been—or should be—a natural part of our lives. When we minister to others, when we give an answer for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15-16), we have opportunity to tell our stories of what God has done for us.
I’ll begin by discussing my work as an editor, segue into the importance of storytelling in the Bible, and then how we are storytellers in our everyday lives.
As an editor, my job is to help authors shape and correct their work.
It’s not my job to write the story for them, but to help them present their best work.
Whether they’re freelance clients or authors under contract with a publisher, the most difficult writers to work with are those who don’t see their need for change. They don’t think they need to improve anything. They’ve fallen into the trap of pride.
They just want someone to tell them how good they are, to approve of whatever they write, and to require nothing else from them—not revising, no researching, nothing but collecting the royalty checks.
Problem is, if there’s not a quality product for sale, then those royalty checks will be rather thin.
We’re all imperfect humans. We all have room for improvement.
Even editors are not infallible or all-powerful. There comes a point when I have to step back and let the writer have his way. After all, it’s not my story. I’ll lead, I’ll guide, but I won’t write the book.
My favorite writers to work with are those who are humble and teachable. They don’t have false humility, an insidious form of pride. They know they have a good story. They know they can write, but they’re always striving to be better, to improve their craft.
They want to present their best work to the world. If they’re Christians, they also want to glorify God above all else.
Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God
I Corinthians 10:31 (KJV)
Before I can begin editing a manuscript, there must first be words on the page.
Sometimes, writers can’t create because they’re too concerned with perfection. The story doesn’t arrive fully formed, with the characters alive, the sentences in the correct order, the words flowing with a beautiful cadence—and so the writer stalls.
The process isn’t neat and orderly. It’s messy and requires hard work. Therefore, the writer is blocked. He can’t move forward. He spends his time perfecting the words he’s already written, polishing them until they shine, but he writes little or nothing new.
How many of us are like that writer?
How many of us aren’t really living forward? We spend our time looking backward at the past. We play the what-if game, the if-only game, but don’t expand our horizons or accept new challenges, because doing so is hard—especially when we fail.
Some view failure as the end. Some view it as only the beginning—a lesson learned on the way to a greater goal.
Some writers lose contest after contest before they win anything. Some send out manuscripts over and over only to be rejected time and time again before someone sees the potential in the story and publishes it. Those writers never give up despite failure. They have a greater goal in mind, and they are perfecting their writing each time they write a new story or revise an old one.
Do we defeat ourselves before we even begin?
How can God shape our stories when we give Him so little to work with?
Take movies, for example.
The version we see in theaters is the theatrical release.
Some movies have another version—the director’s cut.
The director’s vision for the film may differ greatly from what is seen in theaters. It may have more scenes or even alternate scenes, and contain details that expand or enhance the story. Therefore, it is usually longer than the theatrical release.
In our everyday lives, how many of us only want the theatrical release?
We want to skip to the good parts, the interesting and action-packed parts, and forget the rest—the boring everyday stuff, the sad or tragic scenes?
But life is the director’s cut, and we have to live every moment of it.
God is a storyteller.
The first book every printed on a press, His has outsold all others.
The Bible is full of stories. Jesus used them to illustrate the Gospel. Recall this phrase: “The kingdom of heaven is like…”? It precedes several of His parables, a sacred “once upon a time”.
Why did He tell these stories?
That We May Believe
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
John 20:30-31 (New King James Version)
And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.
John 21:25 (NKJV)
It’s an epic, never-ending battle between mind and emotions: Who cares? Who’s gonna read this? Is it a story worth telling? Well, dagnabbit, I’m a wordsmith; of course it’s good! No, no, it’s utter garbage.
Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve written — none or dozens.
Doesn’t matter how many reviews you’ve gained — none or hundreds.
Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve sold — none or millions.
It’s all about the book in front of you.
What I’m about to write may seem to contradict what I wrote in Mentors v. Gatekeepers, which is about finding mentors to teach us, and breaking free of the gatekeepers who might try to keep our stories from reaching the world.
However, as much as I am a dreamer, I’m also a realist. No writer is perfect. We all need an objective eye. That perspective can come from a critique partner, a writers group, an agent, an editor. We need that honest person who’ll say, “I understand you’re trying to make us feel the wind, but this sentence crashes to ground.”
We might, on occasion, pen a short story or a poem that needs minimal revising, or none. Sometimes we’ll write a scene or a chapter that is barely edited, if it’s edited at all, because it’s good from the beginning. However, those rare glimpses of perfection should not be mistaken for signs that we have nothing more to learn.
Sure, you could kick back and rest on the smug knowledge that you have written, and written well.
But all that falls away in the presence of the book you’re writing now.
This book, right now.
Will you dash it off, not spending the same time and care as you might have done when you were green and uncertain? When you were hungry?
Or will you be even more precise with your choices, your efforts, knowing that you owe your readers your best, although readers owe you nothing?
Until recently, I edited manuscripts for a publisher. It was challenging and educational, and far less glamorous and lucrative than some might expect. Many manuscripts should never have been given contracts, because either the stories or the writing weren’t ready for publication, and read more like works in progress rather than final drafts. But there were many that only needed a scene rewrite here or there, dialogue revisions, minor proofing, or expanded endings.*
The point is this: every manuscript needed an editor.
However, one major reason I am no longer working for the publisher is the notion that some writers are perfect, their work approaching the sanctity of Holy Writ. I was given the resumes and bios of certain writers, not merely to inform me of their background, but to tell me — without the actual words being said — Here There Be Untouchables. I was expected to do my job so lightly that egos were stroked without being ruffled.
Anyone who knows me also knows I am not an ego-stroker. I give praise and encouragement, but I will not flatter. Flattery stresses me. Flattery makes my insides curl up like frightened potato bugs.
So does letting a problem fester and lie there without being addressed. I hate confrontation, but dealing with a problem is necessary. It’s like feng shui for the soul.
After the latest round of flatter-don’t-edit, I turned in my resignation. (Read more about it here: “When It’s Time To Go“.)
Just as writers aren’t perfect, neither are editors. I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve been the pompous youngster who thought he knew far more than he actually did. Memories of past stupidities still make me shudder.
And I’m a writer, too, so there are even more past mistakes to make me want to hide under a blanket until everyone forgets I’m an idiot.
Pride and insecurity are two fires that fuel writerly angst and sensitivity. Pride stings when someone pokes, stabs, or slaps it. Pride doesn’t like it when someone says, “That scene doesn’t work” or “This chapter is boring.” Pride wants to cross its arms and ignore the negative feedback, or even to draw a verbal sword and attack the critic.
I know. I battled stung pride a couple days ago, wanting to stab back at a reader whose own arrogance overshadowed his advice.
But I’ve been here before. I’ve learned to sift through the feedback, take what I need, discard the rest.
I can’t pull out my past awards, my references, all the contest certificates or publishing credits. They’re nice on a resume, but they don’t have any bearing on the book in front of me.
Like every other writer, all I can do is my best on this book, right now.
*One disservice, I believe, television and movies have done to modern fiction is the rush to an ending. Back when The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was finally complete, and The Return of the King came to theatres, some viewers complained about the long ending. Those viewers had likely never read the book, in which essential story continued past the main battle. The conflict wasn’t over, and there was still an enemy or two to deal with. But that’s like real life, eh? There’s always something.
One of my favorite characters in film or literature is The Mouse from 1980s film Ladyhawke. A youthful thief of slender dimensions, Mouse makes promises to God then promptly breaks them, and though his faith is undimmed, his skepticism remains sharp.
“Lord, I’ll never pick another pocket again as long as I live. I swear it. But here’s the problem: You’ve got to let me live. How can I prove my good faith to you? If you’ve heard me, this ledge will remain steady as a rock, and that thing coming at me won’t be what I think it is. If it is, there’s no hard feelings, of course, but I’d be very disappointed.”
“We have come full circle, Lord. I would like to think there is some higher meaning in this. It certainly would reflect well on You.”
At the beginning of the film, when he’s escaping from the dungeon via a passage so small it should have been impossible:
“This is not unlike escaping my mother’s womb. God, what a memory.”
Fearful yet courageous, uncertain yet bold, seeking company yet often alone, he verbalizes his internal dialogue to humorous, insightful effect. Without Mouse’s spoken thoughts, the story would be less. It would be flat, too earnest, maybe even pretentious. But Mouse and his constant patter bring heart, humor, and that disbelieving look askance that somehow makes us believe it even more.
Granted, most internal dialogue is internal — that’s the point. It’s a character’s unspoken thoughts that readers are allowed to know, whether or not those thoughts are ever revealed to other characters in the story.
It can take many forms, from prayers to wishes, from snarky comments or ironic remarks, from telling the truth to outright lies, even conversations with people who aren’t there. In the passage below — from an episode in Keanan Brand‘s science fiction serial, Thieves’ Honor, there’s spoken dialogue between mercenary Bosko and prisoner Finney, but internal dialogue between Finney and her deceased grandfather, Admiral Cunningham. [Note: The Admiral calls her “Gracie” because that’s what he called her father, whose last name was “Grace”. Father-in-law good-naturedly harassing his son-in-law. Both men are deceased before the story begins.]
“Like I said, you’re an uncommon target.” He chuckled again. “A great many governors and officials didn’t seem too eager to help us find you. Lotta lowlifes, too. Figured they’d been paid off—or they do business with the Vega. Name’s Bosko, by the way.”
“We’re not friends.”
“No reason we can’t talk.”
Ye don’t like talking, Gracie, do ye? Except to that crew and its captain. The admiral’s voice held a slight harrumph. Pilot on a reputable ship might make a grandda proud, but on a pirate vessel?
Fewer rules, she replied. No uniforms. No salutes. No blasted colonial government.
Ach, Gracie, now yer talkin’ like a rebel.
Aye, Grandfather, and were I braver I’d have joined them years ago, but it’s safer in the supply line.
There was a snort. Safer? And with supplies stolen from honest citizens! Then the imagined voice gentled. Not always so honest, I suppose. Still, the goods are not yers for the taking. Look where piracy has brought ye.
Not piracy. She looked down, and wrapped one blood-crusted hand around the collar. Murder. Vengeance for you. Tears slipped from the corners of her eyes and dripped from her chin. I acted in haste, and the wrong person died.
“No tears now”—Bosko sounded nervous—”and no pulling at that collar.” (from Episode 15, “Leaping the Circle, copyright KB)
Done well, internal dialogue adds tang to the story, expands the readers’ understanding of or connection to a character, and reveals that character’s philosophy, belief, opinion, etcetera. It can liven the spoken dialogue and even liven a character.
On the other hand, wielded clumsily, it can kill a character.
This was evidenced in a manuscript I recently edited. The author was concerned about feedback from beta readers who said they didn’t connect with her main character. In fact, they didn’t like her. She was cold, arrogant, unsympathetic. After I provided a detailed critique, the author made changes, but she was still concerned about the readers’ perception of the main character.
Due to various behind-scenes-matters that attend the publishing process, I didn’t read the manuscript again for a few weeks. However, when I dove in again, I saw the problem: The character’s snarky, blame-casting internal dialogue made her seem whiny and belligerent rather than realistic and confident. By trying too hard to make her seem hip or smart, the author actually undercut the character.*
“Children should be seen and not heard,” or so goes the old saying. I disagree with its intent of marginalizing children, but there’s truth in it, too. Or, to quote other old sayings, “actions speak louder than words” and “a picture’s word a thousand words.”
“Think before you speak.”
Or, in the case of an author wondering whether or not to reveal a character’s thoughts, “think before you write.”
Be aware of what is being revealed in dialogue. Is it what you intend? Will it enhance or undercut the character? Will it contradict everything else we know about the character? Will it add just the right amount of spice, or will it leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth? Will it make an unlikeable character seem nicer than you intend, or make a sympathetic character lose the reader’s respect?
Internal dialogue can also add subtext and subtlety to a story. Subtext is what is meant but never actually written or said, and subtlety is the use of the indirect or the obscure in order to reveal what isn’t obvious. Subtlety could also be defined as cleverness or perception.
Do your characters make oblique observations that, on the surface, are about something mundane but reveal what the characters are really feeling? Or, perhaps, we know exactly what they’re thinking, but something else is engaged in the dialogue, too. In the example below from a soon-to-be-published fantasy novel, nature — or God? — seems to be responding to the character’s unspoken questions:
There was another place for the fallen, for the murdered and the war dead. They were said to cry in eternal grief and bitterness, trapped on the Highlands, separated from kindred until a blue sun rose in the west. Their howls, Turi suspected, were nothing more than wind through stones, but even he would go no closer to the Highlands than the wood. After all, what defense was a sword against a spirit?
He tilted back his head and looked up at the ribboned sky. Omwendinn?
A sudden breeze set banners waving, snapping the green Oak of Disson in a brisk salute.
When will those distant fires be the fires of home?
The breeze died. The first stars of evening winked in the sky. (Dragon’s Rook, copyright 2014, Keanan Brand)
There are many ways to employ internal dialogue. Play with it. Experiment. See what works. Does it make you laugh? Gasp with surprise? Nod your head and say, “Aha!”
If so, well done.
Or, as the admiral might say, “Carry on, Gracie. Carry on.”
*This book will be published in late 2014, and I do not have permission to share examples from the text.
In recent months, I’ve been approached by new writers seeking to self-publish their work, and have participated in a few discussions about and with independent authors. As a result, I’ve come to this conclusion: Regardless of literary skill or monetary remuneration, one’s self-discipline and willingness to keep learning are important to one’s success. (And one’s definition of success is important, as well.)
Some of the authors I’ve met understood their manuscripts’ need for good editing, but have wanted it at little or no expense. I understand that. I’d love to obtain excellent products at no cost to me. Free housing, free utilities, free whatever — that’d be great, huh?
But we appreciate and cherish that which we gained at great cost, that for which we sacrificed.
So, despite how cold-hearted these words may seem to new writers in search of praise and handouts, I say, “Suck it up. Work it out. Learn. Strive. Improve. Don’t whine. Grow up. Bind your wounds. Stand on your own feet. Know when to ask for help. Keep fighting. Know your worth. Be humble. And in the words of Bill and Ted, be excellent.”