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!
This epic fantasy tells the story of two kingdoms at war. The kings are brothers-in-law—Morfran’s late wife was Damanthus’ sister—but the conflict has nothing to do with family and everything to do with the Territories, a long strip of forest and hills ruled by neither kingdom. The people there govern themselves, but have no standing army.
When Morfran’s soldiers invade, a young shepherd name Gaerbith journeys to the Dissonay capital and begs help of Damanthus to keep the Skardians at bay.
Disson engages Skarda in war, and pushes the invaders out of the Territories and back into the western Plains of Skarda, near the Highlands, a hallowed and feared place where the dead are said to dwell.
When Dragon’s Rook begins, the war is at an impasse. Both sides have lost heavily, and ground has been neither gained nor given in a long while. Gaerbith is now a seasoned soldier and captain of the Fourth Lachmil. His skill in battle has gained him a reputation as possessing magic, but anything special he attributes to the fact that his mother was a Keeper, one of a group of immortals charged with keeping the Great Archive, a storied trove of learning and art that many think is just a myth.
His mother, Uártha, entrusted him with a secret that can only be unlocked when he takes the oath of a Keeper: the hiding place of Azrin, the lost sword of Kel High King, who in ages past slew a Dragon and freed the people.
Yet, even if Gaerbith takes the oath and learns the secret, he can do nothing without Kel High King’s nearest descendant, the only one to whom the sword will answer.
Dragon’s Rook is the name of a cave in Kel Tor near the village of Shea, where a blacksmith lives. He possesses a dagger decorated with the same metal from which Azrin was forged, and he remembers nothing before the day the previous blacksmith found him as a child and took him in as an apprentice.
Kieran Smith and Captain Gaerbith set out on unexpected journeys—the blacksmith to learn who he really is, the soldier to do his duty to a king—and along the way they face great foes, make new allies, gain love or lose it, and must decide whether or not to do the most frightening thing of all: trust their lives to the leading of the Voice.
Dragon’s Rook is currently available as an e-book (visit Keanan’s website or his blog to select which version you prefer), and will be coming soon in paperback.
Advance readers have commented favorably on the cadence and detail of the writing, and on the characters, especially the female protagonists. Some readers have selected the story’s quieter moments—not the battles, not the wonders, but the human interactions—as some of their favorites.
Although there are fantasy tropes and archetypes in Dragon’s Rook, there are few mythical creatures—aside from Dragons, there are bloodthirsty giant crows called Nar’ath, invented for this story, but expect no dwarves, elves, ogres, trolls, and the like. The author freely admits to the classical influences of Tolkien, Lewis, folklore, mythology, and the Bible, and built the world of Disson and Skarda on a mix of American and European geography, but weaves a story all his own.
We at Penworthy Press are proud to present this novel to the world. May it and its successors bring joy to their readers for many years to come.
I didn’t know there was any past kerfuffle over the Nobel committee’s tendency to be Euro-centric in its selections for the literary prize, but I don’t mind getting to know about excellent writers outside my own country.
(K)eep in mind that while foreign translations from most literary writers can be hard to come by, there really isn’t reason to complain about Nobel winners being inaccessible. After all, the vast majority of winners since the prize’s debut in 1901 had written in English.
What’s more, awarding the honor to little-known writers — at least, from an English-reader’s perspective — can help introduce authors to a wider audience. Shortly after Jelinek won the prize in 2004, the American distributor of her book The Piano Teacher ran out of copies because demand was so unusually high. That was famously one of the goals of the Swedish Academy’s previous Permanent Secretary, Horace Engdahl, who once responded to criticism saying, “The purpose of the prize is to make them famous, not to tap them when they are famous.”
That prospect has already excited fans of Modiano’s in France. Anne Ghisoli, the director of the Parisian bookstore Librairie Gallimard, told the Times she had long been a Modiano fan, “but this prize will help raise the global profile of one of our consummate writers.”
Time has speeded up since then and moves forward in fits and starts–explaining the difference between the towering literary edifices of the past, with their cathedral-like architectures, and the disjointed and fragmented works of today. From this point of view, my own generation is a transitional one, and I would be curious to know how the next generations, born with the Internet, mobile phones, e-mails and tweets, will express through literature this world in which everyone is permanently ‘connected’ and where ‘social networks’ are eating into that part of intimacy and secrecy that was still our own domain until quite recently–the secrecy that gave depth to individuals and could become a major theme in a novel. But I will remain optimistic about the future of literature and I am convinced that the writers of the future will safeguard the succession just as every generation has done since Homer.
I can identify with that need to put up a shield against the noise and the constant connection that eats at the soul.
Although I won a few prizes for speech-giving while in school, I dislike standing before crowds because my hands and voice shake and my thoughts scatter. Modiano, too, expresses his discomfort:
Calling to mind the way school lessons distinguish between the written and the oral, a novelist has more talent for written than oral assignments. He is accustomed to keeping quiet, and if he wants to imbibe an atmosphere, he must blend in with the crowd. He listens to conversations without appearing to, and if he steps in it is always in order to ask some discreet questions so as to improve his understanding of the women and men around him. His speech is hesitant because he is used to crossing out his words. It is true that after several redrafts, his style may be crystal clear. But when he takes the floor, he no longer has any means at his disposal to correct his stumbling speech.
Ah, yes. The need to constantly edit and revise. That explains my current profession.
Gustave Flaubert, a 19th-century French writer whose work ethic and precision with words one might well admire and imitate, even if his personal activities were best left behind the curtain, once wrote, “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”
And, I might add, it is in the act of writing that you realize not only do you have something to say, it is worth saying.
I also belong to a generation in which children were seen and not heard except on certain rare occasions and only after asking permission. But no one ever listened and people would often talk across them. That explains the difficulty that some of us have when speaking – sometimes hesitant, sometimes too fast as if we expect to be interrupted at any moment. This is perhaps why the desire to write came over me, like so many others, at the end of childhood. You hope that the adults will read what you write. That way, they will have to listen to you without interrupting and they will jolly well know what it is you have on your chest.
Listening — truly listening — is a great gift.
We may not understand all we hear, we may not agree with all we hear, but if we listen, we will learn, we will build bridges, we will encourage.
I was a child whose early, stumbling, terrible writings were listened to with patience and encouraged by adults. It was my peers who made me mute. They mocked, they misunderstood, they shrugged. Without the listening ears of a few grownups I respected and loved, I might not be a writer today.
Akin to truly listening is truly reading. There are few things more encouraging to a writer than knowing his words are being read. And not just read. Loved.
The announcement of this award seemed unreal to me and I was eager to know why you chose me. On that day I do not think I had ever been more acutely aware of how blind a novelist is when it comes to his own books, and how much more the readers know about what he has written than he does. A novelist can never be his own reader, except when he is ridding his manuscript of syntax errors, repetitions or the occasional superfluous paragraph. He only has a partial and confused impression of his books, like a painter creating a fresco on the ceiling, lying flat on a scaffold and working on the details, too close up, with no vision of the work as a whole…
So yes, the reader knows more about a book than the author himself. Something happens between a novel and its reader which is similar to the process of developing photographs, the way they did it before the digital age. The photograph, as it was printed in the darkroom, became visible bit by bit. As you read your way through a novel, the same chemical process takes place. But for such harmony to exist between the author and his reader, it is important never to overextend the reader – in the sense that we talk about singers overextending their voice – but to coax him imperceptibly, leaving enough space for the book to permeate him little by little, by means of an art resembling acupuncture, in which the needle merely has to be inserted in exactly the right spot to release the flow in the nervous system.
A certain short story comes to mind, one in which I purposely included certain themes but in which readers found other connections, better connections, than I intended. That was, I think, the first time I realized that a writer and a reader encounter different stories, though the words are the same.
The rest of Modiano’s excellent speech is dense with historical and literary references, and is literature itself. I highly recommend it to every writer, and to every reader who wonders where writers find their stories.
Last month, due in part to the American holiday of Thanksgiving, I visited my old hometown, stayed with one parent but met often with the other, and attended a few services at Mom’s (once “our”) church, and was struck by the truth behind the old saying, “You can’t go home again.”
Although I was glad to be there and see people I knew, I didn’t call nearby friends or arrange to see them, nor did I drive by my old house or former workplace. The old life didn’t cross my mind, at least not long enough to dwell on or even matter. Nothing tugged at me.
Except, very soon after my arrival, a desire to return home.
Not to my old house, but to where I live now.
There was nothing wrong. There was no family argument or problem, no falling-out with friends; I just didn’t feel at home. Not anymore.
It is a strange state of being and state of mind that one is home yet not home, as if one has dropped into a surreal story and must find the way out of an Alice in Wonderland maze and back to reality.
I am a far different person than I was when I lived in that town, went to that church, spoke with my parents every week. The beliefs I once held as truth have shifted, perhaps even fallen away, so that only core truths remain. Life has a way of shaking the pan, dividing gravel from gold, helping one to clearly see the difference.
Those still surrounded by gravel may think the gold-seekers are off the mark, mislead, gone astray, so they try to warn them and hem them in again in safe places, in the grey cocoon of what’s humanly possible, of what’s comfortable and can be controlled, but they miss what the gold-seekers see — that glint of something more.
For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as all our fathers were: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is no abiding. (1 Chronicles 29:15, ASV)
When it comes to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, I’m not interested in being stirred up or pooh-poohed, in being lectured or being scolded, in being told what to think or feel or be or do.
I worked many years with youth and families of various ethnicities, and found that the vitriol coming at me — a person of European and Native American descent — was much more aggressive and bitter than I could have ever expected. All manner of prejudices and evil-doings were assigned to me by people who didn’t know me, but who accused me, verbally abused me, and called some creative names because I had to discipline their children or make judgement calls in disputes among their children.
I can’t recall the number of times I was told that only white people can be prejudiced. The irony of that statement never seemed to strike my accusers.
For me, race was never an issue. I looked on everyone as one race — the human race — and all capable of failure and folly. Right was right, wrong was wrong, and iffy needed some finesse. Sometimes wrongs were corrected, but many times wrongs were allowed to continue because someone might be or currently was offended. Offense and fear prevented good from being done.
Offense, anger, fear, and pride are burdens too heavy for me to carry. They hobble my steps, bow my back, and rob my vision. I may not be able to solve the ills of the world, nor may I be able to make my voice heard above the shouting, but I can shed my own blighted thinking, skewed perspective, and shackled living.
If you’re a believer of XYZ faith, and you want to preach a sermon, find a pulpit and do so.
If you’re a writer of XYZ faith, tell a story.
Let your faith inform your story if you’d like, and let there be characters who practice that faith, but — please — don’t make folks of other beliefs into caricatures or idiots or villains simply because they believe differently.
And avoid proselytizing. Don’t lure readers with a promise of a good yarn, but then turn the tables on them and present a sermon instead.
They won’t praise you. They’ll distrust you.
There’s not much more to be said, I thought at the time, and that post sums up my thoughts.
Since then, however, this has been kicking around in the back of my mind, like a restless kid shuffling back and forth and playing kickball with rocks because his friends haven’t shown up yet on the playground.
I am a Christian. I am not ashamed of that, nor do I hide it.
Yet, due to other folks’ experience with people sporting the “Christian” label, I am sometimes hesitant to use the word: 1) Will they shut down and refuse to speak with me? 2) Will all their prejudices or poor encounters come rushing to the fore, creating a boundary that doesn’t need to exist? 3) Will they assume that anything and everything I write is a sermon? And do they expect me to start sermonizing right now? 4) What do they think a Christian is? An ignorant backwoods hick who believes in fairy tales? A self-righteous loudmouth? A corrupt individual who uses the gloss of religion to hide his misdeeds? A hypocrite? A prim prude who thinks she’s perfect? 5) Will everything I do or say be measured by their assumptions or misperceptions of what a Christian is, and therefore they will obstruct or impede my endeavors because they’re already predisposed to dislike or misjudge me?
But despite my hesitation — and all those questions zooming through my mind — I declared myself a Christian to a couple fellow writers who are of different mind, and their stories reflect those beliefs and questions, just as my stories reflect mine.
The conversation came about because one writer said she was considering modeling a shady and powerful organization after Christianity and/or the Catholic Church (I forget which precisely — the conversation occurred a few weeks ago). I asked her why, but she really wasn’t sure yet on some of her world-building. Knowing she is an atheist who has had poor experience with some bewilderingly clueless Christians, I cautioned her against turning a religion into a villain simply to jab at its adherents. After all, it’s not original, and it makes her story snarky, ugly-minded, and not the interesting, darkly funny, unusual urban fantasy that we’ve been reading in our writers meetings.
But, let’s be honest, we Christians do ourselves no favors when we puff ourselves up and expect everyone else to operate according to our (flawed) parameters. We do not reflect well on Christ when we flaunt our Bibles but misbehave in public. Or when we writers try to hook readers with the promise of an international spy thriller but we pull the ol’ switcheroo, story suddenly becomes sermon, and everyone is “saved” by the end of the book. Or when only the Christian characters are wise and good and noble. Or when the Christian characters can do no wrong and always make the right decisions.
Wow, are Christian characters often the least interesting ones. And, wow, are the other characters often cut-out caricatures — insulting, shallow versions of reality so we can play the puppet-master and make everything come out just the way we’d like it.
Oh, and God thinks like we do.
It’s the same thing that nonbelieving writers sometimes do: Make God in their own image — or their version of what they think He’s like — and then turn believers into bigoted, wishy-washy, whiny, or arrogant cartoons. *
Such storytelling serves no one but the readers who already agree with XYZ stance. If those readers are your intended audience, then your field is narrow, because it excludes the broader audience of eclectic readers who are willing to entertain good writing and excellent storytelling from various points of view.
I am such a one, and have read books written from worldviews far different from my own, simply because they were well-written stories that spoke to humanity and opened the door to perspectives I had not yet considered.
And yet, to be perfectly frank, I’m not interested in reading books that denigrate rather than entertain. Show people of faith in an honest, compassionate way, and even if they’re the bad guys or just average, flawed human beings, I’ll stick around. Show them as cartoons, as buffoons or criminals simply because of that faithand not because they made bad choices or need help or have other issues, then I’ll bail. I don’t need to feed my mind and spirit on someone else’s bad attitude, ugly-minded agenda, or personal vendetta. **
Whether we realize it or admit it, whether we are theists or atheists, we write what we know — and what we believe.
As a fellow writer and reader, I just ask that we consider how we present other points of view, and let’s not rely on just our experiences or our own agendas, but look past them to look through other eyes.
And then, when we sit down to write, be honest, be compassionate, be real.
We just might find our own perspective has changed.
*Sermons and agendas do not belong only to Christians or people of other faiths. There are political and religious themes in television shows, movies, and novels. For a specific example, I could link to various news stories and blog posts about James Cameron’s film, Avatar, which he admitted is propaganda. However, a Wikipedia article, Themes in Avatar, is a good one-stop source.
**Wesboro Baptist Church, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and others of their ilk use their religious beliefs as a cover, as an excuse to misbehave. That’s a conversation for another time.
‘My friends, we are going into a terrible danger, and we need arms of many kinds. Our enemy is not merely spiritual…A stronger man, or a body of men more strong in all than him, can at certain times hold him; but yet they cannot hurt him as we can be hurt by him. We must, therefore, guard ourselves from his touch. Keep this near your heart”—as he spoke he lifted a little silver crucifix… . (emphasis mine)
“Our enemy is not merely spiritual.” Hmmm. Another strike against the argument that Dracula was just an ethereal emanation called into life by the characters’ fears or desires. But that was a point made in the previous post, so I shall move onward.
In Dracula, the characters learn that the soul of one who has been overtaken by the vampire becomes lost for eternity, therefore lending urgency to the quest to stop Dracula and to save Lucy—who, unfortunately, becomes one of the undead, and must therefore not only be staked but beheaded in order to save her soul. Then Mina becomes the vampire’s next victim, and the race ramps up.
From an e-mail to a friend, written shortly after reacquainting myself with the classic novel:
The whole “damned forever” idea bugs me. So does the notion that a person could become damned without having a choice in the matter, as happens to Lucy in Dracula, or that repeated prayers to God for salvation from such evil / damnation (as are also given in the novel) would not result in Him stepping into the situation and saving anyone who asked Him. After all, He’s not willing that any should perish, and He has provided a way of escape. Our bodies may die, but our souls need not be damned. However, though “the good guys” win in the end, God is not really in the picture as the ultimate good standing in aid of humanity against ultimate evil.
Why, then, does holy water work? Or a crucifix? Or a Communion wafer? In reality, there’s nothing inherently powerful in the objects themselves. They are metal or flour or liquid. Nothing much to fear there. So, the power must come from what or Whom they represent.
However, where’s the power in the objects if the Deity in Whose name they are employed does not answer the prayers of those who call on Him? After all, He lets Lucy be taken, right?
One may argue He doesn’t answer because He doesn’t exist; or, if He does, He’s not intimately involved with the lives of humans. Why, then, the vampires’ reactions to the items employed in the search-and-destroy mission? It’s as if Stoker wanted the story both ways: God was the ultimate good Whom the vampires couldn’t tolerate, and yet humans—frail and prone to failure already in this endeavor—are the ones whose efforts finally succeed.
In the time since writing the message quoted above, I have come to a slightly different conclusion about the story. God is the unacknowledged character throughout, and I am reminded of all the times in real life in which I wanted to be rescued—and there have been many times I have been, some of them miraculously and as a direct result of prayer—but constant rescue would make a person passive, make him think he is entitled, make her think she need not put forth any effort.
We know a new butterfly must struggle to leave its cocoon—the struggle strengthens its wings. Therefore, we can take courage from the realization that, although we may be rescued or helped at various times in our lives, it is the striving that makes us strong. And makes us that much more grateful when help is offered.
Although I still think the novel’s theology is “off” concerning the soul and salvation, I see the real-life parallels to vampires: activities that suck away our time, people that subvert our successes or leech away our energy, attitudes or behaviors that drain us of joy or ambition or strength.
Friday, I took a walk, a reward to myself for completing a freelance project, and a chance to be away from the computer and revel in the sunlight. (Aaaaaah! My eyes! My eyes!) When I returned home, however, I didn’t want to return to work. If there is an autumn equivalent of spring fever, I have it.
There’s not much story there, other than the old one: brain takes a walk while the body struggles to complete tasks by itself. Not very literary, eh?
How ’bout this: Little kids know a good story when they meet one.
A few days ago, four-year-old Sunny ran through the house, narrating as she went: “…and then there’s a tree…Oh, no! Watch out!…but Sky swoops in…”
She complicated her play by introducing obstacles and problems, but also enabled her pretend self and other characters to overcome those blocks by imbuing herself and her imaginary friends with creative skills or tools to deal with whatever occurred.
Last night, while re-watching a Korean television series that a friend had not yet seen, I saw specific points where — if the characters had been wiser, had been less ruled by fear or grief or anger or greed, had been quicker or stronger or less driven, the story would have ended much sooner than it does.
I was frustrated by the ugly motives that led to unnecessary tragedy, but acknowledged that — without them — the rest of the story would not only lose its power but its purpose. An intriguing, funny, poignant, suspenseful series would not exist.
To borrow from another post on this blog, stories are interesting because bad things happen.
Or, to borrow from the Chinese, “May you live in interesting times.” It’s a curse, not a blessing, the most interesting times being those with wars and natural disasters. Kinda the ancient Asian version of “Go to hell.”
I’m close to wrapping up edits on a client’s fictionalized autobiography…although I like this book, the ending is thin…
I headed downstairs this afternoon to fill my cup with fresh, hot tea, and that’s when I saw the problem: There’s a positive change in the lead character’s life, but there’s no transcendence.
Sure, the guy overcomes a crappy childhood, a weak and aimless youth, and a bout with addiction and alcoholism, and he’s definitely in a better place now, but–
And why did he finally decide that addiction was not the life for him?
Even in true-to-life stories, characters need a reason, a motive, and then action to back it up.
Otherwise, it’s not just the editor who’s falling asleep, but the audience is, too.
A horror story is playing out in the Middle East — not only there, but around the world — as adherents to a violent ideology behead, crucify, rape, torture, hang, beat, and exile anyone weaker or who doesn’t believe the same way or to the same extent as they. Similar atrocities have occurred throughout history, perpetrated by different groups in different places. Mankind conjures insane evil against itself and calls it good and justified.
And yet from this darkness arises life-changing, life-affirming stories.
One such is the recent travails of Miriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman accused of apostasy and adultery, and imprisoned in chains, because she married a Christian man, an American citizen. She even gave birth while in chains. She and her family were rescued and brought to the US in summer 2014.
Another such story can be read in The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, which recently became a banned book in some libraries. It details how the ten Boom family hid Jews from the Nazis, how Corrie endured and survived a concentration camp, and how faith sustained her.
Powerful stories will be born of the current horror, as well. Tales will be told of pointless tragedy and humbling self-sacrifice, crushing dominance and inexplicable mercy, breath-stealing loss and unexpected gifts. Violence so vile it can scarce be imagined, let alone described, and yet compassion so kind one cannot help but weep.
Stories need something to overcome, and they need a reason to overcome it.
A candle is lost in the sunlight, but shines like a star in the dark.
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.