Category Archives: True Stories

Musings: A Story Needs Trouble

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–

What now?

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.

[borrowed from my post on Adventures in Fiction]

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.

Telling Our Stories (Part 2)

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:
Queen Esther
Mary, the mother of Jesus
Ruth
Elizabeth, her wise cousin
David and Goliath
the Resurrection
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
Jairus’ daughter
woman at the well
Peter’s mother-in-law
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.

3

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.

Yaquina Bay Bridge, Newport, Oregon (c2013, KB)
Yaquina Bay Bridge, Newport, Oregon (c2013, KB)

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.

4

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.

5

Why Stories?

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.

In past generations, classic stories pointed—directly and indirectly—to God and to Biblical truths: Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan; The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis; Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace; The Darkness and the Dawn by Thomas B. Costain; and more.

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 Be Told
Click the book cover to read a sample chapter

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.

6

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.

–The Story Never Ends–

Telling Our Stories (Part 1)

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.

1

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.

Sometimes our journey seems to be all uphill, arduous and never-ending. Writing and editing can be the same. (c2013, KB)
Sometimes our journey seems to be all uphill, arduous and never-ending. Writing and editing can be the same. They don’t have to be. We’re not responsible for the condition of the road, but our attitude determines the quality of the trip. (c2013, KB)

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.

2

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)

–to be continued–

Fatal Enquiry, or How I Ditched Work to Be a Fan

A couple Wednesdays ago, the day seemed normal enough. I woke, messed about with e-mail and Facebook and the daily news, then settled down to the business of writing and research.

And then the mail came, and with the junk mail and coupons was a package. Inside that package was a book I’d pre-ordered in September last year. And forgotten.

I’ve been a huge fan of Will Thomas‘s Barker & Llewellyn series since reading Some Danger Involved. I picked up the paperback, riffled through the pages, read the back copy. A mystery set in Victorian London, with interesting characters and solid writing, something that looked like the work of a Holmes and Watson fan, but was it’s own thing? Yeah, sure, I’d give it try.

Glad I did. The detective–ahem, pardon me, the enquiry agent–is somewhat Holmesian, and yet Barker is vastly different. He wears tinted glasses at all times, is particular about his green tea, has a Pug for a pet, and frequents a sketchy underground eating establishment. The occupants of his household and those who operate on the fringes of society are equally intriguing and amusing.

Thomas lets the stories play out against the backdrop of actual historical events, weaving issues of the day into the plots, and letting real historical figures wander about the scenery and interact with the characters. While each book revolves around its own mystery, there’s also an overarching mystery involving Barker’s past. His fellow agent is young, likable, romantic Llewellyn, quickly learning the trade and getting into this fix or that. It is by him we are led through much of each story.

FatalEnquiry-front coverAbout that long-ordered-but-forgotten book? Fatal Enquiry, the latest in the series.

It arrived one day after the official publication date, and on the same day as the first book signing.

Two hours away.

A mere two hours away.

A favorite author, a brand new book–how could I not go?

But I was also low on cash, low on fuel, and had a writing deadline in view.

Eh. Deadline, schmedline.

The weather was beautiful, the traffic scarce, and as I am wont to do while traveling, I held my camera up to the windows and took random shots of buildings, card, clouds, whatever struck my fancy. Most of those photos didn’t turn out, of course, but some were better than expected. It’s a weird bent, perhaps, but it’s my way of recording a journey.

The directions were a bit wonky at the end, so rather than being a few minutes early for the signing, I arrived several minutes late. The talk was well underway. Argh. Still, I was able to listen to the bulk of it and learn interesting trivia, such as the fact that Thomas’s research into archaic fighting methods led to the compiling of a manual on the subject and to the creation of new martial arts clubs around the world. All because he asked a question for a novel. (Read more about the author here.)

Thomas read a selection from the new novel, then the actual signing began.

It was the most low-key yet intensely interesting book signing I’ve attended. Some have been rah-rah rallies, some have been an author sitting at a table. This one? Not only was the audience educated, fun was had by all.

If you have not discovered this mystery series, please do give it a try. Click on the book titles in the list to read excerpts of each:
Some Danger Involved
To Kingdom Come
The Limehouse Text
The Hellfire Conspiracy
The Black Hand
Fatal Enquiry

I have not yet been able to read my copy of Fatal Enquiry due to an unexpected change of schedule taking me out of state, but I hope to remedy that in the coming week or two. Meantime, below are a few shots I took while at the signing, which was held at Retro Den, a nifty shop specializing in all things yesteryear.

moderator and Will Thomas, Fatal Enquiry book signing at Retro Den (c2014, KB)
moderator and Will Thomas, Fatal Enquiry book signing at Retro Den (c2014, KB)
c2014, KB
A haphazard queue (c2014, KB)
Fancy some furniture? How 'bout an art piece or two? (c2014, KB)
Fancy some furniture? How ’bout an art piece or two? (c2014, KB)
c2014, KB
A fan waits patiently (c2014, KB)

Feedback: More Than Static

Below is a re-blog of a post over on Adventures in Fiction, a blog by Keanan Brand. He discusses feedback he recently received for a story in progress, and decides what he wants more: applause or participation?

Kishi kaisei.
Wake from death and return to life.

Tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki.
There are even bugs who eat knotweed.
(To each his own.)

I’ve been developing a short fantasy set in Japan, in an era and a culture about which I know little. That means delving into reading about all manner of topics: honorifics, architecture, food, names, proverbs. I’m tempted to fill the story with Japanese terminology, but I don’t know what’s true to the period and what’s modern. And tossing in every word I learn would overwhelm the plot, and distract or annoy the reader, so I’m backing off, using the literary equivalent of a pinch of salt. A taste, not a stomachful.

An interesting dish — but who wants to eat it?

As with everything I write, I wonder, “Who’d want to read this? Am I writing only for myself? Am I okay with that?”

My reading at the most recent writers meeting was an attempt to answer those questions. I brought my first two thousand words of the Japanese fantasy and invited the other members to tear into it. The story needs to be solid, because it will be competing against other and far better writers, and I want to do my best so there are no regrets if I lose. No excuses.

The group followed along as I read but made few notes on their copies of the pages, which was unexpected. My own copy was littered with notes before the meeting ended. The responses were favorable, the speculations thick and fast, the suggestions and critiques constructive.

It was the most — what’s the word? — refreshing critique session since, well, never.

In a prior group, my speculative stories were met with negativity, so I stopped sharing, stopped asking for feedback. The writer went into hibernation, and only the editor showed up for meetings.

At first, I believed the bad press: “Your stories are too difficult to understand” or “You’re not connecting with your audience.” While that may have been partly true, I came to realize that the audience — certain members of it — were never going to connect. Their understanding of and approach to reading left little room for deviations from their personal expectations: A story must look like this and not that.

With realization came renewed confidence. Nah, the audience didn’t change, but it stopped mattering. I could predict which of my stories they’d like — the more conventional ones — and which would make their eyes glaze and their mouths purse.

A new state and two writers groups later, I’ve landed with a mixed flock of hatchlings, most still in the nest, some just now recognizing their wings, some learning to fly. They’re fearless, though, sharing their earnest romances and troubled life stories, their awkward urban fantasies and sophisticated twisted fairy tales. They tell each other what they like and what they don’t understand, what’s not working and what piques their imagination.

The group works. I can’t explain it, but it works.

Maybe because the nasty black-hat villain Ego hasn’t arrived.

So I shared. They responded. It was good.

People have read my stories in publications, but it doesn’t necessarily occur to readers to contact authors and tell how the story affected them, how it stayed in their minds for days or roamed their dreams at night. How it made them cry, scream, laugh, think.

The response from my fellow writers the other night was like applause at a live play, accompanied by an honest but non-mean-spirited review.

I don’t need flattery or compliments or pats on the head.

As nice as it is, I don’t need applause.

What I crave? Capturing readers’ imaginations to such a degree that they fill in the details I didn’t describe. They journey alongside the characters, and talk to them, emote with them, live through them. The story matters so much to the readers they lose sleep to finish it. They argue with friends over why a character did this or said that. They can’t wait for the next story.

My cousin's son, hamming for the camera, always ready for the laughs and the applause! (c2013, KB)
My cousin’s son, hamming for the camera, always ready for the laughs and the applause! (c2013, KB)

Participation. That’s what I want.

Better than applause any day.

Hardy Jones–Village Mystery Man

clock
Clock at Ray House, Wilson’s Creek Battlefield, Springfield MO. photo c. 2013 Suzan Troutt

The following story is from Joyce Booze’s blog, Out of Church Tales. In this short glimpse of life in 1930s Oklahoma, travel back in time to when life was very different–

by Joyce Wells Booze

Time and Place: Late 1930s, Nuyaka, OK

From my birth in 1933 until I had completed second grade, my family lived much of the time in or around Nuyaka, OK, a small oil-boom community in Okmulgee County.  Exceptions were one year in CA (1934-35),   about 20 months in Arkansas (late fall of 1936 to summer of 1938) and 8 months in Truskett, (also known as Hog Shooter) OK (1941).  Each time we returned “home” to Nukaya.

From the ages of 5 to 8,  I became very familiar with Nuyaka’s residents. On most days, I walked the paths (no sidewalks) to one of the stores, to church or school, and on other errands, such as going to the local grist mill for cornmeal. I also walked past the modest home of Hardy Jones. I don’t remember his ever speaking to me nor I to him, but I do remember how curious the local residents were about Mr. Jones.

He didn’t work, although he seemed to be in good health and not too old – perhaps in his 50s. No one knew his source of income, but he had enough money for his needs and even a few luxuries…this in a time when hard-working people were struggling to make enough to buy food. Hardy lived alone, and so far as I know had no relatives or family visitors. In nice weather, he usually sat on his porch reading the newspaper and smoking a pipe.

That newspaper was the source of much village speculation. Mr. Jones had the Kansas City STAR mailed to him! No one else I knew bought or read a newspaper. Money was too scarce to spend on unnecessary items!  To get the STAR by mail must have cost at least a dollar a month (I’m still trying to find out the exact cost.)

Some local residents wondered aloud if he had robbed a bank and read the STAR to see if the police were on his trail. Remember, these were Bonnie-and-Clyde days, and bank robberies were a much discussed topic. Others thought perhaps he owned land where oil was found and didn’t want to share his fortune with anyone. (A similar incident had happened to a local family.)  Another suspicion was that he had left a wife and children somewhere and was hiding from them.

My dad occasionally talked to Mr. Jones. I remember one time Dad telling my mom that Mr. Jones thought another war was brewing in Europe. This was troubling news to my parents who still remembered WW 1 (1914-1918) which had been called “the war to end all wars.”  Most Americans did not want to think of another war.

One story that I remember about Hardy Jones caused much mirth in the village.  One Halloween night several young men on horseback (wanna-be cowboys) were out celebrating and playing jokes on unsuspecting residents.  Since Nuyaka had no sewer system, each house had an outside toilet. The pranksters rode down an alley that ran behind several of these outhouses. Being “cowboys,” they roped the outhouses as they rode and dragged them over. The story is that Hardy Jones was in his outhouse when it was roped and was tumbled about, yelling fiercely. I probably wouldn’t believe this story but one of my cousins was in the group of riders and vouched for its truth.

Our family left Nuyaka in the summer of 1942, and I never knew how the mystery of Hardy Jones turned out. Was he a bank robber? An oil-boom rich man? A run-away husband?  Whatever he was, speculations about him were a source of much entertainment in a small community where daily life was hard and any kind of excitement was welcome, even if it was fabricated.

I think Hardy Jones might have liked that!

–copyright 2014, J. Booze–

That Junior High Feeling

Below is a quote from Jenny Simmons, musician and writer, in her blog post The Christian Industrial Complex and Why I Am Doing a Kickstarter Campaignabout the obstacles facing us un-famous creative folk:

Regarding my book, The Road to Becoming, I’ve met with a handful of literary agents and Christian publishing houses. One executive told me I sent in the best book proposal he has seen in a long time. Another said my writing style was laugh-out-loud, contagiously authentic. One agent said “there is room for this story at the table” another said the book is “spiritually profound” and and another said “this book will be a close spiritual companion to many.”  But at the end of the day each publishing house or literary agent has ultimately said-

We love this book but you’re not popular enough right now for us to take a risk on you. 

One Christian publishing house even went as far as telling my manager that I don’t have enough “heat.”  When asked for a clarification the executive said, “Look, if she is a mega-church pastor, we will give her a deal. If you come back tomorrow and tell us she got picked up by a major women’s conference and has a major platform, we will give her a deal.”

It kind of feels like junior high all over again.
Popular. Platform. Heat.

I’ve known  that junior high feeling. Man times. But I’m breaking free.
For anyone who has ever encountered the same attitudes, or who’s just now trying to break into the writing biz, I recommend reading the entire article.

Letters

(c2013, EE)
(c2013, EE)

In my closet is a box of handwritten epistles inside envelopes. Yellowing envelopes from my late grandmother. Decorated envelopes from an artistic friend. Varicolored envelopes that contain holiday cards. Bulging envelopes holding old stories exchanged between friends. Sometimes I open the box and read the letters, and hear once more my grandmother’s voice.

There was a time I could neither read nor write enough letters. I waited impatiently for them. I scribbled them when something unexpected happened, or when my friends wouldn’t write fast enough.

Along came instant messaging, internet chat rooms, e-mail, and communication flew between us. I reveled in the instant exchange of news and ideas.

But the charm faded. I couldn’t get away from people. There were questions demanding immediate answers. Friends or colleagues  planning events or meetings, often last-minute. My digital inbox expanded. An accusing mouse pointer or blinking cursor prodded me to drop everything and communicate. Now.

That pushiness is one reason I’ve never owned a cell phone. When I owned a landline, there were days I’d let the answering machine catch calls. A wielder of words, I had nothing to say.

As years passed, as career shifted, I’ve relaxed communications. A message may sit in the e-mail box for a few days before I compose a response. Although most messages I receive are the digital equivalent of casual scrawls, even from my colleagues in the professional realm, I tend to write as if each message is a letter. There are paragraphs, proper sentence structure, no text-speak. There is still courtesy.

A few days ago, engaged in spring cleaning, I found odds-and-ends of stationery. The paper is excellent, and the feel of its thick texture against my fingertips renders me nostalgic. Some of it is printed with designs at the bottom or along one edge, leftovers from my adolescence or from someone’s humorous birthday gift a decade or more ago. Some paper is still attached to a gum-adhesive strip at the top, keeping the leaves together, and much is loose-leaf, stacks of pale parchment waiting careful calligraphy.

How impatient will friends and acquaintances be if their e-mail receives reply by post?

Or will they look on the envelopes in puzzlement?

I wonder.

For Independent (Self-Published) Authors

A fellow writer and blogger, Sandy Appleyard, asked this on LinkedIn, regarding independent (self-published) authors: “Has the bar been lowered?”

One person commented that the bar is easy “to reach if you’re the one holding it.” Indeed.

Appleyard expanded further on her blog:

This past summer, however, I started reviewing strictly indie authors, simply to help them out and to gain more perspective in the indie world.  In a nutshell, as an indie author myself, I have found book reviewing to be a very positive experience, and it has helped my writing career a lot.

What’s disappointing is the amount of less-than-great independently published books that I’ve stumbled upon recently.

Here is a short list of the issues I’ve seen:

-Grammatical/spelling

-lack dialogue

-too much back story

-not enough action

-un-relatable characters and/or story line

When I read these less-than-great stories, I feel like rather than reviewing them, I need to provide a beta read and an edit.  Are indie authors neglecting to take these vital steps?

Susan McBeth, founder of Adventures By The Book, responded with a concern about professionalism:

As an author events coordinator, I am frequently asked to host events for authors with self-published books. I am amazed when I read the books, how poorly edited many of them are (strictly speaking from the ones I’ve reviewed, not to judge all). I recently read a book that I would have considered for an event because the writing was very good, and the story was compelling an innovative, but I just couldn’t get past the fact that it didn’t appear to have been edited, and as a professional who prides my business with quality events, I want to ensure the product I am featuring is professional.

She’s right to be concerned. Not only is the author’s reputation at stake, but so is hers.

By the way, for writers living in or near Southern California, McBeth has begun The Author Academy, workshops to train authors in marketing. (I live a few states away. sigh)

My two cents’ worth:

I’m a freelance editor as well as an associate editor for a publisher, but I was a freelancer first, and have always set a high bar for my clients. Whether or not they choose to rise to meet it is entirely their choice. I do my best for them, and then they submit their work wherever they will.

As an editor for a publisher, though, the circumstances are different: A contract has been signed, and now I must help the author polish his work for public display. Still, I encounter authors who don’t seem to realize that, yes, there’s still work to be done. A contract doesn’t mean a pat on the head, all is well, the work is perfect, and all the editor has to do is fix a few commas and grammatical errors. No, there are often major story overhauls and dialogue fixes, et cetera.

Even then, authors dig in their heels, revert corrected sentences to their original incorrect state (dangling/misplaced modifiers are a huge problem), refuse to insert a necessary scene or do the proper research into an industry about which they know nothing, and so on. It can be right warlike, trying to edit the book of an entrenched, recalcitrant author who deems his work perfect and my work meddling.

On the other hand, there is real joy in editing a writer who has already done much of the work, and submits a manuscript with clean copy, good story pacing and flow, dialogue that contributes to the story rather than stagnates on the page, and has considered every word’s right to be there. That means the author is a self-editor, and knows how to be strict with his work, and is therefore able to take the advice of another editor.

And, yes, I’ve encountered many self-published books similar in state to the ones described in your blog, Sandy. I wish authors could take a few steps back, release their “babies” into someone else’s arms, and open their minds to honest feedback — before publication. Perhaps they don’t realize that those nagging misspellings or a saggy middle or the anti-climatic climax really are big problems. Readers won’t just overlook them, nor will they be likely to forget. The next time they encounter a book by an author who disappointed them, they’ll pass.

Independent authors, don’t be afraid of feedback. Welcome it.

Honest critiques by beta readers are worth more than money, and you don’t have to pay for them. Beta readers have an objective point of view that you, as the author, do not. They’ll help you find plot holes, flat dialogue, forgotten plot threads, weak scenes, and much more. Not only will they find problems, they’ll provide solutions.

Hire a freelance (independent) editor. Seriously. Save up the money, no matter how long it takes, and hire an editor skilled in editing your type of book (novel, memoir, reference, et cetera). Ask for references or editing samples, establish a good rapport, and let the editor have at your manuscript. Nothing beats a well-edited novel.

If one or more of your beta readers is also skilled at grammar, spelling, punctuation, and such, they’ll likely find and point out many nitpicky errors as they read. This is helpful, especially if it’ll be a while before you can afford to hire that editor.

Writing can be a lonely business. If you have no close support system — a writers group, for instance — several can be found online via an Internet search. I belong to a couple, but don’t use them as much as I thought I might. Actually, I’m on the hunt for a group in my town or in a nearby community, and have considered posting signs, seeing if any hidden writers will join me in starting a new group. Just as honest beta readers are priceless, so is a solid group of writers who can critique and encourage one another toward excellence.

Questions or comments? I’m happy to help where I may.

Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations

51ct7umFcIL._SY346_Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations is a memoir that reads like a coming-of-age novel about two young girls who meet while music students, then reconnect as adults when their former teacher’s younger daughter goes missing.

The authors, Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky, are a journalist and a violinist, respectively, and Kupchynsky is the elder daughter of the aforementioned “one tough teacher”, and the sister of the missing young woman, Stephanie, who also grew up to become a music teacher.

I love music. I love singing, and plinking around on the piano or strumming a guitar, but I’m good at neither singing nor playing. The lessons I took as a child and a teenager were minimal, offered by kindhearted folks at church, or by persevering teachers at school. I was that student who thought she wanted to be better, but never had enough perseverance or patience to actually put for the effort to be better.

Writing and storytelling, however—those I did want to improve. Hours passed before I realized, especially if a writing session was going well, or if I was absorbed in studying or researching, or simply reading for entertainment. I didn’t need someone standing over me with a stern look, a stick, and an eye for the clock, because I was motivated all by myself.

But what happens when uncertain, shy, and even seemingly untalented students encounter a loud, particular, demanding teacher who is determined—by shout, by thwack, and by sparing praise—that they are going to succeed?

Mr. K’s subject, of course, was music. But the lessons he taught his students are universal: about resilience, and the power of optimism, and achieving success. And about humor, too, not that he was necessarily trying to be funny.

It’s hard to imagine a Mr. K in today’s world. Parents would be outraged; administrators would be pressured to fire him. Yet he was remarkably effective. His methods raise the big issues we grapple with now ourselves, as parents. Are we too soft on our kids? How do we best balance discipline with praise? How hard do we really want our kids’ teachers to push them? And if our kids do complain, how do we know when—or if—to interfere?

The latest research on kids and motivation, it turns out, comes down squarely in Mr. K’s corner. Recent studies show that overpraising kids makes them less confident and less motivated.

One study of fifth-graders—kids the same age as Mr. K’s beginning string students—is especially striking. Psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues divided the children into two groups and gave each a simple test. One group was then praised for being smart, and the other for effort. The result? The “smart” kids became far less confident, while the group praised for hard work became more confident, performed better, and in subsequent tests was eager to take on more challenging tests.

“The whole point of intelligence praise is to boost confidence and motivation, but both were gone in a flash,” Dweck noted… “If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not.”

The concept that hard work trumps innate ability is at the core of current thinking about business success, too…

…(R)eal experts don’t want soft teachers: They want tough ones. Unsentimental ones. Ones who give them “painful” feedback.

We couldn’t imagine a more accurate description of Mr. K. (Foreward, xv-xvi)

Back in the 1970s and 80s, I was one of those kids praised for intelligence rather than effort, and came to equate difficulty with failure or stupidity. Or, horror of horrors, no talent.

…(T)o Mr. K, there was no such thing as an untalented kid—just a kid who didn’t work hard enough. You are going to fix this problem, he said when he diagnosed whatever was wrong, and there was never any question. Of course you would. It was just a matter of trying and trying and trying some more. He yelled, not because we’d never learn, but because he was absolutely certain that we would. (p83)

Joanne comes from a nice, middle-class family that Melanie envies, while Melanie grows up with an invalid mother and a driven father, who essentially becomes a single parent when his ailing wife can no longer live at home. She plays piano, and he violin, and he passes that skill to their daughters—whether they want to learn or not.

As for his school students, well, they adapt—sometimes humorously. Once, in his Ukrainian accent, he denounces the group’s “cheeken plocking”, and a rubber chicken flies from the back and lands at the podium.

One day, Joanne’s parents drag her to a recital. She’d rather go to the fair or read Harriet the Spy.

I yawned and fidgeted in my seat as the first few groups played, daydreaming about frozen custard and Ferris wheels. But I was jolted back to reality by a commotion on the stage. Mr. K was clomping across the floor—my, could he do anything without making a racket?—looking for something. I watched as he noisily dragged over a podium to the center of the stage.

(The) quartet drifted out from the wings: three teenage girls and Melanie, Mr. K’s daughter. Melanie was wearing a smock dress and shiny black shoes with ankle socks…Melanie’s red hair was even shorter than mine, and her jagged bangs looked the way mine did that time I got hold of my mother’s scissors and started snipping away… .

Melanie was tiny, so it was a good thing she had the podium to stand on. Hauling herself up the two big steps and positioning herself on the top of the box, she lifted her little violin with a theatrical flourish. The other violinists looked toward her expectantly. Michele, who so easily lorded her authority and wisdom over me at home, was gazing at this little girl with respect. She sure never looked at me that way. (pp 58-57)

Eventually, Joanne braves Mr. K’s furious methods, learns the viola, and joins the quartet, playing with Melanie and her sister, Stephanie, who plays the violin.

Melanie recalls a performance:

I can feel how nervous Steph is. She and Joanne play alone for the first few notes. Steph’s bow is wobbling. I suck in my breath and hold it, trying to will her to be calm.

…(M)y dad is right. We are ready, and after the first few measures we settle in to doing what we have done so many times before. The music flows. The audience seems to recede into its seats, and even my dad fades into the background. We stop thinking about the crowd and focus on the music and on one another. I only have to nod slightly, or glance up from the music to lock eyes for a millisecond with the other girls, and we all lean in to the music, or play softer or louder, or dig in to a passage together. We really are breathing together. We really do feel the music as if we share one brain…

When we get to the end of the piece, we all exhale at once. This is something none of us has experienced before, a secret bond that we’re sure nobody else can understand. The audience is cheering, but it barely matters to us…

When it’s all over, my dad hugs each one of us in turn. He plants a kiss on Stephanie’s cheek…”Go celebrate,” he says. “You earned it.” (pp98-9)

Praise from Mr. K is rare, subdued. When “Again!” and a thwack across misaligned fingers is common, a nod, a quiet “pretty good”, is enough. More than progress, it means a job well done.

When he chooses a difficult Brahms piece, Joanne wonders what he could possibly be thinking.

What made him think his orchestra was up to snuff to perform a piece better suited to college symphonies and the New York Philharmonic? (p103)

But she and her sisters gather their instruments and go to the practice room to warm up before the performance. The other quartet members are there, too, but scattered throughout the room as the orchestra struggles to play in time with one another.

“Quartet weel demonstrate proper way to play,” he announced. “Girls, you play.”

The hair on my arms stood up strait. My heart dropped to somewhere in my bowels…

The four of us timidly tried the passage. We were used to looking to Melanie to give us a nod to start, and then to each other as we played. But the other girls were nowhere in my line of sight. As we started to play, they sounded impossibly far away…The notes came out all wrong, the timing out of sync. My heartbeat sounded louder to me than my own playing.

Mr. K scowled. “Again!”

Tentatively, we tried it once more. I was so nervous that my bow skittered along the strings. Melanie sounded louder, more insistent this time, as she tried to lead…from the other side of the room. You could tell the rest of us were straining to follow.

“Again!”

I took a deep breath, mustered my courage, and attacked. This time, the four of us cut through the silence in the rehearsal room with a precision I had no idea I was capable of. Mr. K glanced at the high schoolers arrayed in front of him with a look of satisfaction. “Like that,” was all he said. (p104)

The orchestra wins competitions, as do individual musicians, and Mr. K is acknowledged as an effective instructor. He takes his students to nursing homes, and they play at events, even at the funeral of a classmate.

Generations pass. Those early students grow up and send their children to be taught by him.

Then, one busy work day at The Wall Street Journal, Joanne receives a call. Mr. K. His younger daughter, Stephanie, is missing.

She never misses lessons with her violin students. Where is she? Is she even alive?

How do her family, friends, former classmates deal with life with that terrible question hanging unresolved?

Her mother dies before it is answered. Now elderly and retired from teaching in public school, Mr. K remarries, moves down the street, gardens, teaches a few private students, and compiles a book of poetry written in Ukrainian.

Life moves on, only to be interrupted again, this time by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Then Mr. K dies.

Gathered to perform at his funeral, former students try to polish rusty skills while exchanging reminiscences.

Joanna:

Across the room I spotted my old classmate Ted Kesler, the boy whom Mr. K picked on so relentessly, who sat at the back of the first violin section. When I thought back to Mr. K at his toughest, Ted always came to mind. I could still see Mr. K forcing him to play alone—”Again! Again!”—while the rest of the kids in the orchestra watched. Ted was a college professor of education now. We greeted each other warmly, but I was puzzled. Why show up for a teacher who tortured him so?

“In some ways, Mr. K was a terrible match for me,” he readily conceded.

But then Ted told me something I didn’t know when we were kids. His mother had died when he was in grade school, before he moved to East Brunswick. His father was a Holocaust survivor who was raising for children on his own; other family members had perished in concentration camps. Mr. K showed his father a respect, a deference, that you didn’t see with the other parents. “Mr. K was hard on me in part because I was lost and aimless and unguided,” Ted said. “You know, he wanted more from me.” What’s more, “the orchestra kept me connected within a community,” he said. “It sustained me. All of those musicians in the group effort kept pushing me forward…That kept me going: the collaborative energy.” (p309)

Mr. K was a youth in Ukraine during World War II. He knew what Ted’s father had survived, and he knew what Ted could overcome.

On his way home one afternoon, he heard something that stopped him cold: the sound of a violin. He was transfixed. The music wafted through an open window and to the street below where he stood, motionless. Inside, a German soldier—one of the occupying forces—was practicing.

The music transported Jarema [Mr. K’s first name]. It took him away from the war, away from the death surrounding him, away from the uncertainty that was his future. It opened up, instead, a world infused with beauty. The music filled him with so much joy that it pushed out the darkness. Jarema yearned to play the instrument, too. It was a revelation, these melodies that lifted him up and chased the demons away. It was an escape. It sparked in him an almost spiritual belief in the power of music to heal.

“I want to learn the violin,” he told his mother.

“You will,” she said. “We will get you lessons.”

She was never able to deliver.

One day, the window was closed. There was no music. There never would be again. The soldier was gone; to another posting or to his death, Jarema would never know for sure. (pp256-7)

Ted was right. Mr. K understood better than anyone the bond music creates among people who play it together. Beyond his bluster—and behind his wicked sense of humor and taste for Black Russians—perhaps that was his lesson all along. (p310)

On sale October 1, 2013, Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations is a story of survival and understanding, perseverance and courage, and most of all love—love for music, love for country, love for a tough teacher who accepted nothing less than the best. It’s recommended reading, not just for teachers or musicians, but also for anyone from any career field or walk of life.

I finished reading this book several days before attempting a review, but the impact is such that, even now, I’m letting the book speak for itself. Although my copy is an ARC (advanced reader copy) with a paperback binding covered in quotes and information rather than the nice image of the final published copy, and although this ARC has spelling errors and missing punctuation, it will remain in my library. After all, just as Mr. K didn’t have the distinguished manner one associates with an orchestra conductor, this book may not have a pretty cover, but what matter is the music, not the face.