A catch-up on my latest work–and links to new novels from a Fred Rothganger and Keanan Brand!
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Bad Haiku on a Winter’s Day
The world is swathed in snow, but — for once — the wind is still.
I try writing exercises to spark creativity, but what I produce instead is bad haiku.
Trees wear white garments
woven on a snowy loom.
Silence. A hawk cries.
an exiled beetle bumbles
in a warm corner.
And then there’s this truly tortured haiku:
Mere glass yet staunch guard,
the window staves cold, wards heat,
lets light, stands sentry.
Nope. No more poetry. It’s fiction for me today.
And the world sighs in relief. 😉
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)
“And there is no abiding” — not until we’re Home.
Novel v. Sermon
Last week, I posted this on Facebook:
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 faith and 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.
Research, ask questions, conduct interviews, ask why.
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.
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–
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.
Wanted: Cover Artist
Just posted this on Facebook:
My first choice for book cover artist isn’t available after all, and I’m in need of art involving a dragon eye, a massive claw gripping a pile of rubble, one wing wrapping the side and bottom of a crumbling stone tower, and maybe shadowy shapes in the dark distance. A cover that will still look good as a thumbnail image.
No fancy streamers on this dragon, or fur or horns, but make him streamlined and muscular. Defined eye ridge. Cat-like rather than human-looking pupil. Think ginormous Komodo dragon with a large wingspan and a long neck and tail. Legs maybe a person-and-a-half tall. Gold scales, green eyes.
Full disclosure: I can’t pay much right now, but I want to be fair, and may be able to add a bonus after the book sells. I’m interested in your best work. The fantasy novel — Dragon’s Rook — will be released as an e-book first, and then in print. You will receive full credit for your work (on the copyright page and/or in the acknowledgements), and I will be happy to include your contact information, as well (website, e-mail, etc.). Thanks!
To the description should be added these necessary details: broader head or snout than a Komodo, and huge eyes. None of these beady little things that are easily dismissed, but mysterious, arresting eyes that could mesmerize anyone looking into them. If that’s not possible with a cat-like pupil/iris, then use a human-like eye shape.
If this sounds like a project you’d be interested in joining, please leave a reply to this post.
I’m interested in seeing various styles of art, and whichever is chosen for Dragon’s Rook will have the first crack at the cover for the second book, titled either Dragon’s Bane or Dragon’s Blood.
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 Campaign, about 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.
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?
This Book, Right Now
It’s an epic, never-ending battle between mind and emotions: Who cares? Who’s gonna read this? Is it a story worth telling? Well, dagnabbit, I’m a wordsmith; of course it’s good! No, no, it’s utter garbage.
Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve written — none or dozens.
Doesn’t matter how many reviews you’ve gained — none or hundreds.
Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve sold — none or millions.
It’s all about the book in front of you.
What I’m about to write may seem to contradict what I wrote in Mentors v. Gatekeepers, which is about finding mentors to teach us, and breaking free of the gatekeepers who might try to keep our stories from reaching the world.
However, as much as I am a dreamer, I’m also a realist. No writer is perfect. We all need an objective eye. That perspective can come from a critique partner, a writers group, an agent, an editor. We need that honest person who’ll say, “I understand you’re trying to make us feel the wind, but this sentence crashes to ground.”
We might, on occasion, pen a short story or a poem that needs minimal revising, or none. Sometimes we’ll write a scene or a chapter that is barely edited, if it’s edited at all, because it’s good from the beginning. However, those rare glimpses of perfection should not be mistaken for signs that we have nothing more to learn.
Sure, you might win contests, awards, accolades, admiration, celebrity, financial success.
Sure, you might publish a string of bestsellers.
Sure, you could kick back and rest on the smug knowledge that you have written, and written well.
But all that falls away in the presence of the book you’re writing now.
This book, right now.
Will you dash it off, not spending the same time and care as you might have done when you were green and uncertain? When you were hungry?
Or will you be even more precise with your choices, your efforts, knowing that you owe your readers your best, although readers owe you nothing?
Until recently, I edited manuscripts for a publisher. It was challenging and educational, and far less glamorous and lucrative than some might expect. Many manuscripts should never have been given contracts, because either the stories or the writing weren’t ready for publication, and read more like works in progress rather than final drafts. But there were many that only needed a scene rewrite here or there, dialogue revisions, minor proofing, or expanded endings.*
The point is this: every manuscript needed an editor.
However, one major reason I am no longer working for the publisher is the notion that some writers are perfect, their work approaching the sanctity of Holy Writ. I was given the resumes and bios of certain writers, not merely to inform me of their background, but to tell me — without the actual words being said — Here There Be Untouchables. I was expected to do my job so lightly that egos were stroked without being ruffled.
Anyone who knows me also knows I am not an ego-stroker. I give praise and encouragement, but I will not flatter. Flattery stresses me. Flattery makes my insides curl up like frightened potato bugs.
So does letting a problem fester and lie there without being addressed. I hate confrontation, but dealing with a problem is necessary. It’s like feng shui for the soul.
After the latest round of flatter-don’t-edit, I turned in my resignation. (Read more about it here: “When It’s Time To Go“.)
Just as writers aren’t perfect, neither are editors. I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve been the pompous youngster who thought he knew far more than he actually did. Memories of past stupidities still make me shudder.
And I’m a writer, too, so there are even more past mistakes to make me want to hide under a blanket until everyone forgets I’m an idiot.
Pride and insecurity are two fires that fuel writerly angst and sensitivity. Pride stings when someone pokes, stabs, or slaps it. Pride doesn’t like it when someone says, “That scene doesn’t work” or “This chapter is boring.” Pride wants to cross its arms and ignore the negative feedback, or even to draw a verbal sword and attack the critic.
I know. I battled stung pride a couple days ago, wanting to stab back at a reader whose own arrogance overshadowed his advice.
But I’ve been here before. I’ve learned to sift through the feedback, take what I need, discard the rest.
I can’t pull out my past awards, my references, all the contest certificates or publishing credits. They’re nice on a resume, but they don’t have any bearing on the book in front of me.
Like every other writer, all I can do is my best on this book, right now.
* One disservice, I believe, television and movies have done to modern fiction is the rush to an ending. Back when The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was finally complete, and The Return of the King came to theatres, some viewers complained about the long ending. Those viewers had likely never read the book, in which essential story continued past the main battle. The conflict wasn’t over, and there was still an enemy or two to deal with. But that’s like real life, eh? There’s always something.
Cold Heart, Kindly Meant
In recent months, I’ve been approached by new writers seeking to self-publish their work, and have participated in a few discussions about and with independent authors. As a result, I’ve come to this conclusion: Regardless of literary skill or monetary remuneration, one’s self-discipline and willingness to keep learning are important to one’s success. (And one’s definition of success is important, as well.)
Some of the authors I’ve met understood their manuscripts’ need for good editing, but have wanted it at little or no expense. I understand that. I’d love to obtain excellent products at no cost to me. Free housing, free utilities, free whatever — that’d be great, huh?
But we appreciate and cherish that which we gained at great cost, that for which we sacrificed.
So, despite how cold-hearted these words may seem to new writers in search of praise and handouts, I say, “Suck it up. Work it out. Learn. Strive. Improve. Don’t whine. Grow up. Bind your wounds. Stand on your own feet. Know when to ask for help. Keep fighting. Know your worth. Be humble. And in the words of Bill and Ted, be excellent.”