Tag Archives: Critiques

Freeing Truth

On social media, a fellow writer and fellow Christian posted regarding the weird zone a pastor must walk between complete honesty and diplomatic reticence, lest his congregants be offended by truth and kick him out, and how the same weirdness exists in the Christian publishing industry: Can’t offend the readers, so let’s publish this not-quite-truthful fiction because it’s “clean” and it’ll keep us in business.

Below is a comment I almost posted in response:

The lack of complete honesty is one reason I stopped working for a Christian publisher: I quickly learned editors were expected to praise, not to correct. After all, praise was encouraging, but correction was negative and mean. It was okay to fix commas, but not to suggest deep revisions. It was okay to talk to a young writer about his/her first novel, but it wasn’t okay to tell them they need to do much more research about characters / history / health matters with folks who were experts in their fields.

I started holding back and doing the diplomatic thing. After all, maybe I was too intense. Maybe I was too demanding. And, after a time of introspection and second-guessing, I admitted there were a couple of instances when I coulda said something a bit more diplomatically, but I also admitted that I had never not told the truth.

“Encouragement” and “praise” aren’t synonymous.

Encouragement, as seen from the word’s construction, means “to put courage into” someone, and (according to Merriam-Webster Online) “to make (someone) more likely to do something” or “to tell or advise (someone) to do something.” (Sounds like editing, to me.) Praise means “to express approval” — and in today’s language that also means accepting without question or revision the thing or the person being praised.

An editor can praise a writer’s creativity without accepting that the manuscript is publish-ready. Praise for storytelling does not equal acceptance of clunky dialogue or run-on descriptive passages.

All writers need to be willing to receive feedback that isn’t blanket approval. Otherwise, they may never see weaknesses in their writing or their stories. They may never understand what works already or what needs improvement. They may never understand why their books aren’t selling.

In other words, unless they are willing to learn, they will never grow in their craft.

There’s another reason writers need completely honest feedback. If they only receive praise but  never encounter negative responses, they will never look at their own work critically and contend for it.

What does that mean?

If a writer must provide a reason for a line of dialogue, for a plot element, for a character, for a descriptive passage, he begins to think deeply about how the story fits together, about what’s necessary and what needs to be pruned. He begins to think like an editor.

That perspective, coupled with the fact that the author is the creator of the story, has great power in determining the quality of the final product.

Tell the truth. Receive the truth. The truth will set you free.

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The Rise of Fallen Stars

RiseofFallenStarsThe first book in The Third Heaven series, The Rise of Fallen Stars by Donovan M. Neal is an original piece of fantasy fiction, incorporating the limited Biblical account with a rich creativity to imagine what might have happened when Lucifer defied God and took a third of the angels with him.

In the beginning (wink and a smile), Lucifer saves Michael’s life, and all of the angels are shown as being in harmony and brotherhood, but someone steps outside his assigned task, setting in motion a chain of tragic events. Pride and grief, anger and bitterness, fester and work wedges between brothers until a powerful angel goes on a rampage and kills another, and Lucifer dares plot rebellion against his Maker, unleashing war in Heaven.

Lucifer is present in such vivid fashion one can “see” and “hear” his beauty as the most beautiful angel. Heaven and Hell are described in rich detail, and the clever use of Biblical language and verses lends a depth and an authenticity to the tale.

There are a few instances where Neal makes interesting parallels between his novel and the Bible, such as when El (God) tells Lucifer, “What you have to do, do quickly,” echoing what Jesus tells Judas on the night the disciple betrays the Messiah to His death.

The Rise of Fallen Stars is action-packed, and is densely populated with angels of many ranks and myriad names. They are sometimes difficult to keep straight, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying the story.

What did take me out of the story were occasional awkward phrases (“gastric acids of the abomination of punishment”), and descriptions that incorporated or described flora or fauna not yet created (such as when one heavenly being grabs another as one would grab a cat by the scruff of the neck). And, in an Indiana Jones-like scene, Michael and Raphael traverse a chamber of perils to enter the Hall of Annals, and Michael is afraid. Such fear in that situation seemed out of character for an angel.

One thing I found interesting was Neal’s incorporation of Greek myth names into the setting (Adonis trees, Elysian Fields), and the use of Greek god and German folklore names for some characters (Charon, Mephisto, and more).

The cover evokes the story, and is well done.

The Rise of Fallen Stars is by no means a perfect book, but it is original and interesting. Recommended reading.

Confession

Most people who know me also know I am a writer.

They’d have to be oblivious not to know. It’s an almost constant ingredient in my conversation. (Yes, I am that boring.) I love writing. It’s “the hardest work I’ll ever love”, and I dare say this love of words and stories is a calling.

It has given me work and has enabled me to help and encourage other writers, whether they be students writing only to finish assignments or aspiring writers seeking to be published. It has frustrated me, too, and the arduous process has taught me to let go of perfectionism and to persevere.

Perfectionism is rooted in fear and pride, and it prevents progress. It is one reason I chose a pseudonym: If people didn’t like my writing, I could hide behind another name.

However, there were other equal or greater reasons for choosing a pen name many years ago:
1) minor stalking from a few creepy guys when I was younger and better looking (alas, alack, time has taken its toll);
2) identity theft (a close family member was impinged upon by someone with a criminal history who married into the family, and then my information became linked to that person);
3) my real name doesn’t fit well with the types of stories I tell (“Elizabeth Easter” sounds like a romance writer, and while there are sometimes love stories in my work, I mostly write fantasy and science fiction); and
3) a desire to keep my editing work separate from my writing, and some writers — offended by the editing of their manuscripts — have called into question my abilities. I didn’t praise them as they wished, I made suggestions they viewed as insults, or perhaps I told them large portions would have to be rewritten. Therefore, rather than examine their own work, they attacked mine.

It is this behavior, among others, that led me to resigning from a publishing house and to shuttering the freelance editing business. Online creepers and offended authors weighed my spirit, and outweighed the many times writers had been encouraged and grateful for my help. I needed to step back and gain a clearer perspective.

An aside: If we live our lives offended, and if we make decisions out of that offense or we expect other people to tiptoe around us lest they offend, we are shackling not only ourselves but everyone else.

I have been edited by too-lenient teachers and by snarky, overbearing fellow writers. Good editing is a delicate balance: telling the absolute truth while still being kind and encouraging. As an editor, I strive for that balance, but have not always succeeded. As a writer, I also struggle to receive less-than-kind feedback and apply it objectively.

Another struggle: Should I reveal my true identity?

Another reason for choosing a pseudonym — and a masculine one, at that — was to practice writing male characters. Despite the push of political correctness, science confirms that men and women think differently. No secret there. However, after much experience editing romance novels, I became weary of the heroes mirroring the heroines: men who spoke, emoted, and behaved like women.

Also, a male reader’s feedback on an early, rough, uncompleted draft of my novel revealed that my male characters spoke and thought too much like the female characters. The feedback was not delivered with any thought to my feelings, but it was honest, and I respected that.

I needed practice. I chose a masculine pen name, started a blog, wrote a short story and a science fiction serial, and joined social media. Although I am a heterosexual woman, I found it comfortable, easy, and freeing to write as a man. As him, I could say things that Elizabeth couldn’t, and I was heard. The people with whom I engaged in conversation online where mostly men, and we could express ourselves without the clutter of delicate emotions. There was respect and honesty that wasn’t commonly present in conversations with fellow female writers. And, until I revealed the truth to a select few, people seemed to accept without question that “Keanan Brand” was a man.

The advertising, spam, and inappropriate invitations have accentuated that notion. There are spam-bots and actual women who have sent indecent proposals. Oy vey.

Yet another reason for choosing a pseudonym: to test my storytelling abilities without the impediment of my soft-sounding real name. The results have been mixed. Female readers have not liked the battle scenes, the violence, and the lack of erotic scenes, while the guys have wanted even more action and less poetry. However, some men have responded well to the emotional elements — not only the love stories, but also the scene where one character contemplates suicide, and there are strong friendships and family bonds — and some women have said they liked the action and thought the story was suspenseful. They did not seem influenced by the author name, but male readers seemed more inclined to my story when it came appended with a masculine pen name.

The truth will out.

There have been times when Elizabeth crept to the forefront of Keanan’s posts, and a couple times Elizabeth signed Keanan’s e-mail.

Writers whom I respect and like, and what started as a casual crossing of paths online have, in many cases, turned into friendships. Those friends deserve the truth — though I will understand if they do not remain friends after having been deceived by my online persona.

Regardless of the consequences, the time has come to confess the truth. Keanan Brand is really a woman, and Elizabeth Easter wrote this book:

new cover^for Smashwords

Author v. Editor

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.

EAPWhen 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.

KBWhen 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.

PEHThe 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!

Editing Services Are Now On Hiatus

We apologize for any inconvenience, but we are no longer accepting new clients for our editing services.

There are many reasons for this, including new directions in the main editor’s life and schedule. The decision also comes as a result of a recent phishing scam perpetrated on one of our colleagues, as well as online-stalking behavior from a potential client in which an editor’s privacy was breached.

Meantime, the Penworthy Press collective continues to write, produce art and jewelry, and take photographs.

Thank you for your patience and for your continued reading. We look forward to sharing good news with you soon!

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.

Listen. Contemplate.

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.

Annotated Dracula (part 3)

(Below is a revised re-post from February 27, 2010, Adventures in Fiction.)

This is the final entry in my series on an annotated version of Dracula by Bram Stoker. (Read Part 1 or Part 2 for previous comments.)

‘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.

Look around. Where’s the vampire in your life?