The old advice, “write what you know” has long been due for an overhaul, in my opinion. Some people treat it as poison advice to the writer. This is what they think:
What do most of us actually know? The daily office routine, traffic laws, relationships. All the mundane things that are in anyone’s life. Boring, right?
But these trivial qualities are the very things that keep us reading bestselling novels. I was never more aware of this than when I was reading through the Pendergast series by Preston and Child. A certain character had struggled against a rival in another business(while having hair-raising adventures along the way) and I went to bat for him in my mind. Each of his victories against the man and his bosses made me believe in the character even more.
Then–spoiler–the character died. I was angry that this happened, because I believed in him.
Because I knew the struggles he went through. I’d been through similar ones myself.
As Countee Cullen says in his poem, “Any Human to Another,” we are never alone in our experience:
Let no man be so proud
To think he is allowed
A little tent
Pitched in a meadow
Of sun and shadow
All his little own.–C.Cullen
So, write what you know. All your joys and sorrows, but put it into your fictional world.
Speak to your reader of the things that are human and universal.
My new proposal for the old advice: change it to–“When you write what you know, you can write what you want to.”
Below is a piece of flash fiction written during tonight’s writers meeting. What a blast!
Each person contributed a portion of the premise: An eccentric millionaire lives in the basement of an apartment building, makes duct tape wallets for a hobby, always wears sunglasses (even indoors and at night), looks like an old grandmother, and makes rock-hard cookies.
We had about twenty minutes or so to create our masterpieces. The resulting stories were all over the place, from outright comedies to dark histories.
Mine falls more toward the comedic side. I forgot the duct tape wallets, but included an homage to Tim Hawkins. Enjoy!
What Big Teeth You Have
I settle the sunglasses on my face and shuffle up the basement steps, rock music growing louder as I near the door leading to the lobby. In my pockets are the cookies I made earlier–hard enough to break a tooth. Or a young punk’s skull.
I unlatch the door and step into the hallway, the muted lights still blinding even through the dark lenses, and I blink, orienting myself. Music–if it can be called that–booms along the corridor and echoes in the lobby.
This is a nice place. Grandaddy built it as a luxury hotel, Uncle turned it into penthouses, and I inherited it after a family– Well, let’s just call it a domestic dispute.
Or a blood feud, if the absolute truth must be told.
Teenagers, the spoiled progeny of wealthy parents, pass around bottles of brandy and single-malt, drape themselves over furniture created by Fifth Avenue clothing designers, or dance to the jungle beats reverberating from the sound system stacked discreetly behind a potted acacia tree in one corner.
I put a hand into the pocket of my housedress and pull out a handful of cookies. “Pardon me,” but my voice is drowned by a howling note that pierces my skull even as it calls to my ancient blood. My ears twitch under the white hair holding them close to my head, and a bristle of hair stands upright along my spine.
Now, now, you mustn’t hurt them, but the cookies are already airborne, hitting their marks with greater accuracy than one might expect from a shaky little old woman like me.
The kids flinch and curse and look around. Blood trickles down one pup’s head, filling the air with its sharp metallic tang.
I’ve been missing in action, out of touch with much of the rest of my life, rarely leaving the house but wandering it when I wasn’t occupying a corner of it, head down, writing a short story for a contest.
Yes. I abandoned everything else for a contest. And what a frustrating, enlightening, depressing, wonderful, horrible, encouraging few weeks these have been.
Writing a short story within determined parameters — word count, genre, deadline, etc. — can seem daunting or constrictive, but I like the challenge. It forces me to write differently than I do for a novel or for my own pleasure. On my own, I can take my time, let the story unravel as it wills, at its own pace and down whatever rabbit trails it wishes to explore. Those, after all, can be revised later, and there’s no rush. For a contest, however, there’s a set time and a set limit, and I must create something that plays well inside that fence.
This short story was harder to write than the two novels I’m currently revising or completing. There were times in the past four or five weeks when I thought, “It’s just a contest. It doesn’t mean anything. Why work so hard when there are other projects that need tending? This is a waste of time.”
But I couldn’t stop.
It’s an illness.
It’s aqua vitae.
For non-writers, let me explain writing.
It isn’t glamorous. There are no beach chairs and mojitos involved. There is a lot of hard work and head-desking and pleas for help from passing family members who really don’t know how to solve the plot hole, they’re just on their way to the kitchen, thankyouverymuch.
It isn’t all inspiration and grand eloquence. There is a whole lotta literary crap thrown down that must then be turned over and worked into the soil of verbiage until words come alive and a story grows. And then the branches must be tended, trimmed, shaped. That’s called editing. The shrubbery doesn’t need to take over the yard or overshadow the trees. It needs to be its own thing, and thats what revision/editing achieves. Writing is an ugly business — until it’s beautiful.
It isn’t holding a quill pen and gazing soulfully at the sky, although you’re free to do that if it helps. There is a lot of gazing at the sky, though, or at any nearby object or activity that has nothing to do with one’s story. Sometimes, one stares at strangers in airports without realizing one’s mind is centuries in the past while one’s blank stare is pinioning a hapless fellow traveler.
It isn’t neatly packaged in a daily routine. It is often elusive. If I stare at the computer screen or the blank notebook page for too long without writing, something must change. Words or ideas must sometimes be approached at an oblique angle, as if I were catching rabbits, so I do something to set them at ease – play solitaire, watch a TV show, read a book, take a walk, do laundry, take photos at the park, do research — and let the literary rabbits nibble grass or go about their business until they wander into my snare. Or within pouncing distance. (Sometimes I’m the crafty hunter, sometimes I’m his dopey, eager dog.)
It isn’tjust writing what you know. It is researching to learn something you didn’t know, and then writing about it. Writing can feel a lot like perpetual homework. I’m doing now the kind of work I avoided in school. How weird is that? But research can lead to unexpected discoveries, friendships, trips, and new stories. I did more research for the short story than I’ve done for the most recent novel, and in the process learned a lot about Japanese history and how apple trees were introduced to the country. Boring? Trivial? To some. For me, however, it flung wide the doors of imagination.
It isn’t all book signings, seminar speeches, televised interviews, or drinking coffee while looking hip at the local diner. It is being unafraid to call oneself a writer, being dedicated to one’s craft, and passing one’s wisdom to the next crop of writers.
Now that the short story has been sent to the contest, I’ve turned toward proofing a galley for another writer, and then I’ll be revising a novel, learning about e-book formatting, and maybe reviewing a few more books. Because, y’know, homework.
In Part 1 of “Telling Our Stories”, an adaptation of a presentation given to a female group of non-writers, I discussed editing, faith, and how and why God is a storyteller. In this half, I discuss why we need to tell our stories, and then I’ll share a bit of my own.
My favorite Bible stories teach and encourage me:
Mary, the mother of Jesus
Elizabeth, her wise cousin
David and Goliath
Elijah and Elisha
the Acts of the Apostles
and many, many more.
Jesus told parables involving women (the lost coin, the ten virgins), and there are several stories in the Gospels of His interaction with women:
woman taken in adultery
woman at the well
woman with the issue of blood
Mary at the wedding in Cana
the Syro-Phoenician woman
the women among His followers
The Old Testament is also full of strong female role-models: Esther and Ruth, of course, as well as Deborah the judge and Rahab who—even though she was a prostitute—came to trust God and was an ancestor of Jesus. The stories of Abigail and other women not only captured my imagination, but planted truths in my soul that helped me grow in my faith, even as a child.
God invites us to be storytellers.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
Whom He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy
Psalm 107:2 (NKJV)
Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe
Psalm 107:2 (NIV)
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. Deuteronomy 6:4-6 (NKJV)
But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:14-15 (NKJV)
So, why don’t we share our stories?
Pride? Fear? Distrust?
Perhaps we think people will judge us or won’t care.
Maybe we don’t know that our stories matter.
Maybe our stories are difficult—not just difficult to hear, but difficult to tell.
If so, here’s a secret:
Stories are only interesting if something bad happens.
If the hero never faces a challenge, never has an obstacle to overcome or an enemy to defeat, what’s the point? If Goliath was a wimpy little fella, why tell the story?
If it were a movie, people would fall asleep in the theater. If a book, it would never be read.
I’m not saying we should be happy when trouble enters our lives, but we can recognize it for what it is: another twist in the plot, another event in the story of our lives.
We’ll tell others about it later—how we faced down death, came back from the brink of financial disaster, survived homelessness or alcoholism or physical abuse. Stories are bridges between hopelessness and purpose, failure and perseverance, darkness and light.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Romans 5:1-5 (NKJV)
THAT’s why we tell our story.
I always wanted to be brave, but knew I was a coward.
I loved to read stories of heroes from history, heroes of the faith, everyday people who were strong and stood for what was right.
However, I wouldn’t tell the truth when I should, out of fear of the consequences.
In childhood and even into my twenties, I attended churches with intensely evangelistic environments that could be compared to high-pressure sales: no one was getting away without hearing our pitch.
I hid from that by—ironically enough—carrying my Bible on top of all my schoolbooks, hoping other kids would ask me about it without me having to approach them first.
I’d stand up for my friends, but mock my faith, my overweight appearance, my bookish ways, and I’d back down and hide.
At age four, a huge fear entered my life, and with it came nightmares.
In the early 70s, my cousin DJ and I witnessed a fatal accident while playing in our grandparents’ front yard. We’d wanted to play in the ditch, but the grownups wouldn’t let us because 1) it was muddy, and 2) it was outside the fence.
We heard a screeching crash, and looked up to see what looked like one car with two back ends. A drunk driver in a Thunderbird had rounded the corner and veered into the inside lane, crashing head-on into a family’s station wagon.
He was thrown into a blackberry bramble on the far side of the road, and survived with only scratches and a broken collar bone. As I recall, only the father and one child survived in the station wagon.
In the confusion to help the victims, someone handed me a blanket, and I did what everyone else was doing, and toddled out to the ditch so I could give one of the rescuers a blanket. Recall, I was only four, and this was before the days of 911 and rescue vehicles being coordinated in their response times.
I reached the ditch, and saw my father straddling a body with no face. Whenever he would push down on the chest, air bubbles formed in the blood where the face should have been. I held out the blanket. He reached for it, and then he realized who was standing there. He yelled at me to get away, and I thought he was angry with me. Only later did I understand he was trying to protect me.
From that day onward, I had a fear of accidents, of wearing my seatbelt or not wearing it, of being cut by glass or being thrown out the window or hitting face-first against the seat in front of me. Riding in cars was stressful for a good long while.
Much later, in late teens and early twenties, I lived in a long dark tunnel of depression. The first time, I was suicidal. The second depression was shorter, I recognized it for what it was, and came out of it stronger than before.
I’ve survived automobile accidents, workplace bullies, foolish choices, church gossip, and even my own family.
Shortly before my twelfth birthday, my maternal grandfather and my uncle resorted to violence to settle a problem so minor it could have been resolved with a conversation. It didn’t even bear mentioning.
And yet they held a knife to my eight-year-old brother’s throat, and guns to our heads.
They threatened to kill our parents if anyone came to get us. They disowned my mother, and said many other things best forgotten. Peace I cannot describe came over me, and I knew God was in charge. We were going to come out of there alive.
There’s more to that story, but I’ll tell you later.
In my twenties, a suicidal woman named Carol pointed a gun at me and my friend, intending to kill us and then herself. I didn’t move, didn’t speak, but just continued leaning against the window A/C unit and sent up a silent prayer. I didn’t know what else to do. Again, I was strangely calm in that moment. I was ready to die.
Carol put down her gun and wept. Many nights later, she was drunk and met me in the church parking lot, but wouldn’t look me in the eyes. She said the reason she couldn’t pull the trigger the first night, and why she couldn’t look at me now, was because of the person she saw with me, the person looking out of my eyes. Not me. Someone else was looking at her. She wanted the love she saw, but felt unworthy of it. Could I help her?
In my thirties, I hit an icy patch on the road and rolled my truck. The man who helped me get out expected to find a dead body. Instead, I blacked out only briefly. Although I had a concussion and strained muscles, I was cognizant and fully able to move.
When I look back on the events of my life—the miracles, the healings, the long troubles that seemed never to end—I can see the story God has been telling.
But only when I look back. It’s hard in the moment to see the story.
Stories are powerful.
They convey truth often better than a lecture, an advice column, or even a sermon.
And how are sermons illustrated? By scriptures and by stories.
Jesus used stories to point to the kingdom of heaven, to show people how to live, to show how much God loves us. However, to do so, He also showed us ourselves in our imperfections. In the parables of Jesus, people make mistakes or wrong decisions:
a rebellious son squanders his inheritance
a man forgiven his debt refuses to forgive someone else
bridesmaids arrive unprepared
wedding guests refuse to accept a generous invitation
For centuries, histories were kept alive by storytelling. Now we write history in books.
Strong stories often contain Biblical truths or concepts,
although they may not outright preach them.
I reiterate, stories are powerful.
People who might never pick up a Bible will pick up a novel.
Stories can reveal truth in ways that will capture the minds and hearts of readers who otherwise might never come into a church to hear the sermons.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not [overcome] it. John 1:4-5 (NKJV)
Stories spark the imagination.
They ask questions and rouse curiosity. They engage the mind.
Remember the disciples asking Jesus what His parables meant? The disciples were interacting with the stories. They were engaged.
Stories are why novels, role-playing games, stage plays, television shows, and movies are so influential in our culture.
To further answer the question, “Why stories?” read Dan Allender’s excellent book, To Be Told. In it, he shows how God uses our stories to guide, heal, and direct us, and to help us minster to others.
Remember when I said there was more to the story involving my grandparents and my uncle?
The police took my brother and me away from the house in the wee hours of the morning. The grownups said everything was my fault.
My parents considered pressing charges, or at least getting a restraining order, but because of what my grandparents and uncle told the police, I was afraid they would lie in court. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. I just wanted everything to quiet down and be normal again.
About a year or so later, my grandparents announced that my grandfather’s heart was failing, and begged to come see us. I tried to be cool about it, but I couldn’t wait for them to leave.
A couple years after that, near Thanksgiving, my grandfather died. Mom mourned him, but I couldn’t understand. Yeah, he was her father, but he’d been abusive to her, and he’d tried to kill me and my brother. I was relieved he was dead.
This August, nearly thirty years later, Mom and I traveled out west to see my grandmother and uncle. I didn’t want to, but I knew it mattered to Mom, and we’d had a trip to the West Coast planned for several years.
I’d forgiven my grandmother and uncle a long, long time ago. Yet, rather than accept the responsibility for their actions, they continued to blame me.
But when we walked into the rehab center, Grandma was sitting in her wheelchair near the door, and the first thing she said to me, tears running down her face, was “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” No blame, no lies, just repentance.
Life is messy.
It’s also full of blessing.
Life is hard, but God is good.
And that’s my story.
Think about the word destroy. Do you know what it is? De-story. Destroy. Destory. You see. And restore. That’s re-story. Do you know that only two things have been proven to help survivors of the Holocaust? Massage is one. Telling their story is another. Being touched and touching. Telling your story is touching. It sets you free. ― Francesca Lia Block
I know the truth of these words. Oh, the stories I could tell! And you—what is your story?
Our stories must be told. Not necessarily the fiction, the things we imagine, but the truth, the things that happened to us, the things we did.
Below is the first in a series of blog posts addressing the need to tell those stories. It was originally conceived as a presentation to a group of non-writers, then was abridged as a talk to a small Bible study group.
Although I originally addressed Christians, much of the material applies to fellow writers and to people in all walks of life, especially those who have dealt with tragedies, abuses, things they can’t find the words or even the will to reveal to others. Perhaps something written here will inspire them to open their mouths or take up their pens and tell their stories.
Since we came to know Christ, storytelling has been—or should be—a natural part of our lives. When we minister to others, when we give an answer for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15-16), we have opportunity to tell our stories of what God has done for us.
I’ll begin by discussing my work as an editor, segue into the importance of storytelling in the Bible, and then how we are storytellers in our everyday lives.
As an editor, my job is to help authors shape and correct their work.
It’s not my job to write the story for them, but to help them present their best work.
Whether they’re freelance clients or authors under contract with a publisher, the most difficult writers to work with are those who don’t see their need for change. They don’t think they need to improve anything. They’ve fallen into the trap of pride.
They just want someone to tell them how good they are, to approve of whatever they write, and to require nothing else from them—not revising, no researching, nothing but collecting the royalty checks.
Problem is, if there’s not a quality product for sale, then those royalty checks will be rather thin.
We’re all imperfect humans. We all have room for improvement.
Even editors are not infallible or all-powerful. There comes a point when I have to step back and let the writer have his way. After all, it’s not my story. I’ll lead, I’ll guide, but I won’t write the book.
My favorite writers to work with are those who are humble and teachable. They don’t have false humility, an insidious form of pride. They know they have a good story. They know they can write, but they’re always striving to be better, to improve their craft.
They want to present their best work to the world. If they’re Christians, they also want to glorify God above all else.
Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God
I Corinthians 10:31 (KJV)
Before I can begin editing a manuscript, there must first be words on the page.
Sometimes, writers can’t create because they’re too concerned with perfection. The story doesn’t arrive fully formed, with the characters alive, the sentences in the correct order, the words flowing with a beautiful cadence—and so the writer stalls.
The process isn’t neat and orderly. It’s messy and requires hard work. Therefore, the writer is blocked. He can’t move forward. He spends his time perfecting the words he’s already written, polishing them until they shine, but he writes little or nothing new.
How many of us are like that writer?
How many of us aren’t really living forward? We spend our time looking backward at the past. We play the what-if game, the if-only game, but don’t expand our horizons or accept new challenges, because doing so is hard—especially when we fail.
Some view failure as the end. Some view it as only the beginning—a lesson learned on the way to a greater goal.
Some writers lose contest after contest before they win anything. Some send out manuscripts over and over only to be rejected time and time again before someone sees the potential in the story and publishes it. Those writers never give up despite failure. They have a greater goal in mind, and they are perfecting their writing each time they write a new story or revise an old one.
Do we defeat ourselves before we even begin?
How can God shape our stories when we give Him so little to work with?
Take movies, for example.
The version we see in theaters is the theatrical release.
Some movies have another version—the director’s cut.
The director’s vision for the film may differ greatly from what is seen in theaters. It may have more scenes or even alternate scenes, and contain details that expand or enhance the story. Therefore, it is usually longer than the theatrical release.
In our everyday lives, how many of us only want the theatrical release?
We want to skip to the good parts, the interesting and action-packed parts, and forget the rest—the boring everyday stuff, the sad or tragic scenes?
But life is the director’s cut, and we have to live every moment of it.
God is a storyteller.
The first book every printed on a press, His has outsold all others.
The Bible is full of stories. Jesus used them to illustrate the Gospel. Recall this phrase: “The kingdom of heaven is like…”? It precedes several of His parables, a sacred “once upon a time”.
Why did He tell these stories?
That We May Believe
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
John 20:30-31 (New King James Version)
And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.
John 21:25 (NKJV)
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.
About 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.
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.
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?
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? —refreshingcritique 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.
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?
It’s an epic, never-ending battle between mind and emotions: Who cares? Who’s gonna read this? Is it a story worth telling? Well, dagnabbit, I’m a wordsmith; of course it’s good! No, no, it’s utter garbage.
Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve written — none or dozens.
Doesn’t matter how many reviews you’ve gained — none or hundreds.
Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve sold — none or millions.
It’s all about the book in front of you.
What I’m about to write may seem to contradict what I wrote in Mentors v. Gatekeepers, which is about finding mentors to teach us, and breaking free of the gatekeepers who might try to keep our stories from reaching the world.
However, as much as I am a dreamer, I’m also a realist. No writer is perfect. We all need an objective eye. That perspective can come from a critique partner, a writers group, an agent, an editor. We need that honest person who’ll say, “I understand you’re trying to make us feel the wind, but this sentence crashes to ground.”
We might, on occasion, pen a short story or a poem that needs minimal revising, or none. Sometimes we’ll write a scene or a chapter that is barely edited, if it’s edited at all, because it’s good from the beginning. However, those rare glimpses of perfection should not be mistaken for signs that we have nothing more to learn.
Sure, you could kick back and rest on the smug knowledge that you have written, and written well.
But all that falls away in the presence of the book you’re writing now.
This book, right now.
Will you dash it off, not spending the same time and care as you might have done when you were green and uncertain? When you were hungry?
Or will you be even more precise with your choices, your efforts, knowing that you owe your readers your best, although readers owe you nothing?
Until recently, I edited manuscripts for a publisher. It was challenging and educational, and far less glamorous and lucrative than some might expect. Many manuscripts should never have been given contracts, because either the stories or the writing weren’t ready for publication, and read more like works in progress rather than final drafts. But there were many that only needed a scene rewrite here or there, dialogue revisions, minor proofing, or expanded endings.*
The point is this: every manuscript needed an editor.
However, one major reason I am no longer working for the publisher is the notion that some writers are perfect, their work approaching the sanctity of Holy Writ. I was given the resumes and bios of certain writers, not merely to inform me of their background, but to tell me — without the actual words being said — Here There Be Untouchables. I was expected to do my job so lightly that egos were stroked without being ruffled.
Anyone who knows me also knows I am not an ego-stroker. I give praise and encouragement, but I will not flatter. Flattery stresses me. Flattery makes my insides curl up like frightened potato bugs.
So does letting a problem fester and lie there without being addressed. I hate confrontation, but dealing with a problem is necessary. It’s like feng shui for the soul.
After the latest round of flatter-don’t-edit, I turned in my resignation. (Read more about it here: “When It’s Time To Go“.)
Just as writers aren’t perfect, neither are editors. I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve been the pompous youngster who thought he knew far more than he actually did. Memories of past stupidities still make me shudder.
And I’m a writer, too, so there are even more past mistakes to make me want to hide under a blanket until everyone forgets I’m an idiot.
Pride and insecurity are two fires that fuel writerly angst and sensitivity. Pride stings when someone pokes, stabs, or slaps it. Pride doesn’t like it when someone says, “That scene doesn’t work” or “This chapter is boring.” Pride wants to cross its arms and ignore the negative feedback, or even to draw a verbal sword and attack the critic.
I know. I battled stung pride a couple days ago, wanting to stab back at a reader whose own arrogance overshadowed his advice.
But I’ve been here before. I’ve learned to sift through the feedback, take what I need, discard the rest.
I can’t pull out my past awards, my references, all the contest certificates or publishing credits. They’re nice on a resume, but they don’t have any bearing on the book in front of me.
Like every other writer, all I can do is my best on this book, right now.
*One disservice, I believe, television and movies have done to modern fiction is the rush to an ending. Back when The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was finally complete, and The Return of the King came to theatres, some viewers complained about the long ending. Those viewers had likely never read the book, in which essential story continued past the main battle. The conflict wasn’t over, and there was still an enemy or two to deal with. But that’s like real life, eh? There’s always something.