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.
This morning, I visited Writer Beware blog, and read a post about “editors” taking advantage of self-published e-book authors by telling them their books are full of errors and then pushing their editorial services. I had no idea that such a scam was going on, and then realized that I may have come across as a creep a year or so ago when I offered to edit an error-riddled but excellent book by a fellow editor and writing mentor.
I contacted the author, told her I loved the book but was concerned about the errors, and offered to do the work for free. She sent me the document, I did the work, and it was all back to her within a day (short book). She’s a colleague. I couldn’t not help her present her best work to the world.
I have no idea if she ever took my advice or incorporated any of those edits. She thanked me, and that’s the last I heard. It’s very likely her pride was stung or she was suspicious of me. Who knows?
Recently, the reverse happened when someone asked to be a beta reader for my novel. Despite my telling him that 1) I wanted reader feedback, not editing, and 2) I am also an editor, he tore into the first few chapters and took me to task for story issues that didn’t exist (he’d skimmed the book and made assumptions about the rest), told me the book would only be successful if it were properly edited, and then reminded me a few times that he had a website and an editing service. I thanked him for his “help”, and ended our association.
There are scams and con artists and folks just giving the hard sell — everyone needs to make a living — but there are also well-intentioned people, too, who want to see other people succeed. Sometimes it’s difficult to know who’s a mere actor and who will actually deliver.
I hope my fellow writers and editors can rely on me for “the real deal”.
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)
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.
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.
One of my favorite characters in film or literature is The Mouse from 1980s film Ladyhawke. A youthful thief of slender dimensions, Mouse makes promises to God then promptly breaks them, and though his faith is undimmed, his skepticism remains sharp.
“Lord, I’ll never pick another pocket again as long as I live. I swear it. But here’s the problem: You’ve got to let me live. How can I prove my good faith to you? If you’ve heard me, this ledge will remain steady as a rock, and that thing coming at me won’t be what I think it is. If it is, there’s no hard feelings, of course, but I’d be very disappointed.”
“We have come full circle, Lord. I would like to think there is some higher meaning in this. It certainly would reflect well on You.”
At the beginning of the film, when he’s escaping from the dungeon via a passage so small it should have been impossible:
“This is not unlike escaping my mother’s womb. God, what a memory.”
Fearful yet courageous, uncertain yet bold, seeking company yet often alone, he verbalizes his internal dialogue to humorous, insightful effect. Without Mouse’s spoken thoughts, the story would be less. It would be flat, too earnest, maybe even pretentious. But Mouse and his constant patter bring heart, humor, and that disbelieving look askance that somehow makes us believe it even more.
Granted, most internal dialogue is internal — that’s the point. It’s a character’s unspoken thoughts that readers are allowed to know, whether or not those thoughts are ever revealed to other characters in the story.
It can take many forms, from prayers to wishes, from snarky comments or ironic remarks, from telling the truth to outright lies, even conversations with people who aren’t there. In the passage below — from an episode in Keanan Brand‘s science fiction serial, Thieves’ Honor, there’s spoken dialogue between mercenary Bosko and prisoner Finney, but internal dialogue between Finney and her deceased grandfather, Admiral Cunningham. [Note: The Admiral calls her “Gracie” because that’s what he called her father, whose last name was “Grace”. Father-in-law good-naturedly harassing his son-in-law. Both men are deceased before the story begins.]
“Like I said, you’re an uncommon target.” He chuckled again. “A great many governors and officials didn’t seem too eager to help us find you. Lotta lowlifes, too. Figured they’d been paid off—or they do business with the Vega. Name’s Bosko, by the way.”
“We’re not friends.”
“No reason we can’t talk.”
Ye don’t like talking, Gracie, do ye? Except to that crew and its captain. The admiral’s voice held a slight harrumph. Pilot on a reputable ship might make a grandda proud, but on a pirate vessel?
Fewer rules, she replied. No uniforms. No salutes. No blasted colonial government.
Ach, Gracie, now yer talkin’ like a rebel.
Aye, Grandfather, and were I braver I’d have joined them years ago, but it’s safer in the supply line.
There was a snort. Safer? And with supplies stolen from honest citizens! Then the imagined voice gentled. Not always so honest, I suppose. Still, the goods are not yers for the taking. Look where piracy has brought ye.
Not piracy. She looked down, and wrapped one blood-crusted hand around the collar. Murder. Vengeance for you. Tears slipped from the corners of her eyes and dripped from her chin. I acted in haste, and the wrong person died.
“No tears now”—Bosko sounded nervous—”and no pulling at that collar.” (from Episode 15, “Leaping the Circle, copyright KB)
Done well, internal dialogue adds tang to the story, expands the readers’ understanding of or connection to a character, and reveals that character’s philosophy, belief, opinion, etcetera. It can liven the spoken dialogue and even liven a character.
On the other hand, wielded clumsily, it can kill a character.
This was evidenced in a manuscript I recently edited. The author was concerned about feedback from beta readers who said they didn’t connect with her main character. In fact, they didn’t like her. She was cold, arrogant, unsympathetic. After I provided a detailed critique, the author made changes, but she was still concerned about the readers’ perception of the main character.
Due to various behind-scenes-matters that attend the publishing process, I didn’t read the manuscript again for a few weeks. However, when I dove in again, I saw the problem: The character’s snarky, blame-casting internal dialogue made her seem whiny and belligerent rather than realistic and confident. By trying too hard to make her seem hip or smart, the author actually undercut the character.*
“Children should be seen and not heard,” or so goes the old saying. I disagree with its intent of marginalizing children, but there’s truth in it, too. Or, to quote other old sayings, “actions speak louder than words” and “a picture’s word a thousand words.”
“Think before you speak.”
Or, in the case of an author wondering whether or not to reveal a character’s thoughts, “think before you write.”
Be aware of what is being revealed in dialogue. Is it what you intend? Will it enhance or undercut the character? Will it contradict everything else we know about the character? Will it add just the right amount of spice, or will it leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth? Will it make an unlikeable character seem nicer than you intend, or make a sympathetic character lose the reader’s respect?
Internal dialogue can also add subtext and subtlety to a story. Subtext is what is meant but never actually written or said, and subtlety is the use of the indirect or the obscure in order to reveal what isn’t obvious. Subtlety could also be defined as cleverness or perception.
Do your characters make oblique observations that, on the surface, are about something mundane but reveal what the characters are really feeling? Or, perhaps, we know exactly what they’re thinking, but something else is engaged in the dialogue, too. In the example below from a soon-to-be-published fantasy novel, nature — or God? — seems to be responding to the character’s unspoken questions:
There was another place for the fallen, for the murdered and the war dead. They were said to cry in eternal grief and bitterness, trapped on the Highlands, separated from kindred until a blue sun rose in the west. Their howls, Turi suspected, were nothing more than wind through stones, but even he would go no closer to the Highlands than the wood. After all, what defense was a sword against a spirit?
He tilted back his head and looked up at the ribboned sky. Omwendinn?
A sudden breeze set banners waving, snapping the green Oak of Disson in a brisk salute.
When will those distant fires be the fires of home?
The breeze died. The first stars of evening winked in the sky. (Dragon’s Rook, copyright 2014, Keanan Brand)
There are many ways to employ internal dialogue. Play with it. Experiment. See what works. Does it make you laugh? Gasp with surprise? Nod your head and say, “Aha!”
If so, well done.
Or, as the admiral might say, “Carry on, Gracie. Carry on.”
*This book will be published in late 2014, and I do not have permission to share examples from the text.
I could end my review right there and still have told the complete truth, but that wouldn’t tell you why or what, or how you can acquire your own copy of this useful, soon-to-be essential, little volume.
As a writer of fantasy and science fiction, I have defended my chosen genres to writers who deem them lower forms of literature, as pop-lit or pulp fiction. (Well, I ask, doesn’t the “pop” in pop-lit mean the form is popular? There must be a reason for that.) Fantasy has been and will always be a viable and powerful literary form, and Philip Martin is its apologist:
Fantasy is different from other types of fiction. It is a wonderful approach to storytelling, and “wonderful” here means literally full of wonder. Unfortunately, it is often used in a very small-minded sense to segregate off a small type of adventure fantasy into a sub-genre, a ghetto of bookstores and libraries, where you mostly find books with sword-wielding barbarians, bushy-eyebrowed wizards wearing star-studded gowns, Arthurian knights galloping across medieval countrysides, perhaps a castle in the background, perhaps a scaly dragon sailing overhead, perhaps a warty, axe-wielding ogre lurking in the shrubbery. But fantasy is far more than this. Fantasy combines wonder and whimsy with a richly non-rational, spiritual, philosophical look at matters such as good and evil…Someone said that the difficult thing about fiction is that it has to make sense. Fantasy makes sense, but it doesn’t show us reality. It shows us an inner truth, without any need to be any more real than an occasionally invisible hobbit with hairy toes. (Kindle locations 134-150) (emphasis mine)
Martin goes on to say, “At their core, fantasy stories are about what we believe about some matter of spiritual beliefs; they tackle core issues of good and evil, and how we should deal with it all” (Kindle locations 155-156).
Amen, brother! Preach it!
But this is not a religious book, nor is it a book of faith, but a discussion of how the spiritual is illustrated by and becomes accessible because of fantasy literature.
His three criteria for choosing the twelve books included in The Purpose of Fantasy:
They had to be really entertaining.
They had to be worth rereading.
They had to be worth discussing.
As a result, and without prior design, most of the books that made the cut are generally marketed to children.
C.S. Lewis wrote: “When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” (This may apply to adults as well.) What is clear is that the foundations of a person’s moral character are strongly shaped by influences and lessons absorbed in childhood. And the two things that fantasy is most about – imagination and issues of right/ wrong – are naturally in rich abundance in children’s books and stories. (Kindle locations 234-240)
However, the questions raised and the themes throughout are decidedly the realm of adults.
Some writers of fantasy have been quite annoyed to see their stories labeled as “for children.” These authors included the great fabulist Hans Christian Andersen, who insisted “my tales were just as much for older people as for children, who only understood the outer trappings and did not comprehend and take in the whole work until they were mature.” (Kindle locations 274-276)
Again, the WHAT (the books Martin discusses in The Purpose of Fantasy):
Reading this book was a joy. It reacquainted me with beloved books I haven’t read since childhood, and nudged me to become friends with books that have long been on my “to read” list. (I first learned of Momo from a popular South Korean television series, My Lovely Sam Soon, aka My Name is Kim Sam-Soon, and have been wanting to read it ever since.)
For me, there is a danger in reading interesting books that are also well-written. When I find something I like, something that speaks to me or draws me in, I will blitz through it. I skip across the water rather than immersing in it. This time, however, I read slowly, as Martin recommends we do when perusing the stories he suggests. Savor them, ponder them, ask their questions of ourselves. Feel the wonder.
Fantasy’s gift is to allow us to see our own world in a state of surprise and grace. (Kindle locations 475-476)
Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince,
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
But fantasy is more than the fantastic or the spiritual. In the chapter titled “Is Fantasy Subversive?”, Martin opens with this statement:
Some authors have seen fantasy as a good way to introduce a type of creative questioning, one that can shake up, or sneak by, a conventional perception. (Kindle locations 492-493)
And bolsters it with this:
Ursula Le Guin wrote that some adults are uneasy with fantasy’s inconvenient tendency to reveal truths – to tell stories in which emperors have no clothes. (Kindle locations 504-505)
I grew up in a strict church that, despite its words, seemed more concerned with appearances than with truth, and eschewed obvious sins while indulging in the more subtle, more insidious sin of pride. I was that kid who stirred up controversy by pointing out what was, to me, as plain as sunshine: There’s something wrong. There’s a disconnect between what they said they believed and how they behaved.
One of the teachings declared that most fiction was useless and even sinful, because it was lies. However, as a voracious reader, I consumed fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, fairy tales, folklore, and the like, as well as the many stories in the Bible, and gained much from them all. In a Native American folktale, I might learn about wise choices, which backed up a concept I might have learned in Sunday School or heard preached from the pulpit. In an African fable, the evil of lying might be reinforced.
Do stories question authority? How often, for instance, do stories and books for young readers contain dunder-headed or threatening adults? Does that mean that those stories are anti-adult? More accurately, they encourage young readers to think twice, and compare what they see in real life to those fictional tales. (Kindle locations 576-578)
It’s not important which church I grew up in, or what I observed. It’s important that I read widely and asked the questions. Eventually, I came to see value in much of what I was taught, because it was true and solid and a good guide for life. However, there is also much I abandoned as untrue and harmful.
For a time when I was in elementary school and junior high, there was a fear among the adults who knew me that I would mix up reality and fantasy, that the fiction that so enthused me would overtake my reason or my faith. When I wearied of defending myself and the books, I hid them behind more acceptable volumes, read them under the covers, sat in secluded corners.
The key to opening the mind is to be able to imagine something else, to ask “what if.” But “what if” does not answer questions. It simply creates a portal, an opening to build the structure of a story on top of those questions…Minds of young readers are not so malleable or gullible that they swallow everything they read or are told…Fantasy stories raise the question of Truth. But they don’t create it, and readers know that, because the worlds of fantasy are so clearly invented. Even more so than all the other branches of fiction, they are impossible worlds. (Kindle Locations 587-603) (emphasis mine)
It seems I cannot write a book review without applying it to my own life. That’s a good thing, perhaps, because it shows how well the book relates to me. Is it true? Interesting? Vital? Engaging? Well-written? The Purpose of Fantasy is all those and more. I recommend this book to writers and readers everywhere, especially those who see the wonder beyond the skin of the world.
Martin concludes the “Is Fantasy Subvervise?” chapter thus:
The solution, in a fantasy book, often comes from the smallest one who asks the biggest questions. (Kindle locations 608-609)
What’s your question?
* ~ * ~ * ~ *
In addition to being an excellent and engaging writer, Martin is also an editor, mentor, and publisher. He’s the founder of Great Lakes Literary and its two imprints, Crickhollow Books and Crispin Books. Martin is blogging about the books he explores in The Purpose of Fantasy ( Mary Poppins, for instance), and readers are invited to join the conversation. Readers can also visit the Crickhollow Books page on Facebook.
One last note: Check out that awesome cover art! It’s called “Looking for a Good Book” and is by Greg Newbold. You can check out more of his work on his site.
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.”
My style would raise eyebrows on Fifth Avenue. Eyebrows lifted in amusement or shock, who knows? I like comfort. For shoes, I prefer Birkenstocks or Crocs, or a pair of lightweight Sketcher knockoffs made of sturdy, breathable material. For pants, capris (’cause I’m a weird height, smack between petite and average) or stretchy pants (’cause along with a weird height, I’m so oddly sized that I rarely find jeans that don’t turn me into a sausage or fall down to my knees). Shirts? Skirts? Again, comfort.
Comfort with my imperfect self, comfort with my imperfect appearance, and comfort with not fitting in to the crowd. My angsty, stressed, approval-driven teenage self wouldn’t recognize me now.
Neither would Rookie Writer Me, whose voluminous, pretentious prose painted many a page purple. Deep purple. Flamboyant purple.
By comparison, Veteran Writer Me is almost Earnest Hemingway. The writing is concise, direct. It feels comfortable, like a pair of baggy pajama pants.
But I don’t wear those pj pants everywhere. Such a style is not universally appropriate.
A note about style or voice: Neither of those elements should overwhelm the story. Style or voice should never become the star of the novel, but should serve the story. Therefore, when I say that no particular passage stands out due to style, that’s not a bad thing. I’d rather have substance than pretty, pretty lights.
The same could not be said of a particular fantasy novel I read a few years ago. Touted as lyrical and mesmerizing, the writing style was often so flowery — ahem, poetic — that my brain glazed and my eyes crossed. Although there were a couple of scenes where I paid close attention and read word-for-word, most of the novel passed in page-flipping disinterest. The style overtook the story.
Good writing will always be recognized, because it is smooth, refreshing, engaging, intriguing, a good vehicle for the story — but the best writing style doesn’t draw attention to itself. It doesn’t stand in the way of the story.
I’ve edited a spate of manuscripts plagued by sentence fragments. I love sentence fragments. In moderation. When they make a point. But always? For no apparent reason? Just to be trendy and “with it”? Not so much. (See what I did there?) Sentence fragments are great for indicating surprise, irony, humor, fear, but too many in succession can quickly grow wearisome.
An awkward writing style is a form of author intrusion. Ever read a book or an article that feels forced, not because the author doesn’t know his material, but because there’s a self-conscious attempt to be cute, hip, or literary? The author doesn’t feel comfortable, as if wearing an ill-fitting garment. No matter how luxurious the fabric or how fashionable the label, it looks cheap.
Play around with clothing styles to find your fashion sense, and play with different writing styles to find your creative groove. Get down inside it, turn around a few times, take a few steps to see how it fits. And then write, write, write.