Sunday, October 31, 2010
Friday, October 29, 2010
Ilie Ruby grew up in Rochester, NY and spent her childhood summers on Canandaigua Lake, the setting for her debut novel, THE LANGUAGE OF TREES. She is the winner of the Edwin L. Moses Award for Fiction, chosen by T.C. Boyle; a Kerr Foundation Fiction Scholarship; and the Phi Kappa Phi Award for Creative Achievement in Fiction. Ruby is also a recipient of the Wesleyan Writer's Conference Davidoff Scholarship in Nonfiction and the Kemp Award for Outstanding Teaching and Scholarship. She has worked on PBS archaeology documentaries in Central America, taught 5th grade in Los Angeles on the heels of the Rodney King riots of 1992, and written two children's books, MAKING GOLD and THE LAST BOAT. In 1995, she graduated from the Masters of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, where she was fiction editor of The Southern California Anthology. Ruby is a painter, poet and proud adoptive mom to three children from Ethiopia.
What two or three things would you do differently if you were starting your publishing career today?
I’m not sure anything I could have done would have hurried things along for me. I had to wait a very long time. I worked very hard for many years and I never gave up. I am a late bloomer and had to accept that there is a unique time schedule for each of us. For some it happens quickly, for others, it takes a little bit longer.
Publishing is so different today than when I started my career as a writer decades ago. Today there are many different avenues for emerging writers to bring attention to their work via social media networks, sites such as SheWrites, and others. These places are a great vehicle for people to gather support, information, and feedback about their writing. The world of online media also provides that vital sense of connectedness in what is indisputably a solitary profession. Still, it can be distracting and every writer knows that distraction is the muse’s nemesis. So my best advice is that it is important to stay focused and maintain at least some sense of isolation, even if it is just an hour a day so you can be with your thoughts and your process.
What one issue makes you struggle the most as an author? How do you handle it?
Knowing when it’s time to let go—this has been the most challenging aspect of my writing process. It’s hard to let creative work go, and to know when you’ve done just enough. The process of painting has taught me lessons about writing. For example, when one is creating a painting, one extra brush stroke can make the work seem “over-worked”. You can draw a blue line in a predominantly pink painting and you’ve just completely changed the whole tenor and pulse of the work. The same is true for writing. As writers we must learn when to leave well enough alone. I think only experience and confidence can transform this into innate knowledge. Also, I don’t believe that we are necessarily smarter or better writers in our 3rd or 4th drafts. After revising my novel, The Language of Trees, several times, ultimately I found myself going back to my original drafts—those contained the most authentic “heat”.
What is the best writing (or life) advice you have ever heard or wished you had followed? Why?
Write where there’s heat. In other words, write the things that make you feel intense emotion, the things that pull at your corners of your mind, that keep you up at night, that make your face turn red, the things that make your heart beat fast, the things that you are scared to say, because these are the things that inherently contain the deepest truths—the universal truths. These are the things that readers will relate to and be interested in.
What one issue ignites your passion? Does your passion fuel your writing? What would you do with your life if you didn't write?
Poetry is my passion. I love to read it. I love to write it. I believe prose should be comprised of sound and sense. If it doesn’t sound pleasing to the ear when I am reading my own work, then I know there’s more work to be done. For me, language is pivotal, primal, even. And the words on the page must create a beautiful texture to go along with a compelling plot. These elements must work together and when they work well, it’s pure magic.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
That’s why I wrote Exposed. My husband’s pornography addiction swept my world into a sea of unknown territory. Yes, we healed a great amount before I wrote Exposed. But it wasn’t until I saw this book in print and held it in my hands for the first time that I knew, finally knew, what my heart couldn’t feel for so long.
Porn is not about you, Ashley.
I knew it. But I never felt it. Writing Exposed changed my life. Not only did I have to search the minds of so many porn-stabbed men and women, but I also had to live inside the heart of porn stars, strippers, and prostitutes for months. My research for this book nearly sucked the life out of me. It’s not easy to dive into darkness and keep your light strong.
Thankfully God’s grace kept my light shining, dim as it may have been at times. And I finished researching porn, finished Exposed, and finally, two years later, I held it in my hands.
It’s not about you is a truth so many wives affected by porn never want to face. I didn’t want to face it. I wanted to be a victim. To stay a victim. To make the world know that my husband’s issue with lust ruined my life. I blamed him. I blamed porn. And I never once thought about the heart of my husband or, even more, the heart of a porn star.
Throughout my healing process I realized that it really isn’t about me. It never was about me. We’re all victims of porn. All of us, in some way or another. When this truth clicked in my brain it turned a light on in my heart, exposing every last detail of my own sin, my own selfishness, and my own hidden pain. Through this light, this exposing of myself, I was able to toss away my own mask and place myself in the shoes of a porn star.
My life will never be the same. Writing Exposed wasn’t easy. It didn’t always seep from my fingertips like so many other things I write. It was hard. And often painful. But after a long hard road of publishing, it’s here.
I can breathe again.
I never would have chosen to write this book, to put myself into the shoes of a porn star and unmask the pain behind a hurting wife’s weak smile. But God has taught me so much. He’s taught me that life really isn’t about me. He can use the most torturous moments of our lives for good, for His glory. I never wanted to be known as the lady who writes about porn. I never wanted my marriage marked by its ugly stains to begin with.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Over the next several months, I responded to fan mail, visited all the blogs that popped up on my Google alert, and kept an eye on reviews. It was an incredibly busy time, but a joyful one.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
OUT OF THE SLUSH PILE, Novel Journey’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame contest, is drawing to a close. But there’s still time to submit your entry before the deadline of November 10. Winners of this final category will be announced in December.
In January, we’ll choose the best of 2010’s winning entries and announce the Grand Prize winner. The lucky writer will have his or her story pulled out of the slush piles of a select number of editors and agents for their personal consideration.
So if you’ve been holding off entering, come out and play. Download an entry form, send it along with your first chapter and synopsis to NovelJourneyContest@gmail.com, and see what wonders materialize!
Monday, October 25, 2010
It scares the living daylights out of me. When the words dry up, when I can’t see three seconds into my protagonist’s future, I panic. What if that’s it? What if my brain anomaly, the one that prods me into writing fiction in the first place, has suddenly healed itself? What if the stories have dried up? What if I can’t write anymore?
I never said this was a logical thought process, but it’s the truth.
I spent a lot of time stuck when I was writing Simply Sara. It wasn’t Sara’s fault. I just didn’t know what to do with her. I didn’t know how to be in her head.
I tried doing other things. I tried immersing myself in the Sara experience, taking up projects Sara would do in the book. I cleaned. I took walks. I read other people’s book. I watched Gilmore Girls. I talked with friends, talked with my husband. My efforts would help for a while, but before I knew it, I was back in the gooey gumdrop forest.
“You don’t have a synopsis,” my agent pointed out. “That’s your problem.”
Not the answer I wanted. I hate synopses. But the fact of the matter was that at some point I would need to turn in my book, and handing over a partial manuscript while twirling my hair and whining about writers’ block wasn’t going to help my career.
So I buckled down and got stubborn, learning a few lessons about writing along the way:
1.)If I’m not sitting at my writing station, it’s amazing how much work I won’t get done.
2.)Thinking about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Researching is not writing. It’s not a quality writing time vs. quantity writing time issue. You can’t get quality without putting in the quantity.
3.)That said, skimping on preparation is a recipe for disaster. I used to be a seat-of-the-pants writer. But I also used to take two years to finish a book. Like I said, I hate synopses, but I found a way to trick myself into writing them.
Behold the magic of the 3x5 card. Frankly, I get a little emotional about them. Every time I have a plot point, a line of dialogue, a joke, or a character insight, I write it down on a 3x5 card. I write it down, and then I insert it into the stack in chronological order. If I don’t know where it goes, I let it float around near the back for a while. If a card doesn’t fit into the scene, I hold it out for later. If I get additional ideas that center around what’s written on the card, I scrawl it in the margins.
The cards are small, so they’re easy to carry around. They also provide the feeling of accomplishment every time I write through the sketch on the card. It’s a good way to trick myself into making preparations for a non-linear process. Also, when it comes to writing the synopsis, those cards are the perfect roadmap.
4.)Sometimes when I’m stuck, it’s because I don’t know my character as well as I need to. Some people will do pages and pages of character analysis before they start a project. I don’t. It doesn’t make me a bad person. I like diving in the deep end and letting my characters introduce themselves as I go. It works for a while, but like any introduction, it’s just the start.
Maybe one of these days I’ll be the sort of person who fills a notebook with notes about a single character. I’m just not that self-actualized yet.
5.)When you stop writing for the day, consider writing a note or two about what you see next in your head. If you finish a chapter, start the next one, even if it means writing something really stupid as a first line. I find it easier to rewrite something stupid than start from scratch first thing. For me, even creating the new chapter document helps. I’m weird like that.
6.)Figure out what works for you. Writing is an act of introspection. Just because so and so does such and such doesn’t mean you have to. Writers, I’m convinced, only do so because something is amuck with our brain wiring. Seriously – we spend untold hours writing stories about our imaginary friends. This not a bad thing, it’s just different from everyone else. No two writers are wired the same; it’s hubris to think one methodology will work for everyone. Just because one author uses a typewriter, or another swears by a fountain pen filled with India ink and parchment made from the skin of a virgin goat…it doesn’t mean it has to be your thing. Writing on paper rather than a computer doesn’t produce a purer product. Writing in the morning isn’t better than writing after dark. It’s personal preference. Do you think better in the late afternoon? That’s your best writing window.
Writing a book is like a long-term relationship – it’s not always easy, it’s not always fun, but it is rewarding. At least I think so. And I like to think Sara agrees.
* * *
MIKE: The Midnight Diner is self described as “a hardboiled genre anthology with a Christian slant.” Your stories specialize in all things weird — horror, paranormal, conspiracy, space aliens, noir, etc. It is not conventional CBA fare. Can you describe in more detail what kinds of stories you're looking for... and what kinds of stories you're NOT looking for?
MICHELLE: First, what I don’t want to read…proselytizing. And if your representation of Jesus is out in the back alley demoralizing women and getting blow jobs—you’re also getting that instant rejection.(No. I am not making that up.)
Bottom line, The Midnight Diner loves to see quality stories. That’s on the generic side, though, so I’ll speak for myself (as opposed to speaking for the other editors) when I say that the thing that tops my list is a good character. I need to be drawn in. That’s not to say I need a hook on the first page, but I do need to be invested in someone by page three. After that, you can sell me the story, but without vivid and stunning characterization, I’m out of the game.
To borrow from Stephen King, I love to read stories about "extraordinary" things happening to "ordinary people". His son, Joe Hill’s collection 20th Century Ghosts is a good example of stories that captivate me.
MIKE: There is much discussion among believers about the label "Christian horror." Some suggest the two are incompatible, that the term is an oxymoron; others (like the Horror Writers Association) see the Bible as part of a canon of horror. The Diner fits in that netherworld. What's your take?
MICHELLE: I think some people truly believe the two ideas cannot coexist. And that’s ok. There are books out there being published for that sect. In my lifetime though, I’ve lived through and seen some terrifying events (and people,) and those things leave undeniable scars and worse, powerful and graphic memories. When I read the Bible, I see both the ugly and the beautiful, as exemplified by the cross itself. And I relate to Solomon’s idea that an increase in knowledge only increases sorrow, which I think explains a little about the stories I like to read. I think we’re all meant to have an impact on our sphere of influence and God has intricately woven us together in ways we cannot fathom. I am bound by His hand to those closer to the darker fringe of the fabric.
MIKE: What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with the Midnight Diner? Is this a ministry, a literary endeavor, a celebration of genre -- or a combination of all three?
MICHELLE: If I can manage to combine all three, I believe I will have served my purpose with The Diner.
MIKE: This is your first year at the helm of the Diner. Can you tell us about the learning curve, your feelings along the way, and the folks that made things happen.
MICHELLE: The honest truth is without the entire ccPublishing, Relief, and Diner crew, I could have never (not in a million years) have accomplished anything.
My feelings are a still a bit scattered and misplaced because right about the time we were closing submissions for Volume Three, my mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor, had brain surgery, chemo, and within eight weeks she died. I spent almost every one of those days at the hospital with her and while she was napping, I’d read submissions and edit. Confession? I might not have coped near as well had I not been able to occupy myself with the stories. There are a few authors who might never know exactly how they touched my life. But I thank God for every one of them.
The Diner team picked up my slack without even a moment’s hesitation. They took my short and sometimes cold, emotionless emails and understood where I was and the executed the production masterfully. I believe in my heart God was timely in his orchestration of every detail.
MIKE: I love the cover art, Michelle. Talk about that.
MICHELLE: The stunning cover (as well as our new logo) was designed by fabulous Diner alumni, Virginia Hernandez. Coach incorporated the Editor’s Choice stories on the cover of Diner 2 and I wanted see that element continue. Choosing the Editor’s Choice stories was rather difficult because I loved more than three, but when I did finally choose, I called Gina and ran a few ideas by her that included a horse, a timepiece, and the sunflower/starfish zombie and within hours, she sent me a sketch that truly blew me away. We went back and forth a few times, then I sent a rough draft to my editors and Scott Garbacz inverted the image and sent it back. We loved the message that the inverted illustration sent to those looking for a few Easter Eggs in the publication.
MIKE: Perhaps it's premature, but is a Volume Four in the works? And if so, how can writers begin to gear up?
MICHELLE: Not premature at all! We’re moving The Midnight Diner to Wordpress and as soon as that is complete we’ll officially open submissions again for Volume Four. There’s also talk of maybe, possibly doing more than one Volume a year sometime in the future. But that’s a secret.
* * *
Thanks so much, Michelle! And if you're interested in cutting edge dark fiction with a Christian slant, be sure to snag a copy of the latest Midnight Diner.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
A friend e-mailed the other day and sent this -"Walking with care, snow barely covering the patches of ice, I begin to recall a canticle or a psalm -- I can't remember which -- and my body keeps time: Cold and chill, bless the Lord; Frost and chill, bless the Lord; Ice and snow, bless the Lord.” (from Dakota, A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris).
In response, because of some things happening in our world lately, I sent this: “Weak and strong, bless the Lord.” Then my friend challenged others on the list to send a canticle and they joined in:
“As my husband cuts a hole in our ceiling to find the origin of a leak, while I sit staring at the computer screen trying to find the beginning words ... Those who tear down, and those who build up, bless the Lord.”
“As my husband looks for work and I clean uncharted corners of the house...Those who seek, and those who find, bless the Lord.”
Then someone sent the definition of the word canticle. It comes from the Latin canticulum, little song (cantus, song + -iculum, a diminutive suffix). A little song of praise.
I began thinking how it would affect the perspective of my day, if it began with a canticle and even continued with canticles all day long. Imagine what the day would be like if we were deliberately looking for reasons to bless God. It is a state that can bring us out of the deepest depression and give us joy. It is a state that lifts us from drudgery into satisfying contentment, from malaise into excitement. In short, these little songs of praise can make us come alive.
This can be applied to any aspect of daily life. Is your work situation stressful? Those who lead and those who follow, bless the Lord. Are your toddlers driving you crazy? Children and infants, bless the Lord. Are your chores on the farm feeling like drudgery? Animals and their care-givers bless the Lord. Are you suffering from writers’ block? All storytellers and scribes bless the Lord.
In Romans 8:22 & 23, the apostle Paul wrote: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
We are still waiting for the completion of that process but, because of what Jesus did on the cross, we have been adopted, we are children of God. Our bodies will be redeemed, made like Jesus himself. All our days should sing with praise. All men and women, bless the Lord!
Try it. Sing a little song to God today. You might find it makes navigating life a whole lot easier.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Friday, October 22, 2010
Lisa Mangum has loved and worked with books ever since elementary school, when she volunteered at the school library during recess. Her first paying job was shelving books at the Sandy Library. She worked for five years at Waldenbooks while she attended the University of Utah, graduating with honors with a degree in English. An avid reader of all genres, she has worked in the publishing department for Deseret Book since 1997.
Besides books, Lisa loves movies, sunsets, spending time with her family, trips to Disneyland, and vanilla ice cream topped with fresh raspberries. She lives in Taylorsville, Utah, with her husband, Tracy. She is the author of The Hourglass Door (which was named the 2009 YA Book of the Year by ForeWord Reviews) and The Golden Spiral.
What is the best writing (or life) advice you have ever heard or wished you had followed? Why?
I’ve heard a lot of writing advice (and given out my fair share, I suppose), but there have been a few bits of wisdom that I have either taken to heart—or wished I had. Probably the best advice that I have followed was this: “It’s okay to write your story out of order.” I had always tried to write my stories sequentially: chapter 1, paragraph 1, word 1. But there would always come a point where I didn’t exactly know what should happen next, and instead of skipping the trouble spot and moving on, I’d stop. Completely. And it seemed like I never went back and picked up those stories to finish them. Giving myself permission to skip around in a story and write the scene I was feeling at the moment was liberating. I wrote—and finished—The Hourglass Door that way. When I was all done writing the scenes I needed for the book, I stitched them together with some transitions and to my surprise, I had 400 pages written.
Tell us a bit about your current project.
I’m currently working on The Forgotten Locket. It is the last book in my trilogy that started with The Hourglass Door. I’ve never written a trilogy before, so this is a new experience for me. The story continues the romance between Abby and Dante, as well as increasing the danger they face from Zo. Will he achieve his goal of controlling all of time? Will Abby ever see her family again, or will they be lost forever in the river of time? Will Valerie regain her sanity? The questions abound. I hope the answers are satisfying—and surprising.
After I finish this book, I have a couple other ones that are not-so-patiently waiting their turn. A contemporary YA novel about the transformative power of love as well as a YA fairy tale.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
I think self-doubt is part of the job description of being a writer. I worry all the time that what I’m writing isn’t good enough, that no one will ever like it (not even my mom), that my characters/plot/dialogue/descriptions are lame, that I’ll miss my deadline, that the readers will revolt and storm my house with pitchforks and torches. Well, maybe not that last one, but I certainly have felt the paralyzing fear of “It’s not good enough” deep in my gut.
What works for me is to confront that fear head on and say, “Yeah, so what if it’s not good enough right now? I can always fix it later.” Somehow giving myself permission to write something bad is the easiest way to get to the point where I can write something good. And when I do, I just go back to the bad parts and toss them out the window.
I also often tell myself, “Write it for you. Don’t think about anyone else—not your publisher, not your first draft reviewers—just write a story you would like to read.” That is usually enough to get the juices flowing again and keep me excited about the process of writing. After all, if I don’t want to read my book, who else will? : )
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
I think there are ideas all around, so if anything, I probably have too many ideas for stories. One source of inspiration for Hourglass Door was the epic poem The Divine Comedy by Dante. I had read the poem in college and when I decided I wanted to write a YA novel, I knew I wanted it to be a love story and I wanted its roots to be in the classic story of Dante and Beatrice. I also drew inspiration from Much Ado about Nothing—one of my favorite Shakespeare plays—and from Virgil’s Aeneid.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn't have to be one of your books or even published.)
Though I still remember a particularly fine limerick I wrote in the 5th grade, one of my favorite bits of writing that I have done has to be the prologue to Hourglass Door. It wasn’t the first thing I wrote for the book; I was probably more than halfway through with the writing process before I tackled that part. I knew early on that the prologue was going to be an important part of the story, but I didn’t know exactly what it should say.
One day, while I was waiting for the train to take me home from work, the first line popped into my head. And I knew I had it. I could feel it buzzing in my brain. I jumped on the train and grabbed my notebook. For the next 25 minutes I wrote out by hand the prologue in one nonstop session. I finished it just as the train pulled up to my stop. At home, I reread what I had written and I knew it was one of the best things I’d done. The finished, printed prologue in the book is 90% exactly the same as I wrote it in that little notebook.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot.
There are two places where I do the majority of my writing. One is on the couch in my family room. I love stretching out with my laptop, plugging in my iPod, and diving into the story. It helps that my cat loves to sleep on my legs while I’m working, which is surprisingly good motivation to continuing working. After all, I don’t want to disturb my cat; she’s sound asleep and looks so comfortable. Maybe I’ll just write a little more instead . . .
The other place I do a lot of writing is on the train during my commute to and from work. I work on my laptop so I have approximately 25 minutes each way of uninterrupted time to edit, rewrite, polish, or start up a new scene. I wrote pages and pages of Golden Spiral on the train, which has convinced me that yes, you can write a book in 15-minute increments. It’s not about having time to write; it’s about finding time to write. And once you start looking for time, you’ll find it.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
I love charts and graphs and lists. I love to track my progress on a project. So I try to break up my book into smaller sections. If I want a 300 page book (which is a pretty good size for a YA novel), then I plan to write 30 chapters of 10 pages each. Not only does that simple equation help me with the pacing of my plot, but it helps me make sure I have enough action and information in each chapter. If my chapter is only 5 or 6 pages, then maybe I’m rushing through the dialogue too much, or maybe I need to describe the setting a little more, or maybe it’s time to add another scene with another character.
I also set myself a daily word goal. As my husband constantly reminds me, “You can’t change it if you don’t have it.” Even if sometimes half of the words I write in a day don’t make it into the final draft, the other half do. And however you look at it, that’s progress.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
A little bit of both. For Hourglass Door I outlined obsessively: here’s what happens in chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3. Because I had a good outline, I was able to skip around and write the scenes out of order. But for Golden Spiral, the story didn’t seem to want to play by the same rules. I still outlined the book, but in a different method than before. I took different colored index cards, assigned each one to a character, and wrote on the cards the scenes I knew I needed in the book. Then I sat on the floor and played cards until I had the whole plot divided out by chapter. Doing it that way helped me see at a glance which characters were active in which chapter and how the pacing of my plot was shaping up. And unlike for Hourglass Door, I did write Golden Spiral in order, from chapter 1 straight through to the end.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
As I new author, I guess I wasn’t entirely prepared for the amount of feedback I’d get from readers—both bad and good. I’ve been thrilled to receive emails or read notes from enthusiastic fans who have loved the story of Abby and Dante. One girl in New York told me she stayed up all night to finish Hourglass Door—and then she couldn’t fall asleep, so she read it again!
I also am touched and humbled by the number of readers who have written to me to tell me that my books have, in some small way, inspired them to start writing their own stories. I can’t tell you how much that means to me. As a kid, I, too, wrote to some of my favorite authors—Jane Yolen, Anne McCaffery—and their letters back to me were a source of inspiration to me while I was dreaming of being an author. (I still have those letters, by the way.) To know that I can pay back the kindness shown to me by other authors by encouraging new authors is beyond words.
As far as honors go—well, I am delighted to say that in New York this May, Hourglass Door was named the 2009 YA Book of the Year by ForeWord Reviews. It is an incredible honor, and I’m still on Cloud 9 thinking about it.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you'd share with us?
Since I work full-time as an editor, it’s sometimes hard for me to find the time for a lot of marketing or promotion. When my book first came out, I set a goal to do a thing a week—either a book signing or a library/school visit or a writer’s conference or a blog interview. I was surprised at how many different venues were available for authors to talk about/promote a book. I think being willing to accept any kind of marketing invitation—even if it is just for a neighborhood book club meeting—is a strategy that has worked for me.
I also seem to have found a good groove handing out bookmarks at my book signings. It helps me engage the customer with something small and easy to hand out. I can usually deliver my “elevator pitch” summary of the story (“It’s a love story with a mystery that dates back to Leonardo da Vinci”) along with the bookmark, which is often enough to convince someone to stop and visit with me.
Read a review of The Hourglass Door at Novel Reviews.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Regardless of the genre, every novelist already writes symbolically. After all, letters and words are symbols, and every novelist uses basic symbolic techniques like hyperbole, simile and metaphorical figures of speech. Any author who can master characterization, plotting, setting and voice can also learn to use extended metaphors. As with the other building blocks of fiction, it simply requires a conscious application of appropriate techniques.
Following are four important considerations to keep in mind when writing with thematic symbolism, and some related suggestions on how to implement the technique:
Make Symbols Indispensible.
To function effectively at the thematic level, symbolism must be as impossible to remove from the story as it would be impossible to remove a body’s heart or skeleton. For example, consider Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novella in which Dr. Jekyll stands for our higher instincts; Mr. Hyde stands for our baser instincts, and the potion stands for the irresistible call of evil in the human psyche. The story is so successful on a thematic level that its title alone has become a nearly universal symbol of internal moral conflict. That success relies in large part on the fact that it is impossible to tell the story of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without these symbols.
It is also important to a novel’s commercial potential that it work equally well both in the plain sense of the story and in the symbolic sense. This is true because there are two kinds of readers when it comes to symbolism.
Some readers will never recognize the deeper meanings of a symbol. Their philosophy of life may accept only what they experience with their senses. They may be too unintelligent or lazy to participate with the novelist in the joint creative project represented by all good novels. Sadly, they may not have been instructed in the art of reading fiction. Other readers can and must be trusted with the subtleties of symbols. To achieve commercial success a novelist should write with both kinds of readers in mind.
Using Huck Finn for an example, the Mississippi River in his story functions equally well merely as a setting (a river for Huck and Jim to navigate), and as an extended metaphor for freedom. Both kinds of readers are rewarded.
All of the best and most successful thematic symbols have that kind of dual functionality.
To create thematic symbols that successfully achieve both purposes, carefully consider thematic symbolism in the very earliest planning stages of a novel. Let symbols drive the plot ideas as they grow, right alongside characterization, and let them create atmosphere and mood alongside settings and personal writing style. (For an example of integrating thematic symbolism in a novel’s planning stages see “Make Symbols Profound”, below.)
Make Symbols Omnipresent.
Successful thematic symbols do not disappear from the story after they are introduced. On the contrary, they are powerful in part because they return again and again to unify the story on an unspoken (unwritten) level from an early point in the narrative flow until the denouement.
Every mention of the laboratory, the equipment and the potion reminds us of the evil which afflicts poor Dr. Jekyll, so whenever Stevenson describes (or even when he merely mentions) that medical setting, he also reminds our subconscious of his theme. It becomes a frequent touchstone of a deeper truth that is never far beneath the surface, while also ensuring that the theme is never quite above the surface (see “Make Symbols Invisible”, below). Practically speaking, this can be accomplished by making a symbol of a setting, character, event, object, or anything else in the story which must be mentioned again and again as a natural result of the plot.
Ideally, the author should begin establishing an association between a symbol and the theme at the earliest moment possible. This is most easily done by including them both together in an early scene. One might have a character act, speak or think significantly from a thematic standpoint while simultaneously first encountering the symbol in some way (Huck Finn on the raft, thinking about freedom, for example). Ideally, this encounter would be very subtle in this establishing scene, perhaps so subtle that even the most sensitive readers will not yet recognize the connection. (Again, see “Make Symbols Invisible”, below.) Then have that character remember that moment or have them physically return to that symbol in future scenes, which deal with the theme.
It is also useful to return to the same language used earlier in thematically establishing scenes, sometimes even lifting exact quotes from those scenes to be used again at appropriate moments later. This is most helpful when the initial wording is especially memorable. The goal is to build a subtle but effective connection between symbol and theme, not all at once, but bit by bit, over the entire course of the novel.
Make Symbols Profound.
It goes almost without saying that the ultimate goal of a successful thematic symbol is to carry a grand idea much further into the reader’s psyche than any simple statement of the facts could ever go. In practice this means the most profound symbols get readers thinking about the implications of a theme, rather than simply thinking about the theme in general.
One way to pick a profound symbol is to create a list of characteristics which describe important aspects of the theme. When planning to write about forgiveness for example, one might list words such as “Difficult,” “Counterintuitive,” “Thankless,” and so on. Then go looking for something which readers will associate with those ideas.
Perhaps a highly educated character is employed in digging deep and narrow ditches for some reason. His manual labor is very dangerous and largely unrecognized or unappreciated by the people whom it benefits most. The character’s job might then be an excellent protracted metaphor for the theme of forgiveness. Like forgiveness, it is difficult (dangerous), counterintuitive (a highly educated person doing manual labor), and thankless (who ever stopped to thank a ditch digger?). In this way, rather than thinking about symbols which readers will associate with the theme in general, the symbol is attached to ideas that call attention to deeper truths about the theme.
Also, note in this example how these early considerations about theme begin to inform one’s choices about character, setting, and plot. We began by thinking about how to reveal great truths about forgiveness, and ended up thinking about a highly educated ditch digger working in a dangerous setting for reasons which are unknown as of yet, but which one suspects will surely lead in interesting directions, plot-wise. Thus, consideration of thematic symbolism becomes a way of adding depth and interest to all other key aspects of the story at the earliest planning stages.
Make Symbols Invisible.
If a symbol calls attention to itself as a symbol, then the symbol is a failure. To understand why, we have only to consider the moment when written letters begin to work symbolically for a new reader.
Every new reader starts by learning to associate letters with spoken sounds. Then they try to “read” by thinking of each letter in a word one by one, sounding them out, and then speaking those sounds together quickly in order to listen to the combined audible effect and match up the result with a spoken word they already know. If they do this long enough, eventually a moment comes when they suddenly see the whole word as a single thing rather than as a collection of letters.
At that moment two almost magical things occur. First, in bypassing the sounding out of letters, the letters themselves—the symbols—become functionally invisible. Second, the new reader begins to think of words not as words, but instead as the ideas they represent. For true reading to occur the letters must disappear completely behind words, and the words must disappear completely behind ideas. As symbols, letters and words are functionally invisible to accomplished readers. Indeed, until this happens, we are not really reading. And so we see that symbols only begin to function properly when we no longer think of them at all.
Think of what happens when a magician reveals the mechanics of a magic trick. Just as nothing kills the magic faster, so nothing kills a novel faster than an author who insists on pointing out the meaning of a symbol. After the Wizard warned Dorothy to “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” of course she could see nothing else. Authors who make this mistake do not trust their own ability, and do not trust their readers, and their mistrust becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Practically speaking, this secrecy about symbolic meaning is not difficult to achieve. It simply requires us to resist the almost overwhelming temptation to point out the connection between a symbol and the theme. But because that temptation is in fact nearly overwhelming, on another level maintaining subtlety in symbolism may be the most difficult challenge any author faces. It requires us to accept the fact that some readers will miss the meaning of our most cherished words. In short, it requires humility.
Of course, it is possible to write an entertaining and successful novel while giving very little thought to theme or symbolism. But if that is the direction a novelist takes, let it be because she prefers it, and not because she feels she can go no deeper. Any novelist working in any genre can dig deeper if she wants to. All she has to do is consider theme as an equal alongside plot, character, setting and style. And when it comes to conveying theme, no tool available to novelists is as powerful as symbolism.
Athol Dickson’s novels have been favorably compared to the work of Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner. All five of his most recent novels have been finalists for the Christy Award and three have won, including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Wrangler in Petticoats
Ride into the Rockies where love peaks between a tough Texas tomboy and a passionate artist. On her way to Montana, Sally McClellan’s party is attacked and robbed. But then artist Logan McKenzie saves the badly wounded cowgirl who has been left for dead. Can this landscape painter tame the tomboy without breaking her spirit? Sally doesn’t know much about ribbons and lace, but Logan’s presence makes her want to connect with her feminine side. Will this fractured female discover a way to capture the artist’s love—or find herself captured and killed by outlaws?
Monday, October 18, 2010
Don Reid is a member of country music’s legendary Statler
Brothers, has three Grammy awards, nine CMA awards, thirteen gold albums, and eight platinum awards and is a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has published four non-fiction books, and /O/ /Little Town/ was his first novel. Reid lives with his wife, Deborah, in Staunton, Virginia. Learn more online at www.DonReid.net.
I have read so many times of writers bragging about their work schedule. “I get up every morning and write 500 words before dawn,” they like to say.
My next question to them is do you really enjoy
writing? Are you sure it’s not a burden to you?
I don’t fear losing ideas with this technique. I figure if the idea is good it will stick with me; if I lose it, it probably wasn’t any good anyway. So after all this time of living with these people and a story in my head, it has become as much a part of me as my memories. Now I go to the desk and begin to type. Chipper is lying at my feet and glad this stage has finally come as he likes sleeping much better than the track or even the tennis ball.
My agent said to me not long ago, “Isn’t
writing fun?” And you know what? It is. Working in the coal mines, farming, standing the factory line, greasing cars; that’s work.
"[T]he only superior quality a child can have at birth," wrote Suzuki in 1978, "is the ability to adapt itself with more speed and sensitivity to its environment than others."
Talent, according to Suzuki and his many adherents, is not inborn or inherited, but acquired through a process founded on the mother tongue concept; all children of every culture, when immersed in their language from birth, learn to speak their native tongue with expertise. Similar immersion in a musical home environment, assures Suzuki, develops an equal fluency in music.
He gives the example of a wild nightingale. In Japan, baby birds are captured to be used as pets, and put under the tutelage of a tame "master bird." Exposure to the master's fine voice eventually develops an equally beautiful song in the young nightingale. "Talent," skillful ability, is nurtured, with astonishing results.
But how does this philosophy fit with the Christian belief that talent--musical, literary, and otherwise--is a gift from God? Matthew 25 is often cited as an example of God-given abilities requiring faithful stewardship. John Calvin, in his Institutes, agrees that "the talents which we possess are not from ourselves."
Is every human born with equal potential? Does so much hang on the ability to adapt yourself with speed and sensitivity? At what point does created talent become acquired talent? What are your thoughts?
Sunday, October 17, 2010
that he may bring to light what is hidden. Job 28:11
There have been periods in my life when I've felt stuck. When dreams, relationships and creativity have been painfully stagnant. When prayers seemed to fall on deaf ears. One such period in my life lasted years. I cried out to God daily, only to face more of the same the following day. During this time, I wished God would give me a 'no', because that, at least, would be an answer.
During this time, I wore my knees and patience out. I knew in my mind that God's plans for me were good, but couldn't help but feel that I had been forgotten, could't stop worrying that my dreams would never come true, hurts would never heal . . . that the light would never shine again.
If I'm describing what you're going through at the moment, take heart. Sometimes stagnation, as painful and frustrating as it can be, is allowed by God to reveal what is hidden. Stop and reread what I just said, because it's not me talking but the word of God. Sometimes stagnation is allowed, used, by God to reveal what is hidden.
During my years of being held back, I knew God was at work. I knew His nature and His love for me, because His word said so. I don't know how I would have survived if I hadn't had His promises to cling to but my heart didn't always understand what my mind knew. In other words, I still hurt.
The stream of my life, love, and dreams was dammed and as months turned into years, discouragement became despair. It was during this time that God gave me the above verse.
After meditating on those words, my prayers changed from 'get me out of this mess' and 'make the pain stop' to 'reveal the truth, no matter how painful'.
What a difference a prayer makes.
Much was revealed in my life and those around me . . . and once it was, healing began and the river started to flow again.
For some of you, your life is in limbo because of a stale relationship that you can't seem to breathe life into. For some, you're experiencing another type of block,(writers?), and wondering if it will ever end. For others, you're being held back from your first contract or some other goal or dream.
I don't know what you're going through, but if your stream is being dammed, it may be that God is trying to reveal something to you--something that isn't as it should be.
Ask your father to show you what so it can be dealt with. What He reveals may be painful, ugly, and even life-altering, but what's the alternative? Water that is allowed to stagnate quickly turns sour. Streams were created to flow.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
There are still books like these today:
As well as books available online:
I hear a lot of talk about Story, Grammar, Writing Schedules, and Plot, but it's not as often I hear writers discussing an active pursuit of adding to their vocabulary. Although we tend to be generous when we learn a great new word—sometimes to the point where all the sudden you see a relatively unused word suddenly appear in more than one new release.
For this week's poll, I'm asking:
Friday, October 15, 2010