The Third Level of Craft

Competent, clear, concise writing can be learned. As Wayne Batson indicated, English teachers, and I was one of those most of my adult life, have to believe so or we wouldn’t put in the hours to facilitate others’ literary skills.

But what about the next level—the creative story telling? That’s harder to know. I’m not sure “learned” is the right word. Perhaps “provoked” is better. Again, Wayne said it in his comment to yesterday’s post (I should just have had him do a guest blog today! 😉 ) There are things in life that can provide fertile soil for the germination of a story. Things like childhood play and travel and exposure to good stories and acting and reading, reading, reading.

Without intentionally trying, a person who reads widely and well absorbs the way a story works—the presence of conflict, the building of tension, the progression of suspense and perhaps romance, the unpredictability of it all, the twists and turns and surprises.

I’ve seen writers who have wonderful, creative stories, even though they still have a ways to go in being expert in their handling of the concise telling (or showing, as most writers will want to say). As I’ve said more than once here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, story trumps all. Readers are incredibly forgiving and will often forge ahead through imprecise writing if the story pulls them along.

But there’s another layer of creativity, I think. This is the writer who puts together words and phrases that are musical, powerful, quotable. Some writers would add, beautiful. I will agree, though here is a pitfall, I believe. A writer can become so enraptured with the beauty of the words that he forgets the story they are meant to convey.

Can writing such as this be learned? Again, I say yes, though I also think some writers have a better intuitive grasp of how to work at this level. Those of you who read here regularly may have picked up that I tend toward the analytic side of life—and writing. 😉 I watch the intuitive writers put stories down so beautifully, creatively, and with such apparent ease, it’s hard for me to think I’m doing the same thing as they are.

The difference is, I think, that I think about the difference. 😀

Here’s what I’m actually saying. I doubt if it is possible to learn to be an intuitive writer. That’s an oxymoron, one I don’t think exists. However, I do think there are things writers can do to make their words more musical, powerful, quotable, and even more beautiful. More on that another day.

Published in: on February 29, 2008 at 12:53 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: ,

What Is Writing Craft?

I mentioned in my last post that one of the reasons I go to Mount Hermon is to learn. Writing is one of those skills that can’t be perfected. In other words, there is no “right answer.” When something works, it can hardly ever work again (because by the very nature of repeating what has already been done, it does not do what the original did, which was to be the first ever or the new twist of). Consequently, the real job for the writer is to continually improve.

If at some point in my writing career I think I’ve “arrived” when it comes to the craft, then I am most in danger of becoming stagnant. It’s interesting to me that a number of acquisitions editors recommend certain writing books. One editor a year ago referred to a well-know volume as his writing bible and says he re-reads it nearly every year. Yet the writing that seems to excite these editors is that which goes beyond the constraints of the norm.

The norm, I would suggest, is competent, concise, clear writing. Anything less has little chance any more. What with writers’ conferences offered across the country, online writing courses, mentoring groups, and freelance editors, more and more writers are capable and understand a great deal about the basics of writing.

But what we sometimes forget is that writing is a creative endeavor. Sure, we understand that the story is a creative endeavor, but so is the vehicle through which the story is delivered.

What is it that captures a reader’s heart, that brings him to tears or makes him laugh out loud? What keeps him awake long past midnight even though he needs to get up and go to work the next morning? What makes her want to tell her best friend, her mom, and her neighbor down the block about the book she read? What brings those characters to mind at the oddest times? What stirs him to excitement when the day approaches for the next book in the series to release?

You think I’m going to provide the magic formula to such stories? Well, here it is. There is no formula.

If “craft” is reduced to a list of do‘s and don’t‘s, the writing will acquire the taste of water.

Sure you can stretch the analogy and say we can’t survive without water. I’m talking about the taste of a colorless, odorless liquid. What will set our writing apart from all the other colorless, odorless stories out there?

Clearly, “craft” is something more than avoiding passive voice or steering clear of -ly ending adverbs or cutting away any backstory in the first fifty pages or avoiding speaker attributions in dialogue. Craft is the magic of writing, not slight of hand.

Can it be learned?

Published in: on February 28, 2008 at 10:14 am  Comments (7)  

Thoughts about Mount Hermon continued

You can tell what’s on my brain. Well, one of the things. I’m finding that writing requires me to juggle several different projects at the same time. Yesterday I covered a soccer semifinal for the paper and today I’ll be working on preparing a manuscript for the ACFW Genesis contest. (No, I haven’t just started work on that manuscript! 😉 ) Then there is my critique group and the work I must submit as well as the pieces I must crit.

But in the background is an article idea, a short story contest, and Mount Hermon. Since I’ve chosen to write about Mount Hermon, though, I guess you’d say it isn’t so much in the background as I suggested. That’s partly true. At some point it will have to move to the foreground and take precedence over other projects.

There’s a deadline for submitting advance manuscripts, for instance. And there are things to prepare, to buy, to iron and pack. But until that time, I have other things on the front burner. Still, I am planning and thinking about the conference.

Why? What’s it all about?

If you’ve never been to a writers’ conference you might be wondering what the big deal is. For me, it’s a layered event. On one level it is pure fun. I mentioned last time that I first went to Mount Hermon not knowing anyone. Not so any more.

I’ve traveled with writers from my area, had roommates, met people in mentoring groups, connected with others I know online, worked with some, been rejected by others (editors, rejecting my manuscript, which has the odd effect that I then feel I can be myself around them since I’m no longer asking something of them. The truth is, editors are interesting people). Going to Mount Hermon has a little bit of the feel of a reunion, one where you really like being with the people.

Which brings me to the next point. Everywhere you look, there are writers. In every day life, most people aren’t sure what it is I actually do all day. Writers know (and some wish with all their hearts they were doing it all day, too). Mount Hermon brings us together and we can rejoice or commiserate with each other. We can talk shop and the others will understand, not just what we’re dealing with but why it’s important. We can learn from others who are in a different place in the publishing process, and we can share what we know with those coming along behind us.

And there’s the third key. Learning. Writers often talk about learning the craft, but how does that happen? Partly by reading good literature, but partly by having more experienced writers point out what it is that works and how to implement those. And of course “learning” incorporates the writing profession—the business side as well as the creating side. Lots and lots and lots to learn about the business.

Notice, as yet I haven’t mentioned meeting editors and agents as a chief reason for going to Mount Hermon. It is a reason, but by no means the chief reason or the only reason. Editors and agents will tell you they don’t take unsolicited manuscripts, but they find new clients through referrals and through writers’ conferences. Certainly, then, meeting them should be of paramount importance.

The reality is, most editors and agents have only a few slots open. They may go to three or four conferences a year looking for one or two authors. To think that I can go to a conference and come away with a contract is tantamount to spending a dollar on a lottery ticket and expecting to become a millionaire. Yes, it does happen, but what are the odds?

And besides, if, as I believe, God is able to do the impossible, He is not constrained by my attendance or lack thereof at a writers’ conference.

Yes, I will make an effort to meet with an editor or two, maybe with an agent. I’ll definitely try to reconnect with those I’ve met before, but no, I’m not looking to the writers’ conference as my ticket to a contract. Been there, done that, and learned writers’ conferences don’t supersede God’s plans.

Published in: on February 27, 2008 at 11:23 am  Comments (3)  
Tags: ,

Thoughts about the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference

I first went to Mount Hermon in 2004. For those of you who may not know, this is actually a small town in Northern California, very near Santa Cruz, which is south of San Francisco.

For the record, Northern California is about as different from SoCal as Nevada is. Sure there is the coast, but it’s a different look, not all beachy like the south. And there are mountains (not serious ones like the Rockies or the Sierras, but much like the San Gabriel Mountains I see out my window every day), but these are covered with Redwood trees. (So the mountains may not be serious, but the trees most definitely are! 😉 )

Driving up the mountain into the Mount Hermon Christian Conference grounds makes me feel like I’m entering another world—rich fodder for a fantasy writer, I assure you.

Back in 2004 I made the trip by bus at night to Santa Cruz, then hung around with a large homeless population until the Conference shuttle came to collect me. That was all pretty interesting too. It reminded me of the summer I took a bus to Mexico City, but that’s another story.

I remember that first year going to the Writer’s Conference I was nervous. I mean, I knew no one. Well, almost. Two members of my critique group were going also, but we had never met. Then there were the editors and agents to talk to, and I felt I had to get it all right or I just might miss my opportunity.

Fortunately a very kind, experienced member of an online writers’ group answered a lot of my pre-conference questions. And God was gracious. I hit it off with both women from my crit group, met lots of other writers, learned good things, especially from Brandilyn Collins and Randy Ingermanson who were teaching a fiction track (a series of workshops totaling something like eight hours).

Oddly enough, one of the things I came away from that conference thinking was that I’d some day like to teach a session or two. I mean, it seemed natural, being as I’ve been a teacher all my adult life … well, until I became a full time writer. But first, you’ve got to earn some credibility, which for writers comes largely by publishing something.

And here I am, an unknown, first-time author, writing a genre unpopular with CBA houses. Uh, writing a trilogy, no less—the old-fashioned, epic kind, with each individual book not standing alone. With a male protagonist. These are things I have come to learn are … difficulties when it comes to finding a publisher.

But here’s the thing. In these past four years, as I continue to write and continue to pursue publication, I have come to realize in a deeper way that God is able. He brought the walls of Jericho down, not Joshua. He gave the victory to Gideon’s band of 300. He brought prisoner Joseph out of the dungeon and made him second in command to Pharaoh. And on and on.

So here’s a surprise, but not really, because of who God is. It looks as if I’ll have a tiny part in a blogging seminar at Mount Hermon this year. Yep, I’m still unpublished, and you can’t really call this teaching, but it’s closer than I thought possible at this stage of my career. That’s the thing, though—God isn’t limited to what we think is possible.

Much more important than me trying to figure out what “right” is for editors and agents is my trust in our God Who Is Able. He walks with me through the prep for this conference, and He will be present at every conversation I have. What does He have in mind for those encounters? I have no idea, and I don’t need to know. And certainly I don’t need to try to finagle or engineer something to happen, as if I can pull off something He might not have thought of. More than likely, the reverse is true! 😉

Published in: on February 26, 2008 at 11:50 am  Comments (10)  
Tags: , , ,

It’s about Reading

I’ve been tagged and this is writing related, or more accurately, reading related. I like it!

The Rules:
1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Closest book is Kathryn Cushman’s A Promise to Remember (on the cover the a isn’t capitalized, but I just COULDN’T bring myself to type it that way. 😀 )

Here are sentences 6-8 from p. 123:

“Honestly, Christi.”
“The way you worded that. [And for free, one more] It sounded like you’re more concerned about the trip to New York than Scott’s life.”

Hmmm. Who to tag? [Such power … such a rush … such fear of being ignored. 😮 LOL]

Nicole, Julie Carobini, Wayne Thomas Batson, Michael Heald, Valerie Comer – you all have been TAGGED.

How’s that for an eclectic group?
– – –
By the way, I just posted a review of George Bryan Polivka‘s The Battle for Vast Dominion over at Speculative Faith, so if you want to read a real post ( 😉 ) click on over there.

Published in: on February 25, 2008 at 6:00 am  Comments (5)  

Fantasy Friday – The Fifth (or And Speaking of Sub-genres)

Well, I’m excited. The April 2008 issue of Writer’s Digest has an article about the hot genres of pop fiction, and science fiction/fantasy is on the list! In a graphic of subgenres, twenty varieties appear. Mind you, “horror” is listed as a separate genre with seventeen of its own subdivisions.

In comparison, mystery/crime has three subdivisions (although police procedural has fourteen sub-subgenres listed). Romance has a mere seven subgenres, with “Christian” being one.

So what, you might ask, is exciting about all this? Is Christian fantasy one of the subdivisions? No, but epic fantasy is, and that’s what I write, from a Christian worldview. Not urban fantasy or dark fantasy, SF thriller, new age, cyberpunk, steampunk, science fantasy, Arthurian, or fantastic alternate history. Those subgenres, and others on the list, seem to appeal to a select group, a niche, whereas epic fantasy has an appeal that spans age groups and reading preferences.

And here’s what the Writer’s Digest article said:

[Crawford] Kilian [author of Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy] also sees a return to eic fantasy, spurred by The Lord of the Rings movies. He cites a new series, Queen of the Orcs, derived from one of Tolkien’s fanciful species. The return of the epic style is welcome to [Harper Collins Voyager Publishing Director Jane] Johnson who wrote a companion piece for The Two Towers, and is currently working on an epic children’s fantasy series, the Eidolon Chronicles.

“It’s hard to beat the rush of finding a tale with huge scope and a cast of brilliant characters,” she says. “For me, there’s nothing more absorbing.”

For reader and writer alike, I might add. How else can anyone explain the huge love affair our culture has with Lord of the Rings, which spills out to include nearly everything Tolkien.

So there you have it. I’m finally writing what’s “in,” at least according to this general market writing periodical. 😀

One other reason I’m excited. Recently I received news that a story I entered in the Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest placed. No, not in the money, but I do get free books, my name in the magazine, and my story included in the collection of winners. That’s cool in itself, but here’s the part I’m excited about. The story is Christian fantasy, the way I write it—like a parable. And this contest was not genre specific. In other words, this story was judged along with contemporary stories, literary stories, you name it.

As I see it, that confirms my belief that Christian fantasy can “cross over.” It does not have to be a story only for Christians. Of course, those who don’t have the eyes to see may not discover the meaning of the parable. They will, however, enjoy a good story, and it may be a story that will plant a seed or become a tool in the hands of a believer to illustrate what they’ve been telling their non-Christian friends about the gospel. At least that’s my prayer.

Every Good & Perfect Gift

I met author Sharon Souza in 2006 at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference. We were both in a mentoring group headed up by Gayle Roper. As part of the seminar, each participant was to critique twenty pages of the other members’ works-in-progress.

Right away, Sharon impressed me with her writing skill. Needless to say, it was a thrill to learn a year later that she had a book contract with NavPress. And now her debut novel is in book stores. Every Good & Perfect Gift “adeptly portrays the strengths of friendship, and the wonderful but often difficult relationships between mothers and daughters,” as the Publisher’s Weekly review says.

What it doesn’t mention is how realistic the characters are and how significant the story is. Written in the first person, but as much about another character as the “I,” the novel gives unique voices to both. And makes the reader care for both.

This book is not light weight. It “adeptly” deals with serious issues (not just friendship, though in saying “just” I’m not implying that friendship isn’t a worthy topic to explore. Rather, this novel goes beyond that scope and treats something bigger) and “Souza laudably refuses to succumb to a pat ending that neatly ties up all the loose ends.” Rather than frustrating, this ending seemed to me like the only one possible.

At one point, the PW review called Every Good & Perfect Gift “poignant.” That’s a good word to describe the story. “Sad” is inaccurate because the story has more to say than “what happened in the end.” Besides, in places, the journey to the end is itself poignant.

At times I was laughing, at other times I wanted to shake one or both characters, but in the end I cried. And cried. If one sign of a successful novel is that it evokes emotion in the reader, then Sharon Souza has written one very successful novel.

Mind you, it is most definitely women’s fiction. It is contemporary, and it may touch on some raw edges for some people. But in so doing, it also might help those readers process what is almost an untouchable subject (or subjects) among Christians.

Yes, this book is also overtly Christian, but without any platitudes or pretension. It is simply a moving story, one that touched me even though I am far from the target audience. Good books have a way of doing that.

Published in: on February 21, 2008 at 11:37 am  Comments (5)  
Tags: , ,

CSFF Blog Tour – The Shadow and Night, Day 3

Is it me, or do these blog tours really get better and better? That’s a real question. I know I’m biased, but here’s what I see. Bloggers are genuinely entering into discussion about British author Chris Walley‘s Christian science fiction The Shadow and Night.

Once upon a time, the tour consisted mostly of standard reviews, with an occasional author interview. Now, bloggers are interacting with the book—”This is what the book made me think about” or “I noticed the author did this or that.” Then commenters are chiming in with agreement or disagreement or a new view on the subject. It’s … it’s … book buzz! 😀

I point that out because, as you may suspect, not all buzz is positive. When you start interacting with a work, you also voice the cons as much as the pros. I don’t view this as a black mark on the tour at all, especially in light of the standard PR quip: No PR is bad PR.

I mention this at all because as I’ve roamed about the blogsphere reading what others on the tour are saying, I see a consistent opinion expressed: the pace of The Shadow and Night is slow. Surprisingly, some look at this as a weakness while others view it as a strength. But even those who saw it as a weakness commented that they were so glad they stayed with the story through the slow parts because the pay-off later on was well worth it.

There have also been some comments saying that Walley has become a new favorite author or that the blogger has already ordered the next two books in the trilogy. Great stuff. The pace, for a good number of these bloggers, was not a factor that spoiled the story.

Another topic that has come up several times is the eschatological position of the book, since it starts off 11,000 years in the future and during a long run of peace after the Intervention that bound Satan. Sin still causes disease and death, but that’s about it. The opening chapters, then, portray characters at peace with one another and with God, not filled with gut-wrenching desires blocked at every turn. In other words, characters with next to no conflict. As tour participant John Otte said, he found himself rooting for evil—not to win, but just to show up.

At this point, I do want to interject, I thought the arrival of evil was foreshadowed appropriately. I thought there was an undercurrent of tension—change of some sort was on the way, but what exactly that would be … well, readers are going to have to be patient.

This reduced conflict, however, brings up another question. Are stories about Christians acting as Christians should, destined to be slow paced? Does evil always have to show up? Or can a story show in a gripping way the struggle with the evil that’s already there, in each character’s heart?

Some bloggers think that’s what Walley was able to accomplish. But my question remains. To pull this off, of necessity, must the pace then be slow?

Your thoughts?

Take time this week to see what other CSFF’ers are saying about The Shadow and Night: Brandon Barr Jim Black Justin Boyer Grace Bridges Jackie Castle Carol Bruce Collett Valerie Comer CSFF Blog Tour Gene Curtis D. G. D. Davidson Janey DeMeo Jeff Draper April Erwin Beth Goddard Marcus Goodyear Rebecca Grabill Jill Hart Katie Hart Michael Heald Timothy Hicks Christopher Hopper Jason Joyner Kait Carol Keen Mike Lynch Margaret Rachel Marks Shannon McNear Melissa Meeks Mirtika Pamela Morrisson Eve Nielsen John W. Otte John Ottinger Deena Peterson Rachelle Steve Rice Ashley Rutherford Chawna Schroeder James Somers Rachelle Sperling Donna Swanson Steve Trower Speculative Faith Robert Treskillard Jason Waguespac Laura Williams Timothy Wise

CSFF Blog Tour – The Shadow and Night, Day 2

If I weren’t locked into titling CSFF Blog Tours by the format you see in this post, I would have called this one World Building. Seldom does “setting,” one of the necessary elements of a novel, get front line billing in discussions of craft. With the exception, perhaps, of science fiction or fantasy. Without a doubt, the more imaginative the place, the more important it becomes for the reader to grasp the setting.

Chris Walley in The Shadow and Night, first in the Lambs among the Stars science fiction trilogy written for adults, does a remarkable job building a world that feels familiar and foreign at the same time.

The story takes place in the far-distant future, and Earth (or Ancient Earth as it is known) has expanded across the galaxy, terra-forming worlds into Earth replicas. The Shadow and Night opens on Farholme, a world in progress at the far reaches of the Assembly of Worlds.

On one hand there is this very “other” feel, as people travel through space by gate technology and on there ground via six-wheeled Light Groundfreighters. On the other those colonizing the world work toward its continued development, riding horseback, at times, and living in isolated, small villages. There is a remarkable tension between the advanced science and the primitive pioneering conditions.

The closest I’ve come across (and you need to remember, I’m not well-read in science fiction) to creating a similar world is Kathryn Mackel in her Birthright Project. In that story, however, the Earth had succumbed to the ravages of war. Thus the primitive.

In The Shadow and Night, the primitive is actually a result of advancement as the frontier continues to push toward the outer edges of the galaxy. It has such a natural feel, especially for anyone familiar with the settling of the American West—except, of course, the sculpting of the land to copy Ancient Earth.

In addition to the unique advanced/primitive tension, the world of the Lamb among the Stars trilogy feels dense, complex, believable, in part because of the maps and charts accompanying The Shadow and Night. But this world is not just about the geography of the place but the history of the people. It feels set in time, with peculiar cultural anomalies not found in other worlds.

Chris Walley has expertly crafted perhaps the most important element of science fiction—the world where his story can unfold.

I’ll let others on the blog tour discuss the theology connected to the fact that this world is a result of thousands of years of peace, initiated as a result of people turning to worship God. You can see what these bloggers have to say through tomorrow: Brandon Barr Jim Black Justin Boyer Grace Bridges Jackie Castle Carol Bruce Collett Valerie Comer CSFF Blog Tour Gene Curtis D. G. D. Davidson Chris Deanne Janey DeMeo Jeff Draper April Erwin Beth Goddard omitted from original list posted at CSFF Marcus Goodyear Rebecca Grabill Jill Hart Katie Hart Michael Heald Timothy Hicks Christopher Hopper Jason Joyner Kait Carol Keen Mike Lynch Margaret Rachel Marks Shannon McNear Melissa Meeks Mirtika or Mir’s Here Pamela Morrisson Eve Nielsen John W. Otte John Ottinger Deena Peterson Rachelle Steve Rice Ashley Rutherford Chawna Schroeder James Somers Rachelle Sperling Donna Swanson Steve Trower Speculative Faith Robert Treskillard Jason Waguespac Laura Williams Timothy Wise

Published in: on February 19, 2008 at 11:05 am  Comments (5)  
Tags: , ,

CSFF Blog Tour – The Shadow and Night, Day 1

While the CSFF February tour is featuring The Shadow and Night, I want to include information about author Chris Walley.

For starters, he is one of the contributors at the Christian science fiction and fantasy team blog, Speculative Faith. You can see all of his posts, with topics ranging from fantasy and theology to a discussion of Phillip Pullman, by clicking on this link.

For another, Chris is a Brit (which may explain why he’s not been in the bookstore nearest you to sign autographs 😉 ), a Ph.D, a geologist, a husband, a father, a teacher, an occasional preacher. And then there’s that writing thing.

Under the pseudonym John Haworth, Chris published two thrillers, Heart of Stone and Rock of Refuge (why is it authors choose to write under a different name?) Some years later, he turned to science fiction and wrote The Lamb among the Stars series.

The first two books were published in the UK, then picked up by Tyndale. Two years after the books came out in paperback, the publisher decided to produce the entire series in hardback. Consequently, the first two books were repackaged under one title, the book we are featuring, The Shadow and Night.

Later that year (2006), the second hardback volume, The Dark Foundations, came out. The final novel in the trilogy (formerly the quartet), The Infinite Day, is coming out later this year. Which is especially good news for readers who hate to wait in between series.

From now through Wednesday, there will be discussion about Chris’s work, and possible about his theology. Could get interesting, but then CSFF isn’t necessarily known for it’s uneventful tours. 😉

Take time this week to see what others have to say about this adult science fiction:

Published in: on February 18, 2008 at 12:47 pm  Comments (10)  
Tags: , ,
%d bloggers like this: