Let’s All Write the Same

I hope you realize I’m being facetious by suggesting all writers should write in the same way. However, I sometimes get the feeling that advocates of certain writing approaches think this outcome would be desirable.

I recently read a review that criticized a work for what it did NOT do, as if all works had, in fact, to do exactly the same thing. Now if the criticism was that the story did not have a likable protagonist or it did not have sufficient conflict or a central theme, then I would understand. These are things necessary to every story. But this was not the case.

Instead this criticism centered on a style. I’ll use an example. James Scott Bell, in his excellent book Plot & Structure advocates using the “three-act structure.” Does that mean this is the only structure a novel can follow?

Apparently some people believe so, religiously, to the point of criticizing any novel that dares to use a different structure as if it is inferior or deficient. The fact is, the three-act structure is one way of telling a story, but not the only way. James Bell himself says so:

Can You Play With Structure?
Of course. Once you understand why it works, you are free to use that understanding to fit your artistic purposes … So grasp the worth of structure, then write what you will.
– p. 24

Jim does go on to say that even in non-linear plots eventually the same elements and information found in a plot organized into three acts will also surface.

But what if a reviewer uses the three-act structure as his bible for The Way Stories Should Be, and he comes across a story like Lost Mission by Athol Dickson? Anyone reading the various posts during the CSFF Blog Tour for this book probably knows Athol did not follow the three-act structure.

And I suggest, the literary world is better for it. We’re better for books like George Bryan Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon, too, that creates “story movement” as John Truby calls it, through a means other than linear story telling.

My point is simply this: when an author is allowed to actually create, his work may be very different from some of the patterns advocated in writing instruction books. Truth is, it may be inaccessible, as I find A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be, no matter how acclaimed a writer James Joyce is. But it also might be brilliant and award winning (think, Gilead by Marianne Robinson) and wonderfully fresh and even wildly successful (think Harry Potter).

The alternative is for authors to put creativity aside and work exclusively within the cookie-cutter structure of screenplays. All books would soon become predictable (have you started noticing that the least likely suspect is almost always the culprit?) and characters, interchangeable.

The same is true of any other dearly held belief about writing. Some of the oft repeated writer advice—avoid an omniscient point of view, strip away all adverbs, don’t use “was,” kill off -ing words, and so on—ends up sterilizing writing. No longer does an author have a unique voice, a creative story, a fresh approach. Instead, it all needs to sound the same, only better.

I think the “only better” part is accurate. I’m taking issue with the hard and fast approaches that render fiction too much the same.

More Mount Hermon, 2010

If you’ve been around A Christian Worldview of Fiction for any length of time, you already know I think the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference is topnotch. Every time I go, I learn more about writing and the business end of publishing, meet more writers, and get more inspiration.

This past conference was no exception.

I arrived a day early, having driven up from SoCal with Rachel Marks and Merrie Destefano (yes, the award winners!) That night I attended the Early Bird session taught by Austin Boyd (no picture! What was I thinking??)

The full conference started the next day with the noon meal (you can hardly call the abundant food provided by Mount Hermon “lunch”), followed by separate orientations for the first timers and the alumni. Author James Scott Bell taught the session for the latter group. About half way through, he invited agent Steve Laube to join him. They held an interesting dialogue about agent stuff. 😉

I had the privilege of sitting at Steve’s table for dinner that night for the purpose of asking him if he ever looks at a work he’s rejected a second time (he does). I was impressed by how much help he gave each of us, even those just getting started who aren’t close to the agent stage. He brainstormed ideas with everyone, listened to projects, and asked intelligent questions.

Later I thought to ask him for an appointment. When we met the last full day of the conference, he was just as engaged, and gave me some helpful suggestions. A+ for Steve Laube. 😀

A good part of my conference time was spent in Rebeca Seitz‘s Major Morning Track—Painless, Purposeful Publicity. I took one picture which is good for blackmail, but this one gives you the real Rebeca. As head of Glass Road Public Relations, Rebeca was full of information about the promotion side of publishing. She had stats and studies, anecdotes and outlines.

I’m nowhere near this part of the process, but I like to be informed. Rebeca gave us loads of info, all from the perspective of what an author can do.

I’ll be honest—there’s so much that at one point I thought my only hope, should I become a published author, would be to hire a PR firm. But that, of course, is crossing the stream before I know if I need to get to the other side.

More on Mount Hermon another day.

Writing Fiction—Planning the Truby Way

Anyone who hangs around fiction writers or our blogs soon deciphers that there are supposedly two types of authors—seat of the pants-ers and outliners—though James Scott Bell in Plot and Structure (Writer’s Digest) identified a third sort of in between writer.

I’ve identified myself as the latter, at least when I write fiction. When I journal (or blog), I definitely write on the fly. For this blog, I pick a topic and pour out my thoughts as they come. When I journal, I don’t even pick a topic!

On the other hand, when I write non-fiction formally—the articles I did for Victorian Homes, for example—I carefully research and plan.

Fiction seems to fall in between.

But I’m currently dreaming up a stand alone fantasy to write when I complete The Lore of Efrathah (I’m revising the last book, now titled Against Blood and Fire.) I had one plot point and no characters, though I knew the story would take place in Efrathah before Lore. But who would it be about, what would it be about, what would happen?

No thoughts, but no hurry either. Until a few weeks ago, when I was in Borders with our little group of SoCal speculative fiction writers (Mike Duran, Merrie Destefano, Rachel Marks, and me), and Rachel pulled The Anatomy of Story (Faber and Faber) by John Truby from the shelf.

I was excited about the book because it put a premium on theme, something few other writing books seem to do. But once I had my copy, I realized it was more than a book that discusses the elements of stories. The subtitle is accurate: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller.

Well, I don’t know about the “master” part, but I do know that by setting out to follow the steps, I am building a story. And the great part, as Truby says, it is organic. It isn’t a formula where you plug in character type A in slot B, then fifty pages later shift to Act II.

All that to say, I am becoming a firm believer in plans. I’ve run across several blogs/writer comments in which writers are obviously well into their story and they do not know what will happen.

One said his character was accused of a crime, of which he was innocent. Or not, because he did have a good motive to commit said villainous deed.

Well … doesn’t it MATTER early on if your character is a villain or a hero? I mean, is it OK to switch part way through a story? Or will the author, of necessity, have to go back over that earlier ground and rewrite, putting in the appropriate foreshadowing and character attributes of a villain?

Either way, it seems so unnecessary to me if an author would sit down and think the story through first.

Sure, changes happen as a story unfolds. The character must act in a way that is consistent, so in a given scene, the appropriate and necessary action may be one the author had not anticipated before hand. Hence new possibilities open up.

But using Truby’s organizational structure, there is a framework that serves to hold the story in place so it doesn’t wander.

Here are some pertinent quotes:

Most writers don’t use the best process for creating a story. They use the easiest one …

The writer comes up with a generic premise, or story idea, that is a vague copy of one that already exists …

He thinks of the opponent and minor characters as separate from and less important than the hero. So they are almost always week, poorly defined characters.

When it comes to theme, our writer avoids it entirely so that no one can accuse him of “sending a message” …

He comes up with a plot and a scene sequence based on one question: What happens next? …

Often he organizes his plot using the three-act structure, an external imprint that divides the story into three pieces but doesn’t link the events under the surface. As a result, the plot is episodic, with each event or scene standing alone.

Instead of the above, Truby says the process he is detailing will allow you, the author to

construct your story from the inside out … With each chapter [of The Anatomy of Story], your story will grow and become more detailed, with each part connected to every other part.

This latter is exactly what I’ve experienced so far. I think I’m being won over. I’m not outlining. I’m not filling out character charts. I’m thinking and answering questions and imagining and recording in a precise way what each new layer of my story will become. I hope. 😕

Having Something to Say

I just listened to a CD I have of James Scott Bell teaching at an American Christian Writers (ACW) workshop in Anaheim, California, several years ago. One thing that particularly caught my attention was when Jim mentioned two books that came out in the 1970s that are still selling. He said the authors had something to say and conveyed their vision in their stories.

How revolutionary! Authors that have something to say, not just an entertaining story to tell.

For the last eight years or more, Christian writers have been brow-beaten by writing instructors to leave messages behind. Stories, after all, aren’t sermons. And message-driven novels are nothing but propaganda.

Might want to tell that to Ian Rand, one of the authors Jim Bell referred to. Here was an atheist writing a story that said something, that conveyed a vision of the world, and Atlas Shrugged has become in the minds of many, a classic.

Interestingly, there seems to be a parallel trend among Christian writers—and maybe among all writers: a return to the artistic. I say “return” because the great successes as far as sales were concerned belonged to “commercial fiction,” stories that weren’t attempting to do anything artistic.

How odd it seems to me that anyone would want to pour themselves into the work it takes to create a beautiful story, and yet say nothing. Or, actually, let whatever the story says seep from them organically, which seems to be the current belief: if a Christian writes, his Christianity will find a way into the story because it is so much a part of who he is.

There is a certain truth to that. I find any number of things I believe muscling into my stories though I hadn’t set out to proclaim them. But those are secondary. They aren’t focused or reiterated or recurring—because they aren’t planned.

If I have something I want to say, however, that comes through in a variety of ways and in the lives of a number of characters. It’s thought out and intentional, much as my non-fiction is.

There have been times when I sit down to blog and start typing about something unimportant because I don’t really know what I want to say that day, but those are the rare occasions. Generally I have a purpose, most often reflected in the title, since I write that first.

Sometimes I’ve found myself on a tangent and the title calls me back to the original intention, but usually, even in these short pieces, I have a purpose around which I structure the piece.

Why should fiction be different?

C. S. Lewis has become one of the favorite authors to quote for those who think great writing can just happen. Last week I wrote a counter to this view over at Spec Faith because I think he has been seriously misunderstood (though not misquoted).

In the true spirit of Lewis, then, I think Christian fiction writers should come to a story with something to say, with a vision to share. And bravo to instructors like Jim Bell who stand up and say so.

The Fire in Fiction

Fire in Fiction coverIt’s HERE! Came on Monday, actually. I ordered this book when I first heard about it from Writer’s Digest, but when Jessica Dotta published an interview over at Novel Journey with agent guru and expert writing instructor, Donald Maass, I was more excited than ever to get his newest book, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, purpose, and techniques to make your novel great.

I know some people think there is a problem with that subtitle. I mean, come on, they say, techniques to make your novel great? As if you can create a masterpiece by using a paint-by-the-numbers kit.

Well, that’s the beauty of Mr. Maass’s books, at least the other two I’m familiar with—Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. He is not trying to give a formula but an analysis. He’s looking at what has made other novels “breakout” or have an impact (his working definition of “great”).

The point is, he identifies what elements great novels have, gives some practice tools, and lets writers go from there.

Nick Harrison:Jim Bell debateThis instruction book is light on “rules.” From a glance at the table of contents, I can tell you shouldn’t expect a discussion on point of view or verb tense or passive voice. If I were to categorize the main emphasis, I’d say it’s on characters.

This would make Nick Harrison very happy, while Jim Bell will be grinding his teeth. 😀 This picture was taken during a 2008 Mount Hermon workshop in which Nick and Jim “debated” the importance of character over story. According to Nick, no one cares about all the fast-action events in a story unless they first care about a character.

According to Jim Bell, no one can know a character unless they see them in action in the midst of a story.

Truth to both, clearly, but Mr. Maass spends the first fifty pages of his writing instruction about characters, so I think that provides us with a clue as to his position on the question.

Since I read to find out what happened next, I never thought I would agree with this character first approach. But I’ve read too many stories of late in which I just didn’t care … until I got to know what drove the character forward. Then, if I’m engaged with the character, I’m engaged in the story.

I read one book some years ago in which the character I followed for four hundred or so pages dies in the end. I have not picked up another book by that author since. I invested in that character and had no clue he would die. And I had no other rooting interest. I didn’t want to just have it all stop.

I’ve read other books that start with bad guys or with guys who die. I hate those books. I don’t want to attach to a bad guy. I don’t want to root for someone who’s out of the story after page twenty.

Characters matter, and they have to be done right. I’m convinced of that, but I’m still not sure if I understand how to do “right.”

Making Characters Memorable

So I’m trying to decide if I should spend $200 dollars and go the one day BookExpo America, held by Writer’s Digest Books in Los Angeles. Tomorrow. The biggest draw for me is Donald Maass, agent extraordinaire, and author of Writing the Breakout Novel. What I’d really like is to attend one of his ripping Breakout Novel Intensive Seminars, but there’s not one remotely close this year.

So instead, I could pay $200 to hear him speak/teach for one hour on “Fire in Fiction.” Of course, James Scott Bell is also teaching and could make the time worthwhile, but I’m getting off track.

One reason I would like to hear from Donald Maass and to have him rip apart my writing is because I think he’s identified the keys to creating memorable characters. And it isn’t through research. He doesn’t say this, to be sure, and I suspect he would actually advocate a writer becoming a student of human nature.

However, I suspect he would frown on pulling a list of characteristics from the Myers-Briggs personality test results and plugging them into a character. Rather this method would seem to be the antithesis of his idea that “larger-than-life” characters are, in part, quirky, willing to say or do what average people are afraid to.

Interestingly, Maass does not include “fatal flaw” or even “harmful flaw” as one of the needed elements to create the next Scarlet O’Hara or Bilbo Baggins. You don’t hear that in many Christian writing conferences … at least not the ones I’ve attended. What Maass does say is the character must have an inner conflict.

Which brings to mind a recent discussion on a writers’ email loop about the new breed of hero, the Jack Bauer and Batman types. The interesting thing to me is that Jack Bauer (of the television program 24) is always experiencing inner conflict. His choices are moral in the sense that he adheres to his over arching purpose—to preserve democracy and make the world safe. He struggles, though, against evil leaders, threats to his family, friends who lose sight of that central goal, and against the need to violate another person’s freedoms in order to preserve the lives and freedom of the greater population

In other words, he is god. He becomes the final authority to judge who is an agent of good and how good. But his decisions cost him, which is why he struggles internally.

And thus he becomes larger than life, a hero we remember and cheer, even as we lament his moral choices.

How much better to create that kind of character (memorable) than to take a list of traits from some personality model and formulate a character (type-cast). I’m not saying there isn’t truth in these professional observations of human nature. But I think writers need to do better, to see people as unique and capable of breaking the mold. Because a test identifies them as a “guardian” or “introverted” or “analytic” doesn’t need to mean the character must therefore behave in a patterned way according to the trait list presented.

In essence, this is where art must overrule science—at least if the characters are to be memorable. And memorable is one thing I’ve decided I what from my characters. Which is why I would like Donald Maass to rip apart my manuscript.

A Promise to Remember

This is sort of a transition post. We’ve had wonderful discussions about theme and Christian fiction, stemming from a comment Andrew Peterson made in answer to a question that came up in another blog.

Ironically, I was reading in Jerry JenkinsWriting for the Soul (Writers Digest, 2006), given out to all conferees by Mount Hermon at the Christian Writers Conference. In the forward, Francine Rivers wrote “We know it is one thing to be a Christian who writes, and quite another to be a Christian writer.”

I thought, Uh, we do? And what are the differing characteristics of the two? No disrespect to Ms. Rivers, who I know little about, but I tend to believe it is a good thing, a very good thing to wrestle with what it means to be a Christian (who we are) who writes (what we do) and/or a Christian writer (a writer informed by the change Christ has made in my life)—in short, this whole “what is Christian fiction” discussion we’ve been having.

But I’m getting sidetracked. What I really want to talk about is a book that illustrates what good Christian fiction is. I’m referring to Katie Cushman‘s debut novel, A Promise to Remember. Christy Award winning author John Olson, remember, touted this book as “flat out brilliant.”

I have to be honest. I purposefully slide this one down on my to-be-read pile after reading Sharon Souza’s Every Good and Perfect Gift (a book I reviewed here.) Understand, my delay had to do completely with my wanting to be in the right frame of mind. Knowing the premise of A Promise to Remember, I expected to be crying a lot.

The back of the book gives hints: “Two wounded women,” “the accident that changes everything,” and from James Scott Bell, “A beautifully written and heartfelt novel about loss …” Well, there’s more. But I knew what caused the wound, what was the loss. As you may remember, Katie was the driver of our little carpool up to Mount Hermon from Santa Barbara these last two years. And of course we talked about our writing. So I knew.

What I was ignoring was the rest of Jim Bell’s quote: “… about loss, love and forgiveness.”

Long story short, I got home from Mount Hermon and started in on Promise. By Monday, I knew I wouldn’t do anything else until I finished the book. It was gripping, real, tragic, triumphant, hopeful, engaging.

The story begins after loss has already occurred, and this had an odd effect on me. I didn’t feel the grief I was reading about. The book wasn’t really about that. It was about the repercussions of the grief, and those I entered into with my heart as well as with my head. But it was such a tangle. There was conflict, conflict, conflict, but who was the antagonist? Lots of people to root for, but if one came out ahead, it seemed the others would lose.

Wonderful tension. Great characters. Engaging from page one. Never coming across as succumbing to the victim syndrome, though certainly that would have fit the circumstances. But these characters really were larger than life, even as they felt so shrunken by their grief.

Powerful story. Now I want to talk to Katie about her theme. I did ask which she starts with when she writes a novel (her second is in the editing process, I believe), and surprisingly she said, Plot. (Score one for Jim Bell in his debate with Nick Harrison—and I’ll tell you about that next week when I get back to the Mount Hermon Report).

Recommendation? Must read. A Promise to Remember is one of those books that can touch a reader no matter what your preferred genre. Yes, the main characters are women, but men play a prominent role. It’s not a shoot-em-up story, but it is ripe with real life drama. Men will “get” this book, too. And readers who don’t pick it up will miss out.

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