Writers Writing Nothing New


Writing instructors constantly remind novelists that there is no such thing as a new story. All of them have already been told before. And why should we be surprised by that since there is no new thing under the sun.

A wife lured her husband into grabbing for power. Is that Macbeth or Eve with Adam? An innocent man is kidnapped and thrown in jail. Joseph, or The Count of Monte Cristo?

First, stories happened, then they became a tale someone told.

But why do writers keep on writing if none of the stories are new? I think there are several reasons. For one thing, the particulars of every story change.

The man-versus-man conflict has been told millions of times, for example, but in each one, a man is not murdering his brother. Perhaps he’s selling him to traders instead or setting his field on fire. Maybe he’s stealing the heart of his girlfriend or sleeping with his wife.

There are any number of details that can change — particulars about the characters, the location, the time, the events leading up to the culminating act, the motivation behind it, the resolution, and what it all means.

Writers continue telling stories, in addition, because each one of us adds our own touch. The story, in essence, becomes an expression of us — our personality, our outlook on life.

Painters have not stopped painting mountains because some other artist completed a landscape featuring mountains. Photographers haven’t stopped snapping pictures of sunsets because others before them have taken photos of the sun slipping below the horizon. These visual artists know that no one has captured their subject at that moment, in that way, and from that same perspective as the one presently holding a brush or peering through a lens.

So, too, writers bring their unique selves to each twice-told tale.

J. R. R. Tolkien said that writing is an act of sub-creation. Scripture says Man is made in God’s image. It’s not a stretch, then, to believe that the act of sub-creation is something humans do because of who God made us to be.

A fourth reason writers continue putting out stories even though we understand we are not writing a new thing — society needs them. For one thing, language changes, and some people prefer stories told in the vernacular.

In addition, society forgets. We need stories to remind us that there’s still a Big Bad Wolf in the woods, that a scorpion still stings because that’s what scorpions do.

Our stories anchor us to the truth, but they also serve as beacons looking forward. They fuel our imagination and make us look beyond ourselves. They attach us to one another, though we live across the globe or the galaxy or in a different era or world. They show us our commonalities even as they inform us of our uniquenesses.

Sure, no story is new, but none of them has ever been told in exactly the same way before. So writers keep writing, and readers keep reading.

Published in: on August 18, 2011 at 5:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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Beyond Plateaus


Mountain climbers are familiar with reaching plateaus. You don’t get to one without a lot of serious work. Often when you arrive, you’ll find a scenic view and certainly a good place to rest. But if you have set a goal for yourself, staying on the plateau will defeat you.

Staying on plateaus can be tempting — for mountain climbers, for writers, for Christians. One of the things the long journey of writing novels and waiting to find an agent and publisher has taught me is to keep working. There was a time I thought my work was ready for publication. In fact I confidently read other books and believed my writing equal or better.

Apparently I was the only one. Yes, I got good responses from critique partners and others in mentoring groups. But there is still that elusive “We want you to be our author” phone call. Something, therefore, needs to be better. It pushes me forward to improve.

But what happens when I don’t have that incentive any more?

Lady Gaga (bet you never thought you’d hear me quoting her here, did you 😉 ) said in anticipation of her next performance, she (mentally) takes the awards she’s won off the wall and stuffs them in the closet. In other words, she’s determined not to let past success affect her goal. She’s not going to stay on the plateau.

I think some writers are content with the plateau. Publishing was their dream. Now they have books out and enough sales to get the next contract. Who cares if they improve their writing or become better at plotting their stories? Who cares if their characters are retreads? I mean, those sales show the fans are there.

I think it would be easy to fall into that attitude, but the plateau isn’t the mountain top.

Plateaus can become traps for Christians in our spiritual walk, too. Our friends all believe pretty much the same way we do. We become comfortable with our church. We tithe and attend, and even participate in special work events in the neighborhood.

God is good. He’s forgiven us by His grace and we’re thankful. So very thankful.

And there we stay.

But look at what Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica:

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. (4:1)

What a statement! You’re doing a good job, now go out and do better!

In the next verses, it becomes clear that Paul has in mind, in particular, their sexual purity. But then in verse nine he turns a corner and commends that church for how they love other Christians. And yes, he follows up with the same admonition:

Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more (4:9-10)

A couple things I learn from this. The Christian life isn’t a “let go and let God” proposition. There is a “work out your salvation” aspect, and that doesn’t deposit us on a plateau at some point, where we can sit back and enjoy the view — not, at least, if we’re to take what Paul said seriously. Rather, the Christian life is dynamic.

Excelling still more is a logical goal for those who stand next to perfection. It’s impossible to rest and think I’ve arrived when I look at God. He is the gold standard of purity and love.

Finally, though I’m an active agent in this excelling process, so is God. Look at what Paul said right before his first “excel still more” statement:

and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. 3:12-13

The Thessalonians were to excel still more in the area of loving believers, but Paul prayed that God would cause this. The Thessalonians were to excel still more in the area of sexual purity, but Paul prayed that God would establish their hearts without blame in holiness.

It’s kind of like the really serious mountain climbers who are tethered together as they make their way up a rock face. One moves forward but not without the other. The first enables the second and the second supports and secures the first.

We have an incredible God who thinks and plans far beyond the ways we would choose. One part of that would seem to include our enjoying the plateaus He leads us to, but then we must keep going, thankfully, not alone.

Published in: on July 28, 2011 at 6:04 pm  Comments (1)  
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Realism In Fiction


Don Quixote de la Mancha started out being a realist, but in the end he lost what was most true.

Today much discussion in the Christian writing community focuses on realism, or telling the truth in fiction.

Some authors have banded together to support their “edgier” brand of fiction — by which they apparently mean stories that don’t hesitate to include sexual passion without actually showing sex. (The only novel I read from these particular authors included lots of desire and passionate kissing but no nudity or copulation).

Others push to do away with sanitized language. Sinners should talk like sinners, the reasoning goes. Anything less isn’t realistic.

Some complaints claim erroneously that certain topics are off limits in Christian fiction — prostitution or sex trafficking, for example. These are real issues, these critics say, and the topics should be dealt with in story, and they should be handled in a realistic way.

Still others falsely believe that a certain conservative value set must be adhered to in Christian fiction — no dancing, drinking, or smoking for instance. Those who push for realism say that stories should show these human activities in a realistic way without making value judgments.

I understand these arguments which often come from other writers wishing to see Christians create stories of high caliber. Realistic stories are the present gold standard, not morality tales. Consequently, these writers are making a plea, in their minds, for the best kind of writing.

What I have asked more than once, however, is why these writers who want realism in fiction don’t demand as much realism in the depiction of God as they do of human behavior.

Why are we not up in arms about how shallow or weak or absent God comes off in novel after novel bearing the Christian label? We complain about humans appearing out of touch with the world or behaving in ways that are not consistent with reality, but we are silent about God appearing as out of touch with His creation or inconsistent with His self-revelation.

God might be incidental to a story, an add-on “faith element,” and no one is complaining. No one is standing up and saying how such stories aren’t real.

Why is it OK to do a poor job of showing God in a real way, but it is not OK to show humans in a real way? And if it’s not, why aren’t we saying so with the same frequency we decry the absence of realism in human behavior?

Is it because we think humans are more real than God? Is it because we don’t believe God plays a part in the gritty details of life we want to show in our novels?

I’m grasping for ideas here.

As I see it, pushing for realism ought to start with showing God as He is. How can anything else, then, come off as better than it is? Man next to a pure and holy God isn’t going to look sanitized or righteous.

The best way to paint a realistic picture of Man is to first paint a realistic picture of God. Without showing God as He really is, stories will never be realistic. They might be partially real, but they will never be telling the whole truth.

Having said that, I think it’s important to add, stories don’t show all truth. I don’t think that’s possible.

However, stories should show truth about whatever subject they cover. Since Christian fiction is often about God, doesn’t it seem logical, then, that the most important truth Christian fiction tells is about God?

Who cares if the characters swear or don’t swear if God comes off looking incidental? Who cares if a character drinks or doesn’t drink if God is absent in a “Christian” novel?

The one thing that is the distinctive of Christian fiction is the one thing that only Christian fiction can do — tell the truth about God.

Some fiction might be moral. Some might focus on psychological or physical aspects of humanity rather than spiritual. Stories dealing in those realms should be realistic.

But how can we be outraged that a foul-mouthed character doesn’t speak in four-letter words when we aren’t outraged that our sovereign God isn’t depicted as just and powerful and righteous?

In our quest for realism in fiction, it seems to me, we’re aiming our lances at windmills.

– – –

For further discussion, see also “When God Shows Up In Fiction”

Published in: on July 11, 2011 at 8:07 pm  Comments (19)  
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More Is Not Better


No, more is not better. Better is better. More is just more. If it’s more of the same, and the same is boring or insipid or unimaginative, then how is more better? It’s not.

Yes, this is somewhat of a rant. Recently I’ve been reminded of some authors who are overly busy because they are putting out several books a year, some in different series and even for different publishers.

This means there is little, if any, coordination between when a manuscript is due and when the book needs to be edited or promoted. There’s also a question in my mind how well an author can write unique characters when she spends so little time getting to know them.

Experts say we only can have three or four close friends at any one time. So how many characters can a writer develop? Seems to me we should know our characters nearly as well as we do our close friends.

Consequently, I feel confident that more characters don’t make for better stories. More books of course require more characters, so it seems to me, every book an author puts out in a relatively short amount of time indicates less time spent with the characters.

There are exceptions, of course. D. Barkley Briggs, for example, is in the process of publishing three books this year. He published the first of a young adult trilogy with NavPress back in 2008, but weeks before the second released — a book that had already gone through the editing process — his publisher decided to end its fiction line.

When he recently signed with AMG Publishers, they reprinted his first book, then three months later published Corus The Champion. The third in the Legends of Karac Tor series is due out a scant three months after Corus, but this elapse of time is not a reflection of how long it took to write the books.

Apart from the obvious — the disadvantage a writer puts herself at by trying to create deep and realistic characters and a story that is fresh and well crafted in such a short amount of time — there’s also reader weariness.

Yes, reader weariness. What if the Harry Potter books all came out within six months of each other? Would readers have been ready to stand in line waiting for a midnight release when they’d done it just six months earlier?

Would so many readers have been clamoring for the next book, or would some give up the effort to be in the mix because after three books, they’d fallen hopelessly behind?

My point is, writers that believe more is better may actually be saturating the market with their own work. Readers either can’t keep up or may grow weary of the writer’s voice.

Not to mention that some writers sacrifice story structure for the more is better approach. The plot twists and twists and twists again in a meandering plot because the writer doesn’t really know where the story is going and is just hoping it all comes out in the end.

Some readers don’t care how convoluted a plot is, as long as there’s a spaceship battle in every chapter. Some don’t care how realistic the characters are, so long as there’s a good guy and a bad guy. I understand — I once watched western movies that had characters like that.

But make no mistake, those stores are not better. No matter how many of them a writer cranks out, more does not make them better.

Who Owns Fiction?


Last December in a blog post I wrote for the CSFF Blog Tour of The Charlatan’s Boy, in which I discussed belief and unbelief, author Jonathan Rogers became somewhat exercised over the thought that I was comparing his fantasy folk known as Feechie with angels.

Here’s his comment:

Well, Becky, when you put a book out there, it’s out there, and you can’t control what happens to it. As Sally Apokedak has told me, it belongs to everybody. I would have never drawn the connection between feechiefolks and angels. But the feechies belong to anybody who will read about them, I reckon. Thanks for giving them lots of thought.

In response, Sally Apokedak explained that Jonathan’s comment was spurred by a Facebook discussion that ended with differing opinions about who “owned” the character.

Here’s part of what Sally said in that exchange:

I say Grady [the protagonist in The Charlatan’s Boy] belongs to me. 🙂 You are not allowed to keep ownership of him. When I read a book the characters become my friends and I have very strong feelings about them. Once Grady’s published he is out in the world and you can’t coddle him and keep him as your little pet boy any more. He’s out there interacting with the readers. You gave birth to him, but he keeps growing after he leaves you.

I’ll admit, I dismissed the discussion because I though Jonathan had misunderstood my post(!) but I was more inclined to agree with Sally than Jonathan.

No actual pictures of feechie exist but here's one of Feechie Swamp Stew compliments of Donita K. Paul

And yet, I most certainly didn’t want Jonathan thinking I was comparing his fantasy feechies to angels. I knew better and didn’t like the idea that he thought otherwise based on my article.

Last Friday over at Spec Faith, the subject again cropped up, and suddenly I saw things in a different light. One of the visitors there claimed that guest novelist Kathy Tyers’ work Firebird was racist. He went on to say that Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was racist, that, in both cases, the authors may not have intended to write a racist work, but they did anyway.

In other words, he took the extreme position that a writer’s intention did not matter at all. Rather there is some standard apart from what the author thinks he is saying against which the reader can measure a work and determine what he actually said. And that standard? Apparently whatever the reader “got out of it.”

Suddenly I was not so firmly on the side of the reader, so I countered with a post of my own at Spec Faith. As I wrote my thoughts and realized that the attitude we have toward reading plays a huge part in how we understand Scripture, I thought this topic was important enough to revisit here.

The key issues, I believe, are these:

    1. Novelists, like any other writer, are communicating something.
    2. Readers are responsible to discern what it is the novelist is saying.
    3. Stories affect readers on an emotional level as well as an intellectual level.
    4. Readers come to stories with their own set of experiences and their own worldview.
    5. Consequently, a reader may interact with a story and come away, having been touched, having learned and grown in ways that the novelist never dreamed.

Using The Charlatan’s Boy as an example again, in my reading, I saw parallels between the disbelief of the “civilizers” about the very real feechie and the disbelief of today’s rational thinkers about the very real world of the supernatural.

Was this a point Jonathan intended to communicate? From his comment, it seems clear he did not. Could that parallel legitimately be made, however? I think definitely yes, in part because of two things. One has to do with what I as the reader was experiencing — much having to do with false teaching and the effects on our culture. The second has to do with the actual content. Nothing I saw in the story violated what Jonathan wrote.

Now if I claimed, as he apparently thought I was, that the feechie were allegorical representations of or symbols for angels, I believe I would have violated his work. To reach that conclusion, I would have had to force the feechie into the Biblical parameters for angels.

Quite frankly, they simply do not fit and my saying so wouldn’t make it so. In addition, I would be contradicting the author’s intent. Not just going beyond his intent, or drawing ideas out of what he intended. My ideas would have contradicted his intent.

So who owns fiction? I believe the writer does. But if he writes about important things, the reader may interact with the story in such a way that he thinks thoughts far beyond what the author envisioned. And that’s a very good thing.

Published in: on May 4, 2011 at 6:47 pm  Comments (5)  
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Responding To Criticism


Writers in particular seem to be interested in criticism, but the truth is, no matter what our profession we all are apt to face criticism in one form or another.

When I was a new teacher, I was so fearful of parent/teacher conferences — until I learned that most of the parents were just as fearful. Of what? I, that these parents would criticize the job I was doing as a teacher; they, that I would criticize their job as parents.

Of course there were also professional evaluations when an administrator would come into the classroom, observe, then meet with me later and give his assessment (read, critique) of my lesson. And there were the standardized tests we gave too. Ostensibly these measured the students’ progress from one year to the next, but guess who was responsible for their growth or lack thereof? 🙄

Other jobs have similar ways of measuring job performance, so why do some writers (see comments) have such a hard time taking criticism?

The topic came up recently on Mike Duran’s blog, not once but twice. And the author meltdown on Books and Pals ignited additional posts about bad reviews and author responses.

I suspect that part of the issue is how public author criticism is. I mean, when my administrator gave me a job performance evaluation, it was confidential. I got a copy and one went into my file, but from there, no one needed to know if I got a “five star” rating or a “one star.” 😉

Writers have no such confidentiality clause with reviewers. In fact, the point of the review is to publicize an opinion about a writer’s performance.

A reviewers opinion, of course, is not accurately equated with a supervisor’s assessment. In my situation, reviewers would be more closely aligned to my students’ opinions. Imagine if each of them posted on my classroom window what they thought of my lessons that day. Hmmm. 🙄

But a writer’s reviews serve a greater purpose than writer evaluation. They benefit readers because they inform. And they benefit writers because they promote in ways a writer can’t. Reviews on the Internet aren’t paid advertisement. They are one reader’s opinion (or in the case of a blog tour, one group of readers varying opinions).

Consequently, it seems a little baffling to me that a writer would respond in any way but with gratitude. Someone read their book. That in itself is something to be thankful for.

Lambasting the critiquer? I don’t see how that’s a good move under any circumstance.

Some writers answer that the right response is to ignore all reviews, even good ones. I don’t know what I think about commenting on Amazon, but on blogs and particularly in blog tours, I think an author that doesn’t comment is missing out on an opportunity to make a positive connection with a reader.

One author, definitely old school, said to comment on favorable reviews might illicit syrupy suck-up reviews in the future. Well, maybe that’s a risk worth taking. Because no comment could earn an author no review in the future.

I know it’s not always possible, but it seems to me, if a person has taken the time to read a book, write and post a blog review, the least the author can do is drop by with a simple thank you.

I actually learned that from Andy Sernovitz who wrote Word of Mouth Marketing. A couple years ago I won a free copy of his book and blogged about something I learned from it. True to the advice he gave in the book, he stopped by my site to say thank you for the mention. And that wasn’t even a full review.

In my opinion, authors would do well to take advantage of reviews by responding kindly and professionally. I’ve seen more than one blogger won over by such an approach.

Published in: on March 29, 2011 at 6:30 pm  Comments (6)  
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Publishing Success


Recently Harvest House acquisitions editor Nick Harrison concluded a blog post with the following:

In my workshops I often mention that success for a writer is only about 60% writing ability. The other 40% is knowing the market, meeting editors and agents at conferences, and generally keeping up with what’s going on in the publishing world. Writers who do that will have an advantage over more talented writers who don’t or won’t do that.

In this article, Nick also says that a writer needs to tailor his writing to the particular needs of the publisher with whom he is seeking publication. Zondervan, for instance, he says, does well with suspense while Bethany and Harvest House do well with romance and Marcher Lord Press specializes in speculative.

Interesting observation. I know editors often say what they are looking for, but I don’t know that I had zeroed in on the idea of exclusivity before.

So I wonder, is it a wise decision to put all the eggs in one basket? Is it ideal to be In-and-Out specializing in burgers, fries, and milk shakes, or is it better to be KFC and start branching out past your niche?

For writers, is it better to seek publication with a house that specializes or one that diversifies? For some do. I thought of Thomas Nelson, a house that includes a wide variety of fiction. And WaterBrook, one of the publishers not afraid of speculative fiction (and doing quite well with at least some of their authors).

Earlier today I read author friend Mike Duran’s post about his path to publication. I found these lines refreshingly honest [note to Mike: you see? More than one person finds what you write refreshing 😉 ]:

Even after I’ve signed a two-book contract, I am still in the dark as to how I actually got here.

Part hard work. Part luck. Part divine guidance. I dunno.

I tend to think Mike falls into the paradigm that Nick Harrison described. He is a good writer, so he’s 60 percent there. He’s begun attending writers’ conferences and has been involved in the writing business for a number of years as an editor at Midnight Diner, as a guest blogger at Novel Journey, and any number of other activities. Plus he writes the kind of speculative fiction that Strang (his publisher) seems to prefer and the market currently favors (a darker, urban kind of supernatural fantasy—though I may be wrong about characterizing Mike’s work in those terms since I haven’t actually read his book yet).

But here’s the thing. As the Dilbert cartoon I posted a couple days ago says, marketing is part guess work.

Nick Harrison suggests that a writer might be talented enough to study trends and figure out what readers will want in three years. But that’s a guess. No writer will know if another 9/11 will hit before their book goes to press or if another economic event will change the climate of the publishing industry or another technological advance or … or … or …

So I’m not buying it. We writers don’t know enough, I don’t think. We can’t know enough.

I’ve seen some writers publish (with great elation since they’ve been working for years to perfect their writing) only to have disappointing sales and no additional contract. Initially when they got The Call, it looked as if they’d crossed the magic line and had “made it.”

But I think the line keeps moving. At least if “the line” refers to the same way the rest of our culture measures success.

I think God measures success differently. Sometimes He brings the kind of success the world hankers after as a residual of the real kind of success. Sometimes not.

Gideon experienced both. In spite of—or maybe because of—insurmountable odds, he lead a handful of fighters to a stunning victory against Israel’s oppressors. But the real victory came when he believed God and obeyed His call to go, to par down his army, and to employ tactics that can only be called strange.

The point was, no one, least of all Gideon, could miss the fact that God gave him the victory. It really wasn’t possible any other way.

Maybe, just maybe, God wants to do more impossible things today if we’re willing to give Him that first victory—our trust, our obedience.

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 6:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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Who Reads?


Anticipating the release of the iPad, people in the book publishing business have been abuzz. The talk moves from the prediction that books are on the way out to the idea that mid-list writers will be squeezed from existence.

What’s left? A handful of blockbusters and a growing number of unfiltered offerings from all kinds of home-grown sources providing a handful of readers what they want to read.

Where has the audience gone? Who reads any more?

I suggest, lots of people read and more want to. Look at the Harry Potter phenomenon. Loads of “non-readers” read all seven books, the final three each pushing past seven hundred pages.

I think of my friend’s husband who struggled with reading all through school and took jobs that required little reading. But he was a Christian, and when he married, he understood that he needed to take the spiritual leadership in his home. Consequently, he read the Bible. Sometimes he read publicly, always he read on his own.

He even joined a group called the Gideons, known most for placing Bibles in hotels, but in reality giving Bibles at any number of other venues as well. This man, you see, valued the Bible, so he valued reading.

What that teaches me is that people will read if they find a compelling reason to read. The Harry Potter-ites wanted to read because they got caught up in a good story, much to their surprise and to the surprise of most of the adults in their lives. My friend’s husband got caught up too—in the desire to know and obey God.

So we Christians who write fiction, can we write in such a way that non-readers will want to read without losing those who already love books and stories?

I have to think so. The Bible, after all, engaged my friend’s husband, and it has engaged countless scholars down through the ages.

C. S. Lewis, too, wrote so that little children groan when the end of a chapter comes in one of the Narnia books, but adults quote from those same stories as if they have the weight of Scripture.

Who reads? People who want to. With movies and TV so accessible, no one has to turn to books for stories. But many still do. Books give what the visual media cannot—the opportunity for the reader to imagine, to sink fully and intimately into a world and get to know the people who live there Or else to learn what they cannot learn anywhere else.

Writers just need to give readers a reason to turn to page one, then keep going.

Published in: on April 8, 2010 at 11:01 am  Comments (2)  
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