When I was a good bit younger, I had determined to write literary fiction. Why? Well, for one thing, that seemed to be the only fiction respected by the so-called “literati.” For another, it was the kind of fiction to which I was most often drawn . . . unless I was traveling. For airplane rides and long car trips or boat cruises, I indulged in what I referred to as my “junk reading.” Spy novels, mysteries and thrillers, particularly if they revolved around World War II. Think of Ken Follett or Jack Higgins.

Then I wrote my first novel. Surprise! It came out a lot more like my so-called “junk reading” than works by the likes of Barbara Kingsolver or Joyce Carol Oates. A page-turner rather than a book to be savored. While I felt proud of my accomplishment and subsequent awards seemed to verify its worth, deep inside I resolved to make my next work more “literary.”

I completed my second novel last year and it’s currently being considered for publication. Though it does have more literary elements—some poetry, symbolism, etc.—than did my first work, all in all, it still would likely be classified as genre fiction. Upmarket, perhaps, but still genre. And now I’m halfway through my third. This one is definitely genre fiction. In fact, I’ve crossed over into an entirely different genre—YA fantasy.

I felt guilty about giving up my initial goal until I came across a fascinating essay by David Mamet entitled “The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius.” It’s in a great anthology of essays put out by The New York Times called, “Writers [on Writing].”

Mamet points out that “for the past thirty years the greatest novelists writing in English have been genre writers: John Le Carré, George Higgins and Patrick O’Brian. Each year, of course, found the press discovering some writer whose style, provenance and choice of theme it found endearing. These usually trig, slim tomes shared a wistful and self-commendatory confusion at the multiplicity of life and stank of Art. But the genre writers wrote without sentimentality; their prose was concise and perceptive; in it the reader sees the life of which they wrote, rather than the writer’s ‘technique.’” This coming from a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright! One of the “literati.”

As he puts it, “the purpose of literature is to Delight. To create or endorse the Scholastic is a craven desire. It may yield a low-level self-satisfaction, but how can this compare with our joy at great, generous writing? With our joy of discovery of worth in the simple and straightforward? Is this Jingoism? The use of the term’s a wish to side with the powerful, the Curator, the Editor. The schoolmaster’s bad enough in the schoolroom; I prefer to keep him out of my bookshelf.”

Many of today’s so-called classics were genre pieces: Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote, even War and Peace. So, whether I’m writing women’s fiction, mainstream fiction, or even young adult fantasy, I will no longer consider myself second-class. It all comes down to the story, in the end, and genre writers are brilliant at telling a story. I will never again call such stories “junk reading.”

These Is My WordsThese Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The voice of the main character, Sarah, captures you from the first page and is consistent throughout. Strong, feisty, funny and displaying a native intelligence that shines despite her lack of schooling, she narrates a tale that is at times, grim and harrowing, yet at other times, charming to the point that you can’t help but chuckle. And the romance, while easily predictable, becomes more and more real and deep long after vows have been spoken. Indeed, it is a rare pleasure to read a book with such a love and understanding between man and wife.

Having read “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” I wasn’t too pleased at first to see the book told in a format not too different from letters, for I found that other novel took me a good 100 pages before I really began to be sucked into the story. Nancy Turner succeeds magnificently in this Journal format, however, to the point that you almost begin to ignore the dates for each entry. The story flows and the pace never falters.

Some have compared this to “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and I wouldn’t disagree. Where that novel brought the injustices of the South to life through a unique voice and set of characters, this one illuminates the wild Arizona Territories in the decades prior to statehood and the kind of women who pioneered that land.

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When there is loss in life, and hopes and dreams are shaken to the point that I feel rootless, unanchored, I go back to my most primal form of writing (once, that is, when I can write again). Poetry. I haven’t written poetry for its own sake in a long time. Yes, I’ve composed poems for my latest manuscript, since two of the characters are writers and one is particularly a poet. But I haven’t sensed the need to bottle anguish in verse in a very long time. I’m afraid if I don’t do so now, I may never find my way back to my stories.

“Four Days After”

I rise to heaviness,

A heart once thriving and alive
Now folding in upon itself,
Doubled over by the guilt of all the
What ifs,
Sagging with longing for
All that might have been.

Love is a tenuous, fragile thread
Between two different souls,
If left alone, the two may weave
A pattern for living as one.
Given time and care, the thread is
Doubled, tripled, and more until
It holds enough to bind in covenant…

But life intrudes,

Both past and present
Vie to shake that thread,

And others intervene,

In their well-meaning ways,
Half-blind, they push upon that thread
Only to help snip it short.

And now two hearts are folded in upon themselves,

And I rise to heaviness.

Anne of Avonlea (Anne of Green Gables, #2)Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this as much as the first in the series. While Anne is now older and not nearly so humorous a character (after all, as a schoolma’am she must act in a somewhat reserved fashion)–except for a hilarious predicament she gets herself into involving a china platter and a less than stable roof–the author has introduced some new characters–chiefly the little boy, Davy–to fill the bill. Montgomery certainly has an understanding of little boys and not necessarily the stereotyped version. I loved how life-like the characters of both Davy and Paul were and yet they had almost nothing in common. The romance in the story came somewhat unexpectedly and in unforeseen places, but the ending was perfect and only left me wanting to read the next in the series.

One more note: This is a story that will appeal to anyone, but is a particular must-read for those about to begin teaching for the first time. Several passages contain words of comfort and/or wisdom for first-time teachers looking with a good deal of trepidation at having to face (alone) a classroom of strange little people for the first time.

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The Power of Her Voice

I’d forgotten how enriching the words of J.K. Rowling could be until the recent surge of interest in her new Pottermore website led me, inadvertently, to a commencement speech she gave three years ago at Harvard. As I listened to that speech, I came to understand far better why the scope of good and evil in her Harry Potter series rang so true…and why the ultimate victory at the end of each book of good over evil was so empowering to me as a reader. If you haven’t yet heard her speech, here it is:

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

It is all very well to plan your work of art, to envision, to outline. But a true artist will be open to that great creative spirit within each of us, that inner voice that says, “This is good, but here, let me show you something better.”

Again, quoting from Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle:

“…the artist, too, must be obedient to the command of the work, knowing that this involves long hours of research, of throwing out a month’s work, of going back to the beginning, or, sometimes, scrapping the whole thing…When a shoddy novel is published the writer is rejecting the obedient response, taking the easy way out. But when the words mean even more than the writer knew they meant, then the writer has been listening. And sometimes when we listen, we are led into places we do not expect, into adventures we do not always understand.” (p. 15)

I had thought I had my beginning to my Beirut story twice before, but neither sat well with me. Then a thought occurred to me the other night (how often flashes of inspiration come in the night for me! One of the many reasons I love the night) and, not knowing quite how it would develop, I began to write today and the ideas began to flow. I scrapped the earlier beginning and put my trust in this new aspect. By the second page, a whole new development in the story opened up, almost of its own accord. I believe I am “listening,” as L’Engle puts it. Now it is only a matter of continuing to write and continuing to listen.


(Part 2 of my series on Madeleine L’Engle’s reflections on faith and art in Walking on Water)

"Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art" by Madeleine L'Engle

The more I read this book, the better I understand my role as a writer and, more importantly, my role as a faithful writer–one who believes in God and Jesus Christ. I find myself re-thinking some of my goals as a writer and that is always a good thing. This life is full of change and we must never become so set in our ways that we are not open to change. Change in ourselves. Change in our work. When it comes to change in our lives, the key question we must ask ourselves is this:

Does this change bring order or chaos?

I’ve been thinking this way because of another quote from L’Engle’s book:

“…all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos. At least all Christian art (by which I mean all true art, and I’ll go deeper into this later) is cosmos in chaos. There’s some modern art, in all disciplines, which is not; some artists look at the world around them and see chaos, and instead of discovering cosmos, they reproduce chaos, on canvas, in music, in words. As far as I can see, the reproduction of chaos is neither art, nor is it Christian.” (pp. 8-9)

If God is, indeed, the master artist–and I believe He is–then we should look to Him for an example of how he creates. He takes chaos–unorganized matter–and organizes it into worlds. He is all about order. I don’t know that He needs to write down a plan or an outline first, but I am certain that, at the very least, He draws it up in his mind. Scripture tells us that all things were created spiritually before they were physically created.

As writers, then, we may choose to outline our story first on paper or the computer or in our head…or we may choose to dive into the chaos with one or two single organizing elements (this is usually my method) and then, as the words flow, we begin a collaboration with the Giver of all gifts and, somehow, (in a way most mysterious to me, but then…my ways are not God’s ways) an order begins to form on the page or the screen. And that order gives way to further order, sometimes branching out in surprising directions. Why does it surprise? Because I am not in sole control. My collaborator is the one in control and He can see far ahead and I may find myself inserting an element to the story here and there which only makes sense as I near the tale’s end. Of course, it made sense to Him all along because all things are present with Him.

As I wrote my first novel, I very much felt this way. I felt as if I was being led and the writing truly flowed. With my second novel, it began the same way and then I began to second guess myself (or was I second guessing my writing partner?) and, as a result, the writing stalled. It was only later, when I gave in to the mysterious process again that the words flowed once more. By the end, the words and direction of the book had surprised me yet again…several times.

You might think I would have learned my lesson, but no. I began my third novel and too soon I shared that beginning with fellow writers, seeking their judgment, afraid I was going in the wrong direction. Naturally, my muse fled. And why not? I had not trusted Him. I understand now that my only collaborator in the first draft process can, and should, be the Giver of all gifts. A writer’s group is terrific for second and third drafts, but never the first.

It is only by working with Him in the beginning that I can create true art.

ReunionReunion by Fred Uhlman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reunion is beautifully written, with some passages reading almost like poetry. That may seem strange for a novella focused on the events of World War II and its impact on two particular friends. In some ways, it reminded me of A Separate Peace. It was particularly nice, for a change, to get a feel for the German countryside and way of life in the years before Hitler’s rise.

Still, I wish the author had chosen to lengthen the story, for the last third of the novella seemed to be a too-quick summary and it brought me up short. After dawdling in the description of pre-war Germany and particularly the lengthy build-up to the friendship between the sixteen-year-old Jewish boy, Hans, and the similarly aged Konradin, a Protestant son of a prominent Swabian family, I wasn’t prepared for the quick shifts that followed.

In any case, for a story that gets at the heart of the tragedy of World War II without making the reader wallow in its evils, Reunion is well worth the short time required to read it.

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I’ve begun to read Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, and I thought I would begin a series of personal reflections here on ideas she raises. This quote jumped out at me in her first chapter, entitled “Cosmos From Chaos:”

When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator, who brought them all into being, who brought me into being, and you.

This questioning of the meaning of being, and dying and being, is behind the telling of stories around tribal fires at night; behind the drawing of animals on the walls of caves; the singing of melodies of love in spring, and of the death of green in autumn. It is part of the deepest longing of the human psyche, a recurrent ache in the hearts of all of God’s creatures.

This questioning of the meaning of our existence is at the very heart of who we are as human beings. Perhaps the pheasant outside my window (yes, we do have a pheasant who strolls, every now and then, across our back slope and up onto our lawn) even ponders the meaning of his life. I can’t speak for animals, but I do know humankind.

We have a compulsion for meaning, for understanding, for the truth of things. While we may not be able to control all the elements of our world, and we’re often at the mercy of nature, we can conceive a truth and capture or convey it in drawings, music, dance, or words (whether spoken or written). And because we can, we do. It is instinctual, perhaps even an inherent trait from the Creator who made us.

He conceived a world in His mind before He ever set about the work of organizing it. And He conceived the story of our salvation before He even set it into effect by placing Adam and Eve in the garden.He is the Author of our faith. His, the greatest story ever told.

Thus, we have story, and thus, we are always drawn to story. We need to tell our own stories, and we need to read or view or listen to the stories of others. Why? To discover and re-discover the truth of our existence, our being. To understand how bound we are in love, one to another…and all to our Creator.

I’m still thinking about a presentation by Dave Wolverton at the recent LDStorymakers Conference. The title of the presentation was “Using Resonance to Attract Readers.” Dave thinks a lot about why people read what they read, and his approach on this topic was very practical as he tried to get us, as writers, to think of how we might gain more fans by crafting our work to hark back to other popular or well-known pieces of writing.

Resonance is defined as “the quality in a sound of being deep, full, and reverberating.” Figuratively, it means “the ability to evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions.” The term originated from the Latin resonantia (echo) and resonare (resound).

Reverberation isn’t much different: “a re-echoed sound; being reverberated or reflected. In physics, it is defined as “the persistence of a sound after its source has stopped, caused by multiple reflection of the sound within a closed space. The term originated from the Latin reverberat (struck again).

The concept applies throughout the arts. Consider music, where most first hear of resonance. Any symphony has certain themes (melodies) which repeat during the course of the piece, with or without variations. So the music has resonance built in. I imagine the same occurs in art (although, not being an artist, I can’t be certain). It definitely occurs in dance and theatre.

We can do the same thing, as writers, with our written work, whether it be poetry, plays, essays, short stories, or novels. Repetition, or resonance, adds power to a piece if not overdone.

And it doesn’t have to exist only within the piece. Ideally, what we have created will resonate and reverberate long after. As stories similar to ours are read in the months and years to come, ours may be remembered along with all the sweet and powerful memories originally evoked. It works the other way, too (and that’s mostly what Dave was talking about). If we’re smart, we’ll write something that will remind our readers of powerful or popular books already out there.

On a more spiritual level, I’ve come to realize that this is simply another manifestation of the “two or more witnesses” principle in judging truth. “It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true.” (John 8:17) “…In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word by established.” (2 Corinthians 13:1) Art is an attempt to discover and communicate truth and it comes closest to its purpose when a piece of work is resonant–“deep, full, and reverberating”–like this performance of the Christmas Carol, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” sung by the Azusa Pacific Men’s Chorale in an impromptu performance in the Mormon Tabernacle, renowned the world over for its acoustics. (The carol was based on the Latin poem Corde Natus by the Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius and its musical arrangement has been added upon and embellished over the centuries, thus making it living proof of resonance in the arts.)