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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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.”

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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.

 

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(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.

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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.)

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I’ve been on a three-month sabbatical, of sorts, except I’m not a teacher, I didn’t get paid for it, and I didn’t travel anywhere. Perhaps I should re-phrase: I quit blogging for the last three months because I simply didn’t have time while trying to create a new website for LDStorymakers, an author’s guild to which I belong. (I’m the Director of Communications for the group and, hence, am over their online presence among other things.)

In any case, I haven’t forgotten that I promised to post the 14 tips Karen Joy Fowler (author of The Jane Austen Book Club and other novels) shared during a writer’s retreat I attended in Maui some six or seven years ago. Keeping in mind that she writes literary fiction, here they are:

  1. Don’t let the setting disappear during your dialogue. Remember, the dialogue is happening during a particular time and in particular place and the reader needs to be there with the characters as they talk. So you, as the writer, cannot afford to disengage from those surroundings.
  2. To keep the reader on track with who’s talking, (a) never use a verb other than “said” with dialogue, (b) never use an adverb to modify “said” (as she put it, “The adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb.”) (c) express movement by a person before or after talking, and (d) start a new paragraph every time another person begins to talk. She did say you can use an occasional “asked,” but it’s almost impossible to overuse “said.” Also, consider not using a tag at all. If you have a character do something and then a line of dialogue, the reader will connect the dots.
  3. If a line of dialogue is funny, let it stand on its own. Don’t try and prop it up with a smile or laughter written in.
  4. Don’t fatten the dialogue by adding pauses (like umm, er…, etc.). In place of a pause, break up the sentence naturally by putting “she said” or a character’s movement in the middle of it (and the movement should be something bigger than shrugging or smiling…she said there are far too many shrugs and smiles).
  5. Generally, avoid ellipses (…) in dialogue.
  6. In a conversation, frequently the first and last phrases can be cut. You don’t need all the niceties. Start and end where it’s really interesting.
  7. Remember that dialogue is usually much more about how people imagine they are than how they really are. It’s kind of a performance, so you, as the writer, can juxtapose how they really are with how they present themselves to others. Don’t be afraid to bring out the hypocritical side of your characters in your dialogue.
  8. In creating dialogue, always ask “What does this person want?” rather than “How does this person feel?” She said that, at heart, we are all pretty selfish creatures and we’re always angling for something when we speak.
  9. Remember there is almost always a power dynamic between any two people talking, with one having more power and the other having less. This means one character will talk more and the other less in any scene…and that dynamic will change from conversation to conversation depending on the scene. The one in power will not always be the same as the story progresses.
  10. In her opinion, dialogue is not good at all in advancing plot. It’s good for tone and building on the character. In fiction, you often show and sometimes tell, but good dialogue is almost always showing, and not telling. (My other instructor at the retreat, Gail Tsukiyama, disagreed with her on this point about dialogue not being good for advancing plot, but did concede that good dialogue should always show more than it tells.)
  11. Good dialogue keeps you, as the writer, invisible by not being patently helpful. It should feel natural…something they’d actually say, not what you need them to say.
  12. Use dialogue to help pull in things outside the arc of the story that are interesting or help set your story’s time or place. This can particularly be done by using conversations overheard by the main character.
  13. Good dialogue makes the work more real and less planned. You can do this through eavesdropping (For example, imagine having one of your characters overhear this piece of dialogue: “I don’t know what else I can tell you. She rolled down the window, he jumped out, and the gator got him!”  If the reader had been drifting along in the story by this point, that piece of dialogue, or something similar, would certainly wake him up as long as it came across as something credible the character would overhear) or by undermining a lying character’s credibility (remember that liars tend to say the same thing two or more times in an effort to get their story across). Misunderstandings make for great dialogue (when people hear a word incorrectly, for example, funny conversations result).
  14. Finally, remember that dialogue is the fun part and it doesn’t need to match what’s going on in the story. (This last approach applies more to literary fiction than genre fiction and is particularly reflective of Ms. Fowler’s style of writing.)

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As I said in an earlier post, literary fiction is a different beast altogether when it comes to dialogue. This is one of my favorite quotes regarding the use of dialogue in literary fiction:

“The use of dialogue in fiction seems to be one of the few things about which a fairly definite rule may be laid down. It should be reserved for the culminating moments, and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore. This lifting and scattering of the wave, the coruscation of the spray, even the mere material sight of the page broken into short, uneven paragraphs, all help to reinforce the contrast between such climaxes and the smooth effaced gliding of the narrative intervals; and the contrast enhances that sense of the passage of time for the producing of which the writer has to depend on his intervening narration. Thus the sparing use of dialogue not only serves to emphasize the crises of a tale, but to give it as a whole a greater effect of continuous development.”

—Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction

The reason I bring it up again here is that I want to share a list of dialogue techniques taught by Karen Joy Fowler at that same Writer’s Retreat in Maui. You may know her as the author of “The Jane Austen Book Club,” but while that book had a more populist appeal, much of her fiction is quite literary.

While her aim with dialogue is more literary, most (if not all) of her techniques are as effective in genre fiction and some may reflect what we’ve already discussed here. I’ll begin that list tomorrow, so stay tuned…

 

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While this is closely aligned with characterization, it really does something a bit more. Good dialogue can make a character pop off the page and that’s exactly what we want to have happen as writers. But it’s not easy to do. Again, I’ll quote one of my favorite novelists:

“Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. It can be an elegant way to package some of a novel’s most crucial information. But you do have to work hard to keep it vernacular and well paced. I construct the fictional conversations in my head and listen carefully. It might seem easier to put words in the mouths of my own invented characters than the historical figures who also appear in the story—Frida and Diego, for example. But really there was little difference. By the time I’d read their personal diaries and everything else, their voices were coming through loud and clear. Sometimes their words came straight from the record. The conversations with my protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, are all invented, of course, but it was engaging to fit everything together. When I went into the studio to record the audio book, I realized I was hearing these characters plainly in my mind, so I did my best to replicate those accents and intonations. This meant acting out conversations between characters who were Mexican, Russian, French, Mexican American, Ashevillean, and so forth, in various combinations. If I thought too much about it, my brain might blow a fuse. So I just channeled the voices as I heard them.”

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna

And here’s an example from that same novel:

“Señora, sorry to disturb. Olunda sent me to get your plates from lunch.”

“No wonder she won’t come fetch the dishes herself, she’s ashamed of that jocoque.” She glanced up. “Olunda la Rotunda. Do they still call her that?”

“Not if they’re still alive, señora.”

“How does she get so fat on her own cooking? Look at me, I’m vanishing.”

“Fried bread with syrup is her secret.”

She made a little puzzled scowl. “And you, skinny creature. What’s your name?”

“It didn’t please you much the first time. When you wrote it in the ledger.”

“Oh, that’s right, you’re that one. The unpronounceable.” She seemed to wake up, sitting up straighter. When she looks at you her eyes are like lit coals inside the hearth of those shocking eyebrows. “What does Diego call you?”

“Muchacho, mix some more plaster! Muchacho, bring me my lunch!”

She laughed. It was a good impersonation.

You definitely get a strong idea of the personalities of both the young protagonist, Harrison (who cooks and does odd jobs for the famous artists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo) and the fiery Frida.

Next week, I’ll post something about dialogue in literary fiction, plus a list of techniques given by Karen Joy Fowler, the author of The Jane Austen Book Club. She definitely falls into the literary fiction camp, but many of her techniques apply to dialogue in genre fiction, as well.

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