Saturday, December 17, 2011

Home Stretch

This feels good to say:  Primary Source is less than 10 chapters away from being edited.

It's starting to feel real, now... and maybe by January or February 2012 I'll have a tangible book to show in exchange for many years of effort.

Most importantly, I'm happy with how it's turning out. Whether "successful" or not, the final product represents the kind of story I set out to write.

I think that's the best kind of success...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

One Man's "Meh..."

My daughter recently completed an art project for her class at junior college.

It's a black wire sculpture, full of twists and loops and spirals; looks something like a demented bird cage from a steampunk novel.

I genuinely loved it, and told her so. (For the record, I'm also honest with her when something she creates doesn't "reach" me)

Next day, she "tested the work out" with her teacher before officially turning it in.  Teacher let her know in no uncertain terms that she found it inferior.

So Daughter is discouraged & back to the drawing board, and I have a new decoration for my office.

I'm sorry for her, but that's the nature of art...any art.  And it's a good reminder for me, as I inch closer to publishing my first novel.

I can take any story I've ever loved, and go to Amazon and find 1-star reviews from people who hated it.  Vice versa, as well.

Any novel, any painting, any song is just a Projection test... a person's reaction tells you far more about the person than it does about the creation.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Been doing some reading lately on the subject of Will Power and Determination. 

Some interesting research being done on these topics, and it certainly relates to the endeavor of writing (Or the attainment of any goal).

One of the more recent findings has to do with the power of publicity...and accountability. Researchers have proven in a number of studies that "going public" with a goal is an important motivator. The drive to avoid embarrassment, maybe?  Or social support? Or a combination.

Another finding: Religious people tend to take a "higher" view of purpose, and this helps them through the tough times. If you focus only on the here and now, it's easy to get discouraged. If you keep your vision fixed on the eventual goal (the "why" instead of the "how") it tends to guard against discouragement. 

A third concept: "Pre-commitment."  An effective strategy for maintaining motivation and drive is realize ahead of time what your chief temptations will be.  What is most likely to side-track you from your goal?  By recognizing these sticking points in advance, you are more likely to avoid their destructive effects.

Put a plan in place to shield yourself from the distraction.  And if you can't avoid the distraction altogether, decide ahead of time how you will respond to it when it shows up.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Being True to Yourself

I'm thinking more lately about the importance of being authentic.

Of being who you are, despite a plethora of voices telling you who to be, how to be.

And I suppose that for me, the journey towards publication has been a catalyst for these thoughts. The "business of publishing," to judge from the blogs of writers and editors and publishers, is filled with advice, maxims, commands.

Conventional wisdom.

While I believe in "absolute truth" in a theological sense, there are many, many "truths" of life (and business, and publishing) that are nothing more than thinly-disguised opinions. As I get older, I find myself becoming more weary of these, and the voices that propagate them.

In our culture, we worship the god of Confidence.  And too much reliance on the Confident will lead you into a labyrinth in which you lose the essence of You.

I want to be true to the pattern God constructed for me.  Wherever that path leads.

If you're interested, I'll be sharing some observations on "what's true for me" over the coming months.

Agree or disagree, at least you'll know.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Separate Your Obstacles

By any measure, this fall has been an extraordinarily busy time.

The "real job" has been almost all-consuming, while my editor & I continue edits on the novel (up to Chapter 12 now.... ) and family responsibilities continue on...

I've been trying to practice what I preach, and be nice to myself by lowering the expectations wherever I can.  I take time out for nature hikes, give myself permission not to blog, enjoy the NFL football season, and take things one day at a time.

In Driver's Ed class many years ago, my teacher preached the doctrine of "Separate your obstacles."  Meaning, if you're approaching a narrow bridge *and* an oncoming vehicle, slow down and take these hazards one at a time...not simultaneously.

That principle has stuck with me all my life, and I'm repeating the phrase to myself a lot, recently...

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

#1................. I didn't write blog posts.

#2................. I didn't write anything else.

The last couple of months has been a period of rest. Well, not really rest, as things have been very busy with the family and with "the real job."

But it has been an interval away from writing, reading, or worrying too much about publication.

And a season of prayer. Trying to be open to what God really wants...not what I would like Him to want.

I'm finding it very refreshing....

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

That Thing We Don't Talk About (Part II)

So, what exactly are we talking about, when we talk about that thing that we don't talk about?

(That last sentence may be a useful IQ test of it's own!)

What is Intelligence anyway? What do we mean by the term? And if this thing we label Intelligence really exists, does it have any practical relevance in our lives? Does it matter?

After more than 100 years of vigorous--and at times controversial--research, the vast majority of experts agree:

Yes, Virginia, there is a thing called Intelligence. It is not just a concept...and idea (An artifact, as scientists say). It is real. And it matters greatly.

There are a variety of cognitive skills--verbal, numerical, spatial, memory, and so forth. But at the top of the pyramid sits a pervasive, measurable global ability, that all human being possess, to varying degrees.

General intelligence--or, as it's known:  g

g has been defined in many ways. Even though we all "sort of" know what we mean when we say "She's smart," it's hard to pin down with a comprehensive, accurate definition.

It includes a capacity to learn, to analyze that information, and to use it in creative ways to solve problems.

But at its core, this quality we call Intelligence is about complexity.

Linda Gottfredson is a leading scholar and a keen observer of the research into Intelligence. Here's how she explains it, in a 1998 Scientific American article:

"More complex tasks require more mental manipulation, and this manipulation of information--discerning similarities and inconsistencies, drawing inferences, grasping new concepts and so on--constitutes intelligence in action. Indeed, intelligence can best be described as the ability to deal with cognitive complexity."

Gottfredson points out that this mental aptitude of g is consistent with what the average person thinks of as intelligence: reasoning, problem solving, abstract thinking, quick learning.

And, as I mentioned in Part One of this series, the fact that intelligence exists at all rankles some people. Gottfredson again:

"The reality is that Mother Nature is no egalitarian. People are in fact unequal in intellectual potential--and they are born that way, just as they are born with different potentials for height, physical attractiveness, artistic flair, athletic prowess, and other traits. Although subsequent experience shapes this potential, no amount of social engineering can make individuals with widely divergent mental aptitudes into intellectual equals."

As one man of high measured IQ remarked, it is more socially acceptable to talk of hemorrhoids than it is to talk of intelligence.

Yet this aptitude for dealing with complexity has implications that start very early, and follow us throughout our lives.

Reading Proficiency Scales given to school children measure a number of text elements, in order to rank a given piece of writing. Average Words Per Sentence, Average word length, vocabulary level, and so on.

All of these elements are measured on a sliding scale, from low to high complexity. You have to master "See Spot Run" before you can move on to John Grisham...or James Joyce.

Reading is an exercise in cognitive complexity.  The more "difficult" the work, the more cognitive capacity is required to comprehend the text.

I'm not suggesting that all persons of above average IQ will automatically have the same preferences. There are other factors that influence those decisions. Nor is it true to say that persons of high IQ will only enjoy complicated literature.

But various kinds of fiction make different demands on readers. And research shows that persons of higher IQ tend to have a higher appreciation for the increased complexity of "literary" fiction. There is a cutoff point, below which people find the challenges of "difficult" fiction too frustrating...too much work.

And this is one element that helps shape our reading choices as adults.

Before you can decide whether you "like" a have to "get" it first. People gifted with the ability to comprehend more complex information simply have a wider pool of potential "likes."

Friday, June 24, 2011

That Thing We Don't Talk About (Part I)

No...Not the s-thing. Because sometimes we do talk about that.

The i-thing.

Earlier, I riffed on the topic of physical appearance & author photos.

We hardly ever talk about that in writing circles, yet social psychology is clear that appearance matters...that people draw initial conclusions about others (usually false ones) based on the Hottie Scale.

But there's another taboo topic....maybe even worse:


Intelligence is a trait that lurks behind everything we do...everything we are...silently running in the background. If our unique set of personality dimensions represents the "software" of life, intelligence is the "operating system."

And like personality, intelligence plays a pivotal role in our choices, our preferences, our actions and behaviors.

We just never acknowledge it. When was the last time you participated in a discussion about writing or reading where intelligence was invoked to help explain our individual differences?

I thought so.  Why is that? Here's my list of three reasons, for starters:

1) The average person takes intelligence for granted.  One reason we don't talk about it is that we don't think about it. Like personality, unless you consciously decide to study its meaning in your life, you don't realize how widespread the implications are.

2) Intelligence gets a bad rap.  Stereotypes...warranted or not...attach to notions of intelligence. When you think of highly intelligent people, do you think of "arrogant?"  "Argumentative?"  "Cold?"  Intelligence brings with it some baggage that can make it an unwelcome visitor.

3) We can't readily change what we're gifted with.  And that contributes mightily to the "awkwardness" factor.

Modern American society ranks the value of people according to four standards:  Power (status/accomplishment); Beauty; Wealth; Intelligence.

Of these four, Intelligence is the least susceptible to change (with perhaps Beauty taking second place).

If we had a proven way to create significant gains in personal intelligence, it would spark an industry to rival our current obsession with physical appearance (books, videos, cosmetics, fitness equipment & programs, surgery, etc).

But we don't.

You can change you wealth. You can change your power/status. And, to a lesser extent, you can change your physical appearance.  Intelligence, not so much.

Here's the recipe for a taboo:

1) Place a societal value on high intelligence.

2) Recognize the hard truth that some have more of this trait than others.

3) Tell those in the "have not" category that there's nothing they can do to alter that fact.

Sound like a volatile situation?  In our egalitarian, "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" culture, it's not something we like to hear.

Over the coming weeks, we'll talk about this thing we don't talk it relates to reading, and writing, and life.

What's your take? Are there other reasons why Intelligence is such a hot-button topic?


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

George does

One of my favorite books of all time, hands down, is How to Get Ideas by Jack Foster.

Every creative person should have a copy of this book on the shelf...I heartily recommend it to you, and someday I will do a full review. But for now, one particular nugget of wisdom has been on my mind this week:

In this marvelous How-To manual for sparking creative thought, Foster tells a story about George Ade, a popular novelist/humorist/playwright from the late 1800's and early 1900's.

According to Foster, Ade's mother was once interviewed by a journalist who was quite critical of Ade's work. The man was rude enough to pepper Ade's mother with numerous questions about George's shortcomings as a writer, including his "capricious style, wobbly structure and shallow characterizations."

Eventually, George's good mother had taken all she could take.

"Oh, I know that many people can writer better than George does," she said. "But George does."

I first read "How to Get Ideas" many years ago, and since that time, the phrase has always stuck with me...

George does.

How many people sidetrack their own dreams, their own calling, because they talk about it, chat about it, Facebook about it (looking at you, Ginny!) think about it... but they don't do it.

It's easier to talk about writing a novel than to pick up a pen and write. Every day.

It's easier to dream about painting a masterpiece than to get your brushes out and start filling a canvas.

It's easier to tell people about the music career you'd like to have, than to sit down with your instrument and practice.

Despite all obstacles.... George does.

Despite imperfection.... George does.

Despite insecurities and doubts... George does.

It reminds me of the ancient proverb, oftentimes ascribed to the Chinese... "It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness."

Take one small step... Do one small thing towards achieving your dream. Today. And the next day. And the next.

George does.

Do you?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Editing "The Resurrection" (Part Four of Four)

We've been working through a four-part series on Mike Duran's entertaining debut novel, "The Resurrection."

Today, we'll finish with some thoughts on speech patterns, and a list of line-editing comments.
MINOR SPOILERS ALERT: Read and enjoy the book first, then see if you agree:

Mid-Altitude issues (continued):

3) Character speech patterns:  Mike chooses to employ a fair number of phonetic spellings throughout the novel ("lottsa,"  "ya know..."  "shoulda..."). I would counsel him to consider using fewer, for two reasons:

a) The sheer number of repetitions became a bit distracting, for me. Dialogue that attempts to render dialect into black and white is simply harder to read, and my preference is to see it used sparingly, for particular effect. A little goes a long way, which leads to the second, related reason...

b) Almost every character in the book, with the exception of Keen, uses phonetically-spelled dialogue, at least on occasion. Consequently, the speech patterns aren't as effective as they could be as a means of differentiating characters.

Speech patterns are a wonderfully nuanced way to Show, not Tell. Mike nails this perfectly with Keen: even when agitated, Keen's speech is laced with sophisticated diction and syntax, delivered in a pedantic tone that instantly communicates this man's arrogance...the smug superiority he exudes through displaying his knowledge and philosophy. You don't have to tell us what Keen is like, we intuit it naturally, like we do in the real world, from the way he speaks.

But language used by the other characters rarely differentiates them as individuals, with varying personalities, backgrounds, and educational levels. The most noticeable and distressing example, I believe, comes from the character of Beeko.

Beeko is a physician from Nigeria, who grew up outside of Bwari, and speaks with a slight, but unmistakable British accent. From this description, and subsequent events, I infer a few things: a) English is his second language; b) at the very least, he was educated in British schools, and very likely his college years were spent in the class-conscious environment of England itself; c) he is a learned man, and d) Clark specifically seeks out Beeko because he values the doctor as a man of rational thought.

Assuming these things as given, that leads me to expect a certain language style from the character. Perhaps not an arrogant one, as with Keen, but speech patterns that are precise and formal (as with many English-as-a-second-language students), and erudite (throwing in words that even the seminary-trained Clark may be unfamiliar with). Beeko is a product of the British educational system and culture, where speech patterns and accents are badges of social standing.

And, in fact, for the first three or four statements I find what I expected. Then, Beeko unexpectedly turns a corner, and tosses out the very informal term, "critter." From that point on, through the remainder of the conversation he bounces back and forth between the formal ("I'm not daft enough to guess..."  "A bit of a doubting Thomas, are we?" "The atmosphere is a manifestation of cumulative events or a series of historic concessions;") and the colloquial ("evangelism jazz"  "Lotsa places..." "Don't ya, man?")

As an editor, I would counsel Mike to either a) explain this schizophrenic language pattern in the narrative (is there a motivation for it somewhere in Beeko's past?) or b) revise the doctor's speech to something more fitting with his educational and professional status. Similarly, the book would benefit from more careful attention to the other character's dialogue tendencies, as well.

Ground-level issues:

Finally, some micro-level observations...points at which I felt the line-editor missed a beat. These are the type of thing I look for when reading, because I think that training your eye to look for these makes you a better writer...and especially a better re-writer.

p45..."Well, let's say I'm getting closer.    (missing punctuation, quotes not closed)

p64... shallow and erratic breathing...   (why? from other indications, Jack is in a deep sleep, so you would expect slow, easy respiration)

p83...It was a black Hummer, the wide older models, with...   (the Hummer is singular, "models" is plural...  so better would be:  It was a black Hummer, one of the wide older models,....)

p86... clear blue eyes and bright smile offset her aging features.   (better with: clear blue eyes and a bright smile...)

p89... he snapped some surgical gloves on each hand   ("some gloves" is plural, "hand" singular... better:  he snapped a surgical glove on each hand....)

p142... got to wippin' people up.      (Here, the phonetic spelling creates confusion...I think it means "whipping" people up....  but instead, it reads more like "wiping" people up.  Better: Whippin' )

p165... the cabinets consisted of flat rollout trays, each one baring a typed insert...   (unless the rollout trays are naked, they shouldn't be "baring" anything... they should be bearing labels)

p180/248....  on two occasions, characters say "Gentleman" (singular) when they mean "Gentlemen" (plural).

p208...  "What do mean, Ruby?"    (What do you mean, Ruby?)

p235... "Cool it! Both of you!"     (Why is Vin yelling, and glaring, at both Jack and Rev Clark? Clark is standing still, not saying anything. Jack is the only aggressor, here)

p246... Echoes. Mike & his editors did a nice job avoiding those annoying echoes... unusual words and phrases that, when they are used twice or more, catch the attention. But here one slipped by:   [tree] trunk thrust from the bowels of the earth....  (and then, two paragraphs later) a hawk burst from the bowels of the oak...     ("bowels" is a word that you can go a long time without hearing in casual conversation, and here we see the phrase "bowels of..." twice in three paragraphs.)

p270...his delicate, breezy voice seemed to jive perfectly with his graceful demeanor.  (Think the word we want here is jibe. To "jive" is to mislead, or pull someone's leg... to "jibe" is to be in be in harmony.)

For years, I kept a notebook filled with observations like these...culled from a wide range of novels. It's invaluable practice at helping you build your revision skills...Something every writer should strive to improve.

Again, I hope you'll make room on your reading list for this one. I look forward to watching the progression of Mike's writing career.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Editing "The Resurrection" (Part Three of Four)

We're in a series based on my recent reading of Mike Duran's debut novel, "The Resurrection."

Knowing I would be writing a review, I jotted down my thoughts along the way, from the perspective of:  If I was handed The Resurrection as a test reader, what feedback would I give?

THIS MAY CONTAIN MINOR SPOILERS,  so please... get a copy and let Mike take you on the journey first. Then you can judge for yourself whether I'm all wet. If you've already read the book, hit me in the comments and give me your perspective.

So, donning my Amateur Editor hat, here are the conversations I would have with Mike, pre-publication...

High-altitude issues:  As I stated earlier, most of the big-picture, strategic decisions...premise, plot, etc, worked just fine for me. If I were to question anything at this level, it would be the moments when potential drama is left unplayed.

The drama that is present is good...but there were times when opportunities to ratchet up the suspense even further were overlooked. Three examples to illustrate what I mean:

1) Crank the Lizard.  Mike chose to play the scene in the Magic Shop for laughs...ending with the huge, intimidating welder slipping on glass beads like an actor in a silent comedy, and Gwen the owner screeching after her 6-foot iguana, Crank, as if it were a pampered poodle running out into traffic..."My baby!"

Not a bad was humorous. But I would have preferred to see more suspense, here. What if the Lizard, instead of busting loose and racing down the street, had chased Ruby and her friends? What if they had been cornered, trapped in the back room of the magic shop, serious peril from a giant reptile that seems to supernaturally know and  hate what they represent? Maybe someone is actually bitten, with later results?

2)  The confrontation on the Mount.  Our friend Gwen from the magic shop is back again, this time in the company of a warlock. And apparently, they have trailed Ruby to a cemetery high on a mountain slope. But when Ruby's husband Jack and Ian Clark follow, they find the "bad guys" alone, fussing over a grave...and Ruby stumbles in later, having hidden from the magic users.

Again, this would be an opportunity to place Ruby in much greater danger...and present the "bad guys" as more of a legitimate threat. What if they had stalked Ruby up the mountainside, captured her and buried her alive as part of their gruesome rituals? You could showcase Ruby's fear in a series of short segments...and when Jack and Ian arrive, they can't find Ruby, and maybe are about to give up, until.... ?

3) Doire, the tree spirit.   If Doire is real, as Keen certainly believes, then it would be good for Clark to encounter her on one of his three visits....most likely, during the final drama. As a tree spirit, (a guardian?) she may read Clark's intentions, and be protective of her "master." It needn't have been a protracted fact may not have been a physical battle at all...but Clark could have been seduced, distracted, or almost killed before reaching Keen's front steps.  (Alternately, Doire could have tried to warn Clark...tried to prevent him from going inside out of concern for the Reverend)

Mid-Altitude issues:

1) I was a bit puzzled by the two very different reactions Clark had to the most important spiritual phenomena in the story... Mr. Cellophane, and the resurrection event. Even for a jaded, liberal pastor running from God, a translucent apparition should give reason for pause and reflection. Long before the resurrection occurs, Clark is so apathetic that a ghost/demon/whatever in the corner of his office produces nothing more than a shrug and irritation. At one point, it is hinted that Clark sees this as nothing more than a biological echo... but I would have preferred Mike to address this more directly. At least once, Clark should have thought to himself or perhaps talked to Ruby about why the ghost leaves him yawning, but, conversely, the resurrection struck him so powerfully.  Either one would get my attention, big time.

2) Why doesn't someone ask Mondo, or Aida, what their death experiences were like?  For multiple reasons, Mike may have chosen not to "go there" (we do learn, offhandedly, that Aida experienced it as a "blacking out"), but it seems odd that none of the other characters display the curiosity to inquire. If I had the chance to talk with Lazarus, you can bet that would be my very first question..."So, what happened while you were away?"

Next time.....  Language Issues & Line Edits.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reading "The Resurrection" (Part Two of Four)

Last time, I began a list of seven reasons why I appreciated Mike Duran's "The Resurrection."

 Let's pick it up with #6:

6) Fiction Grounded in Historical Fact & Research:

I'm a huge proponent of reading widely, and frankly I have a hard time understanding those who deliberately limit themselves to one category of fiction.

But if I was forced to pick one--and only one--favorite, it would have to be stories where historical fact serves as the basis for fictional events.

Umberto Eco with The Name of the Rose and Focault's Pendulum
Arturo Perez-Reverte with The Club Dumas, The Flanders Panel, The Nautical Chart, and others.
Katherine Neville with The Eight
Elizabeth Kostova with The Historian

And dozens more...

So one of the reasons I loved The Resurrection was the detail Mike included pertaining to false gods, pantheons, and syncretistic philosophies.

He did his homework, and that always impresses me. When I trust that an author has put in the research time, I'm more willing to embrace his/her fictional world and let myself believe.

Loved it. Ate it up. Wished for more.

7) The Characters:

The Resurrection features a rich cast of varied personalities. In particular, I found myself drawn to Ian Clark, a tormented man of doubt who deals with the pain of life by seeking escape. This time, events are flowing too quickly and before he can resign and move away, God forces him to look in a mirror and come to terms. His intense struggles are the linchpin of the book, for me.

Ruby is well-drawn as the reluctant "prophet," a woman with troubles of her own who would rather be faithful than famous. 

And Benjamin Keen...the world-travelling scholar who brilliantly illustrates the difference between intellect and wisdom. Mike hits a home run with Keen...and I imagine he found this character fun to portray. The spirited exchanges between Clark and his former mentor suggest the author felt more than a little biographical bonding with Keen, though their theological conclusions may differ significantly. Keen showcases Duran's gifts of intellectual curiosity and drive to understand. Keen is what Duran might have been, had he chosen another path.

The characters balance one another, provoke one another, and keep reader interest high. Mike spends just the right amount of "face time" on each, given their respective roles in the story.

Now, a confession:  I love editing.

I love having a first draft in my hand, cutting and pasting and making a good thing better.

I used to think all writers felt that way: you know, Good writing is re-writing....

But lately I'm running across more and more people who just don't care for the process. And I can see why some personalities don't relish the detail work.

To me, it's I tend to do it in my head, whenever I'm reading. I've found that I'll click into "Edit mode" automatically when something occurs to pull me out of the fictional dream.

The more that happens, the less enthusiastic I become about the book. In a few cases, I'll read through an entire novel not because I enjoy it...but because it has so many editing flaws that I stop reading for pleasure, and start reading for educational purposes.  

I'll make mental (and sometimes written) notes to myself: don't do this....don't do this...don't do this...

So I had fun with The Resurrection, as I do with most books, asking myself what counsel I would give, if it was my job to edit the manuscript.

THIS WILL INCLUDE MINOR I highly recommend you pick up a copy, and enjoy it first.

Next time: unsolicited advice!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Reading "The Resurrection" (Part One of Four)

When I finished my first (unpublished) novel, I solicited feedback from a small group of test readers.

One of these brave souls later confessed that she suffered some anxiety after agreeing to serve as a reviewer. She wondered: what if it's no good?

Since we knew each other, she struggled with the fear that if she honestly didn't care for my work, and honestly told me so, it would damage our relationship. And this potential conflict had her worried.

After immersing herself in that sprawling epic she was able to report, with some relief, that she loved it...had, in fact, stayed up well past her bedtime to keep reading. And though she offered suggestions for improvement, her overall impression was very positive.

I felt a bit like that reviewer, when my copy of The Resurrection by Mike Duran arrived recently. I had enjoyed Mike's website  for some time, with its deep thoughtfulness and probing insight. If his fiction was anything like his ability to challenge and engage blog readers, I anticipated a great experience.

But what if it was no good?

As readers of his blog know, one of Mike's "causes" is the promotion of honest, forthright review of fiction from the Christian worldview. Breaking the code of silence that suggests any "Christian" book should be exempt from careful literary criticism, simply because:  a) the author meant well, and b) to openly critique someone's work is considered discouraging...and Christians are instructed to be edifying.

Mike applies this refreshing philosophy to his own writing, and publicly invites feedback. So I always figured that I'd pass along my two cents, when I got a chance to read his debut novel. But a part of me pondered the question: what do I say if his blogging skills far outweigh his writing?

I needn't have worried.

The Resurrection was a delight. Today, in part one, I'll give you five reasons why. Next time, I'll add two more. Then in a couple additional posts, I'll weigh in with my editorial suggestions, large & small.


1) Telling details:  The Resurrection is full of vivid descriptors. Concrete images that bring a scene to life without being overly intrusive. For example, on p239 a young girl is coloring at the kitchen table. She reaches for a crayon from the box...but it's not just any box. It's a cigar box.

I smiled when I read that, for my brother and I had just such a box for our crayons when we were young. That telling detail had huge impact on my ability to imagine the scene and be there. Will that particular detail have great meaning for everyone? No.  Some won't even remember cigar boxes. But a lesser writer would have been content with: she grabbed a crayon from the box... and missed an opportunity to connect with some readers in a small but significant way.

One small image at a time, a novel full of thoughtful descriptors adds up to a very believable world.

2) The Evocative Cover: The guys & gals at Strang/Charisma House did a stellar job with the cover. The ethereal green of the front, and the sunset red of the back set off a haunting image of skeletal tree limbs and blackbirds, setting just the right tone.

3) Beautiful Prose: With few exceptions, Mike's prose is like reading through butter...smooth and effortless, with pleasing rhythms and excellent word choices. Only rarely did the writing itself interrupt the "fictional dream." From the first few pages, I knew I could relax, tell the critic in my head to take a rest, and enjoy the journey without being constantly pulled out of the story by craft issues.

4) Delicious Turns of Phrase: I like a writer who writes.

One who understands that it's more than just blandly recording what happened. It's how you say it.

Not everyone feels the same way...and I get that. Some prefer a plain, unadorned, "invisible" style.

Not me. I want to be mesmerized and enthralled by the writer's mastery of the language. Surprise me. Make me smile with a clever phrase. Show me that words matter to you. It's not necessary to "overwrite"...but be a craftsman who cares about his/her tools and keeps them polished to a sheen. 

Too many times I've read decently good stories that still fell flat because there was no life, no spark to the prose. If I want bland, I'll read the manual for my DVD player.

In other words, creativity counts for more than just the premise and plot--it should drive down deep, to the sentence level.

Mike delivers that in spades, and for me it was a large part of the joy of reading The Resurrection.

For one example, take the description of the Police Department building. In the hands of a lesser scribe, it might have looked like this:

The Police Department was housed in an ugly, limestone-block building.

Get's the job done, yes, but it's about as exciting as a kiss from your Aunt Maude.

Mike takes the time...and more importantly the turn that prosaic moment into something special:

Well over seventy years old, the Stonetree Police Department headquarters remained untainted by the city's downtown renovation.

Untainted by renovation...Did you catch the beauty and humor of that? It's unexpected and fresh. We think of being "untainted" as a good thing. Here, the customary usage is turned on its head, and we picture this old, no-frills pile of stone stubbornly refusing to be improved.

A second quick example, from p148:  ...Clark twisted like a spiritual invertebrate.

A unique word picture, to illustrate the indecision and uncertainty of the character's inner struggle. Again, with a touch of humor.

I love a writer who makes me smile...not with corny jokes, but with clever wordplay, oh-so subtly infused in the text. Blink and you'll miss it...that's part of the fun.

5) Using Action to "Show" States of Mind:  If you're reading this, there's a better than 50/50 chance you're a part of the writing community. A participant in the Grand Tradition both as a reader and a creator of fiction.

So stop me if you've heard this one before:  Show, don't Tell.

Early in The Resurrection, Mike provides a textbook example of how to use an action sequence to demonstrate a characters' frame of mind. And by allowing the reader to draw his/her own inferences, a minor aside becomes a powerful foreshadowing.

On p18, after delivering a lackluster sermon, Ian Clark exits the church, onto the flagstone walkway leading back to his residence. How may times has he walked this path in the past year? Hundreds of times, if not a thousand. And he *must* know that the shaded stones are mossy...and that it's been a damp, foggy morning.

But that knowledge isn't registering, because he is preoccupied with doubt and internal struggle.

So, he hits the walkway in full stride, his feet slide out from under him, and he flails the air to regain his balance and prevent a bad fall.

Ever been there?  Angry about something, or agitated, or focused on your own thoughts...and you're not paying attention?  That's when you lock your keys in the car, or forget to turn off the stove, or bump your head on that low rafter that you *always* know to avoid. And it just makes your mood worse.

By watching Clark embarrass himself in this manner, the reader feels on a visceral level how distracted and unfocused the Good Reverend truly is. And (symbolically) we sense that Clark will be struggling to maintain his balance through the entire narrative.

Next time, 2 additional reasons I thoroughly enjoyed The Resurrection.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Novel? Really?

Recently, I re-read one of my favorite Fantasy novels: Running With The Demon by Terry Brooks.

The paperback copy in my local library (different than the one pictured here at the Amazon link) carried the following tag on its cover:  A Novel of Good & Evil.

That caught my attention, as it varied from the standard and more simplistic:  A Novel.

I'd often wondered about the custom...why do we affix a label to novels, identifying them as such? As others have pointed out, isn't that akin to proudly labeling a package of cheese:  A Dairy Product  ??

Must we state the obvious?

Modern explanations usually involve the Publisher's attempts to target the appropriate readership...If there could be any doubt as to the content of the book, the label A Novel serves to clarify the intended audience: Fiction readers, rather than those seeking Non-Fiction.

But the roots of A Novel stretch considerably farther back...into the 1600s.  Prior to that time, fiction works of length were categorized as Romances. In the archaic sense of that term, these were sweeping epics featuring...and focusing on...larger-than-life characters and heroic deeds. Typically, the story was named after the primary character. And the plot followed his/her life adventures. Narratives showcased "special" people...Kings, Queens, gallant knights or warriors...and their amazing exploits.

By 1650, a different type of story began garnering favor: tales of "ordinary" people with whom the average reader could better relate. In these new stories (the term "novel" means "new"), the plot and the moral lessons therein were more important than any one central "hero."

Rather than putting the hero on a pedestal as a role model, these new stories held up moral principles and truths as the "meaning" worth emulating. The events of the story, not the hero, became the main point.

In the 1670's and 1680s, publishers began adding the term A Novel to the title page to clearly differentiate the type of story the reader could expect.

I wonder: could modern publishers make better use of this tradition by being more specific?

Maybe Brooks' publisher was on to something: A Novel of Good & Evil.

Should we do more along those lines? Maybe this would clarify some of the debate within Christian publishing circles... could we differentiate the intended audiences by more specific labels? If "Christian Fiction" is misleading or too ambiguous...and many argue it is, could the A Novel of _____ approach help?

What about Christian audiences who are turned off by the majority of CBA fare? Those looking for a "middle-ground" reading experience between CBA cleanliness and General Market "anything goes" mentality?  What label would attract those readers?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall...

I could take you to the exact spot, today.

A high-school friend and I were riding to class one morning, and the conversation turned to physical attractiveness. As in, did either one of us have enough of this characteristic to attract a female of the species?

At one point, my friend turned to me and stated with great authority, "Your hair is what saves you."

I suppose most people are sensitive to comments about their appearance, but that memory is etched in time, one of those moments that live forever. I remember the sunny day, the pickup truck we rode in, and the exact spot on the exact road by the local park where the comment was delivered. Most of all, I remember that backhanded compliment:

"Your hair is what saves you."

Despite the rather dubious theology contained in this statement, I've been thinking about it often lately.

Perhaps it's because I'm 46 now, not 16, and I'm realizing that if my hair really is going to save me, it's now or never. I'm not sure if a particular quantity of hair is required for this alleged benefit, but I have photo documentation of my dad and granddad, and the precedent is not encouraging.

There's a second reason this issue of physical appearance has been on my mind:

Author Photos.

You have to have 'em. You're supposed to put 'em on your blog. And your blog comments. On your book jacket. Bubblegum cards. Book Trailers. Video blogs... Photos, videos--everywhere, these days.

My publisher asked for the photo I wanted on my book jacket.

"Fine," I said. I sent her this one.

She seemed vaguely suspicious....inasmuch as this name was singularly at odds with the signature on the contract.

Still no go...

Apparently, identity theft is harder to pull off than it appears on TV.

Above-average physical appearance is a part of certain job descriptions: movie star, TV personality, news anchor, model. And in music, it's not enough to have a stellar gain true celebrity status, you have to look the part in music videos, and on CD covers.

But what about authors? In our increasingly visual world, how important is a really winning appearance? Does it make a difference in marketing fiction--building a brand--as it does in so many other realms?

Physical appearance has been a hot (pun intended) research topic for years, and psychological investigators have uncovered some (perhaps not too surprising) truths:

1) There is widespread agreement among people as to what constitutes "Attractive." Independent raters, of all ages and both genders, can examine pictures of people they have never met, and generally agree whether that person falls into the "above average," "average," or "below average" category.

In fact, even infants show a marked preference for choosing to look at human faces that are judged (by adults) as attractive.

Codified by researchers, recognized standards of attractiveness include 1) symmetry (both "halves" of the face representing almost mirror images, without noticeable disparities); 2) proportion (nose, eyes, mouth are neither too large or too small in relation to the other features); 3) placement (eyes are not too close or too far apart, eyes and mouth lie approximately upon lines dividing the face into thirds); 4) specific waist/hip ratios (the "hourglass" shape in women, broad shoulders and narrow hips for men).

2) While differences exist, there tends to be surprisingly strong agreement even across cultural/ethnic lines. That is, Americans watching Swedish, or Malaysian movie stars would consider them physically attractive people, because the general, overall standards listed above do not vary widely around the globe.

3) The "What is Beautiful is Good" bias creates a form of halo effect, where those judged as physically attractive are perceived by others as:

More sociable, happier, kinder, more confident, more successful, better students, more intelligent, more trustworthy, etc, etc.

Without knowing anything else about a person, others tend to automatically ascribe a wide range of positive psychological traits to physically attractive individuals.

Today, Disney animators (and book jacket designers) carry on a tradition that is as old as the earliest human art forms...

Heroes = handsome/beautiful
Villains = flawed

4) Not only are attractive people perceived to have these advantages, but in many studies, it appears that reality matches the perception.

Attractive folks:

Are more likely to obtain job offers and promotions; generally more confident; generally more sociable; on average are higher earners; get lighter court sentences from juries; as infants bond quicker to mothers (and nurses in hospitals); are more accepted by voters.

Interestingly, people judged as attractive tend, as a group, to put more emphasis on the importance of physical attractiveness when choosing others as friends and mates. Beauty attracts beauty; while those judged to have average or less than average attractiveness rank other qualities as more important...such as honesty, kindness, etc.

Maybe we don't talk about it much, because the genetics involved are beyond our control. We can change hairstyles, clothes and makeup, and make the most of what we are given, but ultimately we are what we are. And authors have traditionally been engaged in an art form that emphasized the power of the written word over the visual. Certainly, there is no correlation between physical appearance and writing skill.

But I our increasingly multi-media saturated society...if we are reaching a Kennedy/Nixon line in publishing... an era in which physical appearance, and its relation to marketing, begins to take on an exponentially greater importance. 

If you'll excuse me, I have to go learn how to Photoshop.

What do you think? Are the marketing and media trends in society changing what agents/editor/readers look for? Will the Age of Multi-Media Marketing give a certain advantage to camera-friendly authors?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Can Bacteria Help You Get a Book Deal?

I love weird research.

Despite the chorus of ridicule that greets each news blurb highlighting the money squandered on studying the obvious (The Journal "Current Anthropology" ran a report proving that people put on more clothes when it's cold)......or the bizarre (Neuroscientists in Barcelona found that rats cannot understand Dutch or Japanese when it is played to them backwards).......... I'm still fascinated.

Take, for instance, the June 2011 issue of Outside magazine. In it, nature writer Richard Louv tackles the question of what our digitalized, electronic-laden lives are doing to our brains and our creative intelligence.

In his article, Louv touches on the work of Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks at the Sage Colleges in Troy, New York.

Matthews and Jenks examined the lowly Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacteria readily found in ordinary soil. In fact, this microbe is so abundant in nature that people routinely ingest or inhale it whenever they spend time in the great outdoors.

According to Matthews and Jenks, lab mice supplied with this naturally-occurring bacteria learned to navigate complicated mazes twice as fast as those without, and the positive, brain-stimulating effects lasted for weeks before wearing off.

Einstein, Mozart, and many others famous for exercising creative intelligence were fond of getting outside, where they often reported encountering their best ideas.

So if you're stuck on that latest plot point, consider shutting off your computer. Pick up a notebook and pen, and hike off into the woods. Breathe deep.

Sit under a tree beside a babbling brook and write.

Maybe the "little guys" will help you...

What's your experience?  Does getting out in nature help spark your creative juices?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Version 2.0

About a year ago, I surrendered.

After a long and valiant resistance, I succumbed to the tidal wave of well-meaning advice both specific (from friends) and general (from writing/publishing experts): You must have a blog. If you want to be a writer in today's world, you must have a blog.

I caved....  I started a blog.

Not without angst, you understand...for I am a) a technological cretin...and b) reluctant to clutter up the e-waves with yet another blog when I doubted that I had anything to say that hadn't been said 50,000 times over by writers both published and unpublished.

As evidence of "A" must understand that I am one of the approximately 5 people in the United States who do not choose to own a cellular phone.

As evidence of "B"...well, I waited. And waited. And waited.

Waiting for an idea. A concept that hadn't been "done" to excess...where I felt I could actually contribute something that, at least in my eyes, seemed fresh.

Eventually, I settled on the theme of how psychology intersects with Writing, Writers, and Readers. As an analytical type, with a Master's in Psychology and a 20+ year career in human services, I was (and am) fascinated with the insights that psychological research has to offer writers.

And as I scanned the blogosphere, the few "psychology for writers" sites I located were almost exlusively focused on the Dark Side...psychopathology, mental illness, violent disorders. I was interested in exploring what psychology had to say about the creative process. How to have ideas. What personality traits are associated with talent/success.

This kind of research is what I do anyway, for my own personal education, so why not blog on it?

So I did.  For several months.  It was not an encouraging experiment.

Oh, I loved what I was learning. And I learned about things I loved. Overall, it was a worthwhile learning experience. But in several months of posting I racked up the astonishing total of zero comments. And as so many bloggers before me have commented, it felt like I was writing to myself.

Ultimately, I opted to mothball that effort. If you're interested, you can view the body here.  Heck, you can probably still be the first to comment.

Though some disagree with the philosophy, I chose to wait for a publishing contract before actively blogging, and to spend that time improving my fiction-writing skills. So I'm happy to say that my first published novel is planned for release later this year, courtesy of Kristine Pratt's Written World Communications.

Version 2.0 of my blogging efforts will include some of the psychologically-themed material. That's in my life-blood and can't be helped. It will also cover the adventure of publishing, and explorations into writing, reading, and general life stuff along the way.

Glad you're here!  And for goodness sake, make a comment!!  :)