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 enjoyable...so 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 SPOILERS...so 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 effort...to 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 voice...to 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 wonder...in 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"...you 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!!  :)