Friday, December 14, 2007

The “Specialness” of the First Novel …and How To Keep It Going

This post has come about because of a surprise I got in my reading life—one of the few times that a book/author who didn’t impress me at all before has drawn me in, at least somewhat, on the second try. Specifically, I’m talking about Katherine Valentine and the Dorsetville books.

I’ve mentioned Ms. Valentine in this blog before, in reference to The Haunted Rectory, which I thought was a horking good story—something that surprised me after I’d tried to read her Dorsetville books and been left utterly cold by them.

But then the day came at work when I needed a book that wouldn’t depress me, irritate me, or otherwise set my teeth on edge while I was reading at lunch, and I decided to give Dorsetville a try again.

And I was, if not entranced, at least pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the trip.

 I can’t say this for all of the books in the series, but after reading the first one, A Miracle for St. Cecilia’s, it’s clear to me—when it wasn’t before—why a publisher would have bought this first novel from this woman. It’s a whale of a good tale just to sit back and relax with, without too much angst, grit, or darkness to it (unlike The Haunted Rectory, which has all that and more). It’s strong Catholic fiction, for another, and that’s an area obviously close to my heart.

But what really impressed me as I thought about the book was realizing that it had an indefinable essence to it, an essence that for lack of a better term I’ll call the “First Novel Specialness.”

For some reason, a “first novel” has a unique feeling to it…which this book has. I’ve seen it in the Mitford books (which this book unabashedly pays tribute to); I’ve seen it now that I’ve finally read MHC’s first book (Where Are The Children?); and I can see it in the “first books” of lots of authors I read and love, whether I actually know the authors personally or not.

I can’t identify precisely what it is, any more than an editor knows how to label when something “works” for her, but I know it when I see it. I’m sure you do, too.

The question is, why and how that happens, and how we can make it happen for ourselves—whether we’re on our first book or seventh.

Because the next one, in essence, is always a “first book” all over again, especially if we’re trying to plan a career and advance to the next step up the publishing “ladder.” So why are first novels so good—sometimes better than anything else the author does afterward?

Maybe it’s because we generally spend more time on our first books than we do on subsequent ones; maybe it’s because we’re “learning” on those novels, and thus they get a lot of attention and thought that maybe subsequent ones don’t get. There’s always the very valid excuse that before you’re published, you don’t have an externally imposed deadline, so you can take your time and really “get it right.”

But for whatever reason, odds are if you have favorite authors and you go back to their first novels, you can see a) why they got bought and b) the potential they show in that early work for blossoming into what they eventually become.

So what is it in your work that would make someone say, “She’s got it”?
Or what is it in older works of yours that you go back to, read again, and think, “Yup, I nailed that there”?
Can you see growth from your first book to what you’re writing now?
Or if you’re on your first book, are you “hitting on all cylinders” yet, or are you still working on getting to that point?

Here’s to some successful First Novel Specialness, no matter what number you’re on!


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Try This Only At Home, Because Otherwise It’ll Get You In Trouble At Work (!)

Okay, it’s Progress Report Time. First, I probably ought to apologize for leaving you all hanging here. I shot out this great proposal for jump-starting our creativity, and then I didn’t post as I went to let you know if it was working. Then again, I’ve come to think…if it’s working, and that’s why I don’t post—that’s good, right? (LOL!) Short answer? OMW, is it working. Now, don’t get too excited and run for those paper sacks to breathe in yet, because I have a mixed bag of goodies here. No, I don’t have ten completely fleshed-out ideas for new books (yet); I don’t have ten new synopses. But that being said, what I have right now at my fingertips is so crazy and fun and non-stop that I don’t care: I’m going to get ten synopses out of all of this. And then some. So far, I’ve— —completely revamped an old book and turned it on its head; —come up with three delightfully ditzy possibilities for heroines for future books, each with a special “gift” of her own that I can put into a “woo woo” story —begun to mull a synopsis for “completing” a story that will spring from a short-short I’ve already written, but thought would be a great “root” in itself for another book —hatched a totally different character idea from the first book, which will take a spinoff book that was going nowhere and set it on its head —come up with a crazy fantasy/parallel universe idea that I won’t be using myself, unless the author I suggested it to declines to do so—which’ll mean I could then morph it into something “woo woo” but not fantasy, but still have a horking good story beginning —just about bounced off the walls writing a new synop and 12 pages of the first story listed above, have “written” the next two to three chapters verbally (i.e., worked them out in the car while driving to and from choir), have the fourth one ready to start, and just merely have to transfer them to the keyboard —and been totally wowed at what’s happened over the last couple of weeks. Now, I can thank a number of sources for this revitalization. One is all the prayers I’ve had people saying for me (and you know who you are). One is definitely the prayers I’ve spent time mulling in myself, in front of the Blessed Sacrament. And one may have been that my own creativity was just sitting there, waiting for me to trust it again. Maybe. Maybe not. Personally, I’m inclined to believe this is supernatural in origin. Why? Because this wild sparking happened when I decided to let go of the reins on my writing and allow myself to set it free from the earth, so to speak. When I started thinking back to the kind of writing I did when writing was still fun. Which it had pretty much ceased to be lately. So, as I searched for answers, one of the thoughts that came to me was, “Well, what would _____ story look like if you’d written it when you were, say, seventeen?” That, combined with a little creative brainstorming with the Lord, turned a key. And things haven’t stopped bouncing around my head since. So the moral of the story is: you put a challenge before the Lord, like I did, to help me out…you spend time in Eucharistic Adoration laying your creativity on the altar…and you become willing to abandon everything but what feels warm and fuzzy and happy and fun again…and you just might get ten stories out of the deal. Or twenty. Or… And then, the only trick is containing yourself long enough at work to have energy to type like a demon when you get home. So try this in your “thinking spot.” Try this in church. Try this in meditation. Try it while you’re driving, if you can drive and mull at the same time (i.e., if you don’t have to close your eyes to be creative!). But don’t do it at work. Or you’ll suddenly be looking for ways to ditch the day gig and Get On With It—and that path, I can honestly say, I’m not financially ready for! Thoughts? Janny P.S. DRISCOLL WON!!!!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Anybody Here Remember How to Play This Game?

After watching Michigan play possibly the worst football game I’ve seen them play, maybe ever—and that includes some pretty dismal Rose Bowl performances—and watching the Bears squander away a 10-point lead and all the momentum in the world—I can only surmise that this team would have made a better showing on the field than the two of them put together. I didn't want to think this...but I kept wondering during the Wolverines' fiasco if it didn't dawn on them that if they won, they'd go to the Rose Bowl—where they have been embarrassed way too often of late—and subconsciously, they were saying to themselves, “Oh-oh. Whoa. Don’t wanna do that again.” But surely a team wouldn’t really be thinking that way. Would they? Now that the dust has cleared, the Lloyd Carr era will be over soon, not because he’s going to get fired—but because he’s retiring. At least that’s the account for public consumption. I wonder in my heart of hearts if it wasn’t a matter of “Retire or get fired, Lloyd.” And that man doesn’t deserve the rap people have saddled him with, especially as concerns Ohio State. Face it. The coach doesn’t get on the field and drop passes. 'Nuff said. Now, on the other hand, how much longer will it take for Da Bears to ask Rexie to retire as well…? But the good news is? The office is put back together!!!! GO DRISCOLL!!!!! More later, Janny

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Rose Bowl, Here We Come!

Okay, so it isn't technically time for the Rose Bowl yet...but it will be after dem Wolverines beat up dem (overrated) Buckeyes on Saturday.


Not pumped in the least about this game coming up,

Friday, November 09, 2007

A Jump-Start to Creativity for the Weekend!

Over the past several months (years?), I have felt my share of Writer Envy. We all suffer it to one degree or another. And you know it when you feel it. It’s that familiar, stomach-sinking sensation that hits you when you hear of another author’s success…again. Even if you like the author. Even if you’re a fan of the author…sometimes you feel it anyway. The old why her and not me? question. Or, as I encountered last week, hearing about an author who’s already a bestseller being courted by publishers to write yet more books, when she’s already got several due to another publisher and is stressing out because she “doesn’t know how she’s going to get it all done.” (Hint: she could always have refused the assignment and let the rest of us have a chance…but funny how that option never seems to occur to any of these lucky people.) Or the same ol’ same ol’ people in the industry seemingly reaping all the rewards—teaching the plum workshops, speaking at the great venues—while a larger majority of us here in the trenches slog away, growing increasingly disillusioned and/or desperate about anyone ever noticing us in the shadows while the spotlight is so firmly fixed on those fortunate few. So what’s to be done about that? Well, it seems to me we have a couple of choices. The familiar choice is, first, to get peeved. (Admit it. It’s okay.) To sit there and smile on the outside while on the inside thinking about ways to provoke spontaneous human combustion. Close on the heels of the urge to see that other author’s head explode, at least on my part, comes a second set of emotions and self-talk. This usually starts out with “What’s wrong with my stuff?” and ends with, “Well, if I had_____ like she does, I’d be where she is, too.” My favorite use of the “If I had ______” phrase is, of course, “Well, if I had the luxury of being able to stay home and write full-time, I’d have all this success, too.” Sounds good on the surface, doesn’t it? And it does have more than a grain of truth to it. Having more time to write is always a good thing. There’s only one problem with this assumption: it’s only half true. Because having all the time in the world to write, and no financial worries, and nothing else standing in the way, only truly works if you have some idea of what you’re going to write. In other words, without some ideas that have you jumping in your shoes, without some sparks that have you unable to stay away from the keyboard, you’ll be just as frustrated as you were when you thought the only obstacle between you and the Great American Novel was the financial ability to spend unlimited time pursuing your muse. You’ll stare at the screen, you’ll noodle around with some sentences, maybe, but mostly you’ll just avoid writing…and then you’ll beat yourself up for it. That way, ladies and gentlemen, does not lie success. It’s a path that leads nowhere, and I’ve come up with an idea to jar us off that path and onto a better one. I have to admit, this idea is stolen, and not new. It comes from the history of a particular author I know who, when she was working on a couple of ideas at a time and still hadn’t sold her first book, had an agent challenge her to do something that changed her writing life. The agent looked at her stuff and said, “This is promising. But I want to see more. Way more. So I have an assignment for you: go home and write six new synopses for six new books. When you have them, send them to me, and we’ll talk.” The author nearly fainted at the sheer idea of just going home and writing six brand-new synopses—for the simple reason that she writes much like I do, in a very methodical and logical, linear, plot-driven manner, so that having those synopses done would basically mean she knew exactly what each book was going to be about and would just have to write from an outline. She couldn’t send the agent one page and a wing and a prayer; when she was done with those synopses, all that would remain was to pick which book she wanted to write first, and go for it. Yeah, it was hard. Yeah, it took some work. But after she did it, she had even more ideas popping out of the woodwork—and what was more to the point, she had books an agent could nudge her on and say, “This one. This is the one I want to see more on.” A couple of years after she did this, she signed a two-book deal with a major publisher, sold her first book with virtually no revisions, and was on her way to building a career. She’s since become a college writing teacher, sold at least two more books, and has started to snag some of those speaking venues and some “street cred” that just might turn into the kind of career we all dream about. And she started this while working full-time outside the home and raising several sons. The difference between being a very good, unsold writer and a good, sold one? Lots and lots and lots of options. Productivity. And more productivity. That came from…you guessed it. Ideas. So I’m going to take on a challenge, and I hope you’ll join me in it. I may or may not write six synopses—that remains to be seen. But what I am going to do, since I’m sorely in need of more book options than I have now, is to make an effort to concentrate on becoming an idea-generating machine. Specifically, I’m setting a public goal: to have ten new story ideas by the end of the month. Ten new ideas that are at least to the scene-and-chapter stage, which is the preliminary stage I always go through before I write a synopsis. Think that sounds insurmountable? Maybe it is. But I’ll never know that until I try. So I’m going to try. And, I suspect, once I put these wheels in motion, there’ll be a lot of others that start turning as well. Because God does want us to demonstrate that we can be trusted with “small things” before He gives us the “big ones.” Maybe the only thing that’s standing between me and that success I crave so much isn’t that the universe hasn’t provided me with the perfect situation in which to wallow and create at leisure. Maybe, in the end, the only thing that’s standing between me and success is not having enough trust in my own creativity. But no muscle gets stronger until you exercise it. So starting now, I’m going into full-blown aerobic idea-sparking mode. Wanna join me? If you do, just register in the combox! And then let’s keep track of what we come up with as the next couple of weeks unfold… Thoughts? Janny

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly...

Yes, it has been awhile since I’ve hung out here. But I was gainfully employed—painting my home office. It is now a lovely lilac color on the walls and a lovely white on the trim. Or at least as lovely as I can make it, fighting through all those little nooks and crannies of woodwork around windows and such. I swear I found yet another spot that had gotten “missed” in the painting the first couple times around, and it’s on my list for touching up AFTER I clean the 4,568 paint spots off the floor. (Yes, I have heard of drop cloths, but this is literally just the perimeter of the room, where I didn’t have as much covering due to having to work around the drop cloth-covered furniture in the middle....) :-) Anyhow, that’s almost done—taking the major part of the last three weekends. This weekend, hub and I are supposed to be at a Marriage Encounter, so I may not be “encountering” the rest of the office redo for awhile unless I can s-q-e-e-z-e it in on a weeknight this week. Sheesh! Anyway, some interesting publishing stories have come by, courtesy of Publisher’s Lunch. The first one, I found heartening: Brunonia Barry’s originally self-published debut supernatural thriller THE LACE READER, about a woman who can see the future by reading patterns in lace who returns home to Salem, Massachusetts after her great-aunt goes missing, to Laurie Chittenden at William Morrow, in a major deal, reportedly for $2 million (NY Mag), at auction, by Rebecca Oliver at Endeavor (world English). I think it’s just the “bee’s knees” that someone who’s been able to self-publish then goes on and gets a $2 million deal. Just proves the rule that not EVERY self-published novel dies an undignified death and/or earns disrespect for its author. This also sounds like a horking good story—so ya gotta wonder why it had to go the self-pub route in the first place! I personally wonder what it was that would prompt an editor not to want to read that story. But then again, what do I know? I edit nonfiction. :-) The second bit of news I found was both “bad” and “ugly”—also from PL: JK Rowling and Warner Bros. filed suit in Manhattan yesterday against Michigan's RDR Books over their planned publication in November of a Harry Potter Lexicon, adapted from a web site of the same name. In a release from the studio, Rowling says she may write her own Potter-pedia, saying "I cannot, therefore, approve of 'companion books' or 'encyclopedias' that seek to preempt my definitive Potter reference book for their authors' own personal gain." BBC Yanno, the woman’s already richer than God, as the old saying goes. She hasn’t written this book yet. She may not even ever write this book. But she somehow got her publisher to go in with her on a lawsuit to prevent anyone else from publishing any “companion” books that “seek to preempt” a book that she hasn’t even written yet…just so those authors can’t make any “personal gain” off of something she’s already made so much money on that her grandchildren’s children won’t be able to spend it all. The first smart-aleck gut reaction to this, of course, is for us to ask, “How can I get a deal like that?”:-) But in the final analysis, truth be told, I don’t want my publisher to treat me this way. I would hope they’d have more spine than to allow me to get away with such spoiled-brat selfishness on an off-the-chart-scale. I would hope someone within that company would have the guts to say, “This book is done. It’s blog material. It can’t possibly hurt you. It can only help you overall. And it’s additional work you don’t have to do. Let’s set up a licensing agreement of some kind, sit down, shut up, and count the money.” But they chose not to do that. Why? Legally and technically, of course, they’re well within their rights. But if anything proves the point that what’s “legal” isn’t necessarily what’s “right,” this does. In spades. It’s just a shame that so few people in the publishing business seem to have either common sense or a conscience anymore. Thoughts?


Monday, October 22, 2007

“Rowling” In The Aisles

Well, apparently J.K. Rowling was out of the headlines for just a tad too long and needed to get back in them with a good dose of controversy. So she found some. In a manner of speaking, that is. She didn’t court genuine controversy or put her neck genuinely on the line; on the contrary, she knew exactly what she was doing announcing the alleged homosexuality of the Harry Potter character Dumbledore the way she did, where she did, and how she did. Let’s face it. The woman didn’t go on campus at a conservative private school and do this; she went to the liberal capital of the liberal East Coast and did it there. Where she’d be sure to get applause and even be praised for it (at least one blog called this “a giant step forward for human rights” —and no, I am not making this up)…not be subjected to a slice or two of booing, hissing, and criticism she might well pick up further inland. (She probably will pick that up, too. There’ll no doubt be backlash, flurries of e-mails from family organizations, statements in the press, and she’ll get more fuel, more attention, more fire. Woman’s dumb like a fox.) But the sad part of all this hoopla is, it’s all so needless. This “revelation” of hers, as nothing else does, points up an agenda that has now officially gone so far overboard that it’s about to become a caricature of itself. Remember the days when every other soap opera female, for awhile there, was a reformed prostitute? (Maybe they still are. It’s been twenty years since I’ve seen a soap opera.) Ex-prostitutes married doctors and became respectable members of their communities—while all the time people knew that they’d come out of “the life” and admired and accepted them for it. I think in the legendary Pine Valley alone, on one block, there were three ex-hookers settled down to Happy Ever After without so much as a ripple of any trouble except if someone from their past happened to track them down. Now, I don’t know about you, but I lived the majority of my life in a major metropolitan area without ever having met a prostitute, much less a reformed one who had married a doctor and was living in an upscale suburb. Yet TV expected us to believe this was an everyday occurrence, that all these girls had “hearts of gold” and that, if just given a chance… Much the same thing has now occurred, on a much wider scale, with another fringe group—and these entertainment gurus are hoping we’re just as gullible. Unfortunately, so far, many of us have been. Homosexuals make up something between 7% and 15% of the total population, the former figure being one I was quoted when I was in school. Whether you take a lower or slightly higher figure into account, however—even by the most generous anthropological and sociological estimates—this is a tiny minority of people on the face of the earth (as most anomalies are). And that’s people with the proclivity alone; that’s not even the (smaller) numbers of people living the so-called “gay lifestyle.” Many people with SSA are chaste, are wise, and are observing a countercultural morality that costs them on one level every day, but saves them far more in the long run. You’ll never know that by our “culture,” however. You’ll never know the seedy side of the homosexual life through TV, books, or movies. On the contrary: TV, movies, and books are replete with homosexual characters—or couples—who are invariably the nicest, best looking, funniest, and most intelligent characters on the scene. Even in the rare instance that a homosexual is portrayed as something other than the #1 neighbor on the block, that’s usually written off to a bigger issue/storyline, a homosexual “rights” struggle, or the like…all within the framework of you’d-better-be-okay-with-this-or-you’re-a-bigot. The fact that the “gay” lifestyle has a dark, dangerous side—and no, not from “right-wingers” and “persecution,” but contained within the actual lifestyle itself—is a well-kept secret. And so you’ll never be aware of the false story you’re being told, time and time and time again. When it comes to prostitution, at least enough of the dark side of it’s been presented to all of us over the years that when you see things like the soap-opera scenario happening, you can step back far enough from it to realize the writers are stretching credibility beyond the screaming point, and you can laugh at them and dismiss it. But how will that distance happen when even the world’s most popular author seems to think it’s a good idea to bring the “alternative” agenda into Harry Potter books? And this is about agenda, one J.K. is bringing into the books. In effect, pasting it on. I suspect this because the great majority of devoted Harry Potter fans I know completely missed the “hints” that were supposedly put into the stories about this Dumbledore proclivity, about his “love” relationship with another character. It was supposedly there all the time, and they all missed it. Now on its face, this assertion is at best preposterous and at worst insulting. These are dedicated fans. People who counted the days until each book came out. People who read and reread the entire series prior to each book’s coming out. People who know details about the books. People who know trivia about the books. People who can see between lines, who know layers of meaning, who are perceptive and sharp in their reading. And yet J.K. is telling us that those fans failed to pick up on any of this, even supposedly with “hints” provided? Whom does she think she’s kidding? I’m not buying that tale, spun that way, any more than I buy the probability that three women down my block are ex-prostitutes. I seriously doubt those “hints” were there in the first place. I’m skeptical, in fact, that that character was even ever meant to be that way. What’s more likely, from this side of the fence, is that J.K. has chosen to bring Dumbledore “out of the closet” now not because he was there all the time, but because declaring a character “gay” nowadays is a sure way to get oneself even more attention, even more press, and at the same time paint even what are supposed to be innocent fiction stories with an extra (and oh-so-hip) layer of socially “forward” content. But why do it in a series that’s supposedly aimed at children? Is that even remotely appropriate? More importantly, even if J.K. had in mind that the guy was queer all that time, was it important to the storyline that he be so? If so, how did all those people miss it? If not, why is it even worth mentioning? Frankly, this “announcement” has all the earmarks of smoke and mirrors. A scam. A ploy. And a carefully orchestrated one at that, guaranteed to inflame one segment of the audience and delight the other. But why an author would want to polarize her audience at this point is a very good question, one that apparently no one thought worth asking…unless, of course, it all falls under the heading of “any publicity is good publicity.” That appears to be, in the end, what this is all about. Not about story. Not about character. Above all, not about integrity. It’s about grabbing headlines, which, sadly, it’s succeeded in doing. But one has to wonder what possible payoff could make it worth her while for J.K. to take a pretty innocent kids’ series of books and—just like Harry waving a wand—transform a part of them into yet another platform for deviants. One can only conclude from this that what P.T. Barnum said is true, after all. Too bad—in so many ways—for all of us. Thoughts? Janny

Monday, October 15, 2007

Reinventing, Part 3—The Blessing of Inertia and Cutting Yourself Some Slack

Last time, I yammered a bit about how sometimes a paralyzing event, or series of events, can creep up on us with an intensity we don’t even recognize until a) we’re in its clutches, or (if we’re the lucky ones) b) it’s all over. I’ve experienced this, and I don’t know if I’m over it yet. But a thought or two on how I may be emerging from the fog wouldn’t be amiss. Looking back on a traumatic period of our lives from the perspective of being “through with that,” of course, is always the better place to be…if you can learn from it. But in my experience, that doesn’t always happen. Not because we don’t want to learn from it so much as because once some really dark time in our creative lives is over at last, we’re so relieved that we’re not “there” anymore that we shrink from the idea of analyzing how we got “there,” lest we inadvertently end up “there” all over again. In other words, we’re scared spitless of confronting that devil one more time, lest he re-snare us. This is a needless fear, actually. But merely because something is needless doesn’t mean we don’t feel it. Most creative people are at least a little OCD, and what may appear “needless” to a strong, silent jock may be a very realistic shadow lurking around our corners. We also don’t want to fall into the trap, much encouraged by our “victimizing” society, of wallowing: so much of what I do now isn’t my fault because it was all caused by this terrible thing I had to go through when I was eight years old—! You get the picture. But in the case of a writer who has neither celebrity to worry about nor any other particular reason to want to excuse herself, looking at “how I got in a creative mess” isn’t wallowing. It’s not attempting to rationalize bad behavior. It’s simply an attempt to understand what contributed to that spot and, if we’re smart, to learn how to be gentle enough with ourselves that we don’t inadvertently prolong the agony of being in that unproductive and frustrating place by trying either to deny it to “tough” our way out of it. We all have different lists in the back of our minds of The Things I Absolutely Can’t Deal With No Matter How Much Chocolate I Have. So why do we feel there’s something so wrong with admitting that you’re not dealing very well with something, even months or years afterward, if it’s been on that list all your life? If I knew that, I wouldn’t be writing all these essays about why I beat up on myself for not “keeping on keeping on” despite everything. (Brings to mind the old Monty Python line: “A mere flesh wound!” If you get this reference, I don’t have to explain it. If you don’t get it, ask a Python fan to go into detail.) Yes, being a creative person entails a generous helping of mental toughness. And yes, succeeding at any endeavor means you can’t roll up the sidewalks every time someone gives you a piece of bad news, makes an unkind remark, passes up your kid for the major league draft, or has the inconsideration to go and die on you…or does it? I would assert that sometimes, it does. And sometimes those sidewalks are going to be rolled up for way longer than even we think they “should” be. But I’m also here to tell you that that may be the very place where, finally, God will meet you, shake your hand, and sit you down…so He can start unwrapping presents. Like reminding you that in your heart of hearts, you always *used to be* a musician who wrote, not a writer who happened to like music. Why does that reminder free you? Because then you go back to music as being the lifeblood of your creative system, something that feeds both your spirit and your other (writing) Muse…and both sides of you are neither overcompelled nor overpressured to “perform or else.” It’s a balance I had gotten out of, and so I’m trying hard to concentrate on getting it back again. Unwrapping this present also meant that I could relax, and in the process, begin tending to both my Muses rather than just one; what this means is, being stalled out in the writing area doesn’t mean my creativity is shot to pieces permanently. Merely stepping back, doing more music and less writing for awhile, can and usually does create just enough artistic momentum that all of a sudden the writing’s no longer terrifying…just another artistic thing I do. It’s not my only career path,or even, necessarily, my true career path (or, the old “God’s perfect will for my life” notion. Talk about something that needs to die a quick death?)…at least not exclusively. And any time you can take pressure off a creative endeavor, or a creative person, it’s a blessing. In my life, freeing writing from being the be-all and end-all of my creative endeavors means that I’m no longer frantically comparing myself to the other writers out there…that I’m no longer going to beat up on myself because I’m not writing every day…that I can stop worrying about whether I’m “serious” enough about this career or not…because it doesn’t have to be the only egg in my basket. I’m still a talented musician. I will always be a talented musician, and since I started singing way before I started storytelling, I asked myself…which is actually the more important Muse? Which is the one that, without question, nurtures all the others? There’s always been one primary answer to that question, and at last I’m remembering it. And I’m attempting to re-internalize it, to re-give myself permission to call myself a musician again, in my own emotional world and in my own estimation, without having to feel like putting an asterisk beside the word or the “failed” label in front of it. Now, there’s a present. As is the new idea that God also set before me, last Friday morning, as I talked to Him in Eucharistic Adoration. An idea that, if it can run the full distance, may just blow the doors off this writer’s office, knock the socks off the next reader to encounter it, and shoot the sides out of the proverbial “box” once and for all. Stay tuned for more on all of this, if you would. In the meantime, if someone’s looking for a soprano soloist for a Messiah this Christmas season…that’s on my list of things I need to do, am determined to do, and will jump through almost any hoops necessary in order to do. So spread the word! Thoughts? Janny

Friday, October 12, 2007

Reinventing, Part 2—The Power of Inertia

Okay, I promised a few more jots about the “reinventing” I’ve been doing with my writing career, with the perception of my writing versus my music, et al. So here’s part two, for what it’s worth. I mentioned before that I despise the term “talented amateur.” Basically, I’ve always believed that if you were truly that talented, you’d be a pro at the item in question. Someone would see that talent, pick it up, and reward you for it. Turns out that isn’t quite right. You see, all my life I firmly believed my son was going to play major league baseball. This is a kid who could stand up and hit a wiffle ball off a wiffle bat at 18 months. (And no, I am not making this up. ) At 4, he was tossing a ball in the air and hitting it, all the time chattering away doing play by play. At 10, he was throwing close to 70 miles per hour. At 12, he was playing international baseball. At 14, he pitched a no-hitter to win a community baseball championship. According to his bio, he still holds a record in Illinois High School baseball. He was given a partial scholarship at Michigan on the strength of one downstate playoff game. He was Big Ten Player of the Week not once but twice in his senior year at Michigan. All this from a kid who’s five-seven in really long spikes. (!) But come the 2005 draft, he wasn’t considered to be even among the top 1500 high school/college baseball players available. Seven of his teammates got drafted from Michigan that year. Matt didn’t. It absolutely devastated his mom. And shot my belief system about “rewarding talent and hard work” pretty much to hell. Yeah, I know. Get over it. :-) But I would say, honestly, that that’s easier said than done. I think that monumental disappointment shattered something basic, a deep belief I had in the fundamental fairness of things. Added to this pain the stress of trying to relocate the family to Indiana, selling the Illinois house, getting a place to live before buying a house here... I got hit pretty hard. Hard work and logistical scrambling are one thing; hard work and scrambling, while you’re hurting at the same time, is way harder to deal with. What it ends up doing is sapping your energy reserves and seriously depleting your resiliency. Which means that if you then start getting rejected on writing fronts as well… You can see the end coming here, I’m sure. But that end snuck up on me before I even knew it was happening. Truth to tell, this nastiness was building way before what happened with Matt ever occurred; it was building probably five to seven years before that, when I started piling on additional responsibilities of taking care of an aging mom, fighting health care battles, coming close to losing my house…then finally going through my mom’s passing and all the accompanying stuff that went with that. By the time I even got to the draft fiasco, I was already walking wounded, and wounded way worse than I suspected. In fact, I thought I had gone through a temporary “bad patch” but was coming out of it: I even managed to speak several times between 2003 and 2005 on “coming out of burnout.” Joke was on me, I guess. Because I kept telling myself I was coming out…only I wasn’t. I was having fits and starts. I was writing a good chapter or a good scene here or there, but I was stalling out almost immediately afterward. The writing was not bad, serviceable, adequate…but not brilliant, either. Not inspired. Not on fire. Not what I’m truly capable of when all the layers are peeled away and I’m on the edge. And consequently, not surprisingly, not picked up by agents or editors, either. So the time has come to really, truly pull myself out of this quagmire. But how to do it, when I thought I was out of it already? How will I know when it happens for sure? I have two possible answers to this, and I’ll elaborate on those soon. Watch this space! Thoughts?


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Redefining, Reinventing, and Reframing—Or, A Temporary Case of ADD

Note: From the git-go, I probably need to say this: this title doesn’t indicate in any way a flippant attitude toward ADD. Yes, we do call Gilbert our “cat with ADD;" but my husband has it, and we’re coping with it with varying degrees of success, and we realize it's serious. So I have a right to make a wisecrack about it if I like, and there’s no intention of getting anybody's feathers in a twist. Capisce? Capisce. That being said, I do feel somewhat like a temporary case of ADD has taken over my brain. I’m feeling pulled in multiple directions, not necessarily in a bad way, but just in a way that’s making it very, very hard to focus on one thing at a time and Actually Get Started on something, or Actually Make Progress. Why? Day gig stuff, lots of it. Things are going on. I'm applying for a different position at the day gig, I've got some additional responsibilities laid on's enough to make your head spin. I did write a bit about it earlier, but have elected to set it aside here for the moment. After all, I promised to chatter a bit about some things that have become clear around the time of the Great Writer Retreat/Break Time that we just experienced, and immediately afterward. So here’s what’s surfacing; see if any of these thoughts provoke a little serious thought of your own about the writing universe and your place in it. 1. I write “woo-woo” extremely well. I’ve been told it more than once. So that’s what I aim to write. The other details will come as I find some good creepy Gothic sorts of stories to tell. Give me a moody, misty town, give me a tortured hero, give me several juicy secrets and a scandal in the past, a little supernatural stuff if the mood hits, and some very real and present danger…and I’ll be able to run with it. I hope. (!) 2. Dearly and muchly as I love romantic comedy, chick lit, traditional romance, a touch of historical, Regency, and inspirational material, I don’t believe that’s where my primary talents lie. It bites, because I’ve spent so much of my life wanting to do nothing more than write a whole bunch of “those little paperback romances.” But after over fifteen years of trying to break into that niche, I’m discovering the niche is fast sinking into territory I never intended to go into. So maybe it’s just as well I’ve never “made it” there. 3. Most important of all, however, I have to realize something. Much as a New Age guru (or even a really smart Christian) will tell you that we’re spiritual beings having a physical experience—rather than the other way around—I have to face up to a fact that I forgot: namely, that I’m not a writer who happens to sing, but a singer who writes. That may not seem like a big difference. But it is. Trust me, it is. You see, I’ve been spending the last twenty years or so of my life being a Failed Musician Who’d Rather Write Anyway. And for awhile, that’s worked pretty well—amazingly so, when you consider the first word of that self-defining label. Failed. Why would anyone want to label herself that? Don’t know. Don’t even exactly know how it happened. Just know after several dozen auditions for things I didn’t get, several singing gigs I thought were mine but which weren’t, and several years of singing catch as catch can church stuff and church choir, and getting caught up with raising a family and keeping wolves from the door…I laid aside the dream of being a musician in light of having tried, and failed. Now, I could call myself a “talented amateur,” if you like. Only I’ve always despised that term. Because, you see, if you’re really that talented…you shouldn’t be an amateur. Someone should be paying you for that level of work. You should be able to go pro. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve always written, all the way through music school. Music school, in effect, fed my writing. But in my heart, as the years went by, I came to “know” that one was…lesser than the other. Less important. Less “mine.” Something I deserved “less.” Only what I “knew”—what I decided was the mature grownup reality of the way things were—was wrong. But I came to this realization only now, after a long road through several things that aren’t even about writing…but which impacted me anyway. Those, I’ll talk about next time. But just know this. Know that sometimes what you see yourself as…isn’t what you are at the core. And sometimes you lock yourself up in a prison with that distorted vision. And sometimes it takes a long, long time to break back out. More later, when I can elaborate on how I finally seem to have laid my hands on the key again…. Thoughts? Janny

Monday, October 01, 2007

It's Post #100!

I suppose I've held off posting for a long time simply because this is Post #100 and therefore should be memorable, thought-provoking, stimulating, challenging... Wait a minute. Weren't those the words we were all told were going to apply to our careers? (This space for laughing.) Anyway, I DID have a "Break Time" interlude myself, here. Lots of chocolate, a glass or two of red wine, a walk on the beach, a few Starbucks, some baseball, some football...oh, and yeah, I wrote a paragraph or two of junk that I figure now I'm not going to use anyway. But if nothing else, this getaway convinced me of a few things. Those, I'll elaborate on further in another post. In the meantime, what would you like to see yakked about here in the near future? This blog, ideally, should be a conversation, and ideally, most of the time, about writing...although in October, at least part of the conversation has to be about this as well. :-) But add your thoughts to the mix. What do we need to talk about, during this fall season? I've often thought September should be the beginning of the new year rather than January, for many reasons...we'll talk about those, too, as we go. But for some of this, I'd like to hear your questions, thoughts, concerns, dilemmas. So call your friends over and fill up the combox! We'll chat about what you ask, what I need to vent, and what strikes your fancy... More later, because some of us do, in fact, have to work sometimes. (sigh) Thoughts? Janny P.S. I have actually played with my new basketball, too. And it's awesome!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Break Time!

Maybe your life is going swimmingly right now, and you can’t imagine wanting, much less needing, to take a break of any kind from it all. Maybe you’re at the keyboard even as you read this (which isn’t all that impossible!), and before you read this, your fingers were flying over the keys with ideas popping forth so fast you couldn’t keep track of all of them…and you’re only pausing for a few minutes to read your favorite blog (hint, hint) before you go right back to that wonderful white-hot creative fire, at the end of which time you’ll have written deathless prose of a quality that will amaze even you. OR…maybe not! :-) This brief sojourn, however, isn’t so much about taking a break from work it is about breaking free in a bigger sense. Breaking out. Breaking away from old habits, if you need to and if you feel strong enough to. Breaking out of your shell around other people. Breaking out of the mold your job has put you in or out of the clique that’s getting old and timeworn. Breaking out… …of your own box. Doesn’t that thought just give you tingles? So what have you done in the past, or can you do now, to break yourself free? To take a slightly different path? What could be the first domino in a chain of change that might send you on a whole new journey or—even better—bring you back onto a path you’ve been on before, but got off, and have missed (without even knowing you missed it)? Some things that have broken people free: 1) buying that top-of-the-line bathing suit, even though you don’t have a “bathing suit” figure—and enjoying how great it makes you feel in the pool or the lake 2) jogging outdoors instead of indoors on a treadmill, sniffing the last heady scents of summer on the air—or the first crisp air of autumn 3) swallowing your self-consciousness, marching up to the counter at that exotic coffee or tea place, and ordering something outrageously wonderful without worrying about looking like a schmuck who’s never done it before 4) picking up a sketch pad and a package of crayons or water paints, sitting on the floor, and playing with color 5) walking to church, to a corner store, to the library, to the post office, to a park, even to work—anywhere you can get to without risking major life and limb damage—and talking with all the cats and dogs you see on the way 6) taking a drive in the country, or even just the suburbs, moving fast, with your favorite music cranked up to the point of pain…and singing along 7) trying your hand at something physically challenging and/or new: dancing (ballroom, line, or belly!), handball, kayaking, rock wall climbing, mini-golf, rollerblading, water ballet… …or many, many more. I started thinking about these things, and more, because today I engaged in just such a breaking-free exercise. I used a sporting-goods gift card I earned through a work-fitness program not to get something for one of my kids—which I was tempted to do—and not to plan ahead on a Christmas present buy for someone else, but instead, I used it on myself. For my very own, official NBA, indoor-outdoor basketball. With which I am going to dribble, shoot, and otherwise make a glorious fool of myself in my very short driveway. But because my falling-down garage came with a dilapidated basketball hoop on it…and because for years I’ve promised myself that when I had a basket, I would do this very thing…I decided the time, and the opportunity, had come. Basketballs are pretty reasonably priced, and they’ll even ship them to you, which means I don’t have to shell out gas money and try to finagle car time to go buy the thing…I can have someone else do that rushing around for me. Feels good? You bet it does. I’ll bet you’ve got something like that you’ve promised yourself you’re going to do. And I’ll bet you’ve promised yourself that for a long, long time. And I’ll also bet that, if you look hard at the circumstances of your life, you already have the ways and means of keeping that promise…and doing the thing you’ve been keeping in a “SOMEDAY” file cabinet. Well, today, I encourage you to take out one of those things—and check it off the list. Do it. Make it happen. And when you do, see what else it invites you to do. See how else you can break free.And then see how well you sleep tonight! Thoughts? Janny

Monday, September 17, 2007

Wanted, a little unreality...part 2. Or, Are You a Minister?

At the risk of irritating and/or offending several people who read this blog, I have a point I need to make. My writing is not a ministry. Repeat. Not. A. Ministry. My writing is a business, and a craft, and primarily, a gift and a talent, and I'm grateful for it. But a ministry? Nope. Sorry, Charlie. Not this girl. I've encountered more than one aspiring writer of faith who, when they hear other people bubbling about God “calling” them to do this, or that, or the other kind of writing, actually get a little panicky. Or even a lot panicky. Why? Because they didn't hear any calling. Because their writing isn’t “anointed.” It’s a profession, a craft, a talent, a gift…but it’s not a “ministry.” Which somehow, in a sense, makes it seem to be…not so good. Gertie Goodscribe takes up writing because it’s something she’s always loved to do, she’s good at it, and she wants to keep at it. She’s willing to work hard for the dream of seeing her own books on the shelves of the local bookstore. She’s getting closer to that reality by the day. Then she joins a group of Christian writers, and all of a sudden, the rules change. There, enjoying the writing, even being good at it, even being gifted enough to sell it, isn't what it’s all about. In fact, when the group finds out Gertie’s writing something she’s enjoying immensely, they very tenderly tell her that it’d be a good idea to look that stuff over closer, even with a jaundiced eye if need be, “just in case.” Just in case what? Apparently, to ensure she's not having fun instead of serving God. (The fact that these two things somehow don't seem to go together is, clearly, another story for another day But, I digress.) To Gertie’s dismay, she soon learns within this group that it doesn't seem to be quite Godly to just write what she loves, without thinking about all the readers who may be “looking for salvation” in her stuff. It’s not even quite okay to dream about publishing and selling…because that’s not what’s important. (Never mind that professional acknowledgment is what separates the women from the girls, so to speak; to this group, that doesn’t seem to be the case.) On the contrary: if she’s a real Christian, by golly, she will shun goals of earthly success. What matters is spreading the Gospel, which of course is why God gave her that writing skill to begin with. So her writing had, first of all, better let the world know she’s a Christian. It had better be edifying to somebody, and offending to nobody. And if it happens to sell, she’d better not make too big a deal out of it, because that might also be a worldly desire she will need to confess and surrender… Hearing all these strings attached to both her salvation and her gift, Gertie finds herself tearing up. Which is a not a good thing. Things like this are happening all around us. Things that discourage our sister writers. Things that make them feel “less” when they should be feeling blessed. Which is why my writing is not a “ministry.” And why I truly believe that calling fiction writing a “ministry,” no matter how well-intentioned, is a minefield-strewn trap that can backfire in ways that not only don’t make gains for the Kingdom…but can lose us ground. I’m anointed to tell stories. Many of us are. And there’s nothing wrong with that.Whether or not a clear Gospel message comes out of them will end up being between us, our readers, and the Holy Spirit. Which is, I believe, where it should lie. No, my writing’s not a “ministry.” And, in the context of “ministry” as I’ve seen it presented too often, I hope it never becomes one. Thoughts? Janny

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Picks and Pans off the Summer Bookshelf

So what are we reading besides the blog? :-) No, I’m not going to go into the anniversary of 9-11—there’ll be more than enough of that on other channels to keep you busy, if that’s the way you want to spend some time. But for our purposes this morning, it’s time to catch up on the reading we’ve been doing, or trying to do, of late. Tried to read: The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield. This story starts out promisingly enough, even charmingly, in that quirky sort of way that ‘literary fiction’ likes to call its own. (Whether or not this is considered ‘literary’ is immaterial. If it quacks like a duck…) But then, the endless story of the wild twins and their nonsense goes on, and on, and on, and…I finally said, “Enough, already” to these amoral, maladjusted people and their exploits. Frankly, the 157 or so repetitions of how “special” and “unique” and “remarkable” they were for simply being born unconscious of anyone else’s importance or value in the world (which means—hello?—they were mentally ill!) had exactly the opposite effect: it didn’t make me sympathetic or even fascinated by them as much as it merely made me irritated with everyone around them who enabled them. At that point I knew it was time to climb out of the byzantine, self-indulgent litany and put the book back on the shelf. I understand this is presented as a long, complex, layered story, and I only went halfway through it. However, at the halfway point, I was increasingly getting that sinking feeling one gets when a “highly touted” book is 105 pages’ worth of story told in 400. (“Boys and girls, can you spell ‘overwritten’?”) Those of you who have finished this thing may have a totally different picture of it, but I’ve learned over and over again that when I ignore that sinking feeling, the book ends up hitting the wall anyway. So I saved my arm, the book, and the wall the trouble and put it back into the library. (I was just glad I hadn’t bought it.) Tried to read: Widows and Orphans, Susan Meissner. This really sounded promising, to the point where I did buy it through the book club. I love mysteries, I love suspense, and this was presented as having both…so I dove right in, despite seeing pictures of Asian characters on the cover and thinking, “Oh, no, not something about Chinese adoption…!” Please understand, I have nothing inherently against that kind of story (or the character types involved). But had it been hinted in the book’s presentation that there was a foreign element involved, or that someone had to go halfway across the world to start the plot, I may have passed—only because that’s not first on my list of the kind of story I like to read. And had it been hinted that the heroine, whom one meets first, is less concerned about other people than she is about her own inconvenience…well, suffice to say I felt nothing after the first chapter. I wanted to feel something positive for these characters. I didn’t. In fact, in short order, I got fed up with the heroine, who wavered so close to whining in Chapter One that I didn’t want to spend any more time with her and wait for her to go into full-blown self-indulgence. (Notice a pattern here?) If the reader grits her teeth during the first chapter, for that reader, the writer has failed. ‘Nuff said. Tried to read: Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, Fannie Flagg. This, once again, sounded charming. I’d never read Fannie Flagg, who sells and sells and sells, so I thought I’d give this one a try. And for a good ways into the book, it’s a cute piece. Lots of humor, lots of down-to-earth characters, absorbing and pretty true to life. And then, the character gets to “heaven”—where she’s only stopping temporarily, mind you—and the thing goes into utter touchy-feely counter-religious “unitarian” nonsense. I won’t spoil the “surprise” for those of you who may want to wade through this—but just be forewarned, the “people you meet in heaven” in this book are liable to make your blood boil. Think George Burns in Oh, God!, only taken to a sacrilegious extreme for the sake of “humor,” and you’ll get the idea. That blatant disrespect for faith, in a book that could have taken a lighter hand, made it impossible for me to read on. I wanted to, but I’ve gotten to the point in my life where when or if an author insults my faith, however innocently it’s “intended,” I get too irritated to want to finish the story. In that respect, yanno, the author has failed…in that, unfortunately, she’s reminded me it’s only a book, and a book in which she’s taking a perverse and screwed-up doctrinal stand. (Call it preaching in reverse, I guess.) Once again, I was glad it was a library book! Lest you completely despair that I liked anything over the past few weeks, however, here are a couple of picks: THE ELEVATOR, Angela Hunt. Three women trapped in an elevator, in the path of an approaching hurricane, soon learn they’re bonded in ways none of them expects. Gritty and compelling, so much so I read it in 24 hours. (Ah, the joy of a weekend with a new book!) The few details about setting that I found confusing and/or unresolved don’t hurt the story overall; it’s a keeper. THE HAUNTED RECTORY, Katherine Valentine. Katherine Valentine is a successful author of the Dorsetville books, which seem to be an attempt at being the Catholic answer to Jan Karon’s Mitford series; I say “seem to be” because I never got into Dorsetville. I tried. I read a few pages into one of the books, stifled a yawn, and put it back. People think “nothing happens” in the Mitford books, that all they are is a presentation of small-town life, so if you just start turning the lens around the street of a small town, it’s automatically fascinating…but suffice to say they’ve got it wrong, and IMHO Valentine’s got it wrong with Dorsetville. But this one? A whole ‘nuther story, literally. Pick this one up for more than the cute play on words involved in the “St. Francis Xavier Hookers” (a group of women who hook rugs, of course!). Pick this one up for a chilling, realistic, and yet hopeful portrayal of Satanic power, of possession, and of all-too-realistic people struggling against the depths of darkness. You may not want to read this one more than once—it’s that kind of book, if you know what I mean—but you’ll probably want to pass it on to others. If I’m advising Katherine, I’m telling her to stick with the St. Francis Xavier hookers for a few more books. They’re great ladies, and Fr. Rich Melo is one of those wonderful things—a true Catholic priest, a man who struggles to believe but who nevertheless, when the chips are down, acts faithfully and consistently as the kind of priest we’d all like to know. The author’s hit a stride here that she’d be well advised to keep on with! More to come—I read way more than I seem to be able to write about, unless I put my mind to mini-reviews as part of this blog. But since I don’t really want to become a book reviewer by trade, I’d love to see you all chime in as well. What are you trying to read? What did you set aside? What’s the latest wall-banger, or what’s got you staying up past your bedtime? Inquiring minds want to know, and fall is prime getting-back-into-the-TBR pile for many of us. Share your finds with the world! Thoughts? Janny

Monday, September 10, 2007

WOW, WOW, and WOW again

Talk about a pertinent addition to our conversation! Just stumbled upon this today while browsing Google looking for...well, you can probably tell what I was looking for, and if not, I'll be glad to elucidate after we do this Required Reading for the day. I couldn't have said this any better, British or not. It's just a pity that even though he gave this presentation some time ago, that so much of it, alas, is still true... But read this. It's long, but trust me, it's worth it. In spades. And if you've a heart to do so, share it. It's worth the trip. Awesome, awesome, awesome, and Amen! Janny

Monday, September 03, 2007

Wanted: a little unreality, please

For a long time, we in the Christian fic biz have been talking (and talking and talking!) about the idea of writing “real” people, “real” characters, and “real” stories. Stories that reflect the way real Christians—or even non-Christians—live in the real world. Stories in which people can be weak, sinful, or maybe don’t even all come to salvation at the end (I know, I know, just deal with it :-)). For too long, we’ve put up with stilted vocabulary, avoidance of “euphemisms” that are so strict they’d make a Pharisee blush, and “no-nos” all over the board—prohibitions on a glass of wine at dinner, on a divorced hero or heroine, on single parents, on dancing, playing cards, movies, or gambling. This is, of course, in addition to the standard prohibitions on excessive violence (and the definition of that is subjective), sexual tension for its own sake, and a list of other land mines that seem to largely depend on which publisher you’re asking and what time of day it is. (!) But is “reality” in our books actually what we need more of? I might have said an unqualified “yes” just a few months ago. Now, I’m not so sure. I think what we’re after is “authenticity”—but that isn't the same as “reality” with all its bumps, grinds, spills, crises, depravities, and seediness. Because, you see, I don’t read fiction to learn more about the real world—I have a real world I live in every day (!), and if I need to learn more about those nuts and bolts, I can read enough nonfiction to choke a horse. But I read fiction for escape. For that lovely, delicious period of time suspended in someone else’s world, not as an eager student, but just as an observer. A fellow-traveler, if you will. For those purposes, more and more lately, I’ve found myself wishing that more Christians took that aspect of “unreality” a little more to heart. You know the kind of “unreality” I’m looking for: Vivid words. Compelling people. Deep emotions. In other words, just a plain good story. Not one with a “message” you hope I’ll get…so you hit me over the head with it. Not one that’s a “ministry” or a “tool to reach the unsaved.” Not one that shares “a spiritual truth the author needs to learn.” If you start out writing fiction with those things in mind, you’re already cheating. Because, gentle writers, fiction isn’t the place to preach. It’s not the place to pontificate. It’s not the place to tell me your version of the world is the correct take, and if I’ll just ask Jesus into my heart…. ENOUGH, already. You want to preach, write tracts. Not fiction. On the other hand, if you’re really brave—really authentic—you’ll share a story with me. And that’s a whole ‘nuther ball game than writing “to reach me” in some way. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be a certain kind of story. I love sweet, and I love sinister. I love urban, and I love homespun. I love city, and I love country. I love suspense, and I love soothing. I want my stories uplifting overall, but if I'm reading a Christian author, I'm going to assume they believe in the fundamental triumph of good over evil, so nihilism really isn't the problem. But the sensation I get that some authors are hiding their authenticities behind the So I would challenge my fellow authors out there not to be “real” so much as to be authentic. That is what we're looking for as readers, isn’t it? If your story is authentic, it’ll take me where I want to be—which is in that lovely, delicious place that is someone else’s world, just for a few hours. Just for a few hours, it will give me the break from what’s sometimes a harsh reality here in the vale of tears. (Gotta love us Catholics and our Purgatorial mindsets. :-D) But best of all, if you obey the rules of authenticity in your storytelling…you’ll get all the rest of the “spiritual” stuff across as well. It’ll be there. Trust me, I’ll find the treasure you put there—or, even better, I’ll find some other treasure of my own. If we need any more proof that what we need to do is tell stories, just think about Jesus versus his cousin. John preached. Jesus told stories. Of course, there’s a place for both of these things…but the Man whose words we can read every day of our lives and get something new out of them every time isn’t the man who preached; it’s the One who told stories. Most of those stories Jesus told were “unreal”—fiction—in that they weren’t told about knowable people that anyone could point to and say, “Nyah, nyah, the preacher’s talking about you, buddy.” No, they were posed more along the lines of “a guy goes into a bar, and…” And yet they’re among the most authentic stories you’ll ever hear, and stories that stay with you all your life. Seems to me we could do a lot worse than aiming for that brand of “unreality.” Thoughts? Janny

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Beyond Imagining

Last week, I gave a coworker a copy of Voice of Innocence (commonly known among the cognoscenti as “the Lachlan book”) to take home and read. This during a time when no agents or editors have this latest incarnation, nor do I have a list of agents and editors ready to look at it. I’ll get to that list as I go; work has been a real energy-drain of late, trying to get an encyclopedia out into production and having it take way too long. But it also dawned on me that there’s a reason for a certain inertia in the submission and resubmission and querying and requerying process. One name for it might be fatigue. Or, taken to its extreme…a kind of despair. I discovered this, interestingly enough, when the coworker wrote me a quick note after she’d sneaked a look at the first 10 pages of it (there’s a strong temptation to having a manuscript on one’s desk!). Her e-mail simply said, “WOW!” And it took me almost completely by surprise. Now, why should praise for a work that is the Book of My Heart take me by surprise? Don’t I know that story is horking good? Don’t I know that, placed up against much of what’s already on the shelves, this book would—pardon my French—kick ass? Well…no. Frankly, I don’t. Not at the level I need, or want, to have a handle on. This isn’t false modesty talking. This is the realization by a battle-scarred veteran that it’s been a long time since a story that really matters has provoked a “WOW!” out of anybody but perhaps, maybe, a minion or two. And when I got that WOW, it brought home to me all over again the value of fresh eyes. And how fresh mine aren’t. And how much that’s hurt me over the past few years. I’m not talking so much about a lack of self-esteem when it comes to writing. I’m talking about something deeper, something much more pernicious and pervasive and destructive. I’m talking about, for all intents and purposes, the loss of hope. And I didn’t realize how much I’d lost hope until Gina was jumping up and down with glee about how great this book was, and how we HAVE to get it published, and we’re GOING to get it published, and all we need is a plan.... The sad thing is, there was a time when I was right on that bandwagon with her. You know, when I was seventeen and idealistic (and twenty-four and idealistic, and thirty and idealistic), I knew I was going to make it as an author. When I married, my husband supported me in this, to the point where we darned near lost everything because we were convinced that my big break was just around the corner, so I stayed home with the kids and I wrote and I entered contests and… ….and I got broker and broker, until I finally had to go out and get a day job. That can, and does, feel like a failure to many of us. It’s not, but it does cause a little part of that big, bubbly, sparkly optimistic hope we have inside to break off and fade away. Because we’ve had to “give in” on at least one front. Then we go and join writing groups, so we’ll get “tough” and “businesslike.” And learn what “real writing” is. And we get our words chewed up and reassembled and spat back at us. A lot of that is necessary. A lot of it is good learning. But a lot of it also means that we “give in” on some additional fronts. We start learning about guidelines, and we “give in” on some of the ideas we have that “won’t sell.” We learn about the market, and about dos and don’ts of certain publishers, and we “give in” and clear our writing of some of the taboos. And each time we do these things, it breaks off additional little pieces of our original, fresh, heart-thrumming work…and more of that big, bubbly, sparkly dream we have starts to fade at the edges. Then, the miracle happens. We win a major award, as I did. And we think we’ve made it. We’re sure we’ve learned the secret handshake now. It’s going to happen. That dream is at last going to come true. We can taste it, it’s so close. We can smell the ink on the contract. And then we call an editor who supposedly has our award-winning manuscript on her desk, only to learn that she has to go track it down “at the bottom of a pile” in one of the publisher’s spare rooms. After that publisher, and that editor, specifically asked for that manuscript. At that point, not only does our big, sparkly bubble of optimism break…but we can find ourselves not knowing how to make more bubble formula so we can blow another one. Yeah, that’s how the business works. But that, my friends, is also a large section of the yellow brick road to writer despair. No, it won’t kill a career. And, no, it won’t kill a writer. Or will it? You see, I’ve been doing all the “right things” for so long now, and getting soooo close for so long now—but never really making it—that I have wondered, more than once, what the use is of continuing. Statistically, maybe I haven’t done the work necessary to “quit” by some people’s standards, and certainly even by my own former ones. And when asked if I’m going to quit writing, the answer is usually no. But when I got that reaction from my coworker, I realized to my horror that I’ve already quit something far more important… I’ve quit believing. I am to the point where I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around the idea of success as an author anymore. I honestly don’t think about writing day and night—not so much because I have no energy to do it (which is partly true), but because part of me is sick and tired of watching the words flow onto the page, getting good feedback, getting close…but never seeing the work get out there where someone else other than a handful of people is ever going to see it. I have rights back to a book that never had a chance to begin with, and I have bits and pieces of other books that have promise but have been through so many wringers themselves that they’re almost unrecognizable. In the process, I as a writer—and as a potential author—have been through my own wringer, one I have only just begun to glimpse the damage from. And it’s a sobering sight. The truth of the matter is, much as I have put on an enthusiastic “plugger” face to the world, in my heart of hearts I no longer recognize much more than the dimmest possibility that this one, beautiful, emotional, socks-knocking book of my heart will have any better of a chance than any of the bits and pieces I’m trying to cobble together. And if something that you love passionately doesn’t have a chance…what’s the hope of all the rest of it? In short, what’s the point? To entertain myself? I can think of easier ways to do that. To have a rollercoaster emotional experience? I’m a Cubs fan. ‘Nuff said. I’m not a big believer in whining as a creative endeavor. Nor, overall, do I enjoy reading other people’s whining. But I don’t believe that this realization—this sensation of “You know, I truly cannot imagine selling this wonderful book…it’s beyond my comprehension that anyone’s going to actually buy this before I die...and that's scary”—is whining. I think it’s something way bigger than that. I think it’s something more of us suffer from than any of us want to admit. And one of us is tired of putting on the happy face and pretending otherwise. What I’m going to do about this is still an open question. Because the one bright light in this tunnel is…this coworker has a contact at one of the major publishers I would just about sell my teeth to get into. So her idea is she reads this book and we mount an offensive to get it through the door, by means of the friend she’s already made at this big house. But somewhere in the pit of my stomach, this feels like the last hope this book has. And somewhere also in that same pit is an awful certainty that “that trick isn’t gonna work any better than any of the other routes I’ve already tried.” I don’t want to become the Augustinian and take on the attitude, “I never expect anything, so then I’m never disappointed.” I believe, quite frankly, that that’s self-deception. That’s saying what I’m saying above, but refusing to admit that it hurts. That's another kind of death, and I don't want to go there. I want to keep feeling. And believing. So the scary question has now become…how? Thoughts? Janny

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hearing is Believing...Or Is It?

This may be significant, or it may mean nothing. But it got my attention, so see what you think. To wit: Recently, I heard yet another of the many paeans of praise, after the fact, for The Sopranos. Now, I never watched the show for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that if I want to spend a couple of hours a night listening to the “f” word, I can do it through myriad means online, anytime. (Spare me the arguments about “That’s how real people talk,” or even “That’s how these people talk.” The real people I know don’t talk that way, and the Mafia do a lot of things I don’t want in my living room. ‘Nuff said.) But enough people around me were fans of it, including a local radio personality who brought up the fact that the reason he loved the writing of the show so much is because of how good the dialogue was. Now did he love it because the characters used witty repartee? Nope. Did he love it because it sparkled, because it “clicked,” because it hummed along almost lyrically? Nope. He loved it so much because it sounded like real people talking. Complete with “ummms” and “ahhs” and flubbed up and misused words. As he put it, “No one else on TV or in the movies does that. All the other dialogue in most things sounds fake. It’s too perfect. People never trip over a word, they never get tongue-tied, they never say one word when they’re thinking of another one, except if they’re going for comedy. But in real life, everybody does that. So these writers made you feel not like you were watching a script, but like you were watching real people just go through their lives, mistakes and all. That’s genius.” It might be genius in this guy’s eyes. But it’s also pointedly, diametrically opposite of the way we’ve all been told to write dialogue. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. In fiction, dialogue should perform more than one function. Ideally, it shouldn’t be just “the way people talk,” it shouldn’t have those embarrassing lapses in it (unless, as the man said, you’re going for a deliberate effect), and it shouldn’t have “ums” or “ahs” or all that stuff. The idea is to make it sound like real people talking…only streamlined. A little cleaned up, if you will. Ideally, then, dialogue gives the illusion that you’re with these people in real life, only it doesn’t waste your time with real-life hemming and hawing. So who’s right? Or are we both? And who’s actually writing people that sound like real people? This isn’t the first time I’ve run into the “dialogue” question, either. My son once remarked that “your characters tend to talk like you do. They sound like you, Mom.” That was a mixed critique at best. On one hand, of course, I was writing people like me: people who saw the world the same way I did, who spoke with a similar vocabulary, etc. I was “writing what I knew” in that sense. In another sense, of course, that’s a killing indictment of a work. If all the characters sound like you, they’re not people in their own right, and that means you have some work to do. My only consolation on this point is that I have lots of company in this fault. Lots and lots of people are guilty of this, and some of us get away with it. I was trying to read a novella once where in one story, I literally could not tell the characters apart. To this day, I can’t tell you those characters’ names or anything about them, because they had no distinguishing “voices” on the page—and I didn’t stick around reading long enough to give them time to develop same. Had this book not been by a multipublished and bestselling author, I would assume, it might not have made it out of the gate. But the fact that it was, and it did, makes the offense even worse. The good news is that this kind of problem is easily fixed, with enough creativity and time spent inside characters’ skins. But the first “problem” mentioned here has me wondering. Obviously, a screenplay can get away with “sloppier” dialogue in the sense that the experience a viewer has is more multilayered; while they’re listening to Tony Soprano come up with a malapropism, it’s a part of the total viewing experience. I suspect we don’t have that luxury in books, where the flat words on the page have to do so much more for a reader than the words of dialogue have to do on a screen. But I do have to wonder if, because of things like the writing on certain television shows, we’re coming to a point where we’re going to be asked to make our characters, in a sense, less articulate and more “real.” Is there a method by which we can, literally, do both? Have articulate characters speak dialogue that accomplishes what we’ve all been taught it’s supposed to do…while the people still sound real and not “fake” or “too perfect”? Thoughts? Janny

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Thirty Years in the Carpenter’s Shop—Or, Hidden Preparation

Several of us have been thinking lately in terms of “breaking out” in our writing lives. No, not in poison ivy, although it is that season. But in terms of making some Big New Things Happen in our writing and our approach to same. As in, “This will be my breakout book.” Or, “It’s time I broke out of this rut.” Or, “Now that I’ve broken away from this genre…now what?” Some of us get a little panicky at this point, and with good reason (at least in our own minds). Many of us, after all, are of the Day Planner generation—if we’re not being productive (i.e. jumping right into the next book the moment we type THE END on this one), we’re wasting time, and we cannot afford to do this! We “owe” the world productivity for taking up space (!), and we owe our God the maximum output from the gifts we have. (Who can forget Erma Bombeck’s line, so frequently quoted, about hoping that she didn’t have a speck of talent left at the end of her life, because she used it all up? ‘Nuff said.) Some of us, however, get panicky for another reason entirely—the not totally unfounded fear that the writing and publishing world is passing us by. And not because we’re writing to a trend that’s going to be “so yesterday” by later this afternoon, but because we are surrounded by other writers who are selling, some of them at a rate that leaves us breathless. One particular writer I know has gone from getting her first contract last fall to being able to finish her e-mail signature with a list of three or four books already contracted, and another one pending. I get whiplash just thinking about it. When this kind of thing happens, I feel many other things, too. None of them good. I start out somewhere around “Ohmyword.” From there, I go quickly to “For Pete’s sake, leave some contracts for someone else,” and it’s only a short trip before I land somewhere in the skids of “Well, obviously, I missed the secret handshake meeting again.” (Otherwise known as the Slough of Writer Despond.) Now, putting aside for a moment whether I should be rejoicing for this woman (of course) and what’s keeping me from doing so (easy answer, tough problem to lick)…what’s putting me into said despond slough? The fact that I don’t have four books ready to go. To anyone. Anywhere. In any shape. And I won’t have that many ready to go for quite some time…especially since I’m doing some “breaking out” of my own. And there’s the rub. We who experience these jealousies, panics, and whiplashes are both forgetful of, and overly conscious of, the element of being prepared to move to that next step. Laying groundwork. Doing research. Learning new ways of approaching our art. Refilling the well. Tending to our spirits. Resting. Writing. Experimenting. Finding, perhaps, a new creative rhythm and voice. And we forget—or we want to deny—that all of that takes time. Why? In a word, because we’re scared we don’t have that time. The publishing world continually reinforces this notion of scarcity: not enough time, shrinking markets, diminishing opportunities for those who aren’t poised on the very edge of caffeine, ready to leap. Serendipity is amenable to dipping her hand into the magic dust and sprinkling it on us, but we gotta be out there for it to happen. Preparation work isn’t the work that gets us out there. It’s work that’s done within. In our own writers’ caves, if you will. But Serendipity doesn’t make cave calls, and we all know it. So we’re torn. We want that magic dust, and we want it to be the real thing, but we begrudge spending time in a fallow place while our Muse regroups herself. We don’t want to noodle around with six or eight or fifteen or twenty-three or fifty-seven ideas that don’t go anywhere; we want to get right to that magic #412 idea—the one that’s going to be The Book That Makes Our Name—as soon as possible, preferably yesterday, thank you very much, and while you’re at it, yes, I would like fries with that. And make it snappy. Too bad that’s not how craft really works. Success in the writing craft, as in most other areas, truly is a matter of “preparation meeting opportunity.” (And dumb luck, and the stars aligning, and the secret handshake, and…oh, wait. Never mind.) But we need to understand the true nature of “preparation” if we’re going to hit our own dose of magic dust. Preparation is dog work. It’s time-consuming. Sometimes, it’s frightening. Certainly, it’s unpaid. But it’s really, really necessary to take enough time to lay the right foundations. To make sure we’re working toward what our true place, our true voice, and our true niche in the craft is, not necessarily what all the “experts” tell us we “ought to” do. But it’s hidden work. And, at times, it can look like we’re doing “nothing” to get ourselves ahead. As a consequence, sometimes that outside world is going to ask us pointed questions. Or we're going to ask ourselves the pointed questions and worry because of what we think that world is thinking of us. But if we’re truly going to “break through,” we dare not try to shortcut the process. If we doubt this, all we have to do is look at the Lord and Master himself, who took thirty years to prepare for His “real” work. Think about that. Thirty years. How many of us have that kind of patience? That wasn’t thirty years of practice-preaching in pulpits, teaching VBS, or working in a soup kitchen, either—works that, had they existed, would have been good preparation for the life of itinerant preacher and healer. On the contrary; Jesus not only didn’t hang around the synagogue day and night and get labeled a “holy person,” but if anything, He did the opposite: He hung around Dad’s workshop and built tables and shelves and cabinets. Talk about a fallow period! And what happened when He finally left the woodworking tools behind and started calling fishermen? His own hometown pooh-poohed him for exactly the reason that we’re talking about: He was Mary and Joseph’s son, just a carpenter, nothing special. Who did He think He was? Well, of course, what mattered wasn’t what His hometown thought of Him. Or even what He thought He was. What mattered was what God His Father was preparing Him to be. And what He was preparing to be, and to do, was something no one else could do—something that gave life to all the rest of us. If that wasn’t a magnificent “breakout,” nothing was. We, too, can provide our own kind of “life” for people with the words we write. We, too, have the capability to tell stories we haven’t yet imagined. But we have to be willing to wait for them to come. To resist the temptation to jump out of the cave and try to do the Big Thing too fast, too soon, or in a way that isn’t true to the writer God made us to be. We have to be willing to sacrifice the good for the best, something that’s never easy…especially not in what seems to be an ever-more-competitive and ever-narrower world like writing and publishing. But if we can calm ourselves, yield that crazy world and our crazy craft to God and let Him handle it, I truly believe we have a much better chance of finding the wide, open road that we’re meant to walk and the niche we’re meant to fill. It’s a big challenge, but He’s up to if it we are. The question is, how “hidden” are you willing to be? How abandoned to what He wants you to do? If He were to tell you it was going to take thirty years to get you to where He wanted you to be as a writer, would you be willing and able to let Him take that time? Thoughts? Janny