Fiction Immersion

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a workshop on effective characterization. The speaker talked about how he reads books on writing on a regular basis, to work harder on his craft. I came away primarily with the thought that I should do likewise. And I should. But I looked at some of the techniques he suggested, in light of the book I’m writing right now–and lo and behold, I use these very and varied techniques. Without being entirely conscious of them.

I often have a strange reaction when I listen to Writers and Company on CBC: rather than envy or a longing to be on the program, I feel a certain degree of dread about What If I Were Ever On This Show? Because, it seems, good writers know exactly what they are doing, well enough to be able to explain it, to parse it, to theorize and extemporize about it.

This may mean I’m not a good writer. As I’ve said, I do think I would benefit from reading more theory and technique on writing. Whenever I do, I do benefit.

I also think something else is at play, however. And that is a combination of osmosis and intuition. Osmuition, if you will.

What I read, constantly and voraciously, is fiction. I read nonfiction and memoir occasionally, particularly if there’s a good story in it, but I read fiction at about the same rate and frequency as I eat meals. I live a kind of fiction immersion. Like other immersions–I think of French or other languages — there is something that is caught more than taught, just in the process of letting it wash over you. (Again, I feel a need to emphasize that it isn’t either/or; that I know that the workshop speaker reads and reads all sorts of fiction, that all good writers do.)

When it came to parenting, I actually read very little theory–until I needed it. I know people who were paralyzed by conflicting Parenting Experts, people who disobeyed their gut instincts to follow said experts. I didn’t want that to happen to me and my kids, and I don’t want it to happen to me and my writing.

Listening to my gut has stood me in good stead on a number of occasions, in life, and also in story. I listen really hard to dialogue, to characters, to plot, to story arcs. I listen for what rings false — in someone else’s writing or my own.

Fiction immersion makes me think of what I read once about anti-counterfeiters: that what they do mostly is study intently genuine legal tender so that when a bill is in question, they immediately know whether it matches that thing they know so well or not.

How about you? When you read or write, are you informed more by theory or by intuition?

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On Endings

This one is a small observation: Lately I’ve been walking my dog in a cemetery. Like a park, a cemetery is a generally quiet and beautiful place to walk, but for a name lover and story lover like me, the cemetery has something extra. Our particular cemetery has a lot of Wilheminas and Augusts, Ottos and Conrads. There is one family that has a John Fitzgerald, born in 1964 and a Jacqueline in 1965. There are tiny lamb tombstones where the year of birth and death are the same. There’s one man who lived to 101 and another where either the death date is missing or there’s a 140 year old man out there somewhere.

But here is the thing that has been striking me most lately: the people who died in the summer of 1918 and those who died in 1944. Because they didn’t get to find out how it ended.

I suppose that could be true of any death; there is always unfinished business, things left undone or unknown, but there is something distinctive about dying in the midst of a particularly dramatic narrative (and I don’t mean those who died in service). Whether in life or in fiction, things happen one after another, but in a good story — whether true or false–there’s a clear story arc with a beginning, middle and end. There’s a drive to keep going, to stay up late to read to the very end (I did that myself with a book last evening). A good book doesn’t tie up every single loose end any more than the end of a war ties up every loose end, but the central narrative that compels the reader forward provides a kind of catharsis And that is what the people who died just a bit too early in the wars missed. They may have died, glad to escape each day’s horrible news. They may have died oblivious to the fact that there ever was a war. But they may have died, still waiting for the end of that particular story.

As a writer, it reminds me of my responsibility to take the reader to the end of the story, and to take them there well. The book I read last night will remain nameless, because it’s caused a hue and cry in the time it has been out, because while it takes the reader to the end, it doesn’t do so well. The ending is a bit contrived and rushed; it doesn’t quite fit with the story that came before and the characters do things the characters would not do. Sometimes, even getting to the end is a disappointment.

I’m interested in what you think about endings. What do you need from a good ending? What leaves you disappointed? What satisfies you as a reader?

 

The Proof is the Proof is the Proof

There’s a story I heard once that I like to believe–and tell. It is said that when a group of Mennonite women get together to make a quilt, they use their very best skills. They choose colours that please the eye. They make designs of lovely symmetry. They stitch nearly invisible stitches.  And then they deliberately introduce a mistake.

They do this, I’ve been told, to remind themselves that only God is perfect.

I remind myself of this story whenever I’m at the proofreading stage of a project. Like today. Today I sent in my final proofreading of the new version of Seeker of Stars. There weren’t many things I needed to catch–but I wonder: did I catch them all?

The eye often corrects for meaning. You’ve probably seen this interesting paragraph before:

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghi t pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

Given that most of us can apparently sort out this garbled mess for meaning, it adds to my anxiety about whether or not I’ve found all the typos and errors in my manuscript. Only God is perfect, but I find errors in a book annoying–especially if that book is mine.

Someone I once worked with at an advertising firm said that one way to proofread is to read lines from right to left, to  take the meaning of the sentences out of the equation. I’ve tried this approach but I always find it hard to actually do. What works better for me is a good cup of coffee, a strong pair of reading glasses and the willingness to pay constant attention  to every punctuation mark and word. (Which is really what a writer needs to do at some point anyhow, isn’t it.)

One nice thing for this writer is that even though I’ve read this story a thousand times by now, my slow proofreading read was still enjoyable. I still like these characters and this story, and I enjoy going on a journey with them every time. Comma by comma. Word by word.

I hope you will too.

Well, this is cool

Seeker of Stars was first published in 2005 by a small Canadian publisher. When it eventually went out of business, the stock of books and the copyright all reverted to me. While technically the book became a Canadian bestseller (the benchmark for that is shockingly low!), I still had about 45 copies of the initial print of 1200 left in a box in my closet when Cook picked this book up.

A few weeks ago, in conversation with a publicist and marketing person at Cook, I asked what I should do with the remaining books. The new version is new and improved — a new cover, new edits, speedbumps smoothed out, that kind of thing. I wondered whether I should simply recycle the old ones. They suggested, instead, that I donate the books to people who could never buy a copy.

That was an interesting challenge. I approached a friend who works with new refugees to our city, asking her whether she thought it would be a good gift for them. She asked to read the book first: they have to be careful not only that the language isn’t too daunting for a new speaker of English, but also that the books they offer would re-traumatize people who have been through enough crisis already. She decided to take a few copies for those who speak English better, but she also had another idea for the rest.

Last year, she had gone to visit refugee camps in Rwanda, to see one of the places the refugees she works with, to understand where they come from. Last week, she wrote to me: “I’m remembering the high school kids in the refugee camp in Rwanda.  The country has recently switched to English instead of French as their national language and the high school classes we interacted with had teachers who were fluent in French and just beginning to learn English, with NO resources.  They were begging for English books and dictionaries, and I can see your book being a real gift to them.”

She contacted the organization that works with this particular refugee camp, and they were indeed delighted. They plan to use the book for a kind of book club among the high school students.

Cool, eh?

 

PS 24 days until book launch in US/Canada.

How I Came to Write Seeker of Stars

On September 11, 2001, I dropped my oldest son off for his first day of kindergarten and came home to find out that two family members who lived in NYC had nearly been in the tragedy three times over.

It was nearly a year later when I finally had a chance to process this – my husband took our three very young children overnight and I went away by myself to a small cottage. After a good sleep and a good cry, some walks and some reading, I sat down the next morning, intending to do a bit of writing for our church – a little Christmas play about the various characters of the Christmas story – and a boy fascinated by stars walked into my mind.

I wrote non-stop for four hours and when I heard a horn honk and saw my kids tumble out of the car to pick me up, I realized I had only scratched the surface. I was almost superstitious about the story, fearing if I talked about it, it might spill away, but I wrote it over the next year in the evenings and occasional afternoons.

Being Stuck

I remember very clearly the day it happened and exactly where I was. It was a rainy, late October afternoon. I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of the local rec centre. My kids were home with a babysitter and I was staring out bleakly at the ruins of an old factory, wondering whether I could get out of the place I was in, knowing perhaps I could not.

My story was stuck. And it was stuck in a particular place: between fiction and fact. I was writing this memoir of one of the magi and I had been freely composing the story, imagining what would make someone go off in search of a star. I had been writing for months. I had found the story’s voice and I knew my characters well.

But now they were approaching the biblical narrative. They were actually on the journey to Bethlehem, in the desert, getting all too near Jerusalem where they would — so the story tells us — meet Herod.

Every day we have to line up lots of things–the two sides of a zipper; a car within the lines of a parking lot space; a screw and a screwdriver–and many of us do it without thinking. I’ve never been great at this kind of hand-eye coordination. It takes a fair bit of sticking my tongue out in concentration to make sure I get those two parts together.

But lining up fact and fiction is harder still. I wondered whether I could even do it at all, whether my story should trail off just as we got to the historical record, whether I should simply insert Matthew 2:1-12 and leave it at that.

And then, I remembered something my friend Sheila had said to me many times. Sheila is a brilliant visual artist and art teacher. I would say I was tired and she would say, “write it.” I would say I was frustrated and she would say, “that’s your material.”

And so, stuckness. Writing stuckness became my way out of being stuck. I wrote of characters who felt stuck between the world they had known and the world they were entering, who felt stuck on a long journey that seemed endless, who felt stuck within themselves.

Whenever I reach that point in that book, I always feel grateful because that is the point where it all could have fallen apart and it didn’t. In fact, I think there’s an honesty in that moment of the story that is very real. We’ve all felt that feeling before. And when we embrace it and carry it along with us, our journey can take us to unexpected and unstuck places.

 

What’s your book about?

What is your book about?
Seeker of Stars is in simplest terms a memoir of one of the magi of the original Christmas story. It imagines what kind of person would leave family and country to go off in pursuit of a star, and finds out what happens to him along the way. 

Who should read this book?
Although the subject of this book is essentially religious and Christian, it is not exclusively for people of those persuasions. People of widely different backgrounds have appreciated this book because it is about a real person on a journey who needs to figure out some important questions in his life – about his desires and dreams in his relationships and vocation. Book clubs, Bible study groups, school classes.

At one point, one of the characters says, “There was nothing religious about this. It was holy and true.” That’s what I think happens in this book. Some people have described this book as gentle and kind. Others have said there is a sense of providence hovering over the story – that we learn how God acts in unexpected ways in people’s lives. It is a book that is ultimately hopeful, but not in a cheap way. A friend once said to me that she didn’t want her children to grow up to be religious. I asked my kids about this, whether they thought it was a good idea to grow up to be religious. My oldest son who was eight at the time tried to explain his thoughts. He agreed with my friend – saying religious people are the people who get all bent out of shape by people swearing at school, and they tell them how wrong it is. He said religious people spend all their time hugging God, but he thought we should instead hold hands with God, walk along with God, and be part of the world. I loved this and I think that’s what this book does. Yes, God acts in this book in the kind of ways I have experienced God acting in the real world, but not in a huggy-kissy, offended at swearing, hiding behind him, religious people are good and other people are bad kind of way. I like to think it’s a good story.

Where I Write

Look up Writing Nook on Pinterest and you will find the most darling literary places. There are leather-bound books, ancient wooden desks, windows with magnificent views and, no doubt, Great Literature Being Composed.

Walk into your neighbourhood café and you’ll see people hunched over laptops or notebooks, soaking in the atmosphere as they write away.

Not me. I’m much more of the school of Annie Dillard who said, “It should surprise no one that the life of the writer–such as it is–is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.”

Just as I get lost in a good book while reading it — often emerging hours later with a sense of utter dislocation (“where am I?” “what season is it?” “where is the bathroom?”)–so I get lost in the writing process. But, getting lost in the writing process is a bit more tricky for me than getting lost in the reading process, because in the latter, the book is already written; I just have to find my place again. Sometimes writing a book can be a bit like holding a soap bubble in your hand — you can do it, but it’s fragile and you need to pay full attention to the bubble or it will break. This is particularly true for me toward the beginning of writing a book. Once the characters are really well known and the tone of the book is established, it’s more like finding a familiar rut of a bike path. But still, as any cyclist knows, you can wobble out of that path and end up sprawled on the ground. And that’s why, in writing, I try to keep my distractions to a minimum.

There can be no music that ever had lyrics–or I will sing along, harmonize, get pulled into the story of the song. Often there can be no music at all, but occasionally I put a song on repeat over and over and it becomes the soundtrack to my book. There can be ambient noise as long as it isn’t conversation (so tempting) or so continuously repetitive as to be annoying. A neighbour’s lawnmower for 20 minutes? I won’t even notice it. When my kids were small, a babysitter looked after them in the house a couple of afternoons a week while I wrote. They would cry and make noise, but I knew they were not my responsibility so I completely tuned them out.

For a long time, I used a pen and paper — usually graph paper — and wrote my first drafts longhand. Writing by hand seemed to match the rhythm and pace of my mind. More recently I have moved largely to using a laptop. Either a pad of paper or a laptop can be moved around and I do. I often start at my desk (which is currently a corner of our kitchen table), but then move to sit on the floor in front of the fireplace for a while and then perhaps back to the desk/table again.

I don’t need or want a view. Probably my favourite office to write in was one that was subterranean with a view — if you looked way up — of our neighbour’s side door and wall

How about you? Where do you write? What are your necessities?

Public(ity)

I used to have a recurring dream that I was on the television show, Friends. I was always an actor, rather than a character. (Even in my dreams, I knew it wasn’t a real world.) I would interact with the other actors, just off-stage, people my subconscious apparently felt I knew from their weekly appearances on my television set.

This dream comes to mind as I think about what it means to be oneself in public, on social media, in the world. Where are the boundaries? What is kept private? What can be shared?

I’m thinking about this for two reasons. A blogger I have followed for years has had some bad things happen in her life and has pulled back from what used to be seemingly transparent sharing of her entire life — and there has been fallout from some of her faithful followers. The second reason is that my book Seeker of Stars is about to be published by David C. Cook Communications. This is, of course, tremendously exciting, but it also comes with attendant need for the creation of a public persona. I’m reminded of the photo that went around on Facebook a few months back, that said: Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.

(And look what happened when Ben Affleck decided to take that advice.)

I stopped blogging regularly after a few weird things happened last year. But there have been many times when I have wanted to blog: to share my thoughts and ideas. And now, I feel that I really am obliged to do so.

But how would Batman blog?

I realize he would not blog as Bruce Wayne, that there is indeed something valuable about a mask. It isn’t all trickery and falsehood to be oneself online and not one’s whole self, warts and all. I don’t even mean by this that I think I should simply put my best foot forward, but rather that in the same way that we don’t always answer the question “How are you?” with a brutally detailed answer, so we can shape our public persona to our audience.

You don’t really want to know what aches or hurts (ok fine, it’s my neck) so much as you want to be let into the creative process, to know how a book comes into being. I have a friend who is pregnant and we talked this week about the fact that every single baby is an extraordinary miracle. In a different way, a book or any other piece of art is a miracle too. Because only occasionally is a piece of art commissioned like a school assignment. More usually it’s something the writer (or artist) does on his or her own, quietly, with something internal motivating them.

And that’s what I want to tell you about: how books come to be and how my particular book(s) come to be. I might tell you about some of the angst and the joys, but more than that, the nuts and bolts of the writing and editing and publishing and yes, publicity processes.

So, help me out a bit. Let me know: what do you want to know?