Writing Lessons from "A Christmas Carol": Creating an Imperfect Ending

Monday, December 28, 2015


I hate saccharine endings. I also hate ones that seem unrealistic or tie up the loose ends too perfectly. Yes, miracles do happen, and it can be okay to use one if it is set up correctly. But life isn’t perfect, and no story should end by pretending it is. Even a good love story ends with the lovers accepting each other’s faults rather than making them go away.

A Christmas Carol shows me how to satisfy with an imperfect ending.

In one sense, the story does end with a miracle, because that is what the change in Scrooge is. And we are all happy that the shadows of the future could be changed and Tiny Tim did not die. But he was still lame. God does not choose to cure every illness or disability in this life, and having Him do so here would have been saccharine instead of satisfying.

The Christmas season doesn’t end on December 25th, and the close of Dickens’ story is my wish for you in 2016 and beyond:

[I]t was always said of [Scrooge], that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

Writing Lessons from "A Christmas Carol": A Subtle Message

Monday, December 21, 2015


A Christmas Carol teaches me how to weave a subtle message into a story.

Wait, you say. A subtle message? The message in A Christmas Carol is anything but subtle.

That depends on which message you mean. The values of generosity and kindness and the possibility of redemption are all front and center, but that is only part of the point Dickens makes.

There was nothing politically incorrect about the Christ message in Dicken’s day, but that didn’t mean everyone wanted to read books about it. So he wrote a story that took place at Christmas and extolled Christian values but had a seemingly secular focus. On the surface, anyway. The Christ message was still there, but it was woven into the story in subtle ways. I have highlighted the most important words in these examples:

·         Near the beginning, Scrooge tells his nephew that Christmas has never done him any good. Here is part of the nephew’s response: “But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time.”
·         This passage comes during Scrooge’s discussion with Marley’s ghost: “At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode?
·         After Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim return from church, Tiny Tim leaves the room momentarily. While he is gone, Mrs. Cratchit asks how he behaved in church. Bob says he was as good as gold and remarks on how Tiny Tim says the strangest things. “He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
Dickens couldn’t foresee the future and didn’t know how easily those passages could be deleted from movie adaptations of his story. But people who read the original version still find them there. 

When people are tired of hearing a message or simply don’t believe it, subtle is better. And A Christmas Carol shows me how to accomplish that. 
__________

The picture at the top of this post shows Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim returning from church. It was drawn by Fred Barnard for an 1878 edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The illustration is in the public domain because of its age. 

Writing Lessons from "A Christmas Carol": Show Me, Too

Monday, December 14, 2015


Charles Dicken’s wrote A Christmas Carol during the earlier part of his career and, like any serious writer, he got better after that. Although it isn’t his best work, it’s a great story because it seduces me each time I read it. This desire to read a book over and over is the very definition of a classic.

What keeps drawing me in? Partly, it’s the style the narrator uses to tell the story—as we discussed in the last post. But another big plus is Dicken’s ability to show me what happens rather than just telling me.

At first, it doesn’t carry that promise. How do we discover that Scrooge is a miser? Dickens tells us.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and on his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about him; he iced his office in the dog-days, and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

It’s fun to read this passage, with its rhythm and picture language, but I’m not ready to take the narrator’s word for Scrooge’s character. Dickens must have understood that, because he went on to prove his reliability by showing me how Scrooge acts.

First, he shows Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, trying to keep warm by the embers of one dying coal because Bob is afraid of being fired if he asks for another. Dicken’s shows Scrooge’s attitude toward charity when two men come seeking subscriptions for the poor and Scrooge says he does enough by supporting prisons and workhouses with his taxes. Dickens also shows Scrooge’s attitude toward Christmas in other ways: in a conversation with his nephew and his reaction to a caroler. After all that, we are finally convinced that Scrooge is a miser, and we either pity him or are angry with him for being so cold-hearted.

Dickens produces a different type of emotion when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to Bob Cratchit’s house just after Tiny Tim has died. He shows us the effect on Bob, who is walking a little slower but tries to stay positive for his family, and on his family, who are trying to cheer up their father while dealing with their own sorrow. I know the ending, and I still get tears in my eyes because Dickens does such a good job of showing the family’s grief. He does it without using clichéd actions such as wailing. His evidences of grief are more subtle: a mother setting down her sewing because she can’t see the stiches, two young children laying their cheeks against their father’s own, and a father kissing his dead child’s face.

That’s lesson two from A Christmas Carol. Usually, the lesson is described as “show, don’t tell.” Here, Dickens does both, and it works because he put a lot of thought into his telling passage. But the tell would not have been convincing without the show. So the lesson here is not quite “show, don’t tell.” I’d phrase it this way. “Tell if you have a purpose in doing so. But if you want to make your point, show me, too.”

__________

The picture at the top of this post shows Scrooge refusing to give a subscription to the two gentlemen who called at his office. The illustration was created by Sol Eytinge for 1867 and 1868 editions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The image is in the public domain because of its age. 

Writing Lessons from "A Christmas Carol": A Good Beginning*

Monday, December 7, 2015

 
One way I grow as a writer is by analyzing the books I read. This month my blog will cover lessons from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I’ll start with the importance of a good beginning.*
 
To define my terms, a good beginning is one that grabs the reader’s attention and motivates him or her to continue reading. It doesn’t have to be—and usually isn’t—the event that creates the central conflict, but it does have to fit with the story. For me, finding the right beginning is the hardest part of writing a novel.
 
So what makes a good beginning? Let’s start with the first paragraph of A Christmas Carol.
 
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
 
Is this a good beginning? Or, to ask the question another way, does it make you want to read on?
 
For me it does. It tells me repeatedly that Marley is dead, but it doesn’t tell me why that matters. So the first paragraph leaves me with a question that won’t get answered unless I continue reading.
 
The next paragraph doesn’t do it, but it keeps my attention because the detour is interesting and has its own purpose. Here’s the second paragraph.
 
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefor permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
 
This paragraph sets the tone (informal and conversational) and introduces me to the omniscient narrator. That last point is important because now I won’t be thrown out of the story when the narrator adds something that the characters themselves can’t know.
 
But I still don’t know why it matter that Marley is dead. Will the next paragraphs answer my question?
 
Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnized it with an undoubted bargain.
 
The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.
 
Now I’m even more curious. What remarkable thing is going to happen because Marley is dead? If I wasn’t hooked after the first paragraph, I am by the fourth. And that allows Dickens to take six more pages to fill in Scrooge’s character before answering the question that peaked my interest in the first place. Six pages where I keep reading even though I don’t yet know how those events relate to Marley’s death.
 
So how do you get a reader to keep reading? Grab the reader’s attention in the first few paragraphs and clue the reader in to the style and narrator of the book. If everything comes together, you may have a new fan.
 
That’s the first lesson from A Christmas Carol.
__________
 
* The generic word “good” is often used as a lazy writer’s alternative to finding terminology that is more descriptive. For this post, however, I chose the word purposefully to conjure up the title of Lemony Snicket’s first book from A Series of Unfortunate Events. If you compare the opening paragraphs of The Bad Beginning with the opening paragraphs of A Christmas Carol, you will find some interesting similarities. But I’ll let you make that comparison on your own.
__________
 
The picture at the top of this post shows Marley’s Ghost confronting Ebenezer Scrooge. It was drawn by John Leech for the first printing of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which was published in December 1843. The illustration is in the public domain because of its age. 


Define It

Monday, November 30, 2015


I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on “The Art of Reading” from The Great Courses. I recently completed a series on the English novel by the same lecturer, Professor Timothy Spurgin. While I’m enjoying the lectures, Dr. Spurgin and I don’t always use the same terminology. I’m comfortable with mine because it comes from the many books on the writing craft that inhabit my shelves. The difference in terminology might be the difference between academia and genre writers, but it highlights the importance of defining your terms (which Professor Spurgin does).

Here are some examples.

Free Indirect Discourse v. Close POV*

Dr. Spurgin says free indirect discourse (or free indirect speech) occurs when the narrator borrows the language or vocabulary of the central characters. He uses passages from Emma by Jane Austin as an illustration. I’ve read all of Jane Austin’s books, including Emma, and I’m familiar with her way of mixing language and vocabulary borrowed from a character with a more neutral narrative language. As far as I can tell, this is no different than what many popular writers call close or deep third-person POV. Here is a description of close POV from page 186 of Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress:

Paul’s POV is third person, yet some of his phrases are in the same words he would use in either speaking or in telling his story in first person . . . . In addition, the narrative at this point is inside his head: these are his memories . . . and his thoughts. . . .

At the same time, close third person is not as claustrophobic as first person. It’s easier for the narrative to pull back from the character and include sections of exposition about them.

Scene and Summary

Dr. Spurgin defines scene as dialogue and summary as narrative. The many craft books on my shelf refer to scenes as containing both dialogue and narrative. In those books, scenes are defined more by time, place, action and reaction than by the elements (e.g., dialogue and narrative) used to compose them.** Imagine that a harassed mother comes into the kitchen to discover that her toddler has pulled a carton of eggs out of the refrigerator and dropped it on the floor. The mother wearily cleans up the mess before scolding her daughter, and then she gathers the crying girl into her arms. In most explanations, this is all part of a single scene even though it begins and ends with a description of the mother’s actions rather than with dialogue.

Reliable and Unreliable Narrators

I’m going to end with an example that may have some disagreement even among more popular writers. When discussing the Sherlock Holmes mysteries in the Art of Reading course, Dr. Spurgin called Dr. Watson a reliable narrator because he can be relied on to accurately describe the observable facts. Yes, his physical observations are accurate, but I consider him an unreliable narrator because the conclusions he draws from them are not. Even though we know that he is often wrong and Holmes will have to set him (and us) right, we can still get sidetracked and mislead by Dr. Watson’s conclusions.

* * *

So if you intend to use words and phrases idiomatic to a particular field or profession, make sure you define your terms.

__________

* I mentioned Professor Sturgin and his terminology in my September 21 post on Jane Austin.

** See Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell (pages 113-129), Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell (page 78), Carol Umberger’s essay on “Point of View: Connect with Your Characters” from A Novel Idea (page 75), The Plot Whisperer Workbook by Martha Alderson (pages 39-43).

__________

The picture of Watson and Holmes at the top of this post was drawn by Signey Paget (1860-1908). It appeared in the December 1892 edition of The Strand Magazine as an illustration for the Arthur Conan Doyle story, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” The image is in the public domain because of its age. 

A Thanksgiving Acrostic

Monday, November 23, 2015


Here is a list of things that I am thankful for as a writer.

Thesauruses for finding the perfect word,

Handkerchiefs to cry into when my characters get in trouble,

Authentic dialogue,

Notebooks to preserve ideas,

Kind friends and relatives who don’t laugh at my lousy first drafts,

Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life for those moments when I need encouragement mixed with humor,

Gripping plots,

Imaginary friends (and enemies) who come to life on the page,

Vivid description,

Imagery that puts the reader in the setting,

Nerve to cut out those favorite passages that just don’t fit, and

Groups of other writers to provide critiques, support, and networking.

Happy Thanksgiving.

All Booked Up

Monday, November 16, 2015


This is National Novel Writing Month, often referred to as NaNoWriMo. It started with a group of friends who decided to go on a novel-writing binge and expanded to become a worldwide event.

The idea is to start a novel from scratch on November 1 and end up with 50,000 words by November 30. Not necessarily good words, and certainly not a polished novel, but words on paper or computer rather than just in the person’s head. That’s the goal, anyway. Ideally, the participant will then continue writing and editing and polishing until he or she ends up with a finished novel.

It sounds like fun, but I’ve never done it, and I probably never will. The reason is simple: I always seem to be in the middle of an active project when November 1 rolls around, so it’s a bad time to start a new one. But I don’t mind. In fact, I’m glad it works out that way.

NaNoWriMo is good for people who need to get jumpstarted on a novel, but that has never been my problem. I have plenty of ideas, and I do manage to get them written. That’s what the graphic at the head of this post shows. I have already written four novels, am working on the fifth, and have the skeleton for a sixth. I also have a long list of ideas I can use after that.

My first three novels were Christian women’s fiction, and I enjoyed writing them. But the fourth, the fifth (my current work in progress), and the next idea are all middle-grade historical fiction, and they excite me in a way that the first three never did. Middle-grade historicals feel like my niche, and I hope publishers agree.

None of my novels have been published yet, but my writing gets better each time. I circulated the first two to a number of publishers and agents before putting them in the drawer, where they are now. I hope it isn’t egotistical of me to think that they are as good as many of the published books out there. But I can do better. I have learned a lot since I wrote them, and I may take them out of the drawer and revise them at some time in the future. Right now, however, I have too many other ideas to work on.

The third and fourth novels are currently circulating, so we will see what happens with them. In the meantime, I’m working on Creating Esther. And when I finish it, I’ll move on to the next one.

That’s what I mean when I say that I’m all booked up.* I don’t need a jumpstart, and I’m not going to pause an ongoing project just because NaNoWriMo sounds like fun. It’s also not designed for middle-grade fiction, which is shorter than the 50,000-word goal. But if I’m ready to begin a new story next November 1, I might see how many words I can write during the month.

If you are participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo, keep writing when December comes. Write and edit and polish until your novel is finished.

Because a jumpstart doesn’t do any good if you don’t get in the car and drive.

__________

* Thanks to Dian Kutansky for giving me the idea for the title of this post.

Manufactured Reviews

Monday, November 9, 2015


Growing up, I revered books so much that I was in graduate school before I gave myself permission to quit reading one before I had finished it. Now I revere them so much that I refuse to finish a book that is badly written or boring or even not my taste. There are too many good books out there to waste my leisure time on ones I can’t enjoy.

I don’t want to waste my money on them, either. That’s why I like the “Look Inside” feature and the reviews on Amazon, and I use them both when I’m buying a book by an author I’m not familiar with.

We all know that some reviews come from friends and relatives who aren’t providing neutral comments. That’s why I put more weight on the ones that come from “verified purchasers.” That isn’t to say that all of the others are biased. I sell some copies of my book directly, and those purchasers don’t show up as verified since they didn’t buy the book through Amazon. But the “verified purchaser” label tells me that those reviewers are more likely to be more impartial.

It also helps when a reviewer includes enough information to show what his or her opinion is based on. But even if it was just “excellent book,” I always assumed the reviewer had read it. That changed several weeks ago.

I was participating in a mass book signing, and one of the other participants was trying to increase the number of his Amazon reviews since there are perks to achieving certain levels. He offered to review one of my books on Amazon if I would review his. Although I had already bought his book, he did not have mine and did not intent to read it, so I politely declined.

The photo at the head of this post is obviously manufactured to imply that my books have earned lots of stars. (I won’t say it was “photoshopped” because I didn’t use the Adobe software and I have too much respect for trademarks to use the word generically.) The image isn’t misleading because its nature is obvious. And in case anybody needs more, I’ll be right up front. No, I didn’t toss my books into the air on a starry night and have the unbelievable luck to snap a picture while they were both facing forward. I superimposed my book covers on a photo taken by NASA.

The problem with manufactured reviews is that their nature isn’t obvious and they can mislead potential buyers. I don’t want to be a victim, and I refuse to be a perpetrator.

Honest reviews are helpful, and I should write more reviews for the books I read. But now I’ll be suspicious of every author who has a number of “excellent book” or “great story” reviews from unverified purchasers. Even if the book is excellent, I don’t want to reward an author who tries to mislead people into buying it.

So if you want me to buy your book, stay away from manufactured reviews.

Making the Most of Rejection

Monday, November 2, 2015


All writers want acceptance letters, and I’ve received my share. But it’s the rare writer who isn’t drowning in rejection letters (or tears), and I’m not in that elite group.

Even so, I’m a fan of rejection letters. They tell me that I’m not a failure.

I can see your puzzled look, so let me explain.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, but he did make it practical. He tried thousands of filaments before he found one that burned long enough to be commercially viable. He could have given up at number 10, or 100, or 1000, but he didn’t see those tests as failures. He saw them as successes because each trial ruled out another filament that didn’t work and moved him that much closer to the one that would.

In that same way, each rejection letter is a success. By ruling out another publisher that isn’t perfect for my book, the rejection gets me one submission closer to the publisher that is. I’m not a failure until I stop trying.  

Still, some rejection letters make me feel better than others do. Most, of course, are no more than a generic sentence or two, such as this one that I received in August: “Thank you for submitting your story. Unfortunately, it is not a good fit for us.” That’s the kind I expect, and I’m okay with them. But letters that vary from that formula can be good or bad in terms of how they make me feel.

Within the last ten days I received two rejection letters that had opposite results.

The first was for Mirage, which is a contemporary Christian women’s fiction novel. The e-mail started with the standard rejection language, then continued with: “While it is not possible to go into specific details on every submission we receive, the following list conveys the most common reasons we find we must decline publication.” Then came eight paragraphs describing some common writing problems, with a very brief primer on how to improve each one. The list was clearly generic and not tailored to my story, although some of them are areas where I already know I need to improve. I’m sure they were trying to be helpful, but giving me a laundry list without any guidance didn’t work. I merely felt scolded.

The second rejection was for Desert Jewels, which is middle-grade historical fiction. This was a personalized e-mail from Alyssa Mio Pusey of Charlesbridge. It read like this:

Thank you for your patience while I considered Desert Jewels. You write about sensitive topics like race, prejudice, and patriotism during war with compassion and intelligence. And Emi is a very likeable protagonist, who allows the reader to see history through a child’s eyes.

Unfortunately, as much as I like your proposal, I am already editing a nonfiction book about Topaz. While it is nothing like Desert Jewels in approach, I feel that Charlesbridge’s smaller list can’t support two MG books about the same topic.

I’m sorry I don’t have better news, especially after all this time. I wish you the best of luck finding a home for Desert Jewels, if you haven’t already, and look forward to reading more of your work.

Not only did that rejection letter make me feel good, but I’m going to watch Charlesbridge’s catalogue so I can buy the nonfiction book about Topaz when it comes out.

I also appreciate rejection letters that point out the weaknesses in a story when those letters are tailored to my manuscript. My first attempt at fiction was an early chapter book, which I submitted to a number of publishers. In the JourneyForth rejection letter, Nancy Lohr made several suggestions and pointed out two examples of conversations that were too old for the audience. Her comments were extremely helpful, especially since they made me see that I didn’t understand how to write for that age group. Although I could have tried rewriting the story, I decided that I would concentrate on an older audience, at least for the time being. But that was a progression, not a backwards move or a failure, and I am grateful for the personalized comments.

In my opinion, rejection letters should either be short and sweet or provide personalized comments. Even negative comments can be constructive when done correctly, but they must be tailored to the particular manuscript.

So if you are an editor, either keep your rejection letters short or tailor them to the manuscript.

And if you are a writer, celebrate your rejections. You aren’t a failure until you stop trying.

__________

The picture at the head of this post shows Alice drowning in her own tears. It was drawn by John Tenniel as one of the original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and is in the public domain because of its age.

Death of a Poet

Monday, October 26, 2015


Horror is not my genre. I don’t even read Stephen King novels. But several years ago I wrote a short story for a Halloween-themed Highland Writers’ Group meeting. I recently dug it out for a flash fiction contest and then decided not to enter. Rather than just file it again, I decided to use it here. And since it doesn’t come anywhere near the intensity of a Stephen King story, no warnings are necessary to keep children away.

Death of a Poet
by
Kathryn Page Camp

It was getting dark on the Pacific island of Tongatapu, and the poet lit a lamp before tucking his feet under him. He rested his notebook on his lap, wet the lead tip of his pencil in his mouth, and went back to his writing.

A bird in the hand gave me
The hair of the dog,
And a horse of a different color
Bled like a stuck pig.

Not bad, he thought. Back in the States, he always seemed to have writer’s block. But since he had moved here, the words just flowed. It must be the more laid-back atmosphere.

It was a bitter pill to swallow
As I watched the pot that never boils,
And she held my feet to the fire
As she read me the riot act.

I was at the end of my rope
Until the drop of a hat
Hit the nail on the head
And showed me the writing on the wall.

He lost track of time until he heard the smoosh of the rain on the thatched roof and the plunk as it hit the dirt floor in the corner where the roof needed fixing—someday. Grabbing his drink, he went outside and soaked in the salt smell of the sea and the warmth of the rain. The he lifted his head to watch the show in the sky.

Lightning flashed and touched the earth where the poet stood. His cry was drowned by thunder, and all that remained was a pile of ashes.

* * *

On Mount Olympus, two gods bowed their heads as the clock hit the final stroke of midnight down below.

“October 31 has ended all over the world for another year.” The younger god raised his head and shook his unshorn locks. “Thank you, Zeus, for granting my wish and giving me this one day when you use your thunderbolt to strike down the worst of those who dare to call themselves poets. I just wish you’d let me eliminate many more.” He shuddered as he thought of some of the pretenders still out there.

“Enough, Apollo,” the older god replied. “If you had your way, there would be none left.”

“That’s not true,” the other said. “There have been a few good poets over the years. Homer and Shakespeare and, uhm, ah . . . .” He sat down and started making his list for next year.

I wonder if you’re on it.

Sending Submissions the Old-Fashioned Way

Monday, October 19, 2015


I’m making my second round of submissions for Desert Jewels, and all five publishers want hard copies. One wants the full manuscript and the other four will take a query letter and three sample chapters, but even that requires spending money on paper and ink and postage. Fortunately, the expense is not a problem for me. But what about those starving artists for whom it is?

Once upon a time, postal mail was the only way to send a manuscript. The speed of delivery improved as gasoline-powered vehicles replaced horses, but submissions still cost the writer money for paper and postage.

Today we can send long documents through the ether without spending any additional money. Sure, we have to pay for the computer and the Internet connection, but we would be doing that anyway. And with the advances in security and virus protection, some publishers have realized that e-mail submissions are more convenient for them, as well. So why haven’t the rest reached the same conclusion?

If an editor accepts e-mail submissions and wants to read a manuscript on paper, then the time and expense of printing it off rests with the editor instead of the writer. Still, that may not happen very often. Most submissions are rejected after the editor reads the first few paragraphs (or less), and this initial sort could be done easily enough on a laptop or tablet or even a smart phone.

It also hasn’t been very long since a postage pre-paid envelope guaranteed that a rejected submission would be returned. In the days before computers and printers and personal photocopiers, publishers had empathy for writers who would otherwise have to make time-consuming replacement copies each time they submitted their work. Or maybe the publishers worried that they would lose out on the next best seller because the author didn’t have a copy left to send them. Either way, they found the time to stick the manuscript in a pre-addressed envelope and drop it in the mail. Now three out of the five publishers say they won’t return the submission under any circumstances.

Personally, I would rather print off a new manuscript for the next publisher. What if the returned copy is marked on or dog-eared or has coffee stains halfway through? (Coffee stains halfway through might tell the next editor that the first one liked it enough to read that far, but they also say that I’m not very professional.) I could page through the material, but I might still miss something. So even when a publisher is willing to return the manuscript, I tell it not to. But again, what about those writers for whom money is tight?

I can sympathize with the editors. Researching publishers takes time, and some writers think that free means they have nothing to lose. If the manuscript isn’t ready or the publisher isn’t a good fit, it will probably be rejected. But maybe the editor will think the story is so outstanding that he or she will publish it anyway. (So goes the thinking of these inexperienced writers.) Requiring hard copy submissions and refusing to return them is one way publishers can cut down on unsuitable submissions. But it isn’t the only way. An editor can easily delete any submission that is sent to multiple e-mail addresses or is clearly generic.

Sometimes the good old days had their advantages.

But this isn’t one of them.

__________

The Pony Express poster is in the public domain because of its age.

Is That a Flaw I See?

Monday, October 12, 2015


I spent a nervous Thursday and Friday waiting for UPS to deliver copies of In God We Trust so that I could sell them Saturday and Sunday at book sales events connected to a writers’ conference. I didn’t relax until they arrived at mid-day on Friday.

After they arrived, I inspected them. It was the first time I had seen the book in hard copy, and it looks great. Then I took a closer look at the picture on the front, which I took in Wisconsin in 2010, and my heart sank.

Looking above the chimney on the right-hand side of the picture, I saw a thin line. I must have had a hair on the lens when I took the picture, and I hadn’t noticed it before. There was nothing I could do about it for these first thirty copies, but I decided that as soon as I had time I would remove it from the picture and redo the cover. And once I saw the blemish, I couldn’t unsee it.

At the mass book signing on Sunday, I sat next to a friend and fellow author, Michael Poore. He complimented me on the cover and the photo, so I pointed out the flaw.

Then he did what I should have done myself. He took an even closer look. Where I saw a hair on the lens, he saw a bare branch hanging from a tree. But I couldn’t give up on the idea that I had used a dirty lens, so I noticed and pointed out the dot you can see farther up on the right, just below where the tree branches cross the steeple. Mike said it looked like a single leaf hanging from another branch.

When I got home and enlarged the original on the screen, I discovered that Mike was 75% correct and I was 100% wrong. What I thought was a hair is indeed a branch. The dot is not a leaf but is something (probably a light fixture) attached to the steeple by a long metal rod. But neither of them are flaws in the picture, and neither are my fault.

It’s so easy to see what we think are flaws when they are just part of the scene. I may be convinced that I received a rejection letter because my story isn’t good enough. Or you may think you missed out on that job opportunity because you blew the interview. But maybe the story just wasn’t a good fit for that particular magazine and God has a better job in mind for you. Sometimes we just need to trust and move on.

But now I have a different dilemma. Should I try to brush the branch and the light fixture out of the photo so that others don’t see them as flaws and think I messed up? Or should I trust my readers to view the picture with Mike’s more discerning eyes?

What do you think?

Shameless Promotion

Monday, October 5, 2015


No, this is not a rant against shameless promotion. It is shameless promotion. The updated second edition of my first book, In God We Trust, was released by KP/PK Publishing on September 30, 2015, and this week's blog post promotes it.

Throughout American history, the First Amendment has been a lightning rod for the debate over religious freedom and its limitations within a free society. Intense legal battles have been fought over prayer in school, religious symbols on public property, and the right to speak out when religious beliefs conflict with popular opinion. These battles will continue as society struggles with the degree of tolerance to give organized religion.

Does the First Amendment create a wall of separation between church and state? How important was that concept to the men who created the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? Has the Supreme Court been true to the founders’ intent, or has it distorted the First Amendment religion clauses beyond recognition?

Written in plain English for laypeople, In God We Trust provides a neutral summary of the First Amendment’s historical background and the Supreme Court cases interpreting it. This knowledge arms readers with the tools they need to answer those questions for themselves.

You can find the Amazon.com link for the paperback version here.

The Kindle version will be available later this week.
 
Thanks for letting me engage in this shameless promotion.

Relaxing on the Water

Monday, September 28, 2015


When I was a young attorney, I was assigned to monitor the activities of an outside law firm that was representing my employer in a lawsuit. The billing statements showed one associate working 14-hour days. I had no reason to believe that the law firm was padding the bill—in fact, the total number of hours seemed reasonable. But I couldn’t help wondering if the long hours made the tired associate less efficient and whether she would have done a better job in fewer hours if she had been fresh.

Flash forward thirty years. I’ve been working long and hard revising my very first book for its second edition, which I am trying to get ready for a conference in October. I’m tired and probably cranky, although you would have to ask Roland about that latter part. So when Sunday’s weather was favorable for a sail, I wasn’t sure I could afford to take the time.

Unfortunately, we haven’t had very many good sailing days lately. And with the season drawing to a close, we will probably get in one more after this—if the weather cooperates. So rather than disappointing Roland, I kept my thoughts to myself and went.

If I had remembered those billing statements, I wouldn’t have been so hesitant. There was just enough wind for a peaceful sail, and I came back refreshed. Then I went back to work with renewed energy.

Sometimes I think I don’t have time to take a nap or go sailing. But the truth is that I don’t have time not to do those things. And yes, the double negative is intentional.

Because sometimes the best way to work efficiently is to spend time relaxing on the water.

Jane Austin and Deep POV

Monday, September 21, 2015


As I take my regular walks, I listen to lectures from the Great Courses. Right now I am doing a series called “The English Novel,” and Friday’s lectures were on Jane Austin.

During the second lecture, Professor Timothy Spurgin talked about how Austin improved on the novelists of her day by finding a way to combine emotional immediacy with narrative control. By having her narrator use a central character’s speech patterns and vocabulary, the narrator remains on the scene without crowding the character out.

Professor Spurgin called the technique “free indirect discourse” or “free indirect speech,” but it sounds a lot like what many writers call “deep POV.”

Austin did not use deep POV all the time. She moved between distances frequently within a scene and sometimes within the same paragraph. They weren’t large leaps, but they were there. And if she did it, that gives me permission to do it as well.

I won’t use the same passage that Professor Spurgin used to demonstrate the technique, because that might be a spoiler for someone who hasn’t read Emma but intends to. So instead I’ll use two passages from around the middle of Northanger Abbey

The protagonist, Catherine Morland, is an avid reader of gothic novels. When she is invited to the Tilney’s country home, her imagination turns it into a mysterious mansion with a dangerous secret. Alone in her room, she spots a chest that seems out-of-place. Notice how this passage starts inside her thoughts but attributes them to her by the use of quotation marks, moves outside while still acknowledging her presence by the use of “Catherine” and “she,” and then ends with a totally unattributed sentence that comes from within.

“This is strange indeed! I did not expect such a sight as this!—An immense heavy chest!—What can it hold?—Why should it be placed here?—Pushed back too, as if meant to be out of sight! I will look into it—cost me what it may. I will look into it—and directly too—by day-light.—If I stay till evening my candle may go out.” She advanced and examined it closely: it was of cedar, curiously inlaid with some darker wood, and raised, about a foot from the ground, on a carved stand of the same. The lock was silver, though tarnished from age; at each end were the imperfect remains of handles also of silver, broken perhaps prematurely by some strange violence; and, on the centre of the lid, was a mysterious cypher, in the same metal. Catherine bent over it intently, but without being able to distinguish any thing with certainty. She could not, in whatever direction she took it, believe the last letter to be a T; and yet that it should be any thing else in that house was a circumstance to raise no common degree of astonishment. If not originally theirs, by what strange events could it have fallen into the Tilney family?

When Catherine finally has a chance to look inside, the chest contains nothing but ordinary bedding. So then she turns her attention to an old-fashioned black cabinet that fights her attempts to open it. When she finally does get it open, drawer after drawer is empty. Except one. Back in a corner, as if shoved out of sight, is a roll of paper. Events intervene and keep her from reading it until the following morning. But when she does . . . well, here’s what happens.

Her greedy eye glanced rapidly over a page. She started at its import. Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false?—An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! . . . She felt humbled to the dust. Could not the adventure of the chest have taught her wisdom?

Again, we go seamlessly from outside to inside within a single paragraph.

To some people, Jane Austin was just another romance writer. To me, she was an innovator whose novels are timeless, whose techniques are still in use today, and whose writing teaches me how to improve my own.

Thank you, Jane.      

__________

The picture is a watercolor and pencil drawing of Jane Austin by her sister, Cassandra Austin, around 1810. The picture and the quoted passages are in the public domain because of their age.

Advice to the Research Challenged

Monday, September 14, 2015


As I update my first book for its second edition, I am reminded just how much research it took. So I thought this would be a good time to reprint a blog post that I wrote for the Indiana Writers’ Consortium blog, published on February 14, 2010.

* * * * *

Advice to the Research-Challenged

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, bad facts make readers put your article or book down before they finish it. But over-researching wastes time you could spend writing and tempts you to include unnecessary facts that bore the reader. So how do you find the right balance?

Unlike many people, I love doing research. But I learned long ago that inefficient research wastes valuable writing time. Here are some tips on researching that use examples from my experience while writing In God We Trust, which was originally published by FaithWalk Publishing in 2006. The second edition will be coming from KP/PK Publishing at the beginning of October.

1. Have a general idea of where your book is going before you start the research. In God We Trust was my response to the ongoing argument over the meaning of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. As I listened to both conservatives and liberals, I became concerned that neither side was painting an accurate picture for the general public. The object of the book is to give laypersons the information they need to draw their own conclusions about what the First Amendment means and how well the Supreme Court has applied it.

2. Tailor your research to the book’s goal. I could have researched and discussed the country’s religious history from the time the Pilgrims reached Plymouth, but that would have overwhelmed my audience with more information than necessary. So I limited my historical research and discussion to the years during which the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written and adopted.

3. Select your sources, then use them wisely. Depending on the topic, libraries, books, magazines, interviews, location visits, and the Internet can all be helpful resources. Interviews and location visits wouldn’t have worked for me, but I made extensive use of the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago and of the Internet. I focused on original sources such as the Supreme Court’s written opinions and James Madison’s notes on the discussions in the House of Representatives. Internet research is tricky unless you use sites you know are reliable. Otherwise, use the Internet as a starting point but confirm your information from more dependable sources.

4. Don’t be afraid to go back and supplement your research. After I started writing, I realized I needed to address two federal laws that Congress adopted in an attempt to overrule the Supreme Court. So I found them and read them.

5. Or to leave some of your research on the cutting room floor. Although I believe in researching efficiently, it is better to err on the side of too much rather than too little. Some of the Supreme Court cases I read were decided on other grounds that avoided the First Amendment issues, so I didn’t use them.

Learn to research efficiently, and you might discover you enjoy it.

__________

The picture shows the Harold Washington Library, where I spent so much of my time.

Hidden Meanings

Monday, September 7, 2015


Our newspaper incudes the “Crankshaft” comic strip by Batiuk & Ayers. I particularly enjoyed the Sunday one from August 23. One character approaches another and says, “It looks like you’ve started a new book, Lillian.” But Lillian has decided not to finish it. In the last frame, she explains why: “The author was bankrupt of ideas by chapter eleven.” My first reaction was that it was cute, and that was good enough.

But then I looked again. I don’t know why it took the lawyer in me several seconds to get the deeper meaning, but it did. Then I realized how clever the strip was.

For those of you who haven’t figured it out yet, Chapter Eleven is shorthand for a particular type of bankruptcy proceeding. So when Lillian said the author was bankrupt by chapter eleven, the phrase had a heightened meaning for those who understood it.

Technically, that’s not a hidden meaning but simply a heightened one that not everyone gets. Still, in some ways it is like the picture at the head of this post. If you look carefully, you will find a bird in the branches. But it’s an interesting picture even if you don’t.

That’s how hidden or double meanings should work in fiction. Illusions that some readers will miss work if—and only if—the surface story is interesting without them. But if my enjoyment depends on specialized knowledge or Mensa-level thinking, I don’t want to read it. I recently read a book like that, and it was so forgettable that I don’t even remember its name.

Disney handles this issue well. Its animated films are filled with adult humor that children won’t get. But that doesn’t matter, because the story is also told at a child’s level.

If you want to infuse your manuscripts with allusions that show how smart you are, make sure they work on an everyday level as well.

Because it isn’t very smart to write a story nobody wants to read.

Affirmation

Monday, August 31, 2015


I can’t not write. And yes, the double negative is intentional. I have to write.

Writing is hard work. It can also be frustrating. I may go through weeks in a row when the words won’t come but the rejections do. So it’s nice to get some affirmation now and then.

That’s what happened this last week. The words flowed and I didn’t get a single rejection. (No acceptances, either, but those are rare in any writer’s life, and at least I have manuscripts out that may lead there.)

Each book I write is better than the one before, but the one I am working on now has far more tension and a much stronger character arc than any of the others. And as I finish the first draft, my mind is teaming with ideas to improve the story in the second draft. So I was already on a writing high.

Then I took one of those Facebook quizzes. I never play the games, but I will take an occasional quiz if it looks interesting. This one asked, “What career were you meant for?” The result? Author!

For me, the three Rs are reading, research, and [w]riting. I love them all. Especially during weeks like the one I just had.

All writers—and all people—need affirmation now and then. It lifts us up and affirms our decision to write. Still, I’m not sure how much difference the past week will make in the long run.

Because I can’t not write.

__________

The picture at the head of this post was drawn by Frank T. Merrill for the original edition of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. First published in 1868, the illustration is in the public domain because of its age.

Books as Vaccines

Monday, August 24, 2015


My current work-in-progress is the darkest one I have written—and it’s for a middle grade audience.

I had a short e-mail conversation with my online critique partner about whether Creating Esther was too dark for the age group. She thought it would be fine for public school students but felt that some home-schooled children are more sheltered. The conversation was short because she agreed with my response, and it’s hard to have a long discussion when everyone is in sync.

So what was my response? First, I’ve read other dark books written for middle graders, and I think mine will fit in. Second, I plan on submitting Creating Esther to secular publishers. The book is not being written for the home-school audience, although I hope they will read it. But third and most importantly, all children, including those who are home-schooled, need to understand the real world or they won’t be able to handle adversity when it comes.

I think of these darker middle grade books as a vaccine. Vaccines give you low-grade (often dead) disease germs to build up an immunity so that the disease will not harm you when the live germs come on full-force. In the same way, reading realistic fiction helps immunize children against harmful emotional responses to real world tragedies and heartbreak.

As in real life, every ending doesn’t have to be happy, but it should have hope. That’s what happens in Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. The protagonist’s best friend dies in an accident when he’s not there to save her, and he takes it hard. But then he realizes that his younger sister needs him, and he finds he can go on living by helping her.

Life isn’t all sweetness and light, and children need to know that.

So don’t shy away from reality when writing middle grade fiction.

__________

The photograph at the head of this post shows Japanese American children getting vaccinated at the Santa Anita Assembly Center in Arcadia, California on April 6, 1942. Clem Albers took the picture as part of his official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

Writing as Art

Monday, August 17, 2015


It is clichéd but true that art is in the eye of the beholder. You will never create a manuscript or paint a picture or even take a photograph that everyone loves. But you can increase the number of people who see it as art.

That’s why creative artists learn technique.

When I first got interested in photography, I bought a nice camera. I’m tech-savvy enough that I probably could have figured out the camera and taken decent pictures on my own—pictures like the touristy shot of Maus Castle at the head of this post. But decent wasn’t good enough, so I took a multi-week class.

One of the techniques I learned is called the Rule of Thirds. When composing (or cropping) a picture, you draw an imaginary tic-tac-toe board on the image and place the subject where two lines intersect. The picture above is nice, but the viewer’s eye is actually drawn more to the tower, which sits at one of those intersections, than to the castle as a whole.

By placing the subject at the upper right intersection, the castle becomes more noticeable as a unit. Even better, you see it in context at the top of a mountain.


Or do you? This next picture puts the subject at the upper left intersection and shows that it isn’t all the way up. Castles were actually placed high enough to look out over the Rhine River but low enough to take advantage of the rainwater running down the mountain.


I could also have put Maus Castle in one of the lower quadrants, which would have enhanced the feeling of isolation.

See how your creative choices—and the different messages you can convey—have increased by using the Rule of Thirds?

As with most creative techniques, the Rule of Thirds isn’t a law that must always be followed. Maybe the background is ugly or the subject is so beautiful that it deserves the entire frame. Or maybe following the rule is simply impractical because you can’t get far enough away from your subject to include the context—a common problem when photographing cathedrals in crowded European cities. But knowing the technique opens up your creative choices.

Here’s another example. Sports photographers often use a very fast shutter speed to freeze the action. That’s what happened in this picture I took at a volleyball game.


But what if I wanted to create the feeling of movement or isolate one player by blurring out the background? A much slower shutter speed can create this effect.


Good technique can turn an ordinary photograph into art.

Creative writing is also art. You will never write a book that the whole world wants to read. Not even the Bible can claim that distinction. But even though you won’t satisfy everyone, you can increase your audience by learning—and then using—good technique.

How does a writer learn it? I attend at least two conferences a year and own a number of books about the craft of writing. I also use a third—and much cheaper—classroom. I belong to a good writers’ group with people who know technique and are willing to point out where my work lacks it.

Now it’s your turn to increase your audience by improving your technique.

How Important is Genre?

Monday, August 10, 2015


Most writers choose a genre or two and write within them. There is a practical reason for this: it’s easier to sell genre works to publishers, who have to sell to bookstores. And even online bookstores are more likely to buy books if they know where to “shelve” them.

But what if you want to write something that doesn’t seem to fit?

To use an example from another art form, consider the photograph at the head of this post, which I took on vacation in July. The picture shows the River Aure running through Bayeux, France. I like this photograph, and maybe I’ll want to enter it at the Lake County Fair next year. But it doesn’t quite fit any of the categories for this year’s entries. Nature scenic? Yes, the river and the trees and the flowers are nature, but the buildings help make the picture. So maybe it should be entered as architecture? Although the buildings would make a nice picture on their own, it wouldn’t be the same one.

Since there is no perfect match, maybe I should just forget it. The rules allow only one entry in each category, so if I enter it in the wrong one and it is disqualified, I will have given up the opportunity to enter a photograph that does qualify. But I like this picture better than other options. So should I risk it?

That’s the same question writers face when drawn to an idea or plot that doesn’t fit neatly into a particular genre. Should we follow our hearts or make the “practical” choice?

Fortunately, I’ve never faced this question with my own writing. My manuscripts (published and unpublished) have always fallen within the genre lines. Not on purpose or because of any particular effort on my part—it just happened. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t creative. Many of the great composers, including Bach and Mozart, worked within the musical formulas of their time but still managed to show their genius. Obviously, I’m not comparing myself with Bach or Mozart, but the point is that there are plenty of opportunities for creativity while writing within a genre.

Still, sometimes we just can’t make an idea fit. So do we abandon it and move on, or do we follow our heart?

That’s a question only the writer can answer.