Welcome to the October 2006 edition of the RelevantProse newsletter! Fall is in the air in Southern France. It’s raining buckets outside my door and the kids are now wearing jeans and jackets. I dried some apples in the oven and felt like Little House on the Prairie. Which reminds me, I need to watch some of those episodes with my kids.
Feel free to pass this newsletter along in its entirety to all your very cool writerly friends. Those who would like to sign up for the newsletter can go to this link: http://www.relevantprose.com/html/newsletter.html
Wishing on Dandelions released two weeks ago. Woohooo! May this fall be the time you refuel your creativity and write that masterpiece!
Mary ******** IN THIS ISSUE: 1. The Making of a Masterpiece Part One: What we can learn from Harper Lee
2. The Making of a Masterpiece Part Two: Time, People, Humility
3. Harper Lee and Promotion
4. Will They Sell God in Their Shops?
5. 10 Common Writing Mistakes
6. I Love to Work
7. Mick Silva Answers Our Question
8. A Very Cool Story
The Making of a Masterpiece Part One
I’m reading an altogether fascinating book right now entitled Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields. It’s a book about the life of novelist Harper Lee. Though, granted, it’s frustrating that Shields has no first-hand interaction with his subject, I am learning a lot about what went on behind the scenes of my favorite novel.Here’s what surprised me. Nelle Harper Lee wrote a novel based very closely on her life growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. I knew, of course, that Dill was Truman Capote, that Atticus was a prototype of her father, A. C. Lee. But so many other details correspond to the story as well: A character that looked and acted like Nelle’s distant, most-likely manic-depressive mother. A poor recluse boy-turned-to-man who was essentially held hostage by his obsessive father (Boo, anyone?). A trial about two negroes accused of murder. The similarities are staggering.And all these years, I felt it wrong to base things so closely to a novelist’s life. I don’t know why I’ve thought that. Perhaps I’ve felt that to truly create a fictional world, one must completely make one up. I suppose that’s why it makes sense to me why I am in awe of sci-fi or fantasy writers. They completely make worlds up! Tolkein created his own languages! Now, that’s creativity.All my life I’ve had this deep longing to create things that no one else had created. I couldn’t bear writing a story someone else had written. I’ve been suspicious of all the Joseph Campbell mythic structures. I wanted to do something new. Something never done before. I know now that there is nothing new under the sun. But I also know that what a novelist does is bring herself/himself into the story in a vulnerable, naked way.It all makes sense now, thanks to Nelle Harper Lee. When Building the Christian Family You Never Had (a non-fiction book released in January) came out, I felt naked. Frightened a bit. In that book, I shared the story of my upbringing. Oddly, though, two months later Watching the Tree Limbs came out, and I felt more naked. More exposed. More afraid. Although I had exposed myself through the words of the pioneer parenting book, I felt my soul and heart lived on the pages of my novel.I used to feel a little annoyed when folks would ask me if I’m Maranatha. I’d say no, of course. Because I want to create something utterly new. But the truth is, Maranatha is a part of me, as I am a part of her. And it comforts me that Miss Lee spilled herself onto the pages of her book; that in a very real sense, she was Scout, telling the story of mockingbirds in the South. Maranatha is my mockingbird. I’ve made her breathe and sing and dance. My soul has enlivened hers.What a deep encouragement it is to me that Harper Lee wrote was familiar to her. That her pen ignited the familiar, bringing words to mythic truths on the pages of one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
2. The Making of a Masterpiece Part Two: Time, People, Humility
I finished a fascinating book two days ago. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields. I’d always wondered why Harper Lee didn’t complete another novel. I blogged about creativity and familiarity over at relevantblog . . . how Lee wrote about what was familiar to her, so we don’t need to fret when we write in a similar manner.
Anyway, this book shed light on Lee’s journey toward publication. I think you’ll be surprised to know . . .
. . . that she didn’t hand in a masterpiece. I guess I had these romantic notions that Nelle (her first name) frantically typed her book in the in between times of life, full of the muse. I see her type the last word, smile, and then march the streets of Manhattan, perfect manuscript in hand, and hand it to her publisher,J. B. Lippincott. I see the publisher ooing and ahhing, the editor saying things like, “Well, I added a few commas, but this thing is beautiful!”
Thankfully, that was not reality. In truth, Nelle was able to write the book because of some amazing generosity of friends who believed in her. One Christmas, in New York where Nelle held down a full time job, her closest friends gave her a gift: money to live on for an entire year. And in that YEAR, she wrote the book. She got an agent by showing her short stories to someone who did film rights, but just so happened to be married to someone who did books.
The manuscript, when handed in, needed a lot of plotting work. Accustomed to writing short stories, Nelle had essentially strung several vignettes together, but without a cohesive story arch. The title originally was Go Set a Watchman, followed by Atticus. Only toward the end of revisions did To Kill a Mockingbird come about. According to the first publication meeting, Nelle’s characters “stood on their own two feet, they were three dimensional,” but the novel had structural issues. It was more “a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” (Mockingbird, pa. 115).
That was February. She resubmitted the novel that summer, but it still wasn’t right. According to her editor, “There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity–a beginning, middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning.” (116). In October of that year, Nelle was finally offered a contract. Once, so stressed and bothered by her book, Nelle read a bit of her book, a page to be exact. She was so fed up, she grabbed her manuscript and tossed it out the window! Her editor told her to go outside and pick them up. Which she did.
She was surrounded by encouragers, folks who believed in her: her good friends who gave her the gift of a year of writing, her agent, her editor, and many more cheerleaders. Had any of these elements been missing, I doubt the book would ever have been written. A year after she first met with the publishers, she handed the script to her former high school English teacher, and then handed it in afterward. The galleys came the following November.
What can we gain from this amazing story?
First, writing friends and other writing professionals are utterly important. We need encouragement. We need folks to believe in us. We need cheerleading when we want to chuck out manuscript to the wind.
Second, Nelle Harper Lee needed editing. After a year of writing, there were serious flaws in her book. Another year of editing, with constant back and forth banter between Nelle and her editor, the book finally took shape. This masterpiece didn’t happen overnight. And Nelle, like the rest of us, needed the keen eye of an editor. (I know an author who bragged that the editor rarely has edits. I don’t consider that something to brag about. Nothing is perfect when it’s handed in. We all need edits).
Third, good writing takes time. It took nearly three years for Mockingbird to take shape. It took one year of day by day labor, morning to night.
Fourth, humility is important. Imagine what would’ve happened if Nelle rejected her editor’s suggestions? We’d be robbed of one of the most influential books of the last century, a book many Americans cite as the second most influential book (after the Bible).
I left the book duly inspired, ready to plug away at the craft. I can trace my writing journey in a similar manner–with dear friends like you who have cheered me on, for my amazing editors who sharpen my dullness, for time to sit in my chair and write, for an understanding that editing is so important.
3. Harper Lee and Promotion
I just finished reading a fascinating book entitled Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles L. Shields. In it, he recounts the life of Harper Lee from childhood to adulthood, from eager writer to recluse.
What caused Nelle Harper Lee put down the pen? Several reasons:
One: she may have felt she could never top To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was uniquely based on people she knew; perhaps she felt she couldn’t repackage that.
Two: As the years wore on, the literary support system that helped create that book collapsed. You can read a little more about that here.
And three: Marketing and publicity sapped the life out of her.
The speculation is that the third reason is probably the case. And I understand. I primarily see myself as a writer. I had absolutely no idea how demanding this year would be. After all, my three manuscripts were already turned in! But releasing three books in a year was far too much on the marketing front. Thankfully, unlike Miss Lee, I’m not Boo-Radley shy. I actually kind of like the limelight. But that same limelight can emaciate our creativity if we let it.
According to Shields, rumor has it that a waiter in NY recognized Lee in 2005 and asked her that oft-repeated questions, “Why didn’t you write another book?”
Shields writes, “‘I had every intention of writing many novels,’ she reportedly said, ‘but I never could have imagined the success To Kill a Mockingbird would enjoy. I became overwhelmed.’ Every waking hour seemed devoted to the promotion and publicity surrounding the book. Time passed and she retreated from the spotlight, she said. She claimed to be inherently shy and was never comfortable in the limelight.” (Mockingbird, p. 285).
So, the cautionary tale is this: Take care of yourself. Know yourself. Understand your limitations. Pace and timing are important. If you need time away from the limelight, take it. Don’t let publicity overwhelm you to the point you quit writing altogether. I wish-wish-wish Nelle wrote another book. I wish she could’ve stepped beyond the demands and sequestered herself away to write, that she didn’t get eaten by the publicity frenzy. But it is as it is. And we authors can learn from her—how to avoid limelight burnout, but more so how to dare to write a masterpiece in the first place.
4. Will they sell God in their shops?
I came across a Scripture today that startled me. God equates Himself at the end of the book of Job with a crocodile, in a metaphorical sort of way. He goes on to explain the wildness of the crocodile, something that reminds me that God is not safe, but wild. But then the Lord says this:
“Will it (the crocodile) agree to work for you? Can you make it be your slave for life? Can you make it a pet like a bird, or give it to your little girls to play with? Will merchants try to buy it? Will they sell it in their shops?” (Job 41:4-6)
And then I remembered the aisles of ICRS (the International Christian Retail Show). Apparently, though I didn’t see them, there were rumors of Praise Panties. I can just imagine the tagline: Are you one of those fearful evangelicals who can’t seem to don various WWJD T-shirts? Well, we have the solution for you. Yes! Praise Panties! Now you can praise God in your skivvies, and no one has to know…
It’s easy for me to point the finger at Jesus junk and make a long diatribe about what is wrong with consumeristic Christianity. But as I read the verse in Job, I have to step back a bit, grab a mirror, and look at myself. To what extent does the book business look like selling God? Or bits and pieces of God? And how am I to blame?
Perhaps it goes back to our message, the message we package between covers and sell to the masses. What is the message? Are we making God our slave with our words? Have we created books that trivialize God? Is God portrayed as a tame, docile serf who cowers at our demands for wealth, power, prestige and perfect health? How have we made God a pet or a toy with our words? And how have we made Him an idol, fashioned Him into what is safe or palatable?
I fear we’ve shrink-wrapped God. We’ve made Him easy to go down. We’ve portrayed Him as a kindly friend who shrugs off our sin and feeds our ego. We’ve made His powerful Word a simple instruction manual–the sterile place we go to pull happy verses out of context so we can be better parents, happier church members, more successful business people.
I fear we’ve lost the grandeur. We’ve forgotten that God is utterly different than us, that He pre-existed, that we are His mere creations. God is too big to be packaged. He is too wild to be pegged. And He will not be sold as thus.
As Christian artists, I pray we can come to the place where we stand back in utter awe, painting God in broader strokes, obliterating Kincade-like renditions of a world that doesn’t exist. I pray we think carefully before we put words to page. I don’t want it said of me that I became a merchant who made God into a pet or a bird, that I made Him a toy to be played with.
5. 10 Common Writing Mistakes
As I critique others, particularly newer writers, I see many things thatcould be improved. Here’s my top ten list:1. Very weak verbs. Was. Am. Had. Were. Would. Feel. Go through yourmanuscript TODAY and kill those terrible verbs. Kill them, I say. Send thempacking. Instead of “He was tired,” change it to “Lifting his arms from hisside took great effort.”2. Prose that is too flabby. We writers are in love with words, so much sothat we tend to flaunt our use of them early in our careers. (I was guiltyof this.) Strong nouns and strong verbs make a great impact. Addingextraneous adverbs and adjectives ad infinitum weakens the structure. Don’ttry to fluff up your writing to impress people. Tell it like it is. Don’tbelieve me? Read The Kite Runner. Hosseini’s sentences are stark, full ofdetail, and have amazing emotive impact.3. Same sentence structure over and over again. He had. He did. He saw. N-V.N-V. N-V. Spice it up a bit. Add a gerund or two. Start with a prepositionalphrase. And vary sentence length. You don’t want staccato prose, nor do youwant insanely long sentences that lose the reader.4. In fiction, starting the story too late. When I wrote my first novel, ittook me 90 pages to get to the inciting moment. I believed I needed to tellall the backstory first. Not true. When I rewrote the beginning, I cut thefirst 90 pages, rewrote the beginning to have the inciting moment first.Then, I shared both beginnings with a critique group and asked which one hadmore emotional impact. Everyone said the second one. Start your story whenit starts.5. Lack of passion. If you’re not wild about your subject, it shows. Writefrom your passion and your words will have punch.6. Using the same word over and over again. Do a check (Go to the Edit menuin Word, hit Find and then type in words like: just, still, had, was, were,am, be, might.) This will quickly show what your pet words are. Mine werejust and still. Terrible! What an embarrassment to see all those pesky justsand stills all over my writing. They were usually filler words. Also, if youare using a cool word, like phantasmagoric, you can really only use it oncein your book. I about pulled my hair out when I read a popular author’soveruse of “conspiratorial.” Ack! And if you use a marginal word like”esoteric,” don’t use it again in the next paragraph or page.7. Overuse of had. When recounting something in the past, use “had” once,then keep the rest in straight past tense. Otherwise, you’ll clutter up yourprose, make it gunky.8. Far too many modifiers. Use a better noun instead of a weak one thatneeds an adjective. Use a stronger verb instead of one that leans on anadverb for help.9. Improper format. Here’s a rule of thumb. Memorize this: ONLY ONE spaceafter a period. Tab for indents (not five spaces). Typically use Times NewRoman font, size 12. Double space. One inch margins all around. Be sure tohave a header. (Go to VIEW in MS Word, click “Header and Footer,” create oneby writing your last name, first name, then title of the piece: DeMuth,Mary, Wishing on Dandelions). Italicize titles. Italicize thoughts. Mess anyof this up and an editor will know you don’t know your stuff.10. The frequent use of passive voice. Instead of “The ball was hit byGeorge,” turn it around, making the subject DO something. “George hit theball.” Microsoft word will flag your passive voice for you, if you enable itto.If you can improve in these ten areas, you’ll be that much closer topublication.
6. I Love to Work
In college, I never figured I’d be where I am today. One thing I knew when I entered and exited: I would NEVER be in business. Ever. Ever.And here I am, working full time from home as a writer (and trying to church plant and raise kids and make dinner and do laundry). A lot of my writerly life is pure, joyful work. And much of it, to my surprise, is business-related. It surprises me that I enjoy marketing. I’m in love with budgeting. It’s all very strange, if you think about it.As I work, I try to remember this verse: “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Colossians 3:23–24). As I write, I serve Jesus. I work for Him. Not for the recognition of men (though, I admit, I really do like praise), but for His “well done.”When I was a stay-at-home mom, busying myself with coupon-clipping and diaper changing and story reading, I never imagined myself in this place, though I dreamed someday I’d have the opportunity to write. I truly was utterly content being home with my kids. Though I wrote when I could, I felt satisfied. I worked hard. Very hard. From dawn to night. In the evenings, I’d fall into bed, exhausted.I still fall into bed the same way, but now my day doesn’t consist of diapers and bottles and runny noses. It is filled with words I string together like a cheerio necklace. The worry I’ve had has been that I’ve loved this word-stringing too much. And although I feel the warmth of God’s smile when I write (as I do when I read to my children or create a unique meal), I don’t want to become a workaholic.In the throes of mommyhood, I had no idea I had these tendencies to burn the candle at both ends. I had no idea I was a workaholic. Not until I met with book deals and deadlines and interviews and marketing did I realize I’m a full-fledged work-lover. I love working!So this year, it’s my goal to learn when to stop. To close up shop when the kids come home from school. To button down my word-fascination for the sake of my sweet family and my Lord who commands me to rest. It’s not easy. I feel like I’ve come into my own, in a sense, through this writing gig. But I want most of all to honor God, to trust Him enough to set work aside, to rest with my family and fully engage.I fail often. I let deadlines get the best of me. I work very, very hard. But I’m learning. And that’s all the Lord asks of me now. To do my work heartily from Him. To trust Him with the results. To serve His kingdom. To wait. To stop. To listen. To move as He gives me the unction.And lay my work at His feet.
7. Mick Silva Answers Our Question
In the August edition of the RelevantProse newsletter, I wondered if editors really cared about endorsements in the actual proposal. Savvy Editor Mick Silva, who works at WaterBrook Press, wrote this in response:
“In fact, I just spoke with a well-known author at ICRS about getting a new author a foreword for a book she hasn’t yet finished. With her, I think we could ensure Sales recognizes the potential and has something to define what the project looks like from a top-selling author. I felt bad asking her, even after she’d been so kind to basically endorse her for me, but this is a new author with very little track record and I don’t want to lose.”
Mick continues: “I wouldn’t be surprised if it is becoming more common as publishing continues to consolidate. Programs get tighter and new things become harder to push through. Unless I can show a certain level of guaranteed sales, beyond the Sales department’s involvement, there’s very little enthusiasm on their part. They’re used to a certain level of author involvement and promotion, and it helps define the strategy for them, since, let’s face it, selling books is a fairly nebulous and all-consuming job. But that’s the reality. There’s only excitement for high return on little investment, and expectations naturally rise every year. At my company (admittedly, one of the largest), an author who isn’t developing a network to employ on their next book will likely soon be an ex-author.”
8. A Cool Story
A funny thing happened a month or so ago. A young woman found my book Watching the Tree Limbs. In a hospital waiting room. You can read the story here. Someone left it behind in a box that said, “Help yourself to a book. Return it or pass it on.” So she read it. And it blessed her.
There is beautiful genius behind Susan Meissner’s Marshmallow Marketing. Wouldn’t it be great fun to place each other’s books everywhere? In hospitals. In doctor’s offices. In airplanes. In taxicabs. What wonderful stories our books would tell. What travels they would take! And, by God’s grace and sovereignty, what lives could be touched.
Isn’t that what we’re all about here? About writing words that change hearts? I learned about this gal’s intersection with my book a month after the fact. It was a surprise, a delightful one at that. But I get even more excited when I think about the heavenly marketing we’ll never see. On streets of gold, we’ll meet folks we’ve never met before who picked up our books in strange places. Who were healed or changed or touched. Together, reader and writer, we’ll bow low to the glassy street, praising God for His beautiful circumstances.
A month or so ago on a plane, I sat behind a woman holding a book that looked familiar. We caught eyes. Turns out she was a Dutch lady reading one of Tricia Goyer’s books! I told her I’d met the author. She said, “I love all her books. They’re all so well written.” She told this to her friend sitting next to her too. What a joy it was for me to recount the story to Tricia…the story of her book flying on an airplane from Nice to Amsterdam.
So, I’ve become a marshmallow marketer. I’m bringing books with me next time I travel. I’m going to pray where I should put them, to whom I should give them.
And I’m going to wait in great anticipation to see what great things God does with my paltry words.
There you have it! Ten pages of single-spaced ramblings for your reading enjoyment.
Enjoy your autumn. Jump in some leaves. And then write a poem about it!