Monday, July 30, 2012

Elementary truths

Last week I taught 90 5-12 year-olds at our church's vacation bible school -- July Jamboree -- instead of my normal population of young adults and adults.  It was a change of pace to teach younger children.  They would come into my bible lesson room in groups of 20-25, with their crew leaders, and sit on the floor, waiting for something interesting to happen or something fun to do.  Their favorite day was when my son played Lazarus, and hid in the "tomb" (big freezer box) until Jesus (me as narrator) called out "Lazarus come forth."  Then my son burst out of the box, with his grave clothes clinging to his newly resurrected body. They loved that!

Every day there was a central truth, a simple yet profound truth that was the whole point of the lesson.  But a funny thing happened as I was teaching the kids.  I re-learned this primary lessons myself.  And for that I thank God.

Day 1:  God is with you
Day 2:  God cares for you
Day 3:  God will meet your needs
Day 4:  God will save you
Day 5:  God hears you when you pray

I had the kids come up with hand motions to the memory verses, and I liked what one group came up with for "cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you" 1 Peter 5:7.  They pretended to cast out with a fishing rod.  That's a great image, but my problem is I cast my anxiety on the Lord, then I reel it back in!

I am reminding myself of these central truths, and learning, again, to trust God.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Rejected in good company . . .

So I sent out four queries so far, and have received three rejections.  One agent has not yet replied.  I'm surprised by the speed of the replies so far, only a day or two each.  At least they're not keeping me in suspense.

I take solace in knowing that other best-selling manuscripts were rejected numerous times before someone saw some value in them, and decided to represent the author, or the publisher took a risk and published the manuscript.

The Help was a very good book, and a good movie as well.  If you haven't read the book, I encourage you to do so.  I wrote about the book in an earlier blog entry.  The author, Kathryn Stockett endured 60 rejections from agents before she found someone willing to represent her.

In her own words, here is how Kathryn Stockett dealt with the rejections:

"But I couldn’t let go of The Help. Call it tenacity, call it resolve or call it what my husband calls it: stubbornness.  After rejection number 40, I started lying to my friends about what I did on the weekends. They were amazed by how many times a person could repaint her apartment. The truth was, I was embarrassed for my friends and family to know I was still working on the same story, the one nobody apparently wanted to read."

Well, a lot of us did want to do read it, and enjoyed it very much.  And I, for one, am thankful she didn't give up.

John Grisham is another author I enjoy reading, but if he hadn't persevered through 45 rejections of his initial book, A Time to Kill, none of us would have had the pleasure of reading his books. So I feel I'm in good company.

So I'll slog on, despite rejection notices that say things like "This is not for me, but thanks for the look."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Show, Don't Tell

Every novelist is told "show, don't tell."  In the book I mentioned in a previous post,  Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, "Show and Tell" is chapter one.  It's that important.  So in the spirit of Show and Tell, I'm offering up two versions of one of the opening paragraphs of my book.  Vote for version A or version B.

A:  "This is how it happened.  We were at home -- mama was down by the water hole and papa was hunting.  Our brothers were in the fields, and we alone were keeping watch over the house.  We had just finished playing a game, with stones arrayed in dug-out holes on the ground, and I had won.  So I was happy, and teasing Ledu.  As I laughed at my brother for being so absentminded as to lose to me, a man and woman we didn't know appeared.  The woman approached us, and I was tempted to run back into the house, but another man was behind us.  Before we could speak or cry out, or even recognize the intruders, the man grabbed us from behind and the woman stopped up our mouths and tied our hands."

B:  "Ledu, let's play Ayo" I said.  We were alone in the compound, as mama was down by the water hole and papa was hunting. 
   "Olu, you know I'll beat you.  You must enjoy losing!" Ledu said.
    "No way.  I don't think of it as losing, but as learning how to win."
    Ledu found the small stones we used for the game, and distributed them evenly in the dug-out holes on the ground.  A nearby goat bleated loudly.
    "Don't you need to milk the goat Olu?" Ledu asked.
    "Not yet.  You're trying to distract me.  Let's play."  I squinted my eyes, concentrating on the game, and said "I'm first."
    "Fine sis.  Go first.  Won't make a difference."
     I went first and dropped my handful of stones in strategic holes.  Ledu went next, and I couldn't tell what his strategy was.  Three moves later, I was winning.
    "Well, it looks like I'm winning THIS time," I said.
    "A na-ekwu ekwu, a na-eme eme" Ledu said (talk the talk, walk the walk).
     "I'm talking," I said, moving the last of his stones over to my side, "and your stones are walking!"
     "You got lucky" Ledu said.  I smiled up at him, and then frowned.  Ledu looked at me, and then turned around to see what I was looking at.  We both stared up at two Africans, a man and a woman, we didn't know, had never seen before.  Before we could say anything, or cry out, the man grabbed us and the woman stopped up our mouths with an ugly orange cloth.

Monday, July 9, 2012

State of Wonder

I'm in a state of wonder over the book I just finished:  State of Wonder.  My doctor recommended this book to me about a year ago, and I never found it when I was in the library, so I recently broke down and bought it for my Kindle.  Wow!  Ann Patchett has an uncanny ability to evoke place, which is so important to a writer. 

Good, no, great, writers can evoke a sense of place without ever having been there.  Science fiction writers create whole worlds out of their imaginations, and writers of historical fiction recreate places and times in the near or ancient past.  I found it easier to write my novel after I had visited the places I am writing about.  After my son and I took a train trip to South Carolina and visited several plantations, I could then, and only then, write realistically about the setting.  The setting for the house is one plantation, Middleton, in Charleston, South Carolina.  The house is perfect!  The ground floor is where all the meals were prepared, and the dirt floor, low ceiling, and small storage rooms are recreated ( I hope) in my book.  One can see the river from the back door of the house, so Olu's escape route could be viewed, and dreamed about, every day of her slave life.  After we visited England I could better envision where Joanna lived, and even visited the site of her church and home.

I don't know if Ann Patchett visited the Amazon, but it sure seems like she did from this book.  In the beginning, the reader will spend some time in Minnesota, at a pharaceutical lab, but soon be transported, literally, figuratively, to the Amazon.  Both the city and the jungle come alive in Ann Patchett's able literary hands.  Here is one short passage to whet your appetite.  The main character, Marina, is in a hammock in a raised room, in the middle of the jungle.
                                   "The quiet that was left without her was layered, subtle:  at first Marina heard
                                     it only as silence, the absence of human voices, but once her ear had settled
 into it the other sounds began to rise, the deply forested chirping, the caw that came from the tops of trees, the chattering of lower primate, the incessant sawing of insect life.  It was not unlike the overture of the opera in which the well-trained listener could draw forth the piccolos, the soft French horn, a single meaningful viola."

Not only does she evoke the setting like an expert photographer, but then she offers up the perfect analogy.  Her characters are wildly different from one another, reachable, and yet unpredictable.

It was difficult for me to put this book down, until I neared the end when I kept putting it down because I didn't want to finish it.  There are some twists in the book which make the plot interesting and fun, but mostly it's her writing that makes the book a true pleasure to read.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Writing . . . re-writing

I have heard it said "all writing is re-writing."  Rewriting is an essential part of writing.  I stress this with my students, and now, with myself.  I'm working on the third/fourth draft of my novel, and the rewriting is a bit painful.  My sister, a fellow writer, gave me a great book:  Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.  I have found it immensely helpful and am now busy incorporating the ideas into my rewrite.

Three ideas I have found most helpful refer to dialogue, how the book sounds, and use of adverbs.  To summarize, the authors suggest avoiding anything other than "he said" or "she said."  So cross out those "he exclaimed" or "she mumbled" or "he whispered" or even "she answered."  Why?  The reader should know by the diologue itself, and the action surrounding it (called the beat) how the words are being said.  Apparently, using these kinds of "tricks" surrounding dialogue is lazy; it's cheating.  Well!  So I'm fixing a lot of those.

Back in graduate school, in a fiction workshop, my professor hated adverbs.  Hated them . . . with a passion.  I like adverbs, but they should be limited in writing.  Why?  Again, because the prose and dialogue itself should convey what an adverb would convey.  So again, I'm going through my novel, spying out all the pesky adverbs, and eliminating most of them, but not all.

And finally, see how the book sounds.  So I sat in my backyard today, reading the book aloud.   It helped me to modify some of the dialogue.  Am I allowed to admit that I enjoyed hearing it read aloud?