Saturday, June 29, 2013

Building the dream

When I first started this blog back in March, I felt as if I were throwing words into a black hole. Yes, I studied up on SEO tips and got the word out to my family, friends, and fellow writing wizards. But still I wondered: would anyone ever find me here?

This week I received proof that at least one person did. Check out this post by blogger Andrew Grant, "I Used to Be a Perfectionist, But I'm Better Now." I think you'll recognize little old moi. He quotes my post from the first of this month on the same topic—and even says my title is brilliant! Well, naturally. Thank you, Andrew, not just for the shout out, but also for the post itself, especially these words that I keep reading over and over.

"...the antidote for our perfectionist procrastination is to simply do something.  Do something that’s good enough and then do something else and something else and keep on doing something else until, before you know it, you have built the dream."

Another gift this week came from writer Kristi Holl.

I reviewed her excellent book Boundaries for Writers here last month; I keep hearing echoes of it in my head as I face the daily struggle to clear time and "headspace" so I can work on my middle grade novel.

This morning I awoke to find that she'd chosen to write about my book, Spontaneous Combustion, on her aptly-named Writer's First Aid blog. What moved me most about her post, "Nourish Your Soul with Spontaneous Combustion," was when she revealed that she reads part of my book every day before she starts work on her her own novel. That gives me goosebumps, literally, to know that I can help another writer in that way. And it's just what I hoped my book would do when I wrote it. Thank you so much for sharing that, Kristi. It means a great deal to me.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Entertain, enchant, enthrall: the three E's of fiction


The irony of the sermon I’m about to give is not lost on me—the teacher preaching the literary commandment, “Thou shalt not teach or preach in your fiction.” And I’ve written about this before on my website.

But it bears repeating. I don’t know what it is, but working in the field of children’s literature for lo these many years, I’ve encountered a lot of didacticism, also known by the more pejorative term preachiness. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that so many people who want to write for children are teachers, who can’t get out of the habit of writing lessons. Many of my writing students and manuscript clients are classroom teachers, either in the public or parochial schools. [Note: by parochial, I mean any religious school, not just Roman Catholic. I’ve had students who taught in evangelical Christian schools, Lutheran schools, Anglican schools, and even Hare Krishna schools. I’ve also had a few preachers as students, as well as students who taught as part-time volunteers in Sunday or Hebrew school. Why, I once had a student who led weekly devotional programs for Wiccan children.]

Many children’s writers come to their desks with a passion to convey either information or life lessons to their young readers—and let me stress that there is nothing wrong with that. All writers write because they are burning to share something that is important and meaningful to them.

However, when it comes to crafting fiction, anyone who is a teacher or preacher needs to set that particular hat down outside the door. Forget about writing those sermons or lesson plans that feel like second nature to you. You need to remember that when it comes to writing fiction you are first, last, and always a storyteller—which is an ancient and noble discipline with strong traditions of its own.

One of those traditions involves a prohibition against the three E’s. Fiction is most emphatically not about educating, exhorting, or even empowering readers. [See what Harry Potter’s US editor Arthur K. Levine has to say about empowerment in the companion article on my website.]

If there is some topic about which you want to either teach or preach, you can do that in non-fiction. But if you choose fiction as your genre, then it is all about another trinity of E’s. At every moment, what we as fiction writers must do is  entertain, enchant, and enthrall. That’s the goal in every line, every scene, every chapter. Along the way our readers may pick up some information that they didn’t have before, but if so, that’s simply a bonus. And if they are inspired, well, that’s even better.

But if you sit down to write your novel with the express purpose of informing readers, you will bore them. And if you sit down with the express purpose of inspiring them, I can almost guarantee you will fail.

Your task as a storyteller, a writer of fiction, is singular, if not simple. It is to make your story world so real, so compelling, that readers want to crawl inside and experience it right alongside your characters. And then you need to stand back and allow readers to discover for themselves any meaning that there is to be found. You can’t force feed them your passions; you can only cook the food, lay the table, and hope that they like what you've given them to eat.

Think of a novel that inspired you—and then read it again, to see how the author managed that. I’ll wager that he or she didn’t try to inspire you, not directly. One book that springs to mind is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book which I’ve clutched like a life preserver as an Ohio Buckeye struggling to keep my head above the backwaters in the rural Georgia town where I have made my home for years. Though Lee’s novel has many strong themes about racial equality, sexual violence, and standing up for what is right, even when it’s unpopular or dangerous, she doesn’t try to teach a history lesson or preach a sermon about any of that. Instead, she lets us experience all this through Scout and her father Atticus Finch as they struggle through their day-to-day lives in a 1930’s Alabama town.

It’s true that there are many novels for young people that do impart information along the way. Take historical fiction; I’m dating myself here, but how many of us learned about the American Revolution by reading Johnny Tremaine in school?

To take a more contemporary example, look at any one of the many wonderful historical novels written by two-time Newbery medalist Karen Cushman. The author has often been praised for her well-researched, authentic historical detail, so kids can certainly learn a lot about time periods from the Middle Ages to the McCarthy Era from her books. But not a single page in any of her novels reads like a lesson from a history textbook. Instead, Cushman brings the time period to life through lively writing in chapters where her characters don’t act like they know they’re living in the past, because to them, they’re not! This is just ordinary life for them, so any history readers pick up is almost by osmosis, as they are caught up in Cushman’s plots.

Inspiration doesn’t always come in the form you expect either. Look at the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. [SPOILER ALERT: do not read further if you haven’t finished all seven books.]

When these books first came out, they were a lightning rod for debate in the Bible Belt where I live because they center around magic. However, I think there are also strong religious elements in the books, especially in the final installment. Rowling wasn’t trying to preach or to teach in the closing chapters of the seventh novel, The Deathly Hallows. Her primary purpose at the end was to tell a gripping, emotionally-charged story in the scene where Harry walks to his death—a death he freely though painfully chooses, in order to defeat Voldemort and save Harry’s family, his friends, Hogwarts, and indeed, the entire world, Muggle and magic alike. Rowling didn’t try to explicitly teach a message here on the power of love and sacrifice, though that is implicit in every line. She could even have quoted John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (NRSV translation)

But Rowling left the teaching of ethics and the quoting of scripture to others whose job that is. She is a novelist, and her charge is different. Her task—and that of all of us who write fiction—is to put our characters in situations where they are forced to make often impossible choices and then deal with the consequences. It is up to readers to decide what to glean from those consequences. Are they "just" messy, funny, sobering, joyous, or heart-breaking? Or is there any redemptive, transformative meaning to be found therein?

Our job as writers is only this: tell a damn good story. Beyond that, we must trust readers to get the rest.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Catching up on the summer solstice

Yesterday was the summer solstice, and it was an unexpectedly fresh, luminous day here after what seems like weeks of nonstop rain. I ran around like a headless chicken doing chores and errands, catching up after two busy months. That's the reason I haven't posted much here on the blog. I'm sorry for that, but I had a sudden influx of manuscript clients. It's always like that for a writer—feast or famine—so I'm grateful for the busy times, though they are stressful. It's a lot more stressful when there is no work coming in though!

So I used my so-called down time yesterday to drive out to the produce stand at The Rock—though it's the fanciest produce stand of all time. It's set on a working cattle ranch amidst shade trees and lovingly-tended flower and herb beds. I went to get some blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, grown right there on pick-your-own bushes. Later in the summer they will have kiwis and pomegranates as well. Yesterday they also had farm-fresh eggs and all kinds of vegetables. Normally when I go I treat myself to some strawberry ice cream, but even for this ice cream-aholic, it was a wee bit early in the morning for that, so I passed.

I took along my trusty Panasonic LX5 camera with a new optical viewfinder. I needed a break from words for a while, to refresh myself and change gears so I can get back to work on my own middle grade novel. I love this little camera, which has full manual controls and a fast Leica lens, but I've never been able to get used to composing shots using the LCD screen on the back. Besides, it's invisible in bright sunlight. So I found a vintage Voigtlander viewfinder on eBay and yesterday I broke in it. I think it worked pretty well, but judge for yourself.

Today is another gift of a lovely summer day, so I'm going to take my iPad Mini and my wireless keyboard outside and dive into chapter 11! May you find some time today to write, too.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Goodreads giveaway was a rousing success!

I woke up this morning to a cheery email from someone named Cynthia at Goodreads: my month-long giveaway for Spontaneous Combustion is over. Congratulations to the five winners, who are scattered everywhere from Brooklyn to Detroit, from Florida to Kansas to Colorado.

I'm delighted it was such a phenomenal success: 466 people entered, and 216 people put the book on their "to-read" list. What a great way to get the word out!

Now to think of how I want to sign each copy, then wrap them up in bright orange tissue paper, and send them on their way. I hope the book inspires each winner and helps them find joy in writing again.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Seven days left on Goodreads giveaway

Just a quick reminder that there are seven days left on the Goodreads giveaway for Spontaneous Combustion. There is still time to sign up!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Spontaneous Combustion by Nancy Butts

Spontaneous Combustion

by Nancy Butts

Giveaway ends June 11, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Perfection: the graveyard of ideas

When I opened an app on my iPhone this morning to check my to-do list for the day, this quote by Voltaire popped up.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Yes, it’s a smartphone, but how did it know what I needed to hear today?

Writers should chant this line from Voltaire every time they sit down at their desks. I don’t know about the rest of you, but there is this harpy in my head who is always nagging, “Don’t you dare write that sentence down until you’re 100 percent absolutely positively certain that it’s the most perfect sentence anyone has ever written in the entire history of literature.”

And since perfection does not exist—not for me, not for you, not even for Shakespeare or the entire winners’ list of the Nobel, Pulitzer, and Newbery awards combined—when I make the mistake of listening to that harpy, nothing gets written.

Old Calton Cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland
(c) Infrared photo by Nancy Butts

The poet Sylvia Plath wrote this in her poem “The Munich Mannequins.”

Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.
Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb...

The quixotic quest for perfection in our work does indeed “tamp the womb,” keeping us from writing stories that may not be perfect, but are good enough nonetheless to inspire, delight, and transport readers.

The cure? Give yourself permission to write dreck, at least on that crucial first draft. What’s important is that you get the ideas out of you and safely onto the page. Those words and ideas are going to be far from perfect, but you’ll have plenty of time to make them better during revision. And that’s where most of the real work of writing gets done anyway.

So go write something awful today. 

[PS: I got so carried away with this topic that I couldn't keep from writing a longer article on this topic, with some suggestions for how to work around it. Jump over to my website for a peek.]