Thursday, December 24, 2009

Writers Only! Join the Pact

The Ultimate Story
One of the most beautiful ways to celebrate Christmas is to read the Christmas story. Certainly there is a spiritual dimension there that is incredible. In light of this forum, I also thought about how reading the text underscores the power of story.

We know that this post-post-modern generation is programmed to love narrative, but beyond that, I think there is something in our human nature that is drawn to stories because they connect us as readers to others, whether from history, reality, or fantasy. All of this to say, Christmas is a wonderful time to remind ourselves of the importance of Apostolic writers having a voice in the world through the medium of the written word.

The New Year and Those Pesky Resolutions
As we move toward the new year, there will be the familiar talk of new year's resolutions along with the cliched non-resolution resolutions. Despite all that, I've spent the last few weeks truly rethinking my calling and my priorities. Not to get too-dear-diary, but honestly, I'm at a stage in my life where my first priority is my teaching ministry, which thankfully I'm blessed to also have as my vocation. But since it justifies every second I can spare, if I'm truly going to pursue writing as a calling, it's to the point that I'm going to have to make a sacrifice of my time and cut away some areas of my personal life.

Now why, gentle readers, am I unburdening any of this to you? It's because I imagine each of us writers coming to this crossroads sooner or later. I think this new wave of pioneering a path in the creative arts will call upon us as individuals to reassess and re-prioritize our lives around our callings. But also as a community, it will call upon us to jointly hold ourselves accountable to our callings. While I could justify giving up on my writing ministry right now were I going it alone, I am bound to a network of people--we're in this together! I'm blessed with friends who are walking with me down this journey, and it helps keep me committed to you all as well as our common goal. It's encouraging and challenging, and I'm thankful for it.

The Expatriate Writers 1920s Europe
If they could do it....

The Pact
I believe through this blog and the many conversations we writers are having with one another we have established:
1)the need for Apostolic writers,
2)that the market is open to our work,
3)that the only limitations are those we place upon ourselves through doubt or failure to practice, refine our craft, and take the vulnerable step of submitting,
4)and most importantly, we've created a system of support and idea exchange.

I believe that we are in the process of forming a pact--a commitment to God and to one another. This means first deciding within ourselves if we are really ready to sacrifice time and priorities to make this happen. That in itself forces an examination of motives--why do we want to commit to something so sacrificial in the first place? It may necessitate entering a fast to seek God's direction in prioritizing callings. We are not just writers who happen to be Apostolics; we are Apostolics who are called to write. There is a distinct spiritual component. If we are going to launch this ministry and blaze a trail for generations of Apostolic writers after us, we must do so with His unction and direction.

If God Be for Us...
I know I need your help and support--hold my feet to the fire, call me on it when I've gone weeks without writing, share your successes to lift me up when I'm discouraged and ready to give up on this effort, share ideas when you've hit a wall and figured a way over it. We form a pact to walk this journey together. And the beauty is that this is what this blog is all about. It's a pact to all pursue His will, which we believe to be a calling to write across all styles and genres.

Appreciation
Thanks to all who regularly share posts and comments. I for one can say that it is much needed and much appreciated. Happy New Year, and may God bless us each in our effort to establish an Apostolic voice through the printed word.

Appendix
Just read: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
Currently reading: On Writing by Stephen King

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Apostolic Arts Movement?

In 90&9’s year-end cover article, we asked Apostolics of every rank and demographic to evaluate how the last decade changed the Apostolic movement, to name a highlight, and to describe the next decade’s biggest challenge. It’s a great read.

I defined the biggest change as follows: “After virtually ignoring them for our first 100+ years, there is a glimmering interest in unleashing the arts to share the Gospel. There are undernoticed efforts throughout our movement (writing, video, graphic design, live theatre), going on right now. I’m optimistic this will blossom in the next decade. After all, we have the better story.”

Artistic Revival?

Frankly, if there’s a blossoming of the arts within Pentecost over the coming generation or two, I believe they’ll look back and notice the essential seeds for that growth being planted in this first decade of the new century. For that to be true, it will take creative pioneers willing to sacrifice time, talent, and energy toward an end goal without a promise of success because that is their calling. (Yet, how different is that from Abraham’s mad wanderings through the desert because of his calling from God?)

If there’s one truth my recent trip to Italy drove home is that the arts alone provide universal access to anyone interested in story or beauty. Unbelievers cannot resist beauty. That’s why we must be contributing to its creation.

Unappreciated Calling
It also occurred to me that most of the artistic beauty in Italy is by unknowns. For every Michelangelo and Da Vinci masterpiece, there are hundreds of best efforts by the long-forgotten, yet they still touch people hundreds of years later. True, it’s easier (in one sense) for the visual and musical arts to be transported across the ages, but words are the most portable art form invented. English is in ascent, as close to a universal language as we'll have this century, guaranteeing an available audience. Words are my calling.

I’m going to make sure this unknown will be helping make the arts in the Apostolic movement more obvious than ever. I won’t be alone. The most popular elective at this year’s Forum was the “My Calling: The Arts—Is there life outside of Pentecost?” session. The room was packed with 20somethings eager to discuss writing, graphic design, music, and other artistic callings. (Frankly, we were shocked at the turn out yet we shouldn’t have been. Too many Apostolics are hungry to use their unusual talents to reach others.)

I’ve set my mind on Writing Conference I will attend, articles I will freelance, and stories I will complete (by set deadlines). That’s the only way I can prove I believe in my calling.

Appendix A: My Top 10 Books Read This Year

My top choice, then the other 9 titles divided by category.

1. Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama is a tour de force on the artistic temperament (via Rembrandt and Reubens), overlooked European history, and the beautiful paintings that still challenge us today. A thick, beautiful masterpiece full of the mysteries of creation.

Fiction

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a classic every time I reread it.
  • The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne purports to be a fable about WWII, but works because it’s a fable. (Don’t see the movie first!)
  • Lush Life by Richard Price purports to be a crime novel, but somehow captures the madness and danger of New York City in the Aughts.

Young Adult

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney will make you laugh out loud, especially when Halloween rolls around.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a rollicking adventure tale about a future North America that requires each region to send a lottery-chosen teenager to an annual reality show—where the teens must kill each other to survive.

Non-Fiction

  • Crazylove by Francis Chan challenged me in love to rethink why I serve Jesus; after all, if our lives make sense to sinners, what type of Christians are we?
  • The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria captures the geopolitical realities of this generation (and the next) without getting bogged down in minutiae. Grab it if you want to understand our world better.
  • God Is . . . by David Adams Richards is the Canadian novelist’s return to faith, and a revelation that all sin’s ultimate goal is murder. Thoughtful and accessible.
  • The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. II, edited by Philip Gourevitch is a dynamic collection of long-form interviews previously printed in the lit mag that created the form. Includes Faulkner, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Graham Greene, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty and 11 more authors.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Future Me

As I was struggling to formulate a timely and interesting post for today, something both writing and end-of-the-year related came to mindFuture Me.

In a previous post, I lamented the passing of the age of letter writing in our modern age of email, IMs and texts. I remain a faithful, nostalgic believer in the power of the penned word. But Future Me, though it is technically accomplished in the form of an email, has the distinction of being a service specifically for allowing one to write a letter to one's future self. Here's how it works: You simply go to the site and write a letter to yourself to be sent at any specified date in the future. When that date arrives, you will receive your letter in your inbox. I wrote my first letter to myself in January 2008 and arranged to have it sent to me on the same date the following year. I did it again this year, so I should receive it sometime soon after the New Year.


It's an interesting type of writing. The you that writes the letter is not the same you that reads the letter a year later. The you writer is curious about the future, sets goals, assesses the present state and ponders how things will have changed. The you reader is a year wiser, has a year more of experience under the belt, and can know whether those goals were met or if any of the projections for the future materialized.

One of the writer's duties is to consider the audience. But what changes when the audience is oneself?

If you've never done Future Me, It might be an interesting experiment to try this year. Each letter becomes a landmark, a testament to the life you've lived and wish to live. It's an innovative way to evaluate the past as well as cast for the future.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Currently reading: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Best Books/ Book Covers 2000-2009


Amazon is offering you a chance to vote on the Best Book Cover of 2o09! It's quite an eclectic collection, but well worth your time in perusing.

To this contest's detriment, they offer almost no design commentary, but use it to (surprise!) sell books. Alas!

Meanwhile the Abebooks crew offers their choices for best books of the Aughts. Of their 30 choices, I've read 7 (my usual percentage on most Best Books" lists, no matter from what era. But I almost read 2 others, does that count?)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What Editors Want

As I try to take the next step in my calling to a writing ministry, I have frequently used this blog to muse about tips from a writer’s perspective I think may work for other aspiring writers out there. Today I want to continue to explore strategies for strengthening our efforts to establish a community of published A/P writers, but this time from a different perspective……

An Experiment in Editing
Recently I completed a six-day stint as an editor for a special project. In a nutshell I had to collect 22 pieces (ranging from 5 to 25 pages), apply an overall formatting scheme, and then do a surface-level mechanics edit. It was extremely eye-opening to be the person on the other end of the email this time—not the lone writer hammering out a down-to-the-wire response, but the person frantically trying to chorale 22 of those lone writers.

Lessons Learned
The project had bumps along the way, and as I look back in hindsight, I realize there are some things to be gleaned from the process to apply to our publication efforts as writers. Here goes:

  1. Grammar matters. Editors love, love, love clean copy that we can breeze right through. An editor should not be your personal proofreader; instead, she should be able to focus on the content and message of the piece without being distracted by careless mechanics. In addition to the extra time it adds to the editor’s job, it sends the message that you didn’t care enough about what you were saying to take the time to really read and perfect it.
    Moral: spend the extra time it takes to create error-free grammar and have others read your work to make certain it’s perfect.

  2. Follow the rules. In my case, writers didn’t have any instruction or specific house rules, so submissions ran the gamut of citation styles, formatting, etc. It took quite a bit of time to try to bring them together in a uniform look for the project. From this I realized how frustrating it must be for editors who do have house rules and yet get submissions from writers who didn’t take the time to comply. I would imagine editors get so tired of correcting things that house rules clearly specify that they don’t even bother reading submissions that aren’t compliant at first glance.
    Moral: Before submitting your work to any publication or publishing house, scour its website for submission guidelines / house rules and follow them to the letter.

  3. Be on time. Sigh. The hardest part of the project was hounding overdue writers. For this project there were some extenuating circumstances, which I understood, and I certainly didn’t take the overdue cases personally. However, again I got a glimpse into the life of an editor and how exasperating it must be to beg writers for files. The end result is the editor sitting up all hours of the night because the writer cut into the editor’s time before print deadline. It can come across as selfish of the writer, and after experiencing the pressure of print deadlines, I can see now why many publishers will not get anywhere near a writer who has a reputation for being bad with deadlines.

What else?
We’ve got to keep our editors happy and do all we can to make their job easy since they control our destiny with the publication or publishing house. After doing the hard work of writing, we don’t want to then turn around and blow our chances by handling the submission process poorly or antagonizing the make-or-break editor. So I’d love more insider tips from any editors out there who know the joys and frustrations of working with writers. What have I missed? Anyone out there who’s not necessarily an editor but could thing of other checklist items to add?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Recreating Acts 2:38

If you ever visit Italy, you'll return intoxicated by art. It's everywhere in every variation, but mostly visual: sculpture, fountains, mosaics, paintings of every type, statues, and students made up like interactive statues.

We recently returned from an 11-day holiday throughout central Italy, mostly in Roma and Firenze, and I returning burning with a couple of observations that apply:

Beauty will always elicit an unconscious response from the soul--Michelangelo's David is breathtaking. Neither pictures nor reproductions do it proper justice. We spent about an hour circling it from every angle, largely in awe. A few days later we were craning our necks to inhale the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Again, there's nothing like the original.

In both cases, despite my fatigue (we walked 5ish miles daily) and jet lag, different praise choruses (another art form) start circling through my mind in response to both. Nothing was in my mind, then I was suddenly singing. My soul yearned to praise the One who invented beauty just as my dazzled mind appreciated the artist's creation of beauty.

No matter our artistic abilities, they should always strive to form something beautiful so that the reader/viewer/listener's soul will respond anew to the original Creator.

Acts 2 Opportunities
The Catholics know how to reach believers and unbelievers through art. We could learn a lot from them.

The Galleria della Accademia in Florence is a small, second-rate museum with the world's most famous sculpture (David). As we were wandering through a room of unimpressive altar pieces, I spied one with flames. A large Mary sat in the middle with 6 tiny disciples on either side. It was the Day of Pentecost. The explanation below the altar piece explained that even though Pentecost was a major moment in church history, it was rarely translated into art.


I later saw a lovely bronze sculpture in the Vatican by Lello Scorzelli entitled "Pentecostale" (1967-1973 if I read it correctly). I was enraptured by the explosion over Mary and the disciples. My heart quickened. We were anxious to get to the Sistine, but this sculpture . . . it stopped me.


That night, I saw a rather unimpressive painting of Pentecost at the Guerrieri Chapel atop Roma's Spanish Steps (see top photo), but nothing else recreating Acts 2 in these two major cities of art.


Despite 1700+ years of artistic endeavors by the Catholic Church (and other religions), art has yet to create definitive moments of Pentecost. This is our opportunity. Acts 1-2 are our touchstone scriptures. We should be all over this.

Beauty Makes Believers
Art gives us the opportunity to make Christians and non-believers see Christ as we do--and be changed by the experience. It is through these cracks of artistic experience that we can touch unbelievers and help make them believers.

It's like the true story of the English professor who said (paraphrase), "I am an atheist, but when I read Flannery O'Conner, I beieve."

My writing must unveil interesting situations with real people of all stripes, including Pentecostals who are living the difference of Acts 2. It must surprise and entertain and provoke response while still attempting to create a beauty I'm not even sure I'm capable of producing. My artistic vision has a better opportunity to shine through because of art history's oversight. So does yours.

"There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." -Leonard Cohen

Monday, November 16, 2009

My Mother Is a Fish

Ay, ay, ay. It's been quite a week. I planned to have my post up this weekend, but after a delayed flight and a night stranded in Houston, alas, it was not to be.

Gaping holes to be filled
I call myself a lover of literature, and I am, but it still pains me to realize how much of the greats I have yet to get a taste of. There's still a gaping hole as far as the Russians are concerned. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are still highly-regarded yet dusty and untouched statues on a pedestal in my literary gallery. I keep saying I'll get around to them.

As I Lay Dying
But I've finally made a decent effort on filling my William Faulkner hole. Faulkner being American and Southernly connected as I am, I had no excuse not to. In my defense, I have read a few Faulkner short stories here and there, but As I Lay Dying was my first Faulkner novel experience.

I won't sit here and give a book review, and I won't talk about stream of consciousness, or how Faulkner deftly weaves the story through interconnected perspectives, or existentialism, or the famed "My mother is a fish." I'll let you read it yourself if you haven't already. But I will say that an interesting detail to me is that the main characters, "country people," perceive their speech differently than the way the "town people" perceive the country people's speech.

The power of perception
What I mean is, when the country people of the story are reporting on their own dialogue, though it is simple and sometimes ungrammatical, words are spelled correctly without consideration of accent. It's clear though colloquial. On the other hand, when the town people depict the country people's speech, 'it' becomes 'hit,' 'can' becomes 'kin' and 'where' becomes 'wher.' Just the way the town people describe the "country" dialogue makes it clear that they view the country people, if not condescendingly, in a different way than the country people view themselves.

Here it comes . . .
I like the idea of applying literary postulations to things outside of the text. I wonder about the power of perception, how there is often a disconnect between the way we perceive ourselves and the way we are perceived. I wonder if that has any implications on us, as people who strive to be Christlike. Should others' perceptions of us hold weight?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Random Assortment of Literary-ish Things


First: Thanks Chantell for cluing me in to reading "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible--as Literally as Possible" by A. J. Adams. For general book reviews (and purchase), click here. The thing I primarily appreciate about the book is the exposure to what a fresh read of the Bible affords the reader. A further benefit, is that it underscores the truth that religious knowledge comes by means of DOING (this is amply illustrated in Adams experience with prayer). In addition to the interesting content, the book is well written in an accessible (and often tongue in cheek) humorous fashion that somehow carefully avoids any mockery or belittling of anyone's religious beliefs. This is a feat in and of itself.

Second: UGST hosted the 9th (10th? I should know this...) Symposium last month. Various papers were presented and can be accessed from the UGST website here. I did not go to all the sessions, but the paper I most highly recommend is the "Apostolic Chaplaincy in a Pluralistic World" as well as the response to this paper by Patrick Dotson. On a side, but related, note, this paper was presented concurrently with the Bernard-Segraves session on 1 Corinthians 11. Help me, but I am slightly concerned with the fate of our movement when there was far more buzz and excitement around this latter session (2 men discussing women's hair in the church) than the former which addresses how we can be "in the world, but not of it." I'm not saying there isn't or shouldn't be a place to re-examine 1 Corinthians 11, I'm just wondering about the disparity in the level of hype (my perception) around the two topics. Am I too sensitive?

Hopefully, I'll get an opportunity to add more info to things later...or maybe now's the time to have conversation!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Submitting Your Writing for Publication…. Ouch(?)

When it comes to writing, how many ideas do we have “on the shelf” that never come to fruition? I for one have a few. Because of the hard work and vulnerability that come with submitting for publication, I usually wait until I have a deadline and am forced to write. I have progressed and regressed in this area, often going through a phase of enforcing self-discipline with writing pretty staunchly for a few months, only to retreat back into my non-writing comfort zone when other areas of life get too busy.

Turning the Tide

I have come to realize if I only write when I have an assignment and a deadline, that's all I'll ever do and my contributions to our A/P writing ministry project will be minimal. I'm trying to prayerfully think through my motives and then push myself to not just write more, but also submit things. So… for me this meant setting a personal goal to submit three essays or short stories to literary journals between now and May.

My First Serious Writing Contest

So I am 1 for 3. Three weeks ago I submitted an essay to a literary magazine holding a writing contest. It was a big step for me because this wasn’t an assignment—I didn’t have to do it, and nobody would know if I wimped out and didn’t submit it at the last minute.

#1 – That’s why as step #1, I consulted a writing mentor. I explained where I was with the issue and got some much needed encouragement and advice from someone who’d already been down this road. Beyond the valuable advice, I also had someone to keep me accountable and ensure I went through with it.

#2 – Next I prioritized my life around the submission. I immediately discovered an invisible clause of Murphy’s Law: the contest deadline will always be at the worst possible time—in my cause in the middle of General Conference when we were swamped with an unprecedented amount of work at the College. My testimonial out of this is that you can write no matter how busy you are—if you really want to. I cancelled my personal life (no emails, phone calls, or going anywhere other than work/church/home). I set a schedule and at 11:00 each night stopped wherever I was with work and then wrote till 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. I’m not saying it didn’t almost kill me, but it got done.

#3 – I obsessed about every last word. I had trusted readers pour over the piece and give me very constructive comments to strengthen it. I read, re-read, and re-read over and over until I’d seen the work from every angle and was completely satisfied with it. The end result was the most genuine piece I’ve ever written—not just a neat idea I hammered out one evening, but something deliberated over and methodically crafted. In this step I learned the value of perfecting our craft.

It's Not So Bad

I’m relieved it’s over, but more so I’m really gratified for the experience. We make submitting for publication such a psychological thing because of the vulnerability and rejection factor. Maybe with all of that we've taught ourselves to unnecessarily dread the process. The bottom line, whether or not our work gets accepted, we're developing our craft and building a culture (helped along through this Word blog) that can foster other writers. And slowly but surely in Jesus' name, we are seeing A/P writers break into the literary published world and give our faith a presence.

Final Challenge

Dear aspiring writer, what are you doing to help give A/P culture a voice? What goal can you set toward releasing your work into the great unknown (yet beckoning) arena of the published word?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fact or fiction?


This week I’m making the jump to Word from Notes, trading places with Kent. So if you were looking forward to his post, hopefully I will not disappoint and you can catch Kent the next time around.

This summer I read a book which moved me more than any other I have read in quite some time – or maybe ever. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski is a tale about the human condition, of physical handicap and mental illness and revenge. The main character, Edgar, is a young boy who is mute and who lives and breathes for the special breed of dogs to which he and his family have devoted their lives.

But, alas, this is not a book report, so I will digress from telling the story and hope that you, reader, will make it a priority. (To steal a line from Bronte…..). Rather, I will say how fascinated I am when an author can speak so clearly to the human condition through a work of fiction. Half the time while reading Edgar I felt like I was reading some self-help book through which I could sort out my emotions and responses to life. Was this book fact or fiction? Or both? Now, granted I'm not versed in all the in's and out's of literature (remember, I belong on the Notes blog), but I have to wonder and the ability of an author to weave such truth into a story.

For instance, my favorite character in the book is one of the Sawtelle dogs – Almondine. Just saying her name brings comfort and sadness, even now. She is this sensitive, loyal dog who adores Edgar and almost takes on a human persona – and you find yourself rooting for her and thinking that if she were just there in moments of Edgar’s distress that somehow things would work out okay. How can an author take an animal and make it so human while still allowing it to keep it’s canine characteristics?

Then there is Edgar himself – this beautiful, mute child who ends up dealing with great tragedy in his life which in the end shapes him and causes him to grow and make difficult choices which will ultimately shape the outcome of the story.

Oh! I wish I could give away the ending – but that would spoil it. I will say that I grieved the ending of that book for a few days. I read faster and faster as I neared the ending – pacing the floor for the last few pages, hoping and willing the outcome to be what I wished for.

You’ll just have to read it for yourself – and I do hope you will.

Monday, October 12, 2009

All the Difference

I'm intrigued by turns of phrase that change meaning depending on perspective and context.

Just and the Unjust
We normally think of the scripture that God sends rain on the "just and the unjust" as meaning that bad things happen to all. But that's because modern minds think of rain as negative. In the original Biblical context, it meant that good things happen to all. In a primarily agricultural society, rain was a definitely good thing.

The Messiah
I'm reading a book on spiritual growth called Secrets of the Vine by Bruce Wilkinson. He describes the Last Supper and footwashing scenes in the gospels through the disciples' eyes in ways I hadn't really thought about before. Jesus' words " I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you" and "Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also" (John 14: 18-19) are comforting to us. Words of peace and hope. But to the disciples, they were disheartening words of disillusionment. They knew Jesus was the Messiah but they had expectations for him to publicly and triumphantly deliver Israel from her oppressors and reign. Jesus' words were communicating to them that that wasn't going to happen.

The Road Not Taken
That passage from Secrets of the Vine reminded me of a literary example, that widely anthologized and oft quoted poem by Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken":

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I grew up believing the poem to be uplifting, especially the last two lines, as lauding the decision to take the road that "wanted wear" as virtuous and adventurous. But with further enlightenment and further examination of tone, I came to the conclusion, as do the usual world-weary critics of literature, that it was actually one of regret, or at the least, a sobering reflection on the irrevocable nature of, once made, our choices.

Not to end on a downer. It's just that I'm fascinated by how differently one thing can be interpreted by many.

P.S. Get the scoop on the Nobel Literature Prize winner here.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Freelancing A Dream


I’m enjoying a special thrill of freelancing: seeing my byline in a prestigious (albeit niche) magazine. The Writer is the oldest continuous writing magazine in America and the November 2009 issue features my contribution to its best-known regular feature—“Why I Write.” (It's at the very bottom of the page.) Plus it pays real money.

After I got over the initial euphoria of achievement, I realized how easy the entire process had been; I knew I had to share it:

1. Find a well-known author to interview—this is easier than it seems if you’re near a major metropolitan area. Many bookstores and libraries publish their upcoming author visits in advance. Visit their web sites often. If you’re not near a metro area, attend writing conferences.

2. Query the big magazine (and some little ones)—Email the appropriate editor at The Writer (or big name magazine you’re hoping to appear in) to see if they’re interested in the interview. If they are, you’re in. Caveat: This assumes you’ve studied the magazine to understand their needs.) Query some smaller magazines and web sites as well with the same inducement. IF they all say yes—O blessed day—just use different quotes and styles for each publication.

3. Snag the interview—Google the author’s name + “agent.” Email the agent/publicist a short message that includes what magazine(s) and /or web sites you’re conducting the interview for, as well as literary clips (book reviews, interviews, essays) you’ve earned to prove you’re serious.

4. Conduct the Interview—Read the author’s latest book(s) to ask intelligent questions. Ask for a contact email for follow-up.

5. Write your Article(s)—Follow the magazine guidelines. Contact the author with follow-up questions. Most writers I’ve dealt with will email you back (instead of talk over the phone).

6. Submit the Article

7. Smile when they ask for rewrites—That means they’re going to publish it.


Two Notes:

  1. I’ve used this process before and been rejected by The Writer (and other magazines). That’s why you line up more than one publication.
  2. I emailed The Writer last June, 2008 and was told there was a backlog for my feature if I was willing to wait. I reminded the editor in a short, friendly email of my interest around January 2009 and he contacted me in the Spring that it was scheduled. It’s taken over a year, but it’s worth it. It’s on newsstands now.

Yours can be on the newsstands soon. It’s that easy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Win $5,000 on Your Story

Dear Friend of TMR,

Haven't submitted to our 19th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors' Prize contest yet? You're in luck. Because server outages affected online entries for several days, we’ve extended the deadline for contest entry to October 9. Don’t miss your chance to win $5,000 for your short story, essay or poems. This year's contest offers over $15,000 in prizes -- $5,000 per genre in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Past winners' work has been reprinted in the Best American series. Each entry is $20. All entrants receive a one-year subscription to The Missouri Review either in print or in the new environmentally friendly digital format, which includes bonus audio content. You can enter online or by mail. For details, check out our webpage: http://missourireview.com/contest


Thanks to everyone who has entered. We look forward to reading your submission!


All our best,

Kate McIntyre and Joe Aguilar

Contest Editors

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Writing Under Deadline


We say we work better under pressure… but do we? Let’s talk deadlines and how we work and write in a crunch. In July I did twelve 1500 word short stories under the notion of "It's the summer; I won't have anything else to do." Wow--bad idea. It was definitely too much. The only way the stories didn’t suffer was by locking myself away and working every waking minute. But it was a learning experience for sure.



My Tale
Each story was a stand-alone piece. I created fresh characters with new names and no overlapping communities. It was a struggle to do it 12 times in a row. Here are some observations:

  • Plot: I build my storyline around the theme I’m trying to push. This is the hardest part for me—trying to come up with realistic but resolvable conflict. I will usually do this in stages. Day 1 – throw out a few possibilities. The next day I’ll come back and add to it or strike what doesn’t work after reflection. I’ll do this a few times.

  • Characters: Once I know the basic plot, I’ll imagine the characters. Ideally I like to have a set of notes on each character with his or her bio. Besides the basics, I look for something unique about them. Meryl Streep once said every time she is in a movie, she does close readings of the text and figures out a secret about the character that she never tells anyone. I try to do the same as a writer. Also, Kent once told me that characters who have seeming contradictions are more believable, so I’ll have fun with that and maybe have a skyscraper window washer who’s secretly afraid of heights. I have never had to base my characters on people I know, though some writers do. I generate them based on what I need them to do in the story, and they always take on an identity all their own. This is my favorite part; they become real to me.

  • Naming characters: I start by keeping a running list of character names, and again, I try to use names of strangers or people I only distantly know (writer’s fear of betraying the inner circle, I guess). Then when it’s time to start a story, I first think of the demographic of each main character and then try to match up a name that rings true.

  • Place: I argue that Southern writers always emphasize setting because we are obsessed with homeland and history, so it becomes one of the first things we do to ground a tale. I do this. I pick mountains/coast/rural/metro/etc. based on the action happening in the story. That sense of place plays out in the details of the narration and the dialogue between characters.


A Crash Course
So did my project work? Did I make deadline? Well, yes, I made deadline, and yes, I feel that the stories were fine (so hard for me to judge my own work). But now that it’s over…. I realize that:



#1 - When writing multiple projects under deadline, it’s hard not to give in to the pressure of wrapping the story up too neatly. Lesson learned: take as much time as it takes to battle out the details and figure out the truest conclusion, even if it means days of debating and talking out the scenario with friends and family to get the most realistic resolve to the conflict—happy ending or not.



#2 - Keeping stories separate can be tough. Because I write by theme, I always have a pretty clear sense of one from another, but it’s still hard to balance time between them without getting your brain locked in one. I had an assembly line process. I would work on no more than 3 stories at a time. At any given time during the three weeks of writing, it looked like this:



Story C – Revising… Story has been written, the content is the way I want it, and I’m on any of my 3 re-reads to double-check it against itself.
Story B – Drafting… This can be at various stages, but it means that at least something is on my laptop and I will keep adding until I feel the story is told. It should just be a matter of fleshing out the handwritten parts, but I may still battle out plot details to meet word count and fix any holes I discover.
Story A – Planning… I’m not to the point of typing anything yet, but I have pages of notes. I like to work out a blueprint by hand before I start typing. While the storyline may change, I like to have the plot completely mapped out before I start writing. Then even before I start typing, I write out the key passages of dialogue by hand because not having a delete key keeps me from switching to editor mode plus being much slower at writing than typing forces me to slow down and think through dialogue and plot details more carefully.



Retrospect
When Kent suggested I share my July experiment, I wasn’t sure there’d be much to talk about. The world’s longest blog later, I notice I learned a lot more than I realized. This just all goes to show, while it’s great that we study techniques and discuss them in forums like this, there’s really no substitute for locking yourself away and hammering out a story, especially when your hand’s forced with a deadline.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Oprah Endorses Faith-based Fiction

Nigerian Jesuit Uvem Akpan's Say You're One of Them, which features one of the most harrowing short stories I have every read, is Oprah's latest pick, announced in the last 24 hours. Of course, this is yet another example that literature written by a believer can receive wide public
acceptance and awards.

There's no reason why Pentecostal literature (as opposed to fiction) can't do the same -- if there are writers willing to declare writing as their primary calling by dedicating their time to create books (instead of investing in other, more traditional ministries(. Yes, I know that's heresy, but Akpan reminds us, "Don’t forget that Jesus was a priest and a poet."

Here's the crazy part -- I don't think Pentecostal literature is too far away from being of sufficient quality to get noticed. There are a small coterie of writers (that I know of) that are trying to create something fresh for the 21st Century. Whether they get noticed or win prizes is another issue. Whether they have the will to follow God's calling to write is their choice alone.

More Father Uwem
Akpan was first published in a 2005 issue of (*sigh*) The New Yorker.

My brush with Akpan was slight. At Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing 2008, he was a featured speaker. I'd never heard of him and skipped his session. A few months later I read the book of short stories and instantly realized I'd blown it. *Sigh* again. That's why you need to attend 2010's Festival -- you just might run into the faith-filled literary stars of 2011 early.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Appendix A: Miéville, Twitter Novel, Bee Season


  • Publisher Buys Novel Off Twitter—It was just a matter of time, I suppose. An author Twittered his entire book and a small publisher picked it up.
  • Dara Horn discusses the role of Jewish writers in the 21st Century in a Present Tense magazine profile. I think there are many similarities here with ambitious Pentecostal writers.

"Philip Roth was first published fifty years ago — in a very different America, where being seen as a Jewish writer was a career-killer. Now it's practically a marketing asset. But I also think that most writers of Philip Roth's generation actually didn't know very much about Judaism or even Jewish culture. They were essentially writing about the second-generation immigrant experience, about assimilating into American life. My work is quite different because I've written about the content of Jewish tradition, which most of the earlier writers didn't. Most writers are fearful of being labeled because they feel it may limit their work or their audience. But I've actually been surprised by how much non-Jewish readers have taken to my books. I've spoken at churches, and I get a lot of mail from non-Jewish and even religiously Christian readers. The beauty of literature is that it becomes universal precisely through its particulars."

  • Here’s What We All Dream Of—James Patterson’s $150 million Book Deal

“But Young got a bargain. Patterson's not a writer. He's a fiction (and non-fiction) factory. In 2008 he authored or co-authored seven books and in his 33-year career as a published author he's written 57. He sells an average of 20 million books per year. An estimated 170 million copies of his novels are in print worldwide. Most important: During the last two years he's earned Hachette an estimated $500 million. According to Forbes estimates, Patterson took home $60 in the last year million for the effort.”

“Detective fiction is a fiction of dreams. Not only is this no bad thing, it is precisely what makes it so indispensable.”

“Short stories can function as wonderful laboratories that allow you to try things that a novel might not support because it's very weird or very specific. You can be more uninhibited with a short story because you don't have to worry about how you're going to make something work for three hundred pages.”

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Author and Finisher

I like finding verses in the Bible with literary imagery or that have to do with reading and writing. One of them that I like is 2 Timothy 4:13 where Paul asks Timothy to bring him a cloak that he left behind and to bring "the books but especially the parchments." I love it because even though Paul was in jail, possibly awaiting his execution, he still wanted things to read to keep his mind sharp and he wanted parchments for the sake of the written word. I also like non-spiritual minutiae like leaving cloaks behind, etc. It makes spiritual giants like Paul seem more human.

I was trying to think of another literary scripture to talk about for my post and I thought of Hebrews 12:2, which, in the King James Version, declares Jesus as the "author and finisher of our faith." It's something that people say exhortingly all the time, but I really did wonder what it meant for Jesus to be the "author and finisher" of our faith. I conjured up images of Jesus as an author, pen in hand, musing over a piece of parchment, etching out the story of our lives.

But the KJV can be a tricky little guy. I was getting all excited about the fact that we're characters in Jesus' grand novel when I dug a little deeper. I discovered that 'author' in this sense is actually referring to the founder or establisher of something. Not a writer of something. 'Finisher' is not someone who ends something, as in Jesus finishing off our story with a grand denouement, but rather a 'perfecter.' Like someone who fine tunes something. (sigh.) So much for my author analogy. Thanks, KJV. Your grandiloquent, antiquated words pull yet another fast one before 21st century eyes.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trash talking the KJV. Years of reading that version and Bible Quizzing in that version have made it second nature to me. All of the Bible verses I've ever committed to memory are in, literally, the King's English. Or if I want to be a little more literary about it, Shakespearean English.

But then, I thought about it some more . . . wouldn't it be okay for me to think of Jesus as the "author" even if that weren't the verse's actual intent? Other verses suggest His omniscience, so why couldn't He be the story writer of our lives? Should original intent always be the driving factor when applying scripture and non-scriptural literature to our lives, and/or subjecting it to interpretation?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Speechless


I've got nothing. My brain is off. This is my fear with wanting to go back to school. It could be just like this...sitting in front of the laptop, blank screen...nothing. "Seriously,?" I ask myself, "Not a single thought in your head?" How vacuous! And I say, "Moo!" (Some of you will get this, and some of you won't.)

What can be done? I decide to start breaking it down. This is my third attempt at writing this post. The first was to set up the question of whether the Twilight saga could be considered "Christian fiction," but I got bored with the answers before I finished that post. It is or it isn't and maybe it is for you and isn't for me or whatever. Yes, ennui! The second attempt was to talk about Textual Criticism, but what about it? That post never really got off the ground. So, now to this, which although it might be no more than meaningless babble will probably trump both of those because it's more honest with what I am (not) thinking.

Authenticity. That's big with me.

To close, here is a link to an excellent article that I would have written if my brain had turned on!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

$15,000 in Prizes! (kdc)


Have you heard the news? The Missouri Review is now offering $15,000 in prize money for the 19th annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editor's Prize Contest -- $5,000 per genre in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Past winners' work has been reprinted in the Best American series. Each entry is $20. All entrants receive a one-year subscription to The Missouri Review either in print or in the new environmentally friendly digital format, which includes bonus audio content. The deadline is October 1st, and you can enter online or by mail.

All our best,

Kate McIntyre and Joe Aguilar
Contest Editors

+++++

To my knowledge, this is the largest prize money abount literary reviews in this country. The prizce of submission gets you a year's worth ofissues from one of the best quarterlies in the country, so you have nothing to lose! Submit your writings now!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lights, Camera, Action! -- Conflict in Storytelling

Whew! Week 1 just wrapped at Gateway. We had great opening classes and very powerful services each night. Where am I going with this, and what does it have to do with reading and writing? Well, in Rev. Jerry Jones' sermon, he indicated that contrast is often used in Scripture for emphasis. This sparked my interest because that day in class we had studied specific psalms from a literary standpoint, and one student had brought out that there was a lot of contrasted imagery and contrasted themes.


Connection

If biblical contrast helps emphasize meaning, perhaps contrast in fiction can help stress meaning and themes? I'm thinking of contrast in terms of multi-dimensional characters with seeming contradictions. I'm also thinking of convoluted action sequences in stories, since we know that conflict is a chief ingredient for a story.



My Dilemma

Having just put together 18 short stories over the summer (an all-out race by July's end--too much... never again), I talked candidly with one of my editors about what is the biggest challenge to me: creating believable conflict and action that can be resolved in 1500 words, and yet not to tidily. We walk such a tightrope in creating conflict that feels realistic and yet satisfying the reader with resolution to it in a way that doesn't feel contrived.




Many think of O.Henry when they think of an author who mastered the rise and fall of action adeptly in the short story genre.




Practical Solutions
I'm blatantly stealing my friend's advice here, but I've thrown in a few ideas of my own, so I don't think I'll get fined:

1. When brainstorming an action sequence, picture the characters in it and ask yourself if it feels real. Just imagining a cool plot twist isn't sufficient if you can't picture it working for your characters.

2. Draw a map of a house, road, area, so you can plot out the specifics of the action and keep it grounded in a realistic way. Faulkner jumps to mind with his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, which he mapped and then used in most of his work.





3. Walk yourself through the plot sequence and do a critical review to ask if it feels real.

4. Get a friend (or several) to read your work (ouch) and honestly tell you if the action is too contrived or the plot to easily wrapped up.


Your Turn
The above ideas are my guardrails for next time around. What do you think? What works and what doesn't? What am I missing?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I Know Why Writer's Drink

It isn't a much discussed phenomenon anymore, but it wasn't that long ago that great writers (Hemingway, Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, F. Scott) used to be assumed to be drunks. Of course, as this article makes clear, that was when great writers were the rock stars of their day. Now rock and hip-hop stars are drunks (or some equivalent) and we don't think anything of it. (Probably because of the quality of their output. Faulkner has a legitimate chance at being read in 500 years, but who besides the Beatles - and maybe U2 - has a chance at being any more than a footnote in 100?)


Still, it has crossed my mind more than once this year. I know why they drink. It's when you're facing a day when you're just not sure what's going to happen to your story, you're not sure where it's going to go, and--even when you feel that old creative mojo slithering just below the surface--the fear of a false start, of drilling a dry hole, of not maintaining the necessary energy to breakthrough--keeps you from doing some real writing.*

You need something to reduce the fear. To calm your nerves. To build your confidence. But also, it needs to let the creativity, that light sliding mass of almost reachable goodness, flow. Because there's no higher earthly high than a good day of writing.


So the substitute needs to accomplish multiple, often opposing, goals simultaneously without diminishing your writing skills and forward motion. From the evidence, I'm guessing alcohol does that. Me? Too often I make a thick frosty shake out of Breyer's all-natural ice cream. Sometimes music works. Sometimes surfing the net or triple-checking my emails works. Sometimes I check off items on my "To do" list to "clear my head." More often they're time-wasters. But ice cream--now there's a guaranteed good night no matter what happens on the screen.

For me, the fear rises most with fiction, but it might be a thesis for you. Or memoir. Or something else.

Frankly, prayer doesn't guarantee anything except my acknowledgement of the Father's gifts to me. Yet, I need to remember it more.

Yeah, I know why writer's drink.

* Notice the mixed metaphors in just trying to describe the experience.


Currently Reading: Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, edited by Rob Spillman. Just started it this weekend, but--Wow!--the essays have been fabulous, great fiction by Chimamanda Ngozi Adicihie and others. In the 1980s/early 1990s, it was India bursting at the fictional seams. In the aughts, it's Africa. This proves why.

Appendix A: Penguin


The Atlantic Fiction issue is out at a newsstand now. Features stories and essays by Margaret Atwood, Paul Theroux, and Monica Ali, among others. Likewise, the site has interviews with several of the authors.

• Ernest Hemingway, KGB agent?

• If you enjoy classic fiction, it’s all due to Penguin. Here’s a quick intro on their start.

• The challenges of Recession Lit.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Northanger Abbey and Don Quixote?


I went into the archives of one of my favorite authors for my recent bout of classics reading—Jane Austen.

Northanger Abbey
I could reminisce over Darcy or smile ruefully at the caddish behavior of Willoughby (Is it me, or did it seem that Willoughby never got punished for taking advantage of Colonel Brandon's young ward?), but what I really want to talk about is Northanger Abbey. It's one of her earlier works.

What's great about it is Austen's very overt and biting sarcasm when parodying works that were common and wildly popular during her time, Romantic and Gothic novels. In making fun of the formulaic, banal characterizations of the unrealisitically noble and virtuous heroines destined to cross paths with a hero that populated the novels of Austen's time, she sets her own protagonist up as an anti-heroine of sorts from her upbringing, but goes on to add: "But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way."

Here's the thing: It wouldn't be as funny if you didn't understand what it was she was parodying. Thank goodness for annotated editions.

Don Quixote
Interestingly, Austen's tone in Northanger Abbey reminds me of Cervantes' tone in Don Quixote. Similarly, this is a novel which is a parody of other genres which were highly romanticized and also wildly popular during his time—novels of knight errantry, pastoral novels and picaresque novels. When Alonso Quijano dons the title Don Quixote de la Mancha, it is only significant if one knows Cervantes was playing on the popular Amadis de Gaula.

Intertextuality
Another element both novels have in common is intertextuality. There are actually references and even quotations in both novels from the works they are parodying. In both, literature itself also plays an important role. Don Quixote goes crazy from reading too many novels of knight errantry, while Catherine Morland becomes almost too enthralled with The Mysteries of Udolpho.

And so . . .
I always like to tie my literary musings in with the Bible. There is a school of thought that the Bible "says what it means and means what it says." But there are a lot of things that influence meaning. The Bible itself is rife with intertextuality, some references are contained in the canon (when passages in the New Testament reference passages in the Old, for example), but others are not. How can Don Quixote or Northanger Abbey have significance if the extra-textual elements they play off of remain unconsidered? How can the Bible say what it means if the reader is unaware of the extra-textual elements it's referring to?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Great Apostolic Novel


So, I just read Lee Ann's blog about relevance and it's relationship to writing the "great Apostolic novel" and it got me thinking. Content aside, have you ever began reading something and knew immediately that it was written by a Christian author? I am currently laughing my way through a novel by a Christian (not Apostolic, but anyway) author whom will remain nameless. Laughing because I can't get over how cliched the book is. Sure they have their little twist on the classic Christian novel, but really--they're all the same.

A good, strong, handsome Christian guy is single (because his wife died, of course) and meets a girl who is stuggling with her faith. Through events (such as helping her on the farm, or leading her to find a lost treasure, or saving her from her sinking car) she begins to see his faith and fall in love with him. They, of course, have a hang-up because he is a solid Christian and she isn't. So naturally there is a bit of tension and then she gives in, accepts Jesus as her Lord and Savior, and they get married and they live happily ever after in a nice 3BR 2B house in the Montana, or San Diego, or the Bahamas, or wherever--it doesn't really matter.

Even disregarding the plot, the prose is just as cliched. I've decided that Christian authors need only a 6th grade vocabulary. Actually, I'm pretty sure 95% of the words were on my reading flashcards in 1st grade. Whatever happened to authors such as G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis or Gene Edwards? Granted they weren't Apostolic, but they were hardcore Christians who would rival any Apostolic's faith.

So, I have a goal, I guess. I'll be the one. I will strive to create the great Apostolic novel. It may take me years (just the thought of it makes me tired...) but I shall attempt to pull it off. I've got my thesaurus and my Christian novel plotline next to my computer and I shall begin.


"She looked up from her toil in the golden wheatfields that had once belonged to her father, but now were her responsibility. The sweat from her brow, stung her eyes and mixed with the tears that freely flowed. 'God, if you're really there, I need help....I need help.' As if an instantaneous answer to her prayer, she saw a lone figure materialize on the horizon. Even from the distance and even with all of the sweat in her eyes, she could tell he was strong, handsom, and was she just dreaming or did he have the most penetrating, gorgeous blue eyes she had ever seen?..."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Relevance in Writing

I started 4 books last night. One I skimmed/read, two I tossed after the first page and a half or so, and one I tossed after checking out the year of publication and book jacket. Why? Well, it didn’t feel “relevant” to me, which is just another way of saying it didn’t interest me.

A Dirty Word
Relevance has become a controversial word in religious circles, but putting the religious issue on hold, I bring it up for two reasons.

#1 – Within the relevance discussion, someone (I can’t remember whom) said that excellence is always relevant.

#2 - In its strictest sense, the word simply refers to the ability to connect with or relate to something/someone.

From that, let’s make this jump….
How does literature arrive in the canon?
Typically the craftsmanship is excellent, and it involves an important/timeless subject/theme. (I’m referencing an English textbook by Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau.)

Could we then argue that great literature is always relevant because it has both excellence and subject matter that is timeless, i.e. something readers will always relate to?

Apostolic Relevance
Kent’s post made me once again consider how we should present our faith as we continue in our ongoing experiment to write the great Apostolic novel. I’m convinced two fundamentals will be:
1) writing with excellence, and
2) presenting important enough subject matter that will stand the test of time.

I don’t know about you, but I think Apostolics can fit the bill. What do you think?