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.

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


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!