Friday, September 30, 2011

The Lingering Voice

Here’s the truth about most of what we read—it’s forgettable. It might be thrilling, fascinating, or earth-shattering at the moment, but somehow it merges into the nether regions of the mind and we often barely remember if we even read the piece months later.

However, that’s rarely the case if an author conveys a powerful voice in their piece. (I refuse to use the word “book” instead of “piece” because Tom Wolfe was famous for the voice he brought to magazine pieces, and certain bloggers are irresistible due to the special angle they bring to a topic.) There’s something amazing about a strong voice that tells a tale in such a way that, in a book, can overcome weak plotting or poor pacing or incomplete characters.

Professionals hem and haw about whether writing can be taught. Some say yea, most say nay. I'm in the yea camp--except for voice. You can't make a bore interesting or a mediocrity unique. To some degree, you can teach characterization and plotting and POV, but I would go so far as to say writing with a strong voice is the one part of writing that can’t be taught—you either have it or you don’t.

Most of the canon—Tolstoy, Dante, Shakespeare—and classics—Raymond Chandler, Harper Lee, Marilynne Robinson—are memorable because of their book’s unique voice, inimitable and clear, that sticks with us like that song on the radio that you just can’t get out of your head.

So it’s a great help to anyone writing that more Intelligent Life is offering evaluations on the writing voice of great authors. Here’s Nicholas Shakespeare on Graham Greene:

"Greene’s prose has the clarity of a pane of glass, yet it creates an air of menace, almost an airlessness, which intensifies the drama. His simplicity makes him appear modern, and two of his novels, “The End of the Affair” and “The Quiet American”, have been re-made for the screen since 2000."

There’s an entire series of these, covering the voices of Joan Didion, W.G. Sebald, Chaucer, and others worth your consideration.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Write What You Know? No!

Although the much-lauded Atlantic Monthly Fiction Issue always features excellent contemporary fiction (thus the title), what often goes unnoticed is the essays that are also included. For my purposes, sometimes they are worth the price of the magazine alone.

This issue is no exception: Bret Anthony Johnston of Harvard's writing program offers some fantastic insights into separating the real from the true by avoiding that ancient fiction trope of “Write what you know.” His examples and metaphors are perfect for the task, for instance:

Instead of thinking of my experiences as structures I wanted to erect in fiction, I started conceiving of them as the scaffolding that would be torn down once the work was complete. I took small details from my life to evoke a place and the people who inhabit it, but those details served to illuminate my imagination. Before, I’d forced my fiction to conform to the contours of my life; now I sought out any and every point where a plot could be rerouted away from what I’d known. The shift was seismic. My confidence waned, but my curiosity sprawled.

If you’re called to write fiction, then this is a must-read piece.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Word to Hymn Writers

"Let this be an encouragement to modern hymn writers—a cause for inspiration to those who are suffering from writer’s block."

I've long admired the music and songwriting of Fernando Ortega. When I say admire I mean that he is among my top favorite musicians of all time, Christian or not. He has classical training but incorporates elements of folk music that suit the the simplicity of the gospel in a way other genres just can't touch. His gentle vocals stir the soul. While, he writes a lot of his own stuff, he has also recorded numerous hymns that were in danger of being forgotten. In this article, Ortega offers his wisdom to modern hymn writers and worship leaders.

"Sing to Jesus" is a hymn written by Ortega in the spirit and tradition of the ancient hymnody. Enjoy!


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pentecostal Poets

This week in World Literature class, we read “Credo” by Maxine Kumin—a reflection on Native American beliefs regarding nature and creation. As I stressed to the class a need for an Apostolic expression of our credos as well, I wondered where we are as Oneness Pentecostals with a presence in poetry.

I know, I know… I discussed the value of poetry last post too. Not sure why I’m stuck on it. I’m still not saying I prefer poetry to prose, but I see its place. And I see a need for Apostolics’ place in published poetry.

An argument for Apostolic poetry:

  1. For readers... We’ve talked before about how reading is mutating in the twenty-first century. Kent mentioned changes in traditional book printing, which I believe reflect cultural changes as much as those in technology. I don’t think people are not reading—I just think they’re reading different types of things—looking to the Internet for “literature in a hurry.” Poetry fits the bill. It’s not overwhelming. Read a poem here or there, skip around, whatever. It is not an intimidating commitment, unlike the shelves of novels the busy North American bypasses. So poetry is a target for readers in today’s culture.
  2. For writers… There’s no evading the fact that writing takes work. I’ll not deny that. But the culinary enthusiast who may despair at the thought of baking a wedding cake may thrive at the challenge of grilling a porterhouse. Instead of months of structuring elaborate plots and subplots, hyper-focus on a stanza or two. Poetry is do-able. (And it doesn’t have to rhyme…. But that’s a post for another day.)
  3. For publishing… The Internet provides new avenues for publishing all genres, not the least of which is poetry. Any given blog could become home to a writer’s collection of poems. But traditional publishing is especially feasible for poets. Chapbooks (think cheap-books) are collections of writings around the forty page mark, and they are just as popular now as they were in the 1400s when they surfaced. They can be printed inexpensively, meaning writers have a workable plan for publishing their work without some of the big questions marks a novel represents.

So… do we have any Apostolic poets out there? Let us hear from you. Send a link to your blogs/sites/etc. And please pass on any tips you think would help other poets in progress.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What Time is It? Time for Nimrod 2011

The Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers is coming up on October 22 at the University of Tulsa. I have attended the past three years, and can attest to its being a worthwhile trip.

I'm thinking of continuing the tradition because one of my favorite contemporary novelists, Ron Hansen, is included in the line-up. Hansen is the Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor at Santa Clara University and is author of a number of novels based on historical figures, including Exiles, a novel about G.M. Hopkins and his renowned poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland". Hansen teaches fiction, screenwriting, and literature.

Fiction I: A Timely Past: Historical Fiction — Ron Hansen, Diane Seebass
Discover techniques for making the past live in your work.
Check out the full schedule. As I recall, registration is $50, but there are some scholarships available for students.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

PWF is Free!

Membership in the Pentecostal Writer's Fellowship becomes free in November. Check out their Facebook page for details. It's a good place to network.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Writer's Group Surprise

So I joined a writer’s group out of the blue & I’ve been amazed at how my productivity has zoomed. Part of it is that I had a story in my head with a lot of foundation components completed, but part of it was the 2-3 pages I turned in every couple weeks for the others to read forced me to make decisions. Before I was plodding forward, but the tough decisions (names of characters, some key back story moments, the point of their actions) were being avoided “for later.”

No more. Because I had to offer something readable each meeting, I had to name the hotel manager, I had to decide if the main character was going to walk to the Ice Cream Shoppe or drive. Instead of a one sentence “Gets to Ice Cream Shoppe” because I didn’t want to handle these transitional descriptions -- I can write 3 pages of dialogue with the same speed as about 1 bad paragraph of description. Dialogue flows for me. Descriptions of places grind me to a complete halt. – I wrote them anyway.

Plus, because I had my foundation down, I feel like most of the decisions I’ve been forced into have been positive, or at least not detrimental. I’m sure if/when I hit page 300 I’ll look back and groan at some of these choices, but early on, it’s been a huge plus and deeply satisfying.

All of this decision-making has also made my imagination more fecund. Ideas come alive throughout the day. It doesn’t mean I still don’t get stuck or all the ideas are impossibly original – it just means I feel like I’ve been especially productive and fresh and don’t really have anything to atribute it to except joining the group. (Though I am faithful with my audio books, writing daily, and eating smarter, too. So those factors can’t hurt.)

If you haven’t joined a writer’s group, try one. (Ask around or Google for local groups or check out the bulletin boards around a university or in a coffee shop.) It might make you take your writing more seriously – and help it become more rewarding.

That said, no matter how fast I write, it seems like I never complete that many pages. Oh well.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Updates All Around

Collideoscope discusses the Facebook Church, while Momo's Musings returns with weekly evaluations of college and pro football. It's fun, educational and uplifting! Don't miss out!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Snapshot: eBook Sales Rocketing 161% . . .

...while paperback sales crash 64% (year over year). Galleycat shows a great chart of current sales in all areas, thanks to the APA. No word is offered on whether Borders crashing into bankruptcy and oblivion is directly related or not.

Meanwhile, The Economist offers an article on book digitalization, pointing out that crime blockbusters and romances have been especially successful in ebook format.

If you love to read or write, both articles are worth your time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

$5,000 Writing Prize

From The Missouri Review:

Dear Writer,

I wanted to remind you about an exciting prize and publication opportunity available through The Missouri Review. There's one month left to submit to our Jeffrey E. Smith Editor's Prize Competition -- for which we offer over $15,000 in prizes. We accept submissions in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Winners in each category receive a prize of $5,000, plus a feature in our Spring issue and paid travel to our gala reading and reception. Contest finalists will receive cash prizes and have their work considered for publication as well.

While the contest has a postmark deadline of October 1stof this year, we encourage early submissions. We accept submissions online or by mail. Winners will be announced

In January of 2012.

Don't forget that your $20 entry fee gets you a one-year subscription to The Missouri Review. Subscriptions are available in print or digital versions. Our downloadable digital subscription includes a full-length audio version of the journal.

You can find more information about the contest through our website:

Interested in reading a past Jeffrey E. Smith Editor's Prize winner? Check out the essays "Big Jim," "Letters to David," and "My Thai Girlfriends" on textBOX, the Missouri Review's free online anthology:

Thanks very much for your help in making this year's contest a success. We look forward to reading your submissions!

Best regards,

Claire McQuerry
Contest Editor
The Missouri Review
357 McReynolds Hall
University of Missouri
, MO 65211

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Typing in Tongues

Sister blog Collideoscope offers some thoughts on a Pentecostal woman who types in tongues. Seriously.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Pleasant Surprise: Writing Convention Appears

So if you really love writing and reading, you need to tap into writing conferences/conventions to learn more about the writing process (and your genre), publishing realities, and maybe even meet some giants in the industry. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that BoucherCon is in St. Louis this month. The Mystery/Thriller con rotates host cities and now it’s at my doorstep.

You might find yourself equally fortunate, by Googling your genre of writing or “writing conventions” and getting on some e-newsletter lists!

Happy writing!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Insight: "A Way of Talking"

I always go out of my way to read arts criticism (from the usual suspects: The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, anything by Joseph Epstein, Christopher Hitchens, & James Wood) because often the insights expressed, no matter the art form, are startling adaptable to my writing.

So in the same issue of the New Yorker (August 1, 2011) where music critic Alex Ross penned the envy-inducing phrase "sonic decor" in regards to the composer Bruckner, David Denby had this great comparison between some classics and today that seemed especially true:

“In the remarriage classics (The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday), the former partners have a way of talking and being with each other that they don’t have – and couldn’t possibly have – with anyone else. That sophisticated metaphor for sexual compatibility made for uniquely satisfying romantic comedy. But Crazy, Stupid, Love holds to the boring modern convention that good people are inarticulate, and Cal and Emily mainly stumble around trying to fill the silence.”

Someday, you're likely to see a couple I write getting back together, foreshadowed by a magnetic language only they can speak.