Monday, July 25, 2011

Story Shape-Shifting

The first pink shafts of sunrise peeked above the hazy purple-blue horizon this morning as I made my way to the beach from our Daytona timeshare.

I'd been killing time in my room reading the new issue of Writer's Digest since that ding-dang rooster crowed in my head at 5 a.m. (Guess I've read too much Stephen King but there's something creepy about cavorting about on a dark beach by yourself before dawn.)

I was drawn to the WD interview with New York Times bestselling author Kristin Hannah, in which she said this about her approach for writing fiction: "Somehow, no matter how carefully I plan, I discover that errors in conception occur. I try to write my way out of those problems, allowing the characters' evolutions to show me the truth of the story."

That thought was still percolating in the coffeepot of my brain at 6:30 when I trod across the wide expanse of white sand toward the gentle early-morning surf. An "Aha!" moment suddenly overtook me when noticed variations in the beach sand that had somehow never registered before.

When you first step off the boardwalk, you encounter what I call "S" sand (because of it's many "s" word characteristics): soft, sugary, satiny, squeaky sand that feels like silk when you run your bare toes lightly across it. You just want to roll in it like your dog and coat yourself with it like a powdered doughnut.

Next comes the clumpy sand that has felt the kiss of the incoming tide; not a deluge, just enough to slightly dampen it and make it form clots and deep imprints from your footsteps.

Then you hit the hard-packed sand that has been beaten down into a quasi-cement-like quality from the relentless surf. The surf that has now retreated with the tide, leaving a sand highway for bikes, 4-wheelers, and the occasional car to traverse without fear of getting stuck. Footprints don't register on this surface; it's too compacted. You can walk up and down this swatch of sand all day and never leave a trace that you'd been there.

At last you reach the foamy surf and dig your feet into the soft sand beneath the lapping waves. This sand is pliable and fluid, forming gullies around your heels and burying your tootsies beneath it's ever-changing, ever-adapting undulations.

So much like the writing process,  I realized. From the first delightful, satiny, soft wisps of an idea that take root and then are watered by the tide of inspiration and relentlessly worked and reworked until they feel very nearly set in cement. But then, as the story begins to take shape on paper, the nuances and fluidity of the characters' character present surprise gullies and undulations you never saw coming in your detailed plot plan.

 Like the love story in my historical novel, The Distant Shore, when my plot outline called for a love affair between Aunt Augusta and the island doctor. As I was busily writing the first draft, somewhere around chapter four, out of the clear, blue sky, I noticed Aunt Augusta making eyes across the room not with the dapper doctor, but with the burly sea captain.

"Oh. My. Gosh!," I actually exclaimed aloud. "It's not the doctor, it's the captain!" I truly never saw that coming.

I then had to go back and rework the first three chapters, writing the doctor down and the captain up.  

And the sand shifted beneath my feet. But it made for a much better story, and a deeper, richer book.

I have to agree with Ms. Hannah. As safe as it might feel trucking down the hard-packed road, feeling the security of not getting stuck if we only stick to our meticulously plotted outline, we writers need to be willing to immerse our feet in the surf and allow the tide of our characters' desires, quirks, and true personalities to shape-shift the story in the way it was meant to be.        


Monday, July 4, 2011

Achieving Success

In a recent blog post, literary agent Rachelle Gardner posed the intriguing question, "What's really more important to you, the money you receive for your work (writing), or the work itself?"

I don't know about you, but my first unbridled response was to throw my hands into the air and cry, "Tis but a moot point! Inspirational writers sometimes make enough money to cover ink, but not necessarily paper, too!"

But then I realized Rachelle wasn't really asking for stark realism here; she was asking about priorities.Would you rather pull in cold, hard cash, or would you settle for pauperhood if only your books and articles could be distributed to readers far and wide?

In other words, would you rather be rewarded for your writing, or would you rather people read your writing?

I suspect we'd all answer that question differently at different times in our writing journeys, but as a Christian writer - a writer who feels called to write by Papa God himself - how do we achieve success? What is the fuel in our tank? What keeps our Chevy on the road?

As I was pondering this conundrum, I came across an obscure but very enlightening Old Testament story in 2 Chronicles 25: 6-10. You really need to read the entire chapter to get the whole overview, but in a nutshell, Amaziah, King of Judah, went to a lot of trouble and expense putting together a foreign mercenary army to augment his own small army to fight his enemies. Then a prophet of God rebuked him, saying, "God is not on their side ... you go by yourself and be strong. God and God only has the power to help or hurt your cause" (verse 8, TM).

Then Amaziah, a cheapskate after my own heart, said, "But what about all this money I already paid out to hire these men?" (verse 9a, TM).

The unnamed prophet, in true wise prophetic form, shot back the zinger that zipped right into my gut like a fiery arrow: "The Lord can give you so much more than that" (verse 9b, NIV).

I can just see the prophet slowly shaking his bearded head, muttering under his breath Oh, c'mon, you dope. Don't you get it? We're talking about GOD here! And I have the distinct impression he was talking to me.

Why, of course He can give us so much more than we bargained for. And certainly more than we deserve. Somehow I'd forgotten that. The creator of the universe is not constrained by mere money. God and only God has the power to help or hurt our cause. Not brilliant marketing or New York Times bestseller lists, or how many interviews we can land on national TV.

Money may buy your new wardrobe and airline ticket for the Today show, it may enable you to hire J.K. Rowling's publicist to get your own Larry Porter novel into every child's bookbag in the free world, it may even pay for a printer that doesn't smear red ink across your book flyer.

But money has no power to make your book "succeed." No matter what you do or don't do. God and only God has that power.    

I remember a time a few years ago when royalties and advances were of utmost importance to me. I was just getting started in my writing career and truly needed capitol for day-to-day expenses, not only for practical items like postage to mail manuscripts (it wasn't all electronic back then) but also for promotional things like bookmarks, brochures, and editors (it's important to polish up that manuscript before submitting it and letting the publishing house editors to have their way with it). And then I blew a wad on a publicist who I felt did a half-hearted job. It seemed like a very pricey mistake. I shed hot tears as I watched the dollar signs fly out my window.

And let's not forget the traveling expenses that go along with book promotion and speaking events. Those are very often right out of the author's pocketbook. At least until you become well enough known that groups are asking you, rather than you begging them.

So I sought after paying gigs. I needed money. I wanted money to accomplish the promo I thought I needed. More money, then more yet. It never stops. There's always something else you can do to push, push, push your book out there. Always more reviewers, always bigger venues and more people to reach. I lived with a constant burning sensation in my belly that I wasn't doing enough ... I needed to do more, be more, find more ways to catch up with the really successful authors who were a household name.

Now, a few years, a few hard knocks, and a few smarts later, I'm willing to concede that my little army is enough. It may not be impressive to the world, but even without the expensive mercenaries, it'll be quite sufficient to fight my literary battles and win victory on the specific battlegrounds the Almighty has chosen for me.

How do I know?

Because the nameless prophet was right. Success is not achieved by buying a bigger army. God has already given me more than that.