Monday, April 25, 2011


I’ve been looking over my scores in the Genesis contest. One of the judges gave me a two (out of five) on this: Do inspirational elements grow organically out of character or plot? Another one gave me a three.

This surprised me. In the section I submitted, the main character discovers a place called Cedar Spring after she has had a difficult day. At the beginning of the section, I use this verse: The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Psalm 92:12

Do I have to explain the symbolism of cedar? That it was used in the building of the temple? That it was added to the burnt sacrifices? That it was used to build the Ark of the Covenant?

That it is used to symbolize Jesus.

And, of course, the clear flowing spring that brings her a feeling of peace. Surely that doesn’t need explanation?

Do the “inspirational” or “religious” elements have to be blatant in “Christian” books?

This is a YA novel, and, given the lack of Bible knowledge even among professed Christians, should I cut the symbolism?

Perhaps I need to give some type of explanation as to why this particular chapter is placed at this particular point in the book.

To me, of course, this was an inspirational element that grew from the main character’s need to find peace after two unsettling events.

Symbolism is used to add an extra depth to the words we write. But, if no one “gets it,” why even use it?

Then again, maybe one day, fifty years from now, a literature teacher will be discussing my book. She will ask her students, “What is the symbolism of the cedar tree?”

Nah, that won’t happen. Not unless it’s a Christian school.

(By the way, I know the cedar trees we have in the United States are not the same cedars mentioned in the Bible. Yet both have similar qualities. For instance, they both repel insects and both are often used in construction.)

Christians often lament the lack of “good” Christian literature being published today. And I am not saying my manuscript is better than that being published.

However, I believe “in your face” Christian elements should not be the first thing Christian judges, publishers, or agents look for in a manuscript.

On the other hand, it is certainly possible the judges knew exactly what I was aiming for when I wrote this chapter. They just didn’t believe it worked and thought it bogged down the action.

This has made me rethink the way I wrote this story.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be rethinking it and trust in the readers to “get” it, or, if they don’t get it, trust the power of the story to be enough for them to enjoy the read.

To symbolize or not to symbolize—that is the question.

Or perhaps the question is—what’s the correct way to symbolize?

Do you ever use symbolism in the stories you write?

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Lessons Writers Can Learn from James Durbin

I recently wrote a post about lessons writers can learn from Casey Abrams. (The link is HERE.) I must admit, though, that James Durbin is my favorite American Idol contestant. Yes, this grandmother loves the hard-rock sound of James Durbin. ai10_perfs_top8_james_durbin_262x235

And these are some lessons he can teach us writers:

  • James has overcome severe limitations. In an Idol interview he said, “I have Tourette’s and Asperger’s, but Tourette’s and Asperger’s don’t have me. I’m doing what I can to suppress it. It’s not who I am.” As writers,we all have limitations. However, we can write even within those limitations. We may not be able to write the next great American novel, but we can choose to write the book within us.  
  • Another lesson for writers is the developing of  a brand. For example, he wears cloth tails. When asked about it, he said he does it to stand out; to be different. We need to look for something to set us apart; something people will remember us by. And that goes for our characters also. What makes them unique? What “brands” them?
  • One of the symptoms of Durbin’s Tourette’s is facial tics, yet Durbin doesn’t focus on the “thorn in his side,” and shun the promotion part of the process. He knows promotion is part of the process, as difficult as that must be for him. Probably the writing profession has more introverts than other professions. We have to put away that introverted part of us, take a deep breath, and promote ourselves—facial tics and all.
  • James also connects with his fans by reaching out to others with similar problems. One woman wrote: “James was kind enough to send my son a wonderful message on an autographed photo, and an autographed bandana. He is amazing.” Writers need to develop connections, but let’s do it in the right way. As Christians, it’s not all about us. We need to genuinely care about others and reach out a helping hand to them.
  • Durbin also knows his audience—hard rockers (and grandmoms)—and is not afraid to sing hard rock songs, although a hard rocker has never won American Idol. Many people change who they are to seek fame. James sticks to his guns. We too should know who we are and become the best we can be. In other words, not write for popularity but write because of what lies within us. Be true to ourselves.
  • Another thing that is obvious—James has worked hard to develop his God-given talent. We need to put in the time to polish our writing—to make it the best it can be.
  • Lastly, James adds his own unique sound to the songs he sings. We must not just be imitators but look for that uniqueness that lies within each of us, and, again, that takes time and hard work. Writers call it “voice.” It is something that can be developed. (Two of my posts on developing voice can be found HERE.)

Will James Durbin be the next American Idol? Someone with Tourette’s and Asperger’s. A hard rocker. Not your typical American Idol winner.

Yet, despite of, or perhaps because of, his limitations, he just might be the next American Idol.

And, despite of, or perhaps because of, our limitations, we just might become whom God wishes us to be.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Rambling Thoughts on Genesis Contest, Critiques, and Agents

I am not a Genesis Semi-finalist and that’s okay.

This was the first writing contest I’ve ever entered and I learned some things. pirate

Different judges view your work differently.

Why, of course, they do. (Duh! Slapping myself upside the head.) They’re people like anyone else.

That reminds me of an idea I had a few years ago. I had one of the characters in the book write my query letter. It went something like this:

Dear Agent,

I told Miss Sheila I would write this here query letter for her. Shucks, agents are just people—they put their britches on one leg at a time, less’n they’re one-legged.

Sure hope you ain’t one of them one-legged agents. Iffen you are, seeing as you’re one-legged, I reckon I can outrun you.

Some people just don’t have a sense of humor. Or perhaps my sense of humor is warped. Anyway, it didn’t garner me an agent. Not one with one or two legs. Perhaps I offended everyone. Perhaps I’m offending people now.

The thing is, you can’t please everyone. As Christians who write, our aim should be to please God. He gives the increase if we do his will.

I joined my first online critique group over fifteen years ago and guess what book was being critiqued? Thundersnow. I received conflicting advice right from the start.

One critique I remember said: “The mother is too mean.”

Guess what? I toned her down. Almost to the point that I lost my story.

Something I find difficult to understand—why do people think it’s unbelievable for mothers to humiliate and abuse their children? I see in the news a story about a mother withholding medication from her child. Unbelievable? Yet it happens.

A later critiquer told me, “Make Momma meaner. Up the ante.” While Momma is abusive, I’ve seen worse. This story is about Sarah Jane surviving that difficult situation.

Giving Momma back her meanness helped me regain my original story.

The thing is, as I’ve said, you can’t please everyone.  Write your story the way you think is right.

And then worry about getting the right agent—be he one- or two-legged.

Just make sure he has a sense of humor.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Writing in First Person

The book I am now revising was first written in third-person point of view. During the revision process, I changed it to first. I am now revising this new version.

Writers are often advised not to write in first person for numerous reasons.

Why, then, am I?

It feels “right.” The main character is a fourteen-year-old girl who is not me at the age of fourteen, but, perhaps, is the me I would have liked to have been. I am so close to this character that I feel like I am her. I feel like I am living her life.

I mentioned before, that as my real days warmed up, I became confused, thinking it was fall instead of spring. My revisions were at the point in the story when it was fall. My real life and my life inside of Sarah’s head became intertwined.

(No prob now because spring has sprung in the book as well as in real life.)

I am now about half-way through revising the rewrite. One problem with writing in first person is the difficulty of staying in this person’s point of view through an entire book. However, so far, I’ve only caught one point-of-view error.

It’s often a good idea to get others to look for point-of-view errors. Recently, I read a portion of a manuscript from a multi-published author with a major point-of-view error. I believe these are the hardest errors for authors to spot in their own work. Practice, practice, practice and then being critiqued is the only way I know to learn POV.

Another problems to overcome while writing first person is the tendency to begin every sentence with “I.” Here’s a sample from my manuscript:

Tears burned my eyes. I rose abruptly. “I’ll be back later.”

I didn’t look back, but I heard chairs scraping across the floor.

I hurried, jumping over the porch steps. I ran to the road. I wiped away the tears with the back of my hand. I slowed to a walk, a cool breeze cooling my hot cheeks.

I didn’t know where I was heading until I saw the path winding up the slope by the trees. Cedar Spring. I scrambled up the bank and entered into the coolness of the trees.

Wow. Twelve “I”s in that short section. That was the first rough draft. The first revision reads like this:

Tears burning my eyes, I rose abruptly. “Be back later,” I mumbled.

Chairs scraped across the floor, but I didn’t glance back. Not knowing where I headed, I jumped down the porch steps and trotted down the road. With the back of my hand, I swiped at the tears. A soft breeze blew cooling my hot cheeks as I slowed to a walk.

To the right of the road, a path wound up the slope. The path to Cedar Spring. Scrambling up the bank, I entered into the coolness of the trees.

Still quite a few “I”s, and that’s unavoidable. But now, the structure of the sentences has changed so that not as many sentences begin with “I.”

Notice this in particular: “I heard chairs scraping across the floor.” I dropped the “I heard.” Who else would hear but Sarah, the “I”? And also: “I saw the path winding up” changed simply to “a path wound up.” Who else would see the path but Sarah? So, again, the “I saw” is unnecessary.

Despite the difficulties, I believe first person helps pull your reader deeper into your story. It’s certainly pulling me deeper. What season is it again?

Critique of the revised version, anyone?