Tuesday, February 22, 2011

One Word

Not long ago I was talking to a friend about finding a single word to define where you are in life, or that describes what you feel the Lord is working out in your soul, or expresses a goal you have for yourself for this (still relatively new) year. She shared hers with me.

Until a few days ago, I didn't give much thought to what that One Word might be for me. Did I really need one? Nah. I didn't. Probably couldn't settle on just one word anyway. Why bother trying?

But it seems that word was out there, waiting, and didn't take kindly to my indifference, even after repeated hints as to its identity kept dropping into my lap. Yesterday it decided to insert itself into the one place I could not possibly overlook it, which is kind of ironic when it turns out that word for me is...


It all started a week or so ago with a quote I read in a post from author Kathleen Popa. It's attributed to Adel Bestavros, and I've been meditating on it ever since.

Patience with others is Love.
Patience with self is Hope.
Patience with God is Faith.

Like other writers I know, my writing journey has been a long one. By December of this year it will be twenty years since I first picked up a pen with the notion of finishing a novel and seeing it published. I've finished quite a few novels since then, and come close to getting more than one of them published. But I'll confess. Not every moment of the past twenty years has been spent in perfect peace. Impatience, anxiety, a sense of being left behind, of missing my chance of being published over and over again, even despair of being able to write, ever again, after a serious illness midway through this journey, have been allowed to get the upper hand from time to time.

Yet I know right where to turn when those thoughts come like fiery darts and I find my stomach coiling up and the pressure on my chest and the tightness in my brow... I look up to the verse I have taped above my desk.

You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you. Isaiah 26:3

My thoughts are fixed on His goodness. 

My thoughts are fixed on His perfect timing.

My thoughts are fixed on Him. Wherever this journey takes me just might not be as important as the One I'm taking it with (can I get an Amen?).

Yesterday I was unexpectedly inspired to rewrite the opening lines of Jesse, my novel in progress. I wasn't happy with the first sentence in particular. It seemed to me that I could have better captured the character's voice from the very first word.

Would you like to guess what the new first word (as this draft stands presently) of Jesse turns out to be?

But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. James 1:4

You may have seen this notion of One Word for a year elsewhere. I've seen other blog posts about it. Do you know what yours is? I invite you to share it in the comments. 

portrait: Emma Hart as Ariadne. George Romney, 1785

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Two Great Posts on Writing

I've stumbled upon lots of great writing posts this week. Here's two I hope you don't miss.

From Athol Dickson at Novel Journey: Scariness in Fictionland.
"Sometimes being a novelist is scary. For example, over the last year or so I’ve seen dozens of emails from other authors who claim they strongly dislike the first person point of view. That’s a frightful development for a serious novelist."
 And from Steven Pressfield, an interview with Hollywood script consultant Jen Grisanti: The Log Line of Your Life. She gives a very workable formula for creating a log line (or one sentence pitch, as I tend to call it) for your story:
SP: How exactly would you define a log line?
JG: A log line is a brief description of the plot of your story, which involves an emotional hook and a twist of irony. A log line organizes a story in the briefest form possible while retaining the strongest emotional effect.

Athol's post is inspiring, challenging, freeing, and Steven Pressfield's interview with Jen Grisanti helped me write a much better one sentence pitch for the novel I've just begun. Check them out!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Best. Valentine's. Day. Ever.

After nearly a year as her client, I got to meet my agent, Wendy Lawton, in person today. She was driving through my neck of the woods, so we made a breakfast date to talk story.

Talk story. Are there better words for a writer to hear? Okay, maybe "we have an offer" but God willing those will come in His time. For now, it's all about the love of story, and that's what we talked about today. And it's green light all the way for my new project, Jesse. I couldn't be more thrilled about that, as I've already begun (hee hee) and am very enamored of my new hero. I'll be "meeting" the heroine, Tamsen, tomorrow, bright and early.

Now, I'm usually a pretty level, laid back person, but when I left our breakfast meeting this morning my mind and heart were doing the happy dance. What a wonderful opportunity to finally meet my agent, and on Valentine's Day to boot!

And because it's Valentine's Day, to top off the day I'm indulging in the last of my Mocha Java Cake. For anyone who hasn't tried this yummy, gooey-centered cake, here's the recipe I used.

I'm eating this luscious cake as I type this. You should see my keyboard.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Loving the second-born, and third-born, and....

Novel writing and child bearing have been compared in many ways by many writers before this little blog post, but I've had one of those moments today and thought I'd share it before it sinks back under the weight of the every day.

I have to think that falling in love with a new set of characters (after one has written at least one novel already), must be like having a second child. I can imagine a parent thinking initially, "I love my first child so much, how could I possibly love another person with the same intensity and focus?" And then a second child is born, and somehow, you do love that one every bit as much.

After I finished Kindred I didn't think I'd ever love a set of characters as much as I loved Seona and Ian, Thomas, Lily, Judith and the rest. Then I started another novel, and along came Willa, Neil, Joseph, a couple of orphaned children, and surprise if I didn't love them all deeply too.

Now there's Jesse, Cade, and Tamsen, and I'm falling head over heels for them.

I hope it will always be this way, however many books I write. I want to love these story people passionately, care to the bottom of my soul what happens to them, between each other and between their souls and God's heart. I want them to be as real and as substantial as my skill right now can make them. And one day I hope to kindle a little of that love in a reader's heart as well.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A prayer before setting out

The plotting for Jesse is done, even down to a one page blurb and a potential (real) title. I'm about to start writing Chapter One, and I'm eager to discover how well this detailed plotting will work for me. Will it help me write the first draft in under a year's time? Time will tell!

I'm excited about the new setting. It's eastern Tennessee, 1787 (back in the day it was still western North Carolina), in what is now the Elizabethton area. Really the whole Tennessee Valley, as it seems my characters will be on the move quite a bit throughout this story.

Well, I'm stalling for just a few moments more here before I head off down a dusty trail to find two of my characters on an autumn journey, long enough to share the prayer in my heart this morning. It's in the form of three scriptures I keep in mind at every stage of writing a novel.

Commit your works to the LORD, and your thoughts shall be established. Proverbs 16:3

How I need my thoughts to be established! 

And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands for us; Yes, establish the work of our hands. Psalm 90:17

His establishing will be beautiful. And when my heart is overwhelmed....

You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you. Isaiah 26:3

Friday, February 04, 2011

Plotting: the 3 Act Structure

I spent January writing the opening chapters of a book that will be a sequel to both Kindred and The Quiet in the Land.

This month I've put that story aside to work on Jesse (working title), a stand alone set in 1787, in the North Carolina back country. Having decided to do something different and plot this story out as thoroughly as possible before I write one word of it (in hopes of writing the first draft in under a year's time, a feat I've never yet pulled off), I've chosen to try a technique I've heretofore shunned as too restrictive--outlining the plot using the Three Act Structure.

I'd read about it repeatedly, been taught it at conferences, but the notion didn't strike me as something I might want to actually try out until my friend Joan Shoup (J. M. Hochstetler) posted about it on her blog. Though I used the basic format Joan provided in her blog post, substituting my story information for hers, the information in the outline below pertains to her Revolutionary War novel Crucible of War, the fourth book in the American Patriot series (which I eagerly await). It is shared here with her permission (thank you, Joan!). And just to note, key story points of Crucible of War have, naturally, been omitted to avoid serious spoilers. 

Act 1: Beginning the Quest
  • Battle of Trenton and return to camp.
  • Encounters between Carleton and Elizabeth, Andrews and Blue Sky
Act 2: Crisis Points
1. Battle of Princeton
  • Elizabeth returns to New York.
  • Washington and army block British at Princeton, then withdraw to Morristown.
2. Build-up to New Campaign
New York
  • Elizabeth and Tess renew relationship with Howe and his officers.
  • Pieter returns to NY to court Elizabeth.
  • Reconstituting the army and planning campaign 1777.
  • Carleton rebuilds his Rangers from renegades.
  • Red Fox and/or Spotted Pony return to the Shawnee to seek reinforcements.
  • Carleton decides to refit several of his merchantmen in France as warships to engage in the naval war.
New York
  • Complications with Pieter and Howe.
  • Elizabeth carries intelligence to Congress, meeting with John Adams and others.
  • Progress of negotiations with France and Spain.
3. 1st Crisis and Turning Point
  • Pieter learns the truth.
4. 2nd Turning Point—Campaign 1777
  • Red Fox and/or Spotted Pony return to Morristown with a mixed party from the tribes.
  • Battles of Bennington, Brandywine, Germantown.
  • Elizabeth’s covert activities increasingly put her in danger.
  • Elizabeth learns her parents and Abby are returning to Boston.
5. Main Crisis and Turning Point—Saratoga
  • Carleton and his Rangers join General Gates at Saratoga.
  • Americans defeat Burgoyne, ending the British quest to split the colonies along the Hudson.
Act 3—Denouement
  • Tess leaves for Boston to prepare for the Howards’ return.
  • Howe prepares to move against Philadelphia.
  • Andrews and Blue Sky face a painful decision
  • Carleton and Elizabeth take leave of each other and Elizabeth returns to NY.
  • Setup for vol. 5.

Teachings abound on this well known story structure (as do opinions of its usefulness for novel writers), favored by screenwriters in particular. Googling it will turn up quite a few sites and resources. Here's one.
Earlier this week as I was starting this process I read a great blog post from author Ann Tatlock, over at Novel Journey. It's all about taking the time to listen to our characters before we push ahead with the writing.

For the past week I've combined Ann's advice with Joan's outline, and spent much time thinking this story through, daydreaming, reading over the gradually expanding outline again and again, adding details, turns and twists, the all important conflict, and generally spending more than usual time researching the relevant history and setting and frontier cultures. I now have a seven page single spaced outline, broken into three acts, and a story that's more heavily plotted from the outset than any that have come before it.

Still, there are aspects of the story that aren't clear to me. The spiritual thread is one. I suspect, but I don't yet know, what the spiritual thread of the story will look like. I never do until I've started writing, whether I've plotted the story to a fair-thee-well or am flying by the seat of my pants. Pretty early on the characters will tell me what's in the depths of their souls, what they need to work out between themselves and God.

For now though I'm seeing one great benefit of all this plotting and structure: I'm less intimidated by the mountain before me than I've been at the start of a novel since I finished my first, caught my breath, looked down to see how far I'd climbed and got a bit dizzy at the thought of doing it again. And again.
chess photo by Mrs Logic, flickr

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Review: The Land Breakers

Here follows my contribution to Historical Tapestry blog's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2011, for the leafless and chilly month of February, in hopes of brightening it just that wee bit for fellow historical fiction lovers.

Review: The Land Breakers, by John Ehle

John Ehle's The Land Breakers, first published in 1964, contains some of the best portrayal of 18th century mountain settlement I've ever read. The book reads like living history, and I can only wonder how I've missed this author all these years.

The year is 1779. Mooney Wright, a hard-working, deep-thinking young man, and his wife, Imy, both newly released from their indentured servitude, arrive in Morganton, North Carolina, in search of a parcel of land to begin building their new lives. Though reluctant at first, Mooney ends up leading his wife into the back country, to a high valley surrounded by higher mountains, an untamed land without doctors, schools, churches, or roads (even neighbors at first), abounding in dangers from the two-footed as well as the four-footed, with settlements few and far between. Together Imy and Mooney clear a spot of land and build a cabin.

Winter exacts a heavy price on the couple before others arrive to settle in the mountain valley. Ehle introduces us to Tinkler Harrison, a determined man with big plans for a settlement and the kind of people he believes should be allowed to live there. Not high on the list of prospective neighbors is his son-in-law, the lazy, bedraggled Ernest Plover, with his long-suffering wife and passel of pale-haired girl children, the most memorable of which is Pearlamina (Mina), who develops romantic intentions toward Mooney Wright.

Of all the unforgettable characters in this novel, Tinkler Harrison's married-but-abandoned daughter, Lorry, was for me the most memorable, along with Mooney Wright, with whom her story is closely intertwined.

Just as much a character as the men and women who come to populate this back country settlement is the Appalachian mountain setting. Ehle's prose is lyrical in places, in his description of the beauty of the land filtered through the eyes and sensibilities of Mooney Wright, Tinkler Harrison, his daughter Lorry, and Mina Plover.

I could recommend this book simply for Ehle's vivid portrayal of the purely practical struggle of pioneering life, both its hardships and its frolics, its triumphs and tragedies--including battles against the elements, too little food, inadequate clothing, wild animals, illness, births and deaths that cause some characters to lose their way or give up hope, while others rise beyond what they thought themselves capable to clear their land and plant their crops and carve out a life in the rugged, brooding mountains. But it's also a riveting story, with scenes that will remain alive for me for a long time, scenes including poisonous snakes, livestock droves, a girl lost in mountain fog, but topping the list is an epic hunt to bring down a marauding bear that is more harrowing than anything I've read in a long while.

The Land Breakers, by John Ehle: Recommended!