Saturday, December 27, 2008

Book Review: Just As I Am

I've just finished reading Virginia Smith's book, Just As I Am. It's brilliant, funny, tender, saucy, heart-rending, heart-warming and full of surprises.

The first surprise is Mayla.

Mayla Strong is the last person you’d expect to get dunked by the handsome young preacher into the baptismal font. She even surprises herself, but somewhere on the way down the aisle to the front of the church she finds Jesus, or maybe He finds her, and she goes under without a thought about how her purple hair will affect the water or how the water will affect her multiple body piercings.

Her baptism is the first in a series of delightfully unexpected happenings—in her life, in the life of the small country church that cautiously receives her into the fold, and in the lives of her non-Christian friends, who stare, dumbfounded, until they begin to see the results of her “screwball” decision and decide it might not be such a bad thing after all.

Just As I Am is a beautiful picture of how God loves us, redeems us, uses us and delights in us, just as we are. It’s a picture of how He changes us, yet leaves our unique personalities intact, for His own personal enjoyment and for the benefit of others whom He loves and longs to bring into His arms as well.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Cautions on the Use of Deep POV

Deep POV, or writing from behind your POV character’s eyes and from within their body, as well as from their mind (see previous post), is a great writing technique, but like any other device, it should be used judiciously and in balance.* The caution against “too much of a good thing” applies in writing as well as in life. Overuse of any single writing device becomes “unnecessary repetition” every bit as much as overuse of a particular word or phrase in a passage. Your reader wants variety—in types of characters, in actions, in words, in sentence structure, and in perspective, or POV.

Sometimes, in longer works, you will satisfy that desire for variety in POV by switching (properly) from one character’s point of view to another’s. But if you write predominantly from one character’s POV, you will also need to provide a variety of visual and mental spaces between the reader and your character. A novel full of uninterrupted deep POV from the perspective of one character can become either extremely boring or extremely exhausting, or both.

Have you ever gone through a time in your life of intense, uninterrupted navel-gazing? Maybe it’s just my temperament, but I have a tendency to do that. The result is a mental form of cabin fever. My world shrinks to the confines of my skull and I get depressed, or extremely bored, and I go stir crazy. Dragging your reader through a novel full of deep POV will do the same thing to them.

At the beginning of your novel, when you want your protagonist to capture the heart of your reader, you will use deep POV a lot. This stage of the story is like the honeymoon. Your protagonist and your reader need to become intimately acquainted and intensely connected long enough to forge a love affair that will last beyond the pages of the book. So here deep POV is most effective.

But honeymoons don’t last. At some point the lovers have to come up for air and begin to relate to “the real world” (in this case, the world of your story). There will be a moving away from each other, at least for periods of time, so they can breathe and integrate the new relationship into the rest of their lives. The intimacy is still there. It’s been well established. But their connectedness with each other becomes an almost unconscious backdrop to the unfolding of their common story.

So as your story moves along, you may find yourself using deep POV less extensively, and in certain situations you will avoid it altogether. Even that big no-no, “telling,” is appropriate in places. When you bring your character and reader out of an intense situation, when you prepare to move them from one scene to another, when you want to give your reader a broader perspective, or when you want to vary the pace or intensity of the action—for whatever reason, there will be times when you want to pull back from the inside of your POV, in varying degrees.
So the key is, again, that great old cliché, “moderation in everything.” We don’t want to become so excited about a great writing technique that we inflict it on our readers too often.

That’s true of all our creative endeavors, actually. They should not be “manipulations”—deliberate twists and constructs of the material. The best way to create great art is to study great technique until it becomes an instinctive part of our creative process. Then we can create, without focusing on the technique, and trust the training to affect the creation positively and naturally.

And guiding all our deliberations about form and style should be that instinctive, story-teller’s sense of pace and process that drives the story, that makes the telling unselfconscious. That’s what will connect with the reader. That’s what will make for great writing.

*I'm using "they" and "them" in place of "his/her" in this text. A university English prof told me this is becoming a common way to avoid the awkwardness of using the gender-inclusive pronouns.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Deep Point of View

The other day I had a great visit with Meredith Efken,, an editor recommended to me by Randy Ingermannson, . I'll share an insight she gave me if you'll promise to check out her website (and her books--hilariously funny fiction!) so that this "free" advice I'm passing on to you from her will at least give her some publicity.

We were talking about POV. She says that though, technically, I do my main character's POV correctly, I'm still not taking my readers close enough to the inside of him for them to feel connected. It had never occurred to me that doing the POV from his mind wasn't enough. She said, in so many words, that I also need to put myself behind his EYES--to see the scene from his perspective. She pointed out that I'm describing what he sees, but from a distance. I'm looking at him in my mind as I write from his POV instead of looking at what he's looking at.

It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. A slight shift in my position—from Zinovy’s mind to his eyes—will bring the reader more immediately into the story.

Here’s an example, I can say, “Zinovy walked across the field, staring into the distance, pondering his problem.” or I can say, “Zinovy kicked the pebbles away from the side of the trail and looked up to the glowing horizon in the distance, pondering his problem.” The movement of my perspective from the distance to right behind Zinovy’s eyes automatically forces me to be more descriptive and it puts the reader into the scene instead of just in Zinovy’s head.

Meredith also pointed out that every time I use words like “he thought,” “pondered,” “believed,” in reference to my POV character I am again distancing the readers from Zinovy. I’m putting them just one step farther away. I am “telling” what is going on in his mind. If I leave those words out, I allow the reader instant access to his thoughts. So instead of saying, in the above scene, “. . .pondering his problem,” I could simply state the thought, as if I am quoting inner dialogue: “Zinovy kicked the pebbles away from the side of the trail and looked up to the glowing horizon in the distance. How to solve the problem?”

Speaking of inner dialogue, I hear rumors that some editors don’t like it. (Yes, Andy Meisenheimer, I acknowledge that you claim you have no idea where that urban myth about you started.) The problem seems to be that the italics required become too much of a distraction and make the dialogue too hard to read after a while. But the situation is easy to fix. All you have to do is take the statements out of italics and change the tense. For example, instead of, What do I do now? you might say, “What should he do now?”

Meredith’s advice was so helpful. I'm going to have to go through my scenes again, disciplining myself to "see" things through Zinovy’s eyes instead of mine, and not just "tell" things from his thoughts.

If any of you are having the same problem, I hope this helps. I heartily recommend Meredith if you need some manuscript tweaking. She has a full editorial service and she's good!

Deep point of view is not a new idea. The internet is full of helpful references. Just type the phrase into a search engine to find them. One of the best is an article by Camy Tang. Check it out, for sure:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Stranger Than Fiction

My trip home from the ACFW conference was an eleven-hour “planes, trains and automobiles” affair. I flew from Minneapolis to Seattle, took a shuttle from Seattle to downtown Vancouver, and then rode two city buses to get to my front door. It was a good trip. Gave me time to debrief my conference experience and make plans for the next “final” revisions. Gave me time to pray about publication perplexities. I wasn’t disappointed that I hadn’t found a publisher. I’d been through the process before and knew what not to expect. But it had been a long writing journey and the conference had seemed like the last opportunity for publication. I was out of options. Angie Hunt’s exhortation to walk obediently, day by day, trusting God with our dreams, was a comfort.

I arrived in Vancouver, midnight-tired at 10:00, and boarded the first of my two city buses. It was crowded. I dropped into one of the few available seats, behind the driver and across from a lively little man—one of “God’s odds.” He grinned at me.

“What’s the suitcase for? Goin’ away somewhere?”

“No, I’ve been. I’m heading home.”

“Where’d ya go?”

“To a conference.”

“What kind of conference?”

“A writing conference.”

“Oh. You’re a writer, are ya? What’d ya do at the conference, write?”

“No, I went to workshops and talked with editors to see if they wanted to buy my book.”

“Did any of them want it?”

“No. No one wanted it.”

“Why didn’t they want it? Not good enough?”

I was sure our fellow passengers were thinking, like I was, that this was too much information, but I didn’t know how to stop the flow without being deliberately rude.

“No, it’s good enough. They just didn’t want it.”

The dialogue continued, covering such diverse topics as: My husband: “Why would he let you go off by yourself?” My blue jeans: “Everyone can wear blue jeans. Old people. Young people. Doesn’t matter.” My kids: “Why does your son live so far away? Don’t ya get along?”

I finally reached my stop, said a fond farewell to my new friend and thanked the driver, who grinned up at me as I left. The second bus was not crowded, but for some reason I ignored the larger empty spaces and sat down next to a young woman.

“You did a good job talking to that man,” she said. I hadn’t seen her get off the other bus. “I was interested in your conversation about writing. I’m a writer too.”

We traded pitches. After hearing mine she said, “I’ve got a friend who’s a publisher. I think he might be interested in what you’ve got. He publishes books with spiritual themes. I’ll introduce you to him if you like.”

Later that night I sat at my computer, checking my e-mail. Her midnight posting, giving me her publisher’s web address, was at the top of the list. I looked at his offerings. Several fantasies—not too dark. An historical or two. And another book about a gay man who “stops at nothing to find a perfect love, and hope for a perfect peace.” I’d love to tap into this market audience.

I have a strong suspicion this publisher won’t want me either, but it’s the thought that counts. God’s thought. I see his hand so clearly in the serendipity of my bus encounters. He’s showing me that he can pluck a publisher out of a hat in my backyard if he wants to. He’s reminding me that a loving God is at work in our world. His purposes will be fulfilled, through the small, everyday occurrences of our lives. I’m warmed by the thought, and delighted by the unexpected reminder, on my way home, that God’s ways can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Something About the Writer

GINNY JAQUES is living proof that writers are ordinary people. She is an ordinary wife, mother, grandmother, high school teacher, lover of Words, lover of Truth, lover of God, and lover of His children.

She’s recently finished writing a novel that has been polished to within an inch of its life and is now looking for its publisher. She has contributed articles to her local community newspaper, The North Shore News, and British Columbia Teacher Magazine. She has edited community and church newsletters, written pithy letters to the editor and hilariously funny family Christmas letters that usually get mailed in March. She has also composed poems dedicated to each of her three darling granddaughters.

Ginny hates writing. It’s hard work and usually keeps her up too late at night. But something inside her says it has to be done, so she does it, muttering and complaining most of the time. Now and then she loses herself in a story and surfaces hours later with no sense that time has passed. Those times are kind of fun.