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PENCON

I was down in Nashville this week for the sixth annual PENCON, which is (as far as I know) the only conference for editors working specifically in the CBA market. PENCON was in Grand Rapids last year, just minutes from my publishing house, so most of our editorial staff attended. This year I was the only representative from our team.

I was also on faculty, presenting two sessions on “Editing for Suspense in Fiction” and “Fiction Techniques in Nonfiction.” Since I’m a fiction writer as well as an editor, both sessions were fun and personally enriching to develop. I expected to be very nervous—the last time I presented an academic paper at the Children’s Literature Association, I felt sick the whole day—but I felt surprisingly calm during both sessions. (I did feel like a total impostor sitting on a faculty panel next to Bob Hudson, who worked at Zondervan for thirty-plus years and is a legend in the CBA world, but that’s another story.) Presenting at the conference reminded me that I do miss prepping lessons and being in the classroom, especially leading discussion, so I need to find more outlets for my dormant teacher side.

I was able to attend many excellent sessions as well, on everything from the physiology of proofreading to upcoming genre trends to foreshadowing in speculative fiction to the minutiae of publishing style (is it Jesus’ or Jesus’s?). I learned lots of new things, took lots of notes, and was given lots of fresh ways to look at editorial problems I come across on a regular basis. Spending a couple of days intentionally analyzing the nuts and bolts of editing and discussing best practices gets me excited about the work and ready to jump back in.

PENCON was also a great chance to catch up with some industry friends I haven’t seen for a while, and to make new connections. Several freelancers who edit projects for my publishing house were there, and I got to put faces to names and learn more about them personally. I brought home a stack of business cards too and a long note on my phone of people to send proofreading tests to, editing resources to share with people, connections to make between people I met at the conference and others at my publishing house, and so on. Some of my favorite conversations were the random moments between sessions or in the hallway where I’d get to chatting with someone about the significance of the changing seasons in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms or whether Western culture is still stuck in a modernist mind-set (rather than postmodern one).

Like many (most?) editors, I’m quite introverted, so it’s also good when the conference ends, and I get to go home and get some alone time to recharge. But there is something important about getting together with my “tribe,” comparing notes, and geeking out about books. PENCON is one of those conferences I hope I get back to.

Am I Making My Manuscript Better?

I’m well into editing Act III of my portal fantasy manuscript, and I’ve reached that point where I can’t tell if I’m making the book any better or not.

Since my initial read-through, I’ve known the final hundred pages are where the major edits need to happen. But now that I’m in the thick of it, I keep on second-guessing myself. Does deleting this scene pick up the pacing without sacrificing characterization? Do the changes I’ve already made to the timeline now make this plot point redundant? Will reintroducing this character from Act II make this sequence more cohesive, or will it simply add noise?

I’m partly shook up because this week I received feedback on my query letter and sample chapter for my zombie novel from someone who works in the industry.  Which, don’t get me wrong, is great. I’m very appreciative for professional feedback. However, I was disheartened that she basically said, “There’s too much exposition; there’s too much description; the pacing is too slow.” If anything, I’d previously wondered if too much happens in the prologue, so to have someone suggest the complete opposite has me questioning my judgment as a writer and editor.

It also doesn’t help that many agents’ form rejections include some version of, “The publishing industry is subjective; just because I don’t resonant with your story doesn’t mean another agent won’t want it.” In other words, what one person finds compelling may not grab a different reader, and what someone considers fast-paced may just be normally paced for another. This becomes self-evident if I simply talk to my friends about what movies and books they’re currently enjoying.

As an editor, I’ve been on the other side of the desk and wondered the same thing. I can be deep into an edit—on a nonfiction or fiction project—where I’m restructuring content, suggesting significant additions, streamlining the prose. And I catch myself asking questions: Will readers engage better with the content after these edits? Will this strengthen the storytelling? Am I staying true to the author’s voice? Of course, at some level these questions are simply good practice to keep editors in their “place” as supporters. But the implicit question under the questions remains: For whom are these edits better? After all, not all readers are made equal.

I remember reading a blog post from N. K. Jemisin after she published The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. She described how she worked on several manuscripts that she thought were the “right” kind of books for the market, but they never went anywhere. Then she decided to write the book she actually wanted to read, and out came Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It was a positive blog post, encouraging new writers to write for themselves and write from the heart. And on good days, I agree with her.

But when I’m 230 pages into editing a manuscript and not sure whether I’m making it any better, I instead ask: It’s fine and dandy that I like what I’m writing, but will anyone else resonant with it?

Foreshadowing

I’ve been making an effort to weave in more foreshadowing and callbacks into my portal fantasy manuscript.

Quest narratives, by nature of the beast, come with a lot of location changes and secondary characters who only show up for one scene or chapter, so I’m having trouble making the manuscript feel cohesive. I worry that the individual episodes are too disparate and don’t move the main quest farther along enough. Especially because the protagonist is so doubtful that her quest will lead where she hopes, the middle act has an aimless quality that is both true to the character and potentially frustrating for readers.

Perhaps I’m banking too heavily on foreshadowing to help pull these middle episode into a satisfying whole, but I’ve long been intrigued by how automatically the human brain seems to take foreshadowing in stride. If I mention a character’s green V-neck shirt once on page 20 and bring it back on page 210, readers will instantly remember the first mention of the shirt and begin making connections between the two scenes (provided the shirt has been described in enough detail to make it stand out as significant to the plot, of course). Even the use of an unusual word can remind readers of an earlier moment—again provided that the word hasn’t been overused throughout the manuscript and so lost its specificity.

On a broader level than words or objects, part of the structure of recurrence I’m trying to build into the manuscript revolves around the protagonist’s husband’s backstory. Her husband hasn’t told the protagonist key aspects of his history, but these details are slowly revealed throughout the novel. Readers get the protagonist’s incomplete understanding of her husband’s story in the first few chapters, but then other characters tell alternate, fuller versions of his story. These callbacks (hopefully) help to drive the main quest forward while also building suspense, as crucial information is still missing until the end of the book.

Now that I’m writing this, I wonder how much I’ve unconsciously modeled this aspect of my book on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. My favorite part of Azkaban is Harry slowly unraveling the truth about the Marauder’s Map and who his parents were as teenagers. The different memories of friends and rivals create a complicated and contradictory picture of Lily and James that is only resolved satisfactorily for Harry during the confrontation in the Shrieking Shack.

We’ll see how my theory of foreshadowing works in practice once beta readers who aren’t familiar with every detail of the manuscript start offering me feedback. If the callbacks are too far apart, or not highlighted enough, readers may read right past them without picking up on their significance. Or if I’m too heavy-handed with the foreshadowing, readers may feel less curious about the withheld information and more frustrated that I didn’t have more compelling action to keep the plot going. Like so much in life, I suppose moderation is the key.

Richard III

I got to see Pigeon Creek Shakespeare’s Richard III last night. If you live in West Michigan and haven’t checked out Pigeon Creek (https://www.pcshakespeare.com), you absolutely should. When I moved back from Boston three years ago, I made a point of checking out local theater groups, and happily I stumbled into Dog Story Theater for their performance of Richard Sheridan’s School for Scandal. I’ve been going to as many of their shows as I can since then.

I’m more of a comedy guy when it comes to Shakespeare, I’ve never read Richard III, and the only version I’ve seen is the 1995 film with Ian McKellen, which is set in 1930s Britain with McKellen playing a fascist-sympathizing Richard—not the most faithful adaptation ever. Still, it prepared me for the blood bath that is the play’s plot, as Richard murders his way through several rival Lancasters, his brother, two nephews, and his wife. In classic Shakespearean style, there are some comedic moments provided by bumbling assassins as well as witty exchanges of furious wordplay, but the momentum of the play is almost wholly negative as the royal family fractures, alliances are betrayed, and the country dissolves into civil war.

Richard is so unlikeable that, beyond the fascinating horror (in its classic Romantic sense) of his complete disregard for anyone else’s well-being, I found myself engaging more with the scenes where he is absent, or less central. For example, when Queen Margaret, the widowed wife of the deposed Lancaster king, strides onto the set and calls down curses on the Yorkist nobles (Richard, Elizabeth, Buckingham), she brings an emotional strength that Richard’s unfeeling power grab doesn’t have for me. Margaret’s anguish and anger are palpable as she goes from screaming imprecations to slinking up behind Richard and whispering his downfall in his ear.

My favorite scene, though, was between Margaret, Elizabeth, and the Duchess of York (Richard’s mother). Ostensibly on different sides of the Wars of the Roses, the three queens share the grief of having lost their husbands and sons to war and treason, as they share their fear of what Richard has done to the country and plans to do. (Yes, it doesn’t exactly pass the Bechdel test . . .) As a villain who creates problems for the other characters to grapple with, Richard is a wonderfully successful character, even if he isn’t complex and does really have a growth arc. Rather, it’s characters like the queens who create empathy with the audience and develop over the course of the play (such as Margaret and the Duchess of York, who go from opposition to tenuous connection).

As a speculative fiction writer, I also loved the supernatural element of all the ghosts of Richard’s victims appearing to curse him before the Battle of Bosworth Field. Although the final action of the play is Richard’s death during the battle, the ghostly curses, I would argue, provide the emotional climax/payoff, as they are the last words between Richard and many of the major characters. The troupe added a lovely touch of blocking, as each of the dead characters had a heraldic silk hanging as part of the backdrop, and they each laid their herald on Richard as they cursed him.

I’m pretty sure Richard III will never rank as one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. But it was an excellent production, and I’m already looking forward to Pigeon Creek’s summer show, Romeo and Juliet.

Nonverbal Characters

I’m not exactly sure why, back in 2014 when I started drafting my portal fantasy novel, I thought it was such a great idea to saddle my main character with not one but three side characters who can’t speak.

It’s a quest narrative too, so there are literally pages and pages where the heroine is traveling through unfamiliar territory with her ten-month-old daughter, a horse, and a lion.

The only problem is I still like the book and the characters. In some ways, the central conflict is psychological, and the heroine’s emotional isolation is on purpose, as are the strategic interruptions by characters with whom she can discuss her concerns and receive feedback. And even though the other three characters she travels with are all nonverbal, they each have a unique relationship with the heroine that develops over the course of the book, as well as relationships with each other.

The baby is probably the easiest of the nonverbal characters to work with, because she is broadly communicative and has human desires and problems. Without words, she still has plenty of facial expressions; she fusses and cries and smiles and giggles; she crawls and is curious and experiences developmental milestones during the book. Most of the babies I’ve read/seen lately in books and TV shows are unfailingly sweet-tempered (I’m looking at you, Keeping Faith), so I’ve tried to give Aida some attitude. But she’s a baby nonetheless, and her basic needs and responses aren’t terribly surprising, even if they are recognizable and relatable for readers.

The lion may be my favorite of the nonverbals, though, probably in no small part because I would love to have a magic lion who followed me around. He also has the most contentious relationship with the heroine, which repeatedly leads to misunderstanding and frustration (and maybe even some mystery for the reader). Conveying this without dialogue can be difficult, especially without reusing specific phrases, cues, or actions. There is, after all, only so many times that the lion can swish his tail with displeasure, or growl, or stare at things with his golden eyes. It’s a challenge I enjoy, however, and it allows me to explore a different sort of character dynamic.

The horse, poor thing, is just a horse. She’s a lovely horse—quick-witted and loyal—but nothing magical whatsoever, and her relationship with the heroine is pretty much as expected. She likes carrots and getting rubbed down, and she mostly does what she’s asked, although I occasionally have to ask Google to make sure I’m not having her gallop for absurd distances or carry too much for too many hours in a day. The horse has some interesting backstory—previous owners and that sort of thing—and the heroine’s attachment to her grows throughout the story.

I worry that having so many nonverbal characters makes the prose too thick on the page—dialogue is much less frequent than in my other manuscripts. But I figure a lot of the action and description is still interpersonal and communicative. Hopefully that’s what counts.

Blue October Live

I had the chance to see Blue October in concert last night, from which my ears are literally still ringing. (It’s okay—Google informs me that tinnitus after a rock concert may last for several days before I need to actually get worried.)

In a few words, it was fantastic. They played most of my favorites—I didn’t stop grinning through “Sway,” “King,” and “Home”—and I screamed myself hoarse singing along with crowd pleasers like “I Hope Your Happy,” “I Want It,” and “Calling You.” I heard a few songs I didn’t know; apparently I need to catch up on their 2009 album, Approaching Normal. And as always happens happily in concert, they played a few songs that I don’t go out of my way to listen to, but hearing them live gave me a new appreciation for them (particularly “Debris” and “Fear”). Lead singer Justin Furstenfeld also did a short interlude/comedy sketch about his kids waking him up early on a Saturday as an introduction to “Home,” which had the audience laughing and cheering for him that, as he said, after ten years of terrible pain, he can now say thank you every day for his life.

In the days leading up to the concert, I found myself explaining to friends and coworkers who Blue October is (“They’re an emo rock band from the aughts”), and waiting in line to get into the concert, I felt a little out of place. I texted my sister: “I must be in the right line, because someone’s playing Blue October on their phone, but I didn’t get the memo to wear lots of black.” She quipped back that she should’ve helped me with my eyeliner before I went. And the venue, The Machine Shop in Flint, Michigan, was suitably branded with skulls inside and out, and chain-link fencing separated audience members from backstage.

I have my romantic/gothic sensibilities to be sure, but waiting for the show, I asked myself why I’m such a Blue October fan. By the end of the concert, the answer was obvious. In their music and lyrics, Blue October lean into emotional honesty, and they use the full color palette. I know the pain behind “Hate Me” is as real as the beaming smile on Justin’s face as he shouted his wife’s name over and over during “How to Dance in Time.” They played with openness and invited their audience into their lives and experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Many of my favorite books and movies do the same thing, I’ve noticed. Part of Harry Potter’s global appeal, I would argue, is that J. K. Rowling strikes a delicate balance between warmth and humor, and struggle and seriousness. The bantering friendships and romantic misadventures of Half-Blood Prince aren’t pitted against but hang together with the troubling details of Voldemort’s past and the tragedy of Dumbledore’s death. Dorothy Sayers’s Harriet Vane quartet manages a similar balance between the playfulness of Harriet and Peter Wimsey’s relationship and the disturbing murders they solve.

If I’m not careful, my own books tend toward the dark and melancholic (one might even say gothic). But I’m trying more and more to build emotionally well-rounded stories, and taking cues from Blue October wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Suspense in Fiction

I had an unexpected lull in my workflow on Thursday, which gave me a chance to start developing a presentation I’m giving in May about “Editing for Suspense in Fiction.” Apart from reminding me that I miss prepping for class from my teacher days, it was a good chance to read up on the nuts and bolts of what literary suspense is, how it functions, where and how best to use it, etc. (Plot graphs for Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter may or may not have been involved.)

It also inevitably got me thinking about how I use suspense in my own fiction. Am I using a good balance of internal/interpersonal and plot/external suspense? Do I allow for enough space between action for anxiety and worry to build up? Do I mix short-term suspense in individual scenes with sustained narrative suspense throughout the entire story?

I touched on this in an earlier post, but I’ve been struggling with the pacing in the middle act of my portal fantasy novel, and suspense gives me a different angle to look at the structural soundness of the manuscript. Sustained narrative suspense is present—the central question of the book is called back repeatedly, and it directly affects the choices and movement of the protagonist—but too often the narrative suspense stands on its own. There isn’t a lot of short-term suspense from scene to scene, and because the conflict of the book is so focused and there aren’t a lot of side plots, it’s hard to tie together suspense elements from the various plot threads.

Another bit of advice that struck me was from a Writer’s Digest article by Steven James, who cautions that action often dispels suspense. He gave the example of romantic suspense, where storytellers usually draw out the will-they-won’t-they of the relationship for as long as possible, because once the romantic partners are together (or break apart), the tension eases. This helped me recognize an apprehension I’ve had for a while about my WWII zombie novel I’m shopping to agents right now, because both the prologue and chapter one include action scenes. I intentionally made them fairly different in mood and blocking, but I have wondered if the reader needs more breathing space between the two conflicts—which could potentially up the suspense factor.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve had both positive and negative responses from agents about the opening chapters, so I haven’t decided yet if they “aren’t suspenseful enough” and I should go back and change them, or if they’re the way they need to be. It seems like an oversimplification to say more suspense is always better, and as mentioned above, suspense comes in all shapes and sizes. (One of the most suspenseful movies I’ve ever watched is Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, which, when boiled down, is a sci-fi romance, with no spies or wars or shocking betrayals.) But in preparing for my presentation, I’m certainly finding suspense to be a useful lens for looking at my own work.

The Turquoise Ledge

I’ve been very slowly listening to the audiobook of Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Turquoise Ledge. I read her novel Ceremony in an American literature course back in college, and her depictions of the horrors of the World War II Pacific theater (specifically the Bataan Death March) as well as native Pueblo culture and mythology were fascinating and eye-opening to me. I’ve been meaning to return to her work for a long time now.

Turquoise Ledge is a memoir, and especially compared to Ceremony, it is a remarkably gentle book. Pages upon pages simply describe Silko’s walks in the arroyos in the Sonoran Desert near her house in Arizona, where she collects pieces of turquoise of all shapes and sizes. She details the types of flowers and cacti in her garden, when in the day she goes out to water her plants and animals (she keeps a large menagerie of dogs and macaws), what time of year the wild bees and hummingbirds pass by her house, and under which outbuildings and geological features various rattlesnakes and racers live. Interspersed are stories of her native and Mexican family history, native mythology related to the local animals and weather patterns, and explorations of the portraits she’s painting of cloud patterns and star beings.

Both as an editor and as a writer, I’ve lately been immersed in the stricter forms of genre fiction and prescriptive nonfiction. When I’m editing nonfiction, I’m often working with authors to organize their chapters so they don’t repeat content and instead build a logical progression from topic to topic. Or in editing my own manuscripts, I’m trying to make my dialogue and action snappy and fast-paced to keep readers turning pages.

So at first, the rhythm Silko sustains throughout Turquoise Ledge felt jarring to me. It took me a bit to settle into the narrative and trust the seeming repetitions and the way that Silko returns over and over to different threads, such as her walks in the arroyos or her dogs’ fraught relationships with the rattlesnakes that live on her property. But once I got over my expectations of what a book “should” be like, I found the narrative engrossing and even hypnotic in places.

The eclecticism of Silko’s book was also part of what made it engrossing for me. Silko’s life is not simply different from mine in one or two ways but in pretty much every way. Even simple things like the climate she lives in and its flora and fauna are vastly different from mine (in the northern Midwest), to say nothing of the mythological stories her aunts told her when she was growing up or her experiences of communicating with cloud and star spirits. Several of the chapters end with lists of words and phrases in Nahuatl (Aztec) related to the topic at hand, and these sit side by side with chapters about her favorite Emily Dickinson poems or long tirades against her neighbor who is pillaging natural resources from the nearby national park.

It isn’t surprising, I suppose, since Turquoise Ledge is a memoir after all, but the unassuming intimacy of Silko inviting readers into her daily patterns, concerns, history, and artistic practices ultimately comes across as very generous of her and a quiet joy for the reader.

Short Fiction

I was recently talking to (read: complaining to) a friend who is also an editor and a fiction writer. I had just gotten a no from an agent who had been looking at my book, and very excitingly, she had just signed with an agent to represent her historical suspense novel.

“Have you considered selling some short fiction to work on your byline?” my friend suggested.

I didn’t explain right then that I have never enjoyed writing short stories. I write largely for my characters’ emotional, interior journeys, and I take a while to really get to know my characters and get invested. So writing short stories has always felt a little forced to me, like I’m trying to produce a strong emotional connection and a satisfying twist ending (what James Joyce called an “epiphany”—no pressure at all to make the conclusion feel significant!) in two thousand words.

My friend gave me the name of a magazine she enjoys, and not expecting much, I trolled around the submission page. They stipulated that they do not accept scenes from novel-length projects but they have no problem with characters or locations developed in larger works.

Perhaps stupidly, writing short fiction with characters from my novels hadn’t occurred to me. But once I considered the possibility, a few ideas came quite easily. What if I explored what happened to one character after he’s separated from his companion who’s the POV in my novel? Or what if I developed more of what another character got up to during her weeklong stay in a city? Not only was I already curious about these situations and the inner conflicts, but the characters feel psychologically fleshed out in a way that’s always been hard for me in short fiction.

As mentioned in my post last week, I’ve been obsessively watching a BBC art show, and so I’ve been thinking of these short fiction pieces as kind of like the preparatory sketches that artists make when leading up to a big oil painting. My novel is still the main piece I’m working on right now, but I’m learning more about my characters by having them interact with different people, or by seeing them from other points of view. And at the same time I’m working on creating what feel like complete pieces in very controlled word counts.

Working on short fiction also makes me feel a bit like some of my favorite modernist writers, who began with short fiction before publishing their novels. I think particularly of Hemingway, who described writing some of his early stories in Paris in his retrospective memoir, Moveable Feast. Of course, he was writing with rose-tinted glasses about a much earlier time in his life, and he was largely living off of his first wife’s money when he was starting as a writer.

I clearly don’t live in Paris, and I rarely go out to cafes to write, but I’m still enjoying the challenge of writing short fiction, honing my craft, and maybe even breaking into the market.