Craft

What’s the Problem?

My office receives many submissions with the hypothesis that a protagonist thinks s/he’s living the perfect life until it falls apart. This is a great premise!

What is a perfect life? Most of us have an idea of what the world thinks of as an ideal life and what seems to be the “perfect” life we can live as Christians. Therefore, the reader doesn’t need to spend much time living the protagonist’s perfect life before being presented with the problem the story seeks to address. 

Allow me to submit a beginning I wrote to a book I doubt I’ll finish:

Capri smiled into the mirror, admiring her veneers. Whitening toothpaste and her electric toothbrush helped her maintain a flawless appearance for her popular – and profitable – podcasts.

She’d just finished lining her lips in fuschia with her Yves St. Laurent Dessin Des Levres pencil when her daughter, Haisley, interrupted. 

“I’ve got news.”

“Let me guess. Your first college acceptance came in.”

Haisley shook her head. “No. I’m not going to college.”

“What?” 

“Mom!” Dior hollered from the foyer. “It’s for you!”

Capri hadn’t even heard the doorbell ring. She lifted her index finger toward Haisley. “Hold that thought.”

Careful to stay in the previously drawn lines, Capri colored her lips with a stick of Tom Ford’s Pretty Persuasive. Then, rushing through the owner’s suite, she noticed a folded paper with her name on it in her husband’s script on the bed. The letter would have to wait too.

“Who could be calling this early?” She navigated down one of the two curved staircases to greet her unwanted visitor.

A man in a business suit awaited. “Capri Nowland?”

“Yes.”

He handed her a manilla envelope. “You have been served.”

In 185 words, the reader has a sense of Capri’s life and has learned about three problems. We know where the book is headed. Either the reader is hooked or not hooked. It’s all about the reader.

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When Editorial Errors Matter

by Steve Laube

Writers make mistakes. It happens. Often an editor’s job is to be the safety net and catch those tidbits that find their way into an early draft of a manuscript for any number of reasons.

The simplicity of “cut & paste” has created more opportunity for error than ever before. I’ve seen half sentences left in their original place because the writer failed to cut and paste accurately. Many books evolve over time with additional research or new thoughts. Errors can creep in this way. I’ve seen an author actually contradict himself between chapters. There are too many details to keep straight so the writer overlooks the inconsequential trusting the editor to fix things. I remember talking to a Bethany House editor who revealed that an author accidently brought a character back to life, forgetting that the character had died earlier in the story.

None of the above examples ever found their way into the final edition of the book and the public never knew the error was made. An editor caught it and fixed it. That is why errors found in a finished and published book are so jarring.

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Books Are Signposts Along the Way

By Steve Laube

The novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is a series of stories linked together in the small town of Macondo in South America. It is surrounded by a swamp and thus is known for its isolation.

One day the town was infected by a plague which causes insomnia. The people of the town were not unhappy at first because it meant there was more time to get things done. But there was more to this plague. In addition to insomnia they began to lose their memory. Marquez called it the loss of “the name and notion of things.”

They countered these symptoms by writing names on things or pinning signs to them. You would walk around the town and see the words “clock,” “chair,” “dog,” “wall,” and so on. But they were afraid they would forget the purpose of the items. So they would write longer and more elaborate signs with instructions.

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The Dreaded Blank Page

by Steve Laube

A clean slate. An empty canvas. A fresh start. A new beginning.
Or a potential nightmare of guilt, failure, and shame.

Thus begins the process of each writing project. This blog post began with a blank page. I wondered why I ever agreed to write a blog. I procrastinated with enough excuses to be described as legion. I told myself that no one cares what I think on any subject.

Once my episode of complaining was done I began to write. Each of my posts begins in a Moleskine notebook written by hand. The pages are littered with half-started ideas and incomplete thoughts. And this was no exception. Today’s post is the fourth one that received some scratches.

The blank page is the universal place where every writer begins. And in that moment and in that place all things are equal.

A place where the artist begins creating verba ex nihilo.*

A place of immeasurable potential and endless possibilities.

A place upon which a treasure map is drawn leading a reader to riches unimagined.

A place where worlds are spun into existence.

A place of creation, inspiration, and wonder.

Remember this as you fill today’s blank page:

The world will be a little different tomorrow because of what you write today.

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The Story We Bring to the Story

by Steve Laube

With all the discussion about the craft of fiction and the need to write a great story there is one thing missing in the equation. The one thing that is the secret to great fiction. And it is the one thing the writer cannot control.

That one thing is the story the reader brings with them to their reading experience. As a reader I have the life I have lived, the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, and the places I’ve been that I bring with me into the world your novel has created. This makes the reading of every story unique. No two people can read the same story the same way. This is why one person’s favorite book is another’s thrift store giveaway.

In the new memoir The End of Your Life Book Club author Will Schwable writes about the books he read with his Mom during the last years of her life. In his introduction he wrote something profound:

We all have  a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother’s favorite books without thinking of her—and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.

This is the secret to the greatest novels of all time. They were written in such a way that my story, the essence of who I am, merged with that story and it became something new. Something unique. Something inexplicable. A new story. And then became a part of who I am…and a part what I bring to the next story I read.

That’s the story I want to read. Can you write it? I can’t wait to read it.

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A Literary Agent’s Wish List

People often ask me, “What are you looking for?” It’s a natural question to ask a literary agent, even when the questioner knows that the agent has offered a detailed answer on the agency website (here, for example). After all, something could’ve changed. I may, since updating my interests, have …

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Ancient Wisdom from an Ancient Editor

by Steve Laube

I came across a remarkable section in a book written around 124 B.C. The editor of the book wrote the following preface to help the reader understand his methodology and purpose. It shows the concern a good editor has for the ultimate reader. His job was to abridge a massive five volume work into an abbreviated 16,00 word document. Can anyone tell me where this comes from and the name of the editor? (Without googling the text!) I’ll reveal the answer in the comments later in the day.

The number of details and the bulk of material can be overwhelming for anyone who wants to read an account of the events. But I have attempted to simplify it for all readers; those who read for sheer pleasure will find enjoyment and those who want to memorize the facts will not find it difficult.

Writing such a summary is a difficult task, demanding hard work and sleepless nights. It is as difficult as preparing a banquet that people of different tastes will enjoy. But I am happy to undergo this hardship in order to please my readers. I will leave the matter of details to the original author and attempt to give only a summary of the events.

I am not the builder of a new house who is concerned with every detail of the structure, but simply a painter whose only concern is to make the house look attractive. The historian must master his subject, examine every detail, and then explain it carefully, but whoever is merely writing a summary should be permitted to give a brief account without going into a detailed discussion. So then, without any further comment, I will begin my story. It would be foolish to write such a long introduction that the story itself would have to be cut short.

Note a few pearls of eternal wisdom from this ancient editor:

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Your Words Can Be More Powerful Than Technology

Today’s guest post is by Laura L. Smith. She is a best-selling author and speaker who lives in the picturesque college town of Oxford, Ohio, where you’ll find her running the wooded trails, strolling the brick streets, teaching Bible study at her local church, shopping at the Saturday morning farmer’s …

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