Craft

Books Are Signposts Along the Way

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 that 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. For example, this is what was looped around the neck of the cow: “This is the cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk.”

This literary exploration of collective amnesia made me think of the purpose of writing books and publishing in general. Writing is a thankless task during the process. But the finished work is a “signpost,” a place of memory or experience. A place where a traveler can go, sit for a while, and later move to another signpost having been affected by their previous reading. Without these books, our society would forget where we came from and where we should be going.

In a small way each book being written, whether for entertainment, education, or inspiration, is a signpost. A stopping place with a set goal of direction. When driving you see signs: “Stop,” “Yield,” “Slow, children crossing,” “No parking,” and more. But even something as simple as the roadside mile marker tells us that we are one step closer to our destination.

Bear with me for a moment and think of the “signs” we find in Scripture. Ones that point to greater things to come (emphasis added):

“I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:12-14).

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:13-15).

“And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger”
(Luke 2:11-13).

Think about the sign that your book is creating. Signs like “Hope,” “Love,” “Redemption,” “Joy,” “Lament,” “Restoration,” “Create,” or “Beauty.” Make your sign unique and one that makes a reader stop and sit a while.

[Unfortunately, while writing this, the 1971 hit song “Signs” by The Five Man Electrical Band kept playing in my mind. (https://bit.ly/3zXnIlO)]

Your Turn

What is written on the “sign” for your book (fiction or nonfiction)? It can be a single word or two or a phrase up to six words (short enough to remember).

[This is a revised version of a post from December 2012.]

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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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Proofreading: Tips and Tricks

[Since today, March 8th, is National Proofreading Day I thought I would re-post this article from a few years ago, with some revisions. I’ve left the comments attached below since so many were illustrative. Please add new thoughts as well.] I have regularly displayed my lack of proofreading skills in …

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A Cliché Simile Is a Bad Simile

One of the many things I fairly harp on when I teach at writers conferences (full disclosure: I’m a fair harper) is the need to eliminate clichés from your writing. Seriously, they’re old hat.  One of the places clichés seem to creep in most often is in similes and metaphors. …

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A Writer’s “Voice”

A couple months ago I asked some of my clients if there are terms they hear in writing and publishing that they wish someone would clearly and conclusively define. One said this: “Professionals say, ‘Find your voice,’ ‘Trust your voice,’ ‘Embrace your voice.’ I can recognize another writer’s voice, but …

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