Writing as Craft…

craft of writingI recently read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Her debut novel, this highly imaginative tale runs deep with emotion and insight into human nature, and is beautifully written. For instance, take this lyrical description of the main character’s fragile faith in meaning, tested to breaking point by the hardship of life on the Alaskan frontier:

All her life she had believed in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses. It was the flutter of moth wings on glass and the promise of river nymphs in the dappled creek beds. It was the smell of oak trees on the summer evening she fell in love, and the way dawn threw itself across the cow pond and turned water to light.

From start to finish, Ivey’s prose – perfectly measured – gleams like the morning sun on newly fallen snow; little wonder it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. As such, reading The Snow Child made me realise how much fine-tuning I have yet to do on my own manuscript, and I have since begun a detailed line edit aimed at making every sentence read exactly the way I want it. Reading your own work in the light of something so expertly crafted can be dispiriting, but I’m always grateful for the spur to improve what I do. Also, although humbling, it’s a great comfort to be reminded that there is, after all, something that can be done to improve one’s writing.

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Reading the Bible as a Writer…

lion-and-lamb4C.S. Lewis once observed, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” The only palliative to the peculiar blindness of our own age, Lewis suggested elsewhere, ‘is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.’ When it comes to old books, they don’t get much older than the bible. For Christians, the benefits of studying God’s Word are well known. But Lewis’s remarks suggest an added benefit of reading the Bible, in particular for writers – Christian and non-Christian alike.
Unless contemporary writers test their vision against the wisdom and insight of former ages, they are likely to fall foul of the sort of error Lewis cautions against. But by keeping the ”clear sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” we can strengthen our guard against the kind of writing that would serve only to reinforce the distorted vision of our own age. At the recent Reading Like a Writer Seminar at Adelaide’s Tabor College of Higher of Education, Rev Dr Mark Worthing presented the following overview of why and how the Bible should be read by today’s aspiring authors.

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Characters & Viewpoint: A Review…

coverCharacters & Viewpoint (by Orson Scott Card)

A review by Dr Julia Archer

There are many books on how to write better fiction, and most of them can be helpful. But if you only have the time and finances to invest in one book, I recommend Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint. It’s a friendly and easy-to-follow guide that actually covers many more topics than the title suggests.

Card is a prolific and much-awarded author in many genres, beginning in the 1960s with stage plays and musical comedies, and progressing, via screenplays and short stories, to the first novel in his famed YA science fiction Ender’s Series (which has seen him twice awarded both Hugo and Nebula awards). His other fiction series range from traditional sci-fi to Biblical novels, contemporary fantasy to medieval fantasy reinvented for an American frontier setting, and most recently graphic novels. He is a reviewer, columnist, commentator, poet, blogger and teacher of writing and literature at Southern Virginia University. His also offers free writing workshops on his website (www.hatrack.com).

Characters & Viewpoint is divided into three broad sections: Inventing Characters, Constructing Characters and Performing Characters. It isn’t possible in a short review to do justice to the entire book, but every aspect lends weight to the salient point that in writing a book, an author enters into an implicit contract with the reader, a contract that must be honoured. Although there’s more to honouring the contract than coming up with great characters, it’s the characters and their story that a reader invests in, and wants to see resolved some way. Without convincing characters, there will be no contract with the reader. Concerning character, then, here are some key points Card makes clear in Chapter One, What is a Character? Continue reading

A Moment of Silence…

SilenceLast Friday, 29th April, Rome’s white marble Trevi Fountain was bathed in vivid red to honor the blood recently shed by Christian martyrs,  and raise awareness of what organizers say are an estimated 200 million Christians currently suffering violent persecution around the world. We in the west (where recent anti-Christian sentiment has arisen by way of gradual erosion and public ridicule, rather than violent revolution and public beheadings) occasionally hear tell of such suffering, but for the most part remain comfortably insulated from the grizzly details and existential threat of suffering which, for hundreds and thousands of our fellow human beings (and brothers and sisters in Christ), is a daily reality. Urging caution against our remaining silent or indifferent at their plight, Nina Shea helpfully (if painfully) details just a few of the most recent and horrific highlights:

 

“In Kenya, Christians have been hunted out and killed for their religion in their university dorm rooms, at shopping malls, and on public buses. In Libya, it was the Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Christian migrants who were singled out and beheaded. In Pakistan, Christian families were blown up while celebrating Easter in a park. In Yemen last month, the nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity were tied up, shot to death and mutilated; their staff was murdered and their priest, the last surviving Christian in the port city of Aden, was kidnapped.”

 

I sometimes wonder how I would cope if caught in a situation where professing my faith meant submitting to a cruel and bloody death. Continue reading

Stories of Life…

Announcing a new creative writing competition, with a difference!

Stories of Life is looking for stories that creatively and engagingly tell your personal testimony, or relate a spiritually significant moment or event from your life story. Stories that speak of hope, grace, forgiveness, and the impact of your Christian faith.

In addition to some very generous cash prizes, the top stories will also feature in an anthology to be published by Morningstar Publishing. The competition is also providing entrants with access to a writing resource page hosted by Tabor Online. See below for more info…

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Possibilities and Pitfalls…

writing faithOne of the main reasons Christians want to write is to share something of their faith journey or personal testimony. That is, indeed, a very good reason, but writing about such things in an interesting and skillful way is just as challenging (if not more so) than writing about any other topic.

Our spiritual beliefs, being intensely personal, are often what we want to write about most of all. The problem faced by all writers (and especially those concerned with religion), however, is how to take a deeply subjective experience or belief, and represent it so that the reader may share in that experience, or understand that belief. Even if we are quite sure of our own beliefs, we cannot assume the reader will see things quite as we do.

In short, our religious and spiritual convictions can either help or hinder our writing. Without a basic sense of reverence for the world, the ability to wonder at the mystery of our own existence, or a love for truth, goodness, beauty and other spiritual values, no writer will be able to produce anything of substance or lasting appeal.

On the other hand, it is easy to become complacent, resting content in our beliefs, and so for our writing to become formulaic, simplistic, or detached from reality. In fiction writing, this complacency leads to what Flannery O’Connor calls the “sorry religious novel”. She writes:

The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible.

Whether we’re writing a story based on our own experience, or a work of fiction dealing with some kind of religious character or event, we must be careful to avoid this sort of “sorry religious writing”. To make the most of the possibilities, and to help steer clear of the pitfalls, try to remember the following:

  1. Good religious writing doesn’t merely preach or simply affirm what we already know (or think we know); rather, it should allow the reader to imaginatively enter into an experience from which he or she can learn.
  2. Good religious writing shouldn’t simply present a certain set of beliefs as the pat answer to all of life’s troubles; instead it should help readers to view their troubles or a particular article of faith in a new light, or to wrestle with questions they might never have thought to ask.
  3. As with all creative writing, the concrete and specific details – i.e. things we can see, hear, taste, smell and touch – are far more powerful than an abstract summary of what happened. E.g.Instead of saying your character ‘felt filled with the awesome love of God’, you might try to explain what that felt like, with reference to bodily sensations, the aching eyeballs that swelled with tears, the sense of lightheadedness, or the details you noticed around you or in others that you had previously overlooked etc.
  4. We too readily think of the spiritual in sharp contrast to the physical, forgetting that we are creatures of flesh and blood. If our ‘life in the flesh’ is not influenced by our spirituality, then it must be a fairly shallow spirituality, and not worth writing about.
  5. Read, obviously. Seek out some notable authors whose religiously inspired stories are highly regarded. I’ve mentioned Flannery O’Connor; other names that spring to mind are G.K Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engel, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Walter Wangerin, Orson Scott Card, and Marrilyn Robinson.
  6. Pray. Meditate, contemplate and reflect on your faith. Study the scriptures and read clasic works of theology to help inform and shape your understanding of the spiritual life. Often, the best Christian writers (like those listed above) have written extensively on how faith and theology intersect with their art – allow what they have learned to inform your thinking and writing.

Why Shakespeare?

Shakespeare-Staging-the-WorldSouth Australian poet and teacher of Poetry at Tabor College, Aidan Coleman, reminds us of the enduring relevance of William Shakespeare to today’s aspiring authors…

To be good writers we need to be good readers: these two activities are part of the same conversation. It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged, that when you’re starting out as a writer you are best to read your contemporaries. But I am not alone in thinking that Shakespeare remains our contemporary. If as a poet, for example, you read the soliloquies from the plays, I think these will equip you better than reading the Romantic poets, (who were writing two centuries later), the Victorians, or most of the modernist writers. Literary scholar Harold Bloom has claimed that reading Shakespeare makes you smarter. I don’t know if any test has been done, or how you would go about assessing such a claim but whether or not reading him makes you smarter, it certainly makes you a better writer.

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