Fiction

The Happy End vs. The Noble End

When Steve Martin adapted Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac for American audiences, he stuck fairly close to the original with a few important twists.

The premise of Cyrano is familiar and parodies and homages often find their way into comedy plots.  We remember that an articulate man with a big nose secretly wrote love letters and spoke on behalf of a less articulate– but more handsome– man. He was able to find just the right words to describe Roxanne’s beauty because he was secretly in love with her himself.

What people often don’t quite remember is how the story ends. In Steve Martin’s version Roxanne, played by Darryl Hannah discovers the deception, realizes she was really in love with the poetry not the face, the boy gets the girl and they live happily ever after.

The original was not quite as happy. Roxanne marries the handsome young Christian, just before he and Cyrano go off to war.  Cyrano keeps writing love letters. Christian comes to realize that if Roxanne loves him because of Cyrano’s writing, she doesn’t love him at all. He wants to tell her the truth, but he is killed in battle. Because Cyrano loves Roxanne, he wants to let her keep her image of her husband. Roxanne never learns the truth until Cyrano is on his death bed. He denies to his last breath.

This is no happy end. It is, rather, a noble end. Most narratives in our culture end with the protagonist getting what he ought to have. In Rostand’s drama, Cyrano did not get the girl but he had a different kind of victory. He maintained an ideal, even if it meant sacrificing his own happiness.

Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859, is similar in that it is a story of mistaken identity which ends with a character sacrificing himself for the greater good. In both cases, the characters perform their acts of nobility largely in secret. The societies around them will never celebrate them. Charles Daray is a good-natured aristocrat who bears a striking physical resemblance to a barrister named Sydney Carton whose life has not amounted to much. Carton suffers from un-requited love for Darnay’s wife Lucie. It is the time of the French revolution, and as an artistocrat Darnay is in danger. Lucie’s devoted pursuit of him puts her and her father at risk as well. In order to save Lucie, Carton visits Darnay in prison, drugs him and has an accomplice carry him out so that Carton can take his place at the guillotine.  The novel’s last words, spoken by Carton as he goes to his death, are some of the most famous in literature:  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

When filmmakers adapted Edith Wharton’s 1905 House of Mirth for the screen, they could not stomach the unsettling ending in which the main character Lily Bart’s self-sacrifice remains unknown to anyone but the reader.  Lily Bart’s tragedy is that she is caught in an era in which the aristocratic class are still marrying for wealth and position but she is torn between that reality and a notion of romantic love. Initially she is unwilling to risk her social position by marrying the man she really loves, Lawrence Selden, but she is also unwilling to marry someone more “suitable” who she does not love. Throughout the novel, through a series of manufactured scandals that allow others to maintain social position at her expense, Bart’s position declines to utter poverty. She has an opportunity to save herself by making public some love letters that prove Selden had an affair years earlier with another character. She is not willing to destroy Selden’s reputation. She burns the letters and dies of an overdose just as Selden is coming to ask her to marry him– a final tragic example of terrible timing. The film doesn’t go so far as to give the couple a happy end, but Bart’s sacrifice is no longer secret. Selden finds the letters and realizes what she has done.

The theme of nobility conducted in secret was popular a century ago. It doesn’t sit well with us now. It seems to fly in the face of our notion of a just world. At least this is the conventional wisdom about what audiences want.

We have occasional glimpses of noble self-sacrifice. Action movies often feature a secondary character who fills that role. Michelle Rodriguez’s role in Avatar, Trudy Cachon, comes to mind, but the film does not make her crisis of conscience central and her death for a greater good is in support of the real business of allowing the heroes pummel the bad guys and save the day.

There are two counter examples of silent and noble endings in recent poplar culture that I can think of. The first is another film by James Cameron, one of the most popular films of all time– Titanic. James Dawson teaches Rose what it is to be alive and changes the direction of her life before succumbing to the sea. (He seems to sacrifice himself needlessly. Didn’t it seem like he could have fit on that floating board along side Rose if he’d tried one more time?) Because he won his ticket in a game of poker, no one even knew he was on the ship of that he existed at all. His story does not remain entirely untold though. Old Rose tells the researchers about Dawson in the framing story.

The other example of a silent tragedy is Brokeback Mountain. Heath Ledger’s taciturn character Ennis Del Mar never does reveal the great love of his life to anyone. Only he and the audience know what happened between him and Jack Twist and what it meant to him. A character like Ennis Del Mar is a stand in for all of the people whose struggles we will never know.

Brokeback Mountain illustrates something important about tragedies. They usually have a third main character– the society that surrounds the characters. If Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist had ridden into the sunset together, it might have made us happier as an audience. Everyone could leave the theater reassured that there may have been problems along the way but in the end, people get what they deserve in life. It would not have been a powerful story that made us ask questions about society. Sometimes only tragedy can make that point.

“The tragic right is a condition of life,” Arthur Miller wrote, “a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself. The wrong is the condition which suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his love and creative instinct. Tragedy enlightens-and it must, in that it points the heroic finger at the enemy of man’s freedom. The thrust for freedom is the quality in tragedy which exalts. The revolutionary questioning of the stable environment is what terrifies.”

Lily Bart’s tragic downfall and death asks readers to think about the harm social structures and status seeking can cause. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the first installment of which was published in 1873, makes a similar critique of social posturing. It ends with Karenina’s suicide by jumping in front of a train. The lush film version released in 2012 was such a visual feast that the tragedy played like a dream sequence. If you didn’t know the story to begin with the ending would probably leave you turning to the person in the seat beside you and asking, “So, did she just kill herself or does that mean something else?” It doesn’t invite viewers to sit with the tragedy, feel the loss, and wonder how such a thing can be prevented in the future.

If we told more stories of people who were harmed by our social striving and of people who acted with character and nobility while their tales remained secret to those around them, might we view other people with more compassion? Maybe the person who appears to be life’s loser is a hero and you just don’t know it.

Telling stories is how we give meaning to our lives. We explain where we have been, how that shapes us now, and where we are going. Our personal stories are unconsciously and inevitably modeled on the stories we tell as a society, our cultural myths. The near requirement that fiction have a happy ending in order to be published or produced says that a story is not worth telling until the main character has succeeded. What does that mean for our personal stories? Do we feel we do not quite exist until we have gotten the girl, slayed the dragon, hit the home run?

Tragic stories say that the human drama, the struggles of life, have meaning even if you don’t win in the end.

Related Article:
Tyranny of the Happy Ending by Laura Miller, Salon.com.

“No Hugging, No Learning”: Saying No When Hungry and Things that Don’t Work Until They Do

It is hard to say no when you are hungry for work. Writers are always hungry for work and therefore we are prone to jumping into deals that might not be the best in the long run. We’re afraid that if we say no we may never get another offer again.  Once I had an editor act indignant when I said that a point on a book contract was a deal breaker for me.  “Most writers are grateful for the work,” he said.

Last week I was contacted by an enthusiastic agent who was interested in representing a new novel I am shopping.  He said he was a fan of my work, said lots of complimentary things about it and gave the impression that he saw it as a potential best seller.  We were not long into the conversation, though, before it became clear to me that the partnership wasn’t going to work well.

He felt that to have a shot at selling well a book had to give the audience what it wants which means to follow a particular narrative structure that American audiences have come to expect. It is the only narrative that is satisfying and the only one which has a shot of generating the word of mouth that leads to book sales.  He went on to suggest I rewrite the book so it more closely followed a particular path and he went on to describe the plot of every romantic comedy ever made. To be clear, I am open to notes and suggestions. I have nothing against a great new take on an old story.  The only problem was that my particular novel actually made fun of the very romantic comedy convention he was hoping I’d adopt.  I wasn’t sure how I could reconcile those two aspects in this one novel.  I would have to give a lot of thought to what kind of story I wanted to tell and what my goals were for it.

In the end, the reason I felt I had to say no to this partnership had less to do with the particular revisions he suggested, but that I didn’t feel there was enough give and take.  I always have felt listened to with the agent who has represented my most recent non-fiction projects. Anyone I worked with would have to be open to my point of view and willing to admit that there is a subjective element in publishing and a blind luck element as well. No one can guarantee they can turn your book into a Twilight or Davinci Code.  You can do everything that the experts say should be a smash hit but that doesn’t mean it will be. The flip side of that is that doing the so-called wrong thing sometimes works.

If there is one thing that I have learned in the years I have been writing and publishing books it is that the very thing that one editor is certain makes your book unmarketable is the very thing that will excite a different editor.  Sometimes the changes I made to satisfy a particular agent or editor are the very things that get criticized in reviews. The same is true with published books– every negative note I read in reviews is contrasted by a glowing review by someone else for the exact same writing choice.  This doesn’t mean feedback is useless or that you shouldn’t listen to what readers have to say.  What it means is that y0u have to learn how to listen to what they have to say and to have an internal compass that tells you whether a criticism is one you should take to heart and when it is simply not someone’s taste. The other thing I have come to understand about editorial notes, especially on fiction, is that the person’s objection may be based on a real shortcoming, but the way to fix it might be different from what the reader is suggesting. For example, they might say, “I don’t like what you did with this character in the third act.” When you think about what the problem is, it might not be the plot point at all but that you didn’t set up the situation in the right way or elaborate enough on a particular aspect of the character to make the actions make sense.

Of course, I have been thinking about this ever since it happened– wondering if I did the right thing, wondering how much of this agent’s point of view is worth exploring and how much I need to follow my own compass.

Today I got to thinking about Seinfeld. It was just about the most popular sitcom in history.  The writing staff’s motto was “no hugging, no learning.”  Most every other sitcom on the air had a predictable formula.  The (dead?) blog Dead Comedian’s Society put it this way: “One of the first rules of story-telling is character development. In every story the characters must change and be affected by the events of the story. If they do not change the story feels fake, and more importantly, it is boring. This principle applies to all forms of media from books to movies to television. Thankfully, nobody ever told that to Larry David.”

I’m sure people did tell that to Larry David. They must have said his idea could never work and if it did it would only attract a fringe audience of hipsters.  Writing a “no hugging, no learning” television comedy absolutely can’t work– until it does. A lot of things can’t possibly work– until they do.  Then people follow that path trying to write “Seinfeld-like” comedies because conventional wisdom has it that that is what sells.

I did not say any of this to the agent, of course, this is all Treppenwitz.  Here is some more: At one point the agent asked me, in a somewhat sarcastic tone, “Do you think you’re (name of famous literary artsy writer)?”  I mumbled something about what kind of writer I think I am. I wish I had sat up a big straighter and said, “No, I think I’m Laura Lee.”

Ocean Waves Lapping Against a Brick Wall

Finishing a work of literary fiction is one of most anti-climactic experiences in the world.  It is not like a Broadway show, a ballet performance, an opera, a rock concert– there is no applause at the end.  It is not like a marathon where there is a finish line. You’re just done. The writing is finished. That’s pretty much it.  Even if you sell the book and it’s out there, you don’t know if people read it or if they liked it. (This is why writers are so desperate for reviews.)

[Visual artists may face something similar, in that there is no applause for the completion of a painting or a statue, but this type of art differs from writing in an important way.  Even if it is not sold, a painting can be seen and experienced. Writing is unique, I believe, in the level of commitment required of its audience. You not only have to complete the book and show it to someone, you have to persuade a person to invest hours into reading it before you can get any kind of response to your work at all.]

I have finished writing another novel.  I’ve read through it, tweaked it, and I’m happy with it.  I started working on this novel in concept a good 20 years ago. So you might expect me to be celebrating today.  Some writers probably do go out and have a beer or dinner with friends. Generally, when I complete a work of fiction it is cause for depression rather than celebration.

The completion of the novel is moving from the flow of creation to the stage where the waves hit the brick wall of the marketing of the book as a product.  You move from the pleasurable (though sometimes frustrating) process of following gentle threads of ideas, coaxing inspiration, selecting perfect words to the powerless process of submission and rejection, financial negotiation, begging to be read.

The processes of creating fiction and non-fiction are different. Non-fiction is, in some ways, more satisfying. You come up with a concept then you query editors and/or agents. You persuade them the book is worth doing and that you’re the person to do it, and only after you’ve gone through that process do you begin to write. You write with the confidence that comes from knowing that the book is wanted, at least by the editors who have asked you to write it.  It is nice to get all of the business out of the way and to be rewarded with the opportunity to get down to the pleasurable process of writing with full knowledge that you will be paid for doing what you do.

In fiction, everything is reversed. Flow first. Finance second. This makes the process of writing more fraught and insecure. You have no guarantees that anyone will want what you’re creating and you need to devise all kinds of mental tricks to persuade yourself that it is worth doing no matter what.  One of the mental tricks frequently employed by authors is to fantasize about how this book will be “the one.” This time it will be different. This one will click with a publisher who wants to promote it to the hilt. This one will go viral. This one will be big enough to introduce an audience to my back catalog.  This one will… name your fantasy.

One of the reasons authors tend to defensively insist that they are not writing for the money but for love (see my last post) is that these fantasies of success feel unseemly. They are, generally, unrealistic and writers want you to know that they are not delusional. They know that there is a mountain in front of them.  They feel embarrassed in advance for the non-reception this thing they have talked up so much is sure to receive. They’re lowering expectations so they will not become the boy who cried wolf.  “My last novel sold about 1/3 as many copies as I have Facebook friends, but this one I’m working on now…”

This is how the process works: most writers are not motivated to write by fantasies of best seller status and appearances on Oprah. They use fantasies of best seller status and appearances on Oprah to justify taking the time to write the book. The fantasies are a tool to persuade writers that they need to keep doing something completely isolating, labor intensive, and not likely to be financially compensated. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a pay off down the line and all of the time ignoring friends and loved ones, sitting in your own little corner, going broke will be justified.

The completion of the novel is when that wave breaks and the fantasies of the importance of doing the work will be given a real world test. Will this thing that consumed you, often for years, have any purpose? Will anyone read it? Will it be a document that sits on your hard drive until it is forgotten?  What will it do to your sense of self if it does, and what will you do to bring back the illusion that will allow you to write again?

Finishing a work of literary fiction is one of most anti-climactic experiences in the world.

People Who Read Dorian Gray Also Read… (An Interview about Angel)

This is an interview I did about the novel Angel a while back.  It appeared last month for the first time on the blog of Lynelle Clark.

 Where did the idea come from for the book?

Angel was inspired by a trip I took to Mount Rainier in 2000. My tour guide revealed towards the end of a day-long tour that he had been a minister before he “burned out.” The question of why a minister would retire to become a mountain guide seemed like the good basis for a story. I wanted to explore the mystic nature of places and what would draw a person to the church and to a beautiful natural setting. I wanted it to be a certain kind of conflict, a crisis of faith or a difference of opinion with his congregation. I had a “feel” for the story long before I had the specifics. The idea that the minister fell in love with a man came to me much later, but it seemed to be just the right kind of conflict. It would hit on all the right notes.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I don’t think the author gets to decide that.  Ian has to be beautiful, an actor/model, but someone who can also act, like Ben Barnes in the film Dorian Gray.  Paul would need to be able to convey interior emotions.  For some reason Michael Sheen comes to mind.  He is absolutely nothing like I pictured the character or Paul or described him in the book.  What brings him to mind though is that I admire his talent for showing that his character is trying not to show his emotions.  (Watch him in Frost/Nixon if you haven’t.)  Anyway, good actors.  That is who I would like to play the characters in the movie if such a thing were ever to happen.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Christian minister meets young man and is shocked that he is strongly attracted; conflict and growth follow.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about the Decadents of the late 19th Century; Oscar Wilde and his circle.  I’m not going to say anything as absurd like “If you like The Portrait of Dorian Gray you will love “Angel.” But I’ve noticed that a lot of the themes that those writers were exploring are the same ones I was exploring with Angel, the role of beauty, public and private selves, the experience of the spiritual through the physical.  I hadn’t delved into the writing of this period in any great depth prior to writing Angel, so it isn’t a direct influence, but I think I tapped into a lot of the same obsessions and drew from the same well.  I’m discovering my literary heritage after the fact!

Of course, if you go on Amazon, it will tell you that people who bought my book also bought a whole series of male/male romance novels. Fans of stories with gay male protagonists should like the book for that reason.  Sometimes romance fans love it, and sometimes they are disappointed in it because it doesn’t exactly fit into that category.

I like to read literary fiction, and so that is what I enjoy writing. Some people find that Angel is a little more literary than they were in the mood for.  For others that’s the draw.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The themes of the book being what they are, there will be people who will assume the book is meant to be shocking or that it is polemical. What I wanted to do was explore characters and see them wrestle with some of the important challenges of being human.  I wanted to tell a good story

I Fail the Bechdel Test

I am probably the last person on Earth to find out about this.  I may look like I’m all hip and groovy or whatever hip and groovy people call themselves this year, but in fact, I am slow in picking up on memes and I fear passing along something as a great new concept about a month after your grandmother has sent you the link.

Anyway, the video above, which I discovered through Sociological Images, explains the simple concept behind the Bechdel test for gender bias in films.  Here are the rules.  To pass the test a film has to have:

  1. at least two named female characters
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

I applied this test to my novel Angel and it fails miserably.  There are really only two main characters, both men.  There are a number of named minor female characters but I can not think of any scenes in which they speak to each other without a male character present.  (As the viewpoint character is male, it would actually be impossible.  If he didn’t see it, it wouldn’t be in the book, so therefore a male is always present.)  Even with this excuse, though, most of the conversation with Paul present in a group of predominantly female characters, deal with their infatuation with the handsome young Ian.  One scene, with four characters, two male and two female is ostensibly a conversation about a blood drive, but it revolves around the reasons Ian is not giving blood.  So Angel fails the Bechdel test.

Interestingly, the novel I have been trying to sell for the past six months or so actually fails the reverse Bechdel test!  There are two female viewpoint characters.  They have conversations about boys and relationships but also music, school politics, their career goals and interests.  They also interact with two supporting characters who are female friends and the story also deals with the relationship between one of the female characters and her mother.  There are two significant male characters.  They do not interact with each other and one is really only significant in his relationship to one of the female characters.  It is set in a school and most of the authority figures are female.

I’ve had a few close calls with this novel.  (We like it but…) I find myself vaguely wondering if being a reverse Bechnel failure has anything to do with its perceived lack of commercial potential?

So I don’t know.  Am I part of the problem?

Fair to All Churches: Social Change, Fiction and Characters as Archetypes

The website Fireside GLBT Book Reviews posted an extensive review of the novel Angel today.  One paragraph inspired a bit of thought, which I would like to share:

It is interesting to see how the author handled the world of the everyday life of a church. As someone raised in that world, I found it extremely well-done: realistic and fair.  The author carefully painted a comfortable, comforting atmosphere, so that when it comes crashing down the reader is deeply affected. As a reader, I was somewhat bothered by the book’s reluctance to address the reality that there are more liberal churches than the one presented. I felt that a picture was being painted that wasn’t fair to all churches, in an era when Christianity is poorly understood to begin with. However, upon more consideration I realized that it is not the business of this book or its story to address all that: this is ultimately a story about one man, one church, one group of believers. It doesn’t need to address the wider political reality.

Several months ago I was pleased to receive a review of Angel from a conservative Christian blogger who believes homosexuality is a sin.  One of the points that she made was that she felt the novel should have told “the other side of the story.”  As an example, she suggested having the minister seek counseling from a fellow minister who could voice the view of conservative Christians.

I believe I wrote a post about this (although I can’t find it now).  In case I did not, my reaction was that I had written a novel, a work of fiction.  Although it has a point of view, it is not a morality play.  It is the story of one man, what happened to him, and how he reacted to it.  What is “the other side of the story” to a person’s experience?  What is the “other side” of your life story?  Is there a valid counter argument to the way you live your life?  I appreciated this same reflection in today’s review.

All novels deal with social issues.  That is to say, they are all narratives about individuals interacting with others in a social context.  The more a particular social issue is politicized, the more characters seem to be seen as archetypes.  So Paul is seen as representing ministers or the ministry or Christianity in a way that Ian is not generally seen as representing recovering alcoholics in general.

Paul’s church does not represent “Christianity.” It is a particular Christian church.

What interested me even more was the perception of Paul’s church as “conservative.”  This highlights, for me, the pace of social change since I started working on this novel a decade ago. To see this, I will go into some of my process in creating Hope Church.

Although The Minister and the Mountain (working title) was in the works since 2000, the central conflict regarding a same sex love affair did not come into the picture until late 2008.

Day to day work in a church, and many of the internal political questions that church boards deal with came from my own experience working in a Unitarian Universalist church office.

One of the questions our church board tackled, for example, was whether Red Cross blood drives, which do not accept donations from gay men, ran contrary to our mission as a Welcoming congregation.  (This is actually a federal law and not Red Cross policy if you want to study the question.) This inspired a scene in Angel in which the subject of the ban comes up.

(UU, for those who don’t know, is the most liberal of the Protestant denominations, to the point that there is disagreement among members as to whether Unitarian Universalists belong to the Christian tradition at all.  My minister, at the time I worked in the church, felt it was a Christian denomination.  Most of the office staff disagreed.  When I lived in France, I looked up Unitarian Universalism in a dictionary and it was defined as “a heretic religion.”)

Being part of a liberal religious organization I felt as though many agnostics and liberal religious folk had an unrealistic picture of where Christian churches were on social issues.  The image of the “Christian” in the news media tends to be exclusively that of the Evangelical Fundamentalist Christian.  I wanted to paint a more nuanced picture of the church, a picture of a mainstream denomination.

I decided that I would look up the statements on sexual orientation of two denominations that I considered to be mainstream and representative– not on the liberal end of the spectrum like the UCC and not Fundamentalist.  I  chose the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches.  Both had similar statements on human sexuality, statements that tried to have it both ways.  Gays and lesbians should be tolerated and welcomed, but it was still “incompatible with Christian teaching” and openly gay ministers were not allowed, nor was the blessing of same sex unions.

It was a time of social change, and large organizations change slowly.  They were trying to balance the needs of a new generation without alienating an older generation.  The story, then, was particularly interesting, because it was not a story of a church with a single point of view, but a living church with multiple, conflicting points of view.  This balance could only exist as long as they were not forced to confront the issue directly.

Shortly before the book was published, in 2010, the Presbyterian church voted to change its position and allow the ordination of LGBT ministers.  This was not without controversy; a number of individual churches left the denomination over it.

The United Methodist Church has retained its policies, in fact, while my book was in the process of being edited and printed Rev. Amy DeLong was tried by church authorities for being “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” (the same language I use in Angel, taken from UMC guidelines.)

While the UMC is, for now, sticking to its language and policies, many individual Methodists, congregations and organizations are campaigning for change.  (And Rev. Amy rocks!  Look up some of her sermons on YouTube.)

While I purposely do not identify Paul as Methodist, the official position of the fictional denomination was mostly based on the UMC.  (A Methodist friend of mine described her frustrated minister saying that his denomination’s position on gay rights was “not to have a position.”)

Paul’s is a church that is scrambling to keep up and to balance the different views of a large body of Christians, who never are and never were a monolith.

What is interesting to me is that a church that I thought of when writing in 2008 and 2009 as being a bit more on the progressive end of the spectrum comes across as “conservative,” even unfairly conservative, to some readers in 2013.  Things are changing very quickly.

The speed of change was one reason I didn’t want to identify Paul’s denomination.  But there is another important reason.  It was very important that Paul’s church be of a denomination that allowed ministers to serve until they decided to retire or they were dismissed by the congregation.  Some denominations (and I believe Methodists might be among them) assign ministers for a finite period of time.

Paul had been at Hope Church for years and he planned to stay there until he retired and to be buried in the church yard beside his wife.  Paul was connected to his denomination through family history and tradition, and he was connected to Hope church by the community.

People attend churches for many reasons, and I would argue that theology is a much smaller part of that decision than people believe.  Paul disagreed on a number of points with his denomination’s position.  That did not mean he could just pack up and leave and get a job at a more liberal UCC church.  Not without pain.

“It’s a relationship with a church, like a friendship,” Paul says to Ian. “You don’t stop speaking because you disagree on something.”

Whatever differences he might have had with his denomination about theology, Paul had devoted his life to the Hope Church community, it was his family, his home.

“Beautifully Written and Moving Work”

Angel is a very contemplative and spiritual novel… There is an emotional intimacy between Paul and Ian that initially brings the two men together and their transition from friends to lovers is unhurried…

Ian and Paul’s theological discussions are quite detailed and informative. It is through these talks that Paul finds a renewed zeal for his ministry and Ian gains a better understanding of religion. Paul is often at odds with his own convictions and he struggles with his emerging sexual attraction and love for Ian.

Angel by Laura Lee is an insightful view into the intricacies of religion and homosexuality. This beautifully written and moving work of literary fiction challenges the reader to examine what it means to be a Christian.

-review of the novel Angel by Kathy at Book Reviews and More

Write While Your Car is Being Towed: The Fishing for Fiction Method

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Today The Readdicts, who have been quite generous in featuring my work in the past, ran an interview as part of the Angel Virtual Book Tour.  To read the full interview, follow the link above.  In the interview, I talk about the inspiration for the novel Angel, the character Ian (you can also find a link to a character interview of Ian that I did earlier with Readdicts), my decision not to publish a sequel and my attraction to British literature.  Here is one question and response to whet your appetite:

Can you tell us a little about your writing schedule?

(how often you write, any specifications you follow, a particular writing area you have, etc.)

The folksinger Arlo Guthrie tells this story about inspiration being like fishing.  You sit by the river and you put your rod or your net in the water, but the fish has to come to you.  (The punchline is that he is downstream from Bob Dylan and so he can only catch the ones Dylan throws back.)  

My process is that I simply write a lot.  I don’t let ideas keep swimming downstream.  I keep pens and paper around and I get out of the shower and I write down what came to me in there.  I honor writer’s block as a message that I need to stop working consciously and go away and let my subconscious do its thing for a while.  

Even when I have an assignment for something like a corporate speech, the process is essentially the same.  I write down my initial thoughts and ideas and then I go away and do something else and at some point while I’m taking a nap or driving I’ll have that lightbulb moment.  I think of it like the subconscious oven timer going off.  It delivers up the thing that brings my disconnected ideas together and then I write very quickly after that.  

With a novel, I never write in order, I just write scenes and dialogue and bits as they come to me, and then later when it seems there are enough pieces I put them together.  I guess I learned the technique of writing earlier to the point that it is highly internalized and so the key at this point is just catching the fish.

I am on tour with a ballet project five months of the year and spend a lot of time driving.  A lot of ideas come to me then, and I scrawl them in little notebooks.  Most of Angel was written this way.  Part of it was scrawled in notebooks as my car was being towed, broken down in West Virginia.

I am a full time writer when I am not on tour with the ballet project, so I write pretty much constantly.  Whenever I can.  I never have a problem making myself write.  I have the problem of way more text than I will have enough years of life to develop.

Resistance is Vital or When is it Time to Self-Publish?

I know I run the risk of offending indie authors when I say this but here it goes: most self-published books are not novels but drafts of novels.

Most is the operative word in this sentence.  There are certainly excellent indie books, and there are good reasons and bad reasons to put out a book on one’s own.  As the publishing world contracts into one big corporation, independent publishing is the way that new voices can be heard.  It is wonderful that authors who are not deemed commercial enough can still find an outlet and an audience, and I do suspect that many of the literary stars of the near future will come from outside the traditional publishing industry.  (Let us assume, my fellow writer, that your indie book is an example of the good ones and it is those other people I am about to talk about.)

Let’s face it, self-publishing is also a way for people to avoid taking criticism, to avoid revision, to avoid learning.  If you’ve ever gone to a site that reviews indie books and looked at its guidelines– “no poorly laid out books, no shifts from third to first person narration, no characters that aren’t fleshed out, no bad grammar, no excessive typos”– you get the sense that most of the books that come to them are not of a professional quality, perhaps they could become so with a bit more effort, but they are not there yet.

In the past, readers were spared the author’s learning process.  Today new writers often publish books first and learn how to craft them later.  Young writers publish their first drafts, endure public pans, “unpublish” and put the book out again.

There is a joke that frustrated writers tell about publishers and agents.  They say editors separate the wheat from the chaff and publish the chaff.  They can be a frustrating barrier to entry, and they are not always right.  More often than not, I am afraid to say, they are.

Getting a novel right is a long term proposition.  It is a marathon, not a sprint.  Someone once wrote (I say it this way not because it was someone eminent, but because I can’t remember who it was) that runners do not have Boston Marathons in them waiting to get out.  A novel, like the marathon, is a peak experience that comes as the result of lots of tedious work.  In the case of the novel, that means lots of tedious rethinking and revision when you thought it was all done.

To jump to yet another metaphor (really where are those editors when you need them?): As stones are polished by the friction of ocean waves, novels are polished through resistance.

I have often said that I am glad that self-publishing was not an easy option when I started writing fiction, because I would not like to have done all my learning in public.  I surely would have published my first completed novel because at the time I was proud of it.  Why wouldn’t I be?  It was a lot of work to write a whole novel.  It expressed my point of view.  Looking back on it, I can even say that it had little flashes of something not entirely humiliating.  (The best bits have been scavenged for other things over the years.)  The fact of the matter is, though, that it was autobiographical in the worst way, self-indulgent, and probably boring too.  I still have affection for the novel.  I am still proud to have done it.  It was part of my process.  I am equally grateful that no copies exist anywhere on earth– at least nowhere that I can’t delete them.  I am grateful for every publisher who rejected it, and especially to the few who were kind and generous enough to take the time to explain exactly why.

I was fortunate enough to get published (in non-fiction) quite soon out of the gate.  The first book proposal I sent out (using Writer’s Market) was accepted about a month later.  I had the advantage of having a writer father who mentored me and taught me how to write strong proposals. My first book came out in 1999 and I published three more the following year.  By 2001 I had moved up to a midsize publisher.  That book sold quite well, (85,000 copies) allowing me to get an agent.  (Before I had sold that many books, I found it much easier to be accepted by publishers themselves than by agents.) I can’t tell you why this process went so smoothly for me or how to replicate it.  I can only tell you that’s how it started for me.

The only bit of advice I can give on how to get a foot in the door is that you have to kick your leg out.  A lot of beginning writers get so intimidated by the process that they don’t even try to query mainstream publishers.  If you try (in a systematic way with a strong query) and persist it might be easier than you think.

So for nearly as long as I can remember, I have had access to publishing professionals– publishers, editors and agents– who were willing to take me seriously and give me honest feedback when they rejected things like my terrible first novel.

Publishing professionals are not literary gods, they do make mistakes.  Their views are subjective.  But they do read more than just about anyone.  They do know what tends to sell and what doesn’t.  They do know what has been done too much or not enough.  They know how you compare to the other things in the slush pile.  They can tell the difference between a finished novel and a first draft.

I get frustrated with rejection, as any human being does.  But I have come to approach it with the following assumption, if an editor or agent doesn’t get what I am trying to do it is not because she is dense.  It is because I didn’t convey it well enough.  I need to go back and fix the problem.

You need to learn to interpret the feedback, of course.  If you just incorporate any suggestion anyone gives you you’ll be bashed around like a ping pong ball and I can’t imagine any good writing coming from that.  When you start getting reviews you see clearly that the aspect of a book one person loves is the very thing another hates.  So you need to make value judgments.  Sometimes you have to trust your instincts that something in your book is simply not that person’s taste, but is vital.

Even in that case, you might realize that the editor is telling you something important.  For example, an editor might say that she didn’t respond to something a character did in the second half of the book.  The problem might not be with the plot at all, it may be that you didn’t set something up well enough early on to make it clear why this had to happen.  Maybe there was some aspect of the character’s personality that made this action inevitable, but which you assumed rather than put on the page.

Rather than listening to the specific suggestion, listen to what the editor isn’t getting and then figure out how to make it clearer. You know that angry e-mail you wrote about how block headed this editor is to reject something so fabulous?  (Yeah, you know you want to, go ahead and write it– just don’t send it.)  Go back when you’ve got that off your chest and read your explanation of exactly why you made your artistic choice, then go back to your novel and make sure everything you just said shows up in the writing.  If you have to explain it, it probably doesn’t.

The process of revising a work to a professional level could be easy and swift or it could take years.  You may have to put it aside and come back to it with fresh eyes.  The point is, I think this is a part of the process that is vital and it risks being cut short by the easy availability of self-publishing.

There tends to come a time, though, when the feedback from the pros has less to do with flaws in the writing– things you can fix as a writer– and more to do with marketplace considerations.  “Books on skiing never sell.”   Once you start getting feedback like, “I loved your style but we just haven’t had luck with books with African-American firefighters as protagonists” it might be time to think about self-publishing.

As much as it pains the artist inside, and as much as it pains many in the industry, publishing houses are businesses that need to acquire properties that can turn a profit.  It is a difficult business, no one can predict the future or be a perfect diviner of readers’ tastes.  It may be that your lovely, little book is just not the type of thing that publishers think can find the kind of audience they need to survive– large and swift.   Just because you can’t move Harry Potter units doesn’t mean no one will buy the book.  You may not need a huge Random House audience to be satisfied as a writer.  Just remember that getting anyone to buy your independent or tiny press book will be a hard slog.  (See my “nothing works” series.)

I find that I am in exactly this position at the moment.  My most recent novel (It is strange to call it “recent” as it is actually a novel that I’ve been revising over the course of nearly 20 years with the help of negative feedback) has gotten to the point where it is no longer being rejected for its quality but for other market concerns.  For the moment, I am still trying to get it into the hands of someone inside the big old publishing world who sees its commercial potential.  (I, in fact, believe it has commercial potential.)  Selling is often a matter of persisting until you find the person who gets excited about your proposal.  On the other hand, now that I feel as though there is no more for me to do with it as a writer, I have left the indie option open.  Not yet, not yet, but if I have to I will.

Paul Tobit’s Winter Thoughts

Paul Tobit, a widowed minister now working as a tour guide at Mount Rainier, is the protagonist of the novel Angel.  As part of the Snowy Reading Blog Hop, hosted by Authors Promoting Authors. On each site that participates, a main character answers winter-themed interview questions. This seemed like a great opportunity to speak in Paul’s voice one more time. The interesting thing with a character interview is that you have to make a decision not only about how the character would answer, but where he is in his life and in the world of the story. This is an interview of Paul Tobit at the time of the opening chapter, which is also the time of the closing chapter. We meet him as a tour guide on Mount Rainier. The most of the action of the novel takes place prior to that– it is the story of how he got there.  Before we get to that, a little bit about the novel:

Since the loss of his lively, charming wife to cancer six years ago, minister Paul Tobit has been operating on autopilot, performing his religious duties by rote. Everything changes the day he enters the church lobby and encounters a radiant, luminous being lit from behind, breathtakingly beautiful and glowing with life. An angel. For a moment Paul is so moved by his vision that he is tempted to fall on his knees and pray. Even after he regains his focus and realizes he simply met a flesh-and-blood young man, Paul cannot shake his sense of awe and wonder. He feels an instant and overwhelming attraction for the young man, which puzzles him even as it fills his thoughts and fires his feelings. Paul has no doubt that God has spoken to him through this vision, and Paul must determine what God is calling him to do.

Thus begins a journey that will inspire Paul’s ministry but put him at odds with his church as he is forced to examine his deeply held beliefs and assumptions about himself, his community, and the nature of love.

So without further ado, an interview with Paul Tobit.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself.

A:  My name is Paul.  For the past year, since I burned out on my old job, I’ve been working as a tour guide at Mount Rainier.  I enjoy it. I never get tired of the scenery.  It changes into something more beautiful each season.  I like showing that majesty to new people each tour.  I don’t know if I will do this forever, but I’m content now.  I have a lot of time to look at the mountain and think about things, reflect on life.

Q: Do you enjoy or dislike winter? Tell us why.

A: My favorite season is probably spring, all of that rebirth and renewal, but I am starting to appreciate winter more as I get older. Winter is actually a hopeful time because spring comes next and anything is possible. I’m in a winter period of my life at the moment, taking a pause and just laying low until the next phase of my life is born.  That’s an important part of life too, that time when it just seems as though everything is on hold and nothing is certain.  The truth is, until I came here to the mountain I was such an indoor person that the seasons didn’t affect me much at all. I went from one indoor space to another and I mostly focused on what was going on in my head. So that has been one benefit of this job, I’m more in touch with the nature of the seasons, how things change and how it’s a natural process.

Q: What would you do on a date (or with close friends) on a snowy evening?

A: I don’t go out or socialize much these days. I get just about the right amount of contact with people doing the tours. Like I said, I’m at a moment in my life where I am happy to have time to myself for quiet reflection.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading, the Bible and other books.  I’m trying to do more of that than watching TV.  I’ve been writing meditations, prayers, mostly about nature and beauty, but also about loss, why there is loss in the world and what you can learn about God from that.  I don’t have the answer to that, by the way.  I’m writing about it to figure it out if I can.  When I’m finished I might put the thoughts together in a book and publish it.  It won’t be Thoreau, but it might mean something to someone.  I didn’t mention, but before I came here I was a minister.  I left my old job, but I haven’t lost my religion.  It is interesting actually, I was a minister for a long time, but when I was doing that, I never had the kind of time I do now just to sit and be still with God.  So, the Lord works in mysterious ways!

Q: When it’s cold and dreary outside, what makes you laugh out loud?

A: There was this time that Ian decided to make a snowman. Ian was a young man I was close to.  He lived with me.  He was like a big kid sometimes.  He has this joy for life. We had our first big snow and he got it in his head that he was going to make the world’s largest snowman. He was out there making this giant base. I’m watching through the window, because I hate the cold. He kept coming inside and dripping snow and calling me names for not coming out and helping him, but he was going to make the biggest snow man on earth, damn it, with our without me. Next thing you know he has one of the neighbor kids out there, and then there are four of them. They are pushing this huge snowball around. Really leaning into it, they can hardly push it. Then they made another huge snowball, and by the time they got it done they realized they were both so big that, even with the five of them, they couldn’t possibly lift the second one and get it on top of the other one. So that was it. I made hot chocolate and we sat there with the neighbor kids, drinking the hot chocolate, looking out the window at these immovable mounds of snow and laughing.  The huge snowballs just sat there in the yard for probably a month. They took forever to melt. Every time I looked at them I couldn’t help but picture Ian out there with the kids, pushing these things around. It makes me smile when I think about it. Stuff like that.

Q: If you were sitting around a fire, playing truth or dare, what would you choose and why?

A: I can’t imagine myself doing that. But just to take your premise, if I were… I’m not that adventurous, I’d chose truth. Well, now that I think about it, it would depend on who I was playing with. There are some people who I would be willing to give a bit more truth than others. Ian would take a dare. Truth would be no fun for him because he would tell you anything anyway.

Q: Tell us about a winter memory from your childhood?

A: I grew up in Kansas. I was raised by a single father after my mother died when I was young.  It was just the two of us.  My father never made a big deal out of Christmas. I have fond memories of the Christmas season at the church, though. I remember the mitten tree. Every year we put up a big tree and people put mittens and hats and gloves on it, and we’d donate them to people in need. As soon as I was old enough, I got put in charge of the drive. I liked the responsibility. It felt important. That kind of thing got me thinking about joining the ministry.

Q: What is the most creative gift you would put under the tree?

A: The thing that springs to mind– the last Christmas Sara and I were together– Sara was my wife, she died from cancer fairly young. It was such a hard time. That last Christmas she was very ill and we both knew we wouldn’t have another one together. Christmas that year was a weight hanging over me. I felt so much pressure to make that gift mean something. I couldn’t just go to the mall and get something shrink wrapped. But what do you get someone who doesn’t need any more things? What can she take with her where she is going? Only love, right? I really thought about that one. I had proposed to her at a picnic. It had been kind of a disaster because the weather didn’t cooperate, but she said yes anyway. So for Christmas I got a picnic basket, and I filled it with little things she could look at from her bed, because she was in bed a lot. All these little things that represented good times we’d had together. It cost almost nothing, they were just little knick-knacks. But she loved it. She cried. We both cried. She would run her fingers over these objects. After she died I gave those things away. It was too hard for me to look at them. Now, I sort of wish I’d held onto them.   Anyway, I’m sorry to bring that heaviness into this.  Let’s move on.

Q: Would you start a snowball fight?

A: No. I’m not the snowball fight starter. That would be Sara, or Ian. They would both start a snowball fight. The difference is, if I didn’t play along, Sara would give up and hug me for being boring. Ian would just keep pelting you until you threw back. He was relentless in that way.

Q: Tell us about your favourite winter movie or book?

A: I like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I also have a fond memory of Ian playing Big Crosby’s “White Christmas” and singing off-key.

Q: How do you celebrate the holidays? Be it Christmas or Hannaukah or the Winter Solstice.

A: This year, I think I will find a church that does a midnight mass. I’ll light a couple of candles.

Want to know more about the characters from Angel?  Today at The Readdicts is an interview with the second main character of the novel, Ian Finnerty.