The Story Key

I started writing novels in fifth grade. I emphasized in creative writing in grad school, writing a novel as my thesis with the help of a committee of three professors. I’ve attended week-long writing conferences with editors, agents, and published authors. I have friends who are published authors. I’ve read books about writing novels. I spent years revising my first novel and then wrote a second and have spent years revising that. I taught a novel-writing course at the community college in 2015 that I’m now teaching again.

You would think I would know the key factor for how to write a novel.

But somehow, although I knew a story should be character driven and transformative etc etc, I missed the crucial memo for how that works:

A story is built around the tension between what a character wants and what prevents them from getting it.

four desires (1)

I’m tempted to redeem myself here by telling you all the things I did know about novel writing. Those other aspects weren’t wrong and haven’t been a waste. It’s just that they’re sort of like accumulating a houseful of possessions and boxing them up and stacking them in a moving van and driving them to your destination … only to realize you don’t have the key to the house itself. Everything is right there, ready to be put in place, but for that one tiny little catch!

What I want to present here is that key, which I’ve spent hours outlining for my students for tonight’s class so that they—the lucky ducks—won’t be stuck outside with all their fabulous pieces (intriguing characters, fantastic settings, mind-bending plot twists) that have no where to go.

This semester’s novel-writing class started just a couple weeks ago, and we’ve been using the brilliant guide Story Genius by Lisa Cron as our text. I read it eighteen months ago, yet teaching it has made sense of it for me on a new level. (Admittedly, my real mistake was not taking the exercises more seriously before.)

Cron repeatedly emphasizes the need for understanding the why of your story. Why does your protagonist do what they do?

That starts with why you want to tell this story. What point are you trying to make? I was skeptical: wouldn’t that make it didactic? But it’s more like deciding what theme you want to explore. Think Shakespeare exploring the theme of star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet. Stories need meaning so that readers will care.

Then you pick a protagonist who really needs to learn that lesson, someone whose life will be totally upended by this theme because they are ripe for it. Think how naive Romeo and Juliet both are and how innocently they fall deeply in love without being prepared for its complications.

Now we’re at the step of figuring out what the character wants and why.

Romeo wants Juliet. Juliet wants Romeo. Because hormones and sex drive and forbidden love and all the reasons. They make pinpointing a character’s main desire look so easy.

Other classics seem like cakewalks too: The Count of Monte Cristo explores the theme of revenge, so we know exactly what Edmond Dantès wants and why—revenge for his wrongful imprisonment!

But my character could want almost anything. In fact several things. All the things. (Hell, I want all the things. My life’s wish list is always overflowing.) For my character, there’s a guy she really loves but there’s also her divorced parents that she wants to fix and friends she wants to help and freedom she wants to gain and on and on and on. How do you narrow down to the thing that unlocks the story?

I wanted a formula. So I sat down and thought, “Okay, what are the main possibilities in broad terms?”

four desires

When I realized there are only four types of wants, I got suddenly excited. This is doable! I immediately went into teacher mode and opened a slideshow app, even before I knew where it would go. I created the above slide and then thought, “Okay, do each of these lead a certain direction?”

I started with the easiest one. I’d long ago noticed a trend that if a story starts with a relationship, that relationship is going to break up. You could also apply that to stories like Job in the Bible, where he already has a great life and then it gets taken away. So there we have our first formula that authors can apply to their characters:

four desires (2)

I came up with two strong examples to emphasize the point:

  • Frodo in Lord of the Rings loves the shire, and forcing him to leave creates tension throughout the story because he wishes were back there
  • Bella in New Moon (sequel to Twilight) starts with Edward but loses him, which creates new romantic tension: Jacob is there vs Edward is not

In some cases the character won’t get what they want back and in other cases they will. Sometimes the point will be learning that what they really want is deeper and bigger, like that Frodo really wants to save the shire, even if he is so changed by his quest that he can’t truly go back. Bella learns that what she really wants is not just Edward’s love (which caused him to leave her out of concern that he was her biggest danger) but also his willingness to bring her fully into his life.

Taking away the thing your character wants and already has could be the key to driving that character toward a deeper understanding that will help readers see your point.

What about the next scenario? If a character has experienced what they want in the past, what does it tell us about what an author should do next?

four desires (3)

Once I created this slide, I felt tentative euphoria that maybe these formulas were working! Especially once I pinpointed examples:

  • The four siblings in The Chronicles of Narnia can’t use the same route to Narnia (the wardrobe) in the second book as they do in the first
  • Mark Watney in The Martian has already survived 18 sols on Mars before things go wrong that force him to figure out new survival techniques

The first example seems like it might not drive an entire story, but it tells us that what we knew before is no longer true. Not only has the route changed but so has the amount of time (1300 years have passed) and the political climate etc. The characters will have to adapt to the unexpected rather than trusting previous knowledge.

The second example, of an astronaut abandoned on a desolate planet, particularly intrigues me. Staying alive is a fundamental desire that we don’t think about until it’s threatened. For Mark Watney, the things that kept him alive beforehand get taken out of the picture one by one (other people to rely on, communication with Earth, pre-stocked food sources, optimized habitat, homegrown food), driving the story and keeping us on the edge of our seats to know how he’ll find a way to cope with each new threat to his life. 

We might be tempted to lump Mark into the first category, wanting what he already has, except that what he wants—survival—isn’t taken away. He’s still alive, it’s just that the known path—his previous means of survival—is removed.

This type of story is interesting to readers because as humans we want the comfort of predictability; we want to think that once we’ve learned how to do something then we’re set for the next go-around, but subconsciously we know life doesn’t work that way. Stories about finding a new route to success remind us that there’s always more to learn; we never have it all figured out. That forces the characters to use extra ingenuity against the unexpected and keeps readers engaged as well.

With past and present checked off the list, I contemplated future desires next—the kind that could realistically happen.

four desires (4)

This is the one that seems to apply to most stories, so coming up with examples was easy:

  • Luke in Star Wars is bored on Tatooine and wants to leave, but he doesn’t anticipate the peril that grants his wish & tosses him into an intergalactic war
  • Katniss in The Hunger Games wants to keep her family safe, but that becomes much harder when her sister is chosen as a sacrificial tribute

One interesting question about this setup is whether or not a character’s initial desire stays the same throughout a story. Once Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed and he’s in with Obi-Wan Kenobi and meets Leia and Han Solo etc, what he wants becomes bigger. Same with Katniss, whose desire changes from just keeping her own family safe to fixing the whole dystopian world.

But it could be argued that they wanted those things all along, they just didn’t know that’s what they wanted. Luke wanted to be part of something bigger than his remote farm life, and fighting for an intergalactic rebellion to save everyone from the dark side certainly isn’t small or boring. Katniss wanted to keep her family safe, and ultimately the best way to keep them safe would be to fix the underlying problem: the post-apocalyptic society that preys on the working class for the entertainment of the wealthy.

Like with Mark Watney, we might also debate whether or not Katniss belongs in the first category—wanting what she already has, since she has kept her family safe so far before the story starts—but she’s not exactly living the good life and doesn’t want things to continue as they are; she wants it to be better.

In these cases of wants that are possible but not yet achieved, characters don’t expect where the want will lead them because they don’t realize how big the issue is that’s preventing their success. The more they experience complications throughout the story, the more they come to appreciate what’s at stake and the more invested they become in a bigger solution.

Then finally I wondered about that last approach—when a character wants the impossible.

four desires (5)

Family and love are of course not the only options for this kind of story, but they were the ones that came instantly to mind. I thought of Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool 2 and so many other stories that showcase alternatives to the traditional family structure because the protagonist has lost their family of origin or their lover.

Here are two specific examples that would be familiar to almost everyone:

  • Harry Potter wants his parents back, but instead the adults at Hogwarts become substitute parents (Hagrid, Dumbledore, even McGonagall)
  • Romeo and Juliet can’t be together because of their families’ rivalry, but they do get what they want in a way: united in death

(Deadpool 2, by the way, is an interesting satire of the united-in-death option.)

In this kind of story, the tension is inherent because the character can’t have what they want, so the author’s job is to help the character (and the reader) gain new perspective that allows them to accept the twist.

What’s interesting too is how this can also propel a series forward as each book takes it a step further. Harry’s teachers become his surrogate parents, but then in later books those mentors are also taken away and Harry has to find more replacements, such as friends, and eventually he has to rely solely on himself.

This kind of story explores the ultimate conflict of being human: how we deal with loss. The point is to offer hope that happiness is still possible even when our heart’s desire is impossible.

So now where does it leave me and my story? Well, definitely less stressed, and definitely more clear.

four desires (6)

All of my character’s wants boil down to a magically ideal life she used to have as a kid, which included a perfect boy-crush, married parents who told her stories and took her globe-trotting, a tight-knit group of adventure friends, and also the inherent wonder of a child’s worldview, in which faeries etc were still possible.

The trouble is that the previous route is closed: she can’t go back in time to before the boy-crush moved away and her parents divorced and her friend group started breaking apart and one of them became suicidal and mass shootings went on the rise and her worldview became more bleak.

What my character truly wants is magic. But she’s afraid it doesn’t exist. She’s afraid that entropy is the ruling force of the universe, that life gets worse instead of better, that growing up sucks the magic out of life because you wake up to dark realities as you mature. She’s afraid that there is no one to rely on except herself, so she is trying to save her friends and her parents and herself by slamming on the brakes as much as she can, trying not to grow up.

That makes her ripe for learning that magic is real and that the universe is like a Great Mother who holds us and nurtures us and helps us grow—transforming us for the better.

It leads to coincidences that force her to face her fears by slowly taking away what’s worked in the past, just as Mark Watney’s survival mechanisms were taken away one by one. The story gradually drags everyone she’s trying to mother out of reach until she is powerless to save anyone, not even herself, except by turning to and trusting in the power of the universe.

Huzzah! Behold, the story that was there the whole time, like a house already built.

All those plot events that take away the people she cares about (as well as her own ability to survive) already happened in the drafts I’ve written, but from the outside I didn’t understand why the house looked the way it did or why it was a perfect fit for my protagonist. Why did she pick this house?

Now that I’ve unlocked the front door, I can see inside it for myself and understand the layout. With a little bit of furniture arranging and picture hanging, it will finally be completely staged, ready for readers to come on in.

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A Place for Poems

A couple years ago, I took a summer yoga class that gave homework. One of our assignments was to create a piece of art. I don’t remember if the parameters were more specific than that or if we were simply getting in touch with our creative selves, but I knew intuitively what I wanted to make.

fall

I’d recently hiked to see a local waterfall and had started thinking about the paradox of rising up by falling down, just as mist rises from the base of the falls. I plopped a snapshot into a new Instagram post and used my thumbs to shape and reshape lines of text, like a potter molding clay on a wheel. Then, with some trepidation (was it good enough for others to read it??), I hit share

Before that, poetry writing had been a rarity for me. I’d write a poem every other year when a certain elusive mood coincided with the alignment of the planets, and I’d show it to no one. But somehow the pairing of photo and poem hooked me. I became addicted to the sport of stalking poems and trying to capture them with both camera and words, and my output increased to every other week and sometimes even every other day. They began to pile up like gleaming trophies in the cute three-column grid of Instagram.

A major part of that newfound devotion was that my poems now had a place in the world—a way to exist and be seen beyond the notebooks and computer files I’d stashed them in. Social media let poetry sit side by side with vacation photos and other dailiness, like infusing the ordinary with tiny nuggets of grandness. When other people’s poems rolled onto my feed, they slowed the pace of my scrolling and my breathing, creating a moment to pause and reflect and bask in the meaning of life. Now I was able to pay it forward in gratitude for poems that had resonated with me, like this all-time favorite from William Carlos Williams:

My heart rouses

thinking to bring you news

of something

that concerns you

and concerns many men. Look at

what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

despised poems.

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

I feel that way too: that there is something essential found in poems, some essence we are otherwise lacking that needs a place in our daily lives.

Part of that essence, for me, is wrestling with ideas. Anyone who’s had a solid conversation with me knows that small talk is my nemesis while profound truths are my passion. I turn into a super-animated version of myself and will keep you pinned down for hours if you’re game for it. The challenge of then distilling truth into tiny bites of wisdom, humor, etc is fun for me.

But I began to notice that the poems soon became lost amid all my other posts. There wasn’t a good way to go back and find them. Also, only those who had access to my private IG account were able to see them at all. Belatedly, I wished I had made them their own public IG home, but starting over didn’t make sense. I wanted the date stamp preserved with each piece, and if I reposted them, I’d lose that.

Alternatively, I considered posting them here on All About the Words, but I quickly realized that wouldn’t work either, since I couldn’t have two separate sets of date-stamped posts on the same site. They’d end up as intermingled as my IG posts.

So I made something new. I rescued every poem and placed them in a collective sanctuary: Awake & Amused: Poetry, Paradox & Perspective. I took care to match every date and keep the original formatting of every line, and I chose a layout that preserved the three-column look I loved. I continue to publish on Instagram, preserving the beauty and function of that original platform, but now I have a separate archive as well.

awake and amused

Mostly it’s for me, the way a mother wants to be sure her kids aren’t lost out in the world. I like knowing they’re all together, safe and sound.

But it’s also for those kindred souls who’ve connected to the words, commenting,

“I love this one”

“Powerful”

“Absolutely so gorgeous and perfect!”

“Goodness. Love this.”

“This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing.”

After all, isn’t that the reason we share anything? We hope we aren’t alone in our feelings; we hope others will understand what we’re saying. Poems need a place in our lives because they slow our pace long enough to see this crucial fact: we are human, we are connected.

Maybe that is the essence of poetry.

Why I Left the Religion I Loved

affirmation card 2I write this while sipping my daily mocha—a ritual I’ve come to love, even though I’d never even tasted coffee until I was 35. Now I walk my kids to school, come home, put water on to boil, measure grounds into the French press, and eventually sit at my desk basking in the quiet morning hours as I type, sip, type, sip, type. It’s bliss.

I mention the mocha because it represents part of my reason for sharing this story, which I’ve told family members and close friends but have debated making public.

Fifteen months ago, in November 2017, I walked away from a community I dearly loved. I gathered up my children after three hours of church the way I would any other Sunday, we waved goodbye to friends with smiles they probably interpreted as “See you next week!” And then we never went back.

When our church friends see us around the neighborhood, I’m sure they wonder why, and I’ve spent fifteen months wondering how to explain it. If they were to guess, what do they have to go on except what they see, like the coffee in my cupboard and the wine glasses on my shelves? Because those were taboo when I was Mormon*, it might be easy to assume that I left in order to drink lattes and cocktails and experience a lifestyle that was off-limits before. How do I convince anyone otherwise?

Only by sharing my story.

(*After I left, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declared that the term “Mormon” and also the shorthand “LDS” for latter-day saints, though previously embraced, were now considered offensive. I mean no disrespect in using those terms to tell my story, but I consider Mormonism to be my heritage, so I claim an insider’s right to label my personal history as I knew it to be at the time.)

Deep breath. Here goes.

A month before leaving, I read a beautiful quote from the poet Rilke:

I want to unfold. I don’t want to stay folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am a lie.

unfolding

It was in Anne Lamott’s book Hallelujah Anyway, and she went on to say that “In unfolding, we are enfolded.”

I don’t know whether unfolding my story will enfold me in anyone’s heart, but I know that as I’ve unfolded myself over the past fifteen months, I’ve been enfolded in a tremendous peace that’s felt life changing.

A year ago, I wanted outward ways to show how different I felt inside, so I gave myself three identity-shifting presents for my birthday: an asymmetrical haircut, new eyeglasses, and a request for official membership removal from the religious institution I’d actively belonged to my entire life. Their letter confirming my fresh outsider status had my 36th birthday on the top—February 23, 2018. I interpreted that as divine timing.

I cried when I submitted the request, but not when they verified its completion. The tears surprised me until I realized they were tears of relief, discarding the weight of cognitive dissonance that had crept in so gradually it took 35 years to recognize it.

When I got the confirmation letter, I felt no regrets. I felt light and free.

But why? I still look back at my sweet Mormon community with its happy hymns (due to an adorable discomfort with minor keys) and happy people (due to continuous loving service) and feel shocked by the level of pain I felt inside it, especially since I seemed to fit just fine. I was (and still am) contentedly heterosexual and married, had produced an average number of mini-Mormons (four), loved being put to good use in various church jobs (that paid in brownie points), had plenty of Mormon friends (from childhood to present), and enjoyed the contemplative hours of temple attendance (and the convenience of having one nearby).

temple

There was really only one way that I didn’t fit, and I’m not sure how to explain it.

My coffee mug is now empty, the blissful rhythm of type–sip–type over for today, and I find myself stuck, staring at the blinking cursor, wondering how to proceed—not for lack of caffeine but for lack of words. Even though I’ll revise this 50 times before I hit publish, I’m including this paragraph to show how difficult this story is to tell. Please remember that what I’m conveying about Mormonism isn’t fact, only generalized opinion. The way I see things could be (and probably is) very different from how others might see them. But I am doing my best to be fair in my depictions, however many revisions it takes.

In Mormonism, I encountered a cultural phenomenon commonly referred to as “the shelf.” It probably exists in other religions too, and I understood it as a coping mechanism for maintaining faith in hard times. A good Mormon trusts that, when we are uncomfortable with the way God has chosen to do things, there must be a loving explanation that’s too difficult for mortals to understand. So you set the idea on a “shelf” in your mind with the plan to ask God about it after you die.

The shelf for an average Mormon is full of things like “Why do bad things happen to good people?” as well as “Why can only men hold priesthood offices?” or “Why are some people burdened with homosexual attraction or gender dysphoria?” In some cases it’s their own children who are LGBTQ+, making the shelf sag under that heavy weight. They might offer long, sob-choked prayers to God at night, begging for understanding, but if understanding doesn’t come, they have been instructed to “doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.”

The items on the shelf are the set of doubts each person has stockpiled, but the shelf itself represents faith. Mormons are eternal optimists and believe God will make everything right, even if it’s not until the “next life” in heaven.

For those of us who have left, the common expression is that “my shelf broke.”

The way that I didn’t fit in Mormonism was that I didn’t believe in shelving anything. To me, the shelf analogy operated upon an underlying assumption that God wants our circumstances and the church’s policies to be as they are. I took a different viewpoint. Since God is Love, I believed that when a reality or policy seemed opposite of Love, it meant God didn’t want it to be that way.

I believed God was anxious for change: anxious for women to be treated as equals in leadership, anxious for LGBTQ+ to be free to love whomever they loved, anxious for transgender transitions to be accepted, etc. I believed that the trouble was too many LDS members weren’t ready to make those leaps, so God was waiting for them to come around.

I believed that I could help by sharing my views. Whenever I spoke in church or taught lessons in Sunday School or contributed comments in class, I slipped liberal perspectives into the topics in subtle ways. I hoped God was placing others like me throughout the worldwide church to create a peaceful revolution that might take generations (since the church is a gerontocracy) but would eventually shift everything.

Whether you’re liberal or conservative, don’t get too attached to what I’ve just said. It eventually flipped upside down.

folding chairs

So let me get to the crux of why I left—the tiny hiccup that upset my paradigms.

The most valuable asset that I gained from growing up Mormon is listening to a quiet inner voice, and I still believe 100% that there is something smarter than me that guides me toward the best possible results. At the time, I thought it was a humanoid white male God sending His Spirit to lead me along; now, I like to muse about various new-age theories, like that my subconscious mind can feel the magnetic energy of positive outcomes, or that my soul preprogrammed my body’s DNA to choose the experiences my soul wants in this life, or that the universe operates at the frequency of love and tugs me toward decisions that optimize peace.

Those explanations are far fetched, so I hope they don’t distract from the point: when I listen to my gut, my gut has never let me down. I could chronicle countless decisions that didn’t make logical sense at the time but my gut said to go for it and I trusted my gut and my life became better in the long run. I could describe choices that I didn’t like one bit but still felt “right,” and then in retrospect I was grateful to have been steered that direction, even contrary to my own preferences.

This is my version of faith, independent of any religion, though I’d assumed my faith went hand in hand with my religion.

The problem? My gut, my deepest knowing, my inner voice, my soul, my authentic self, my prompting from the Spirit, whatever you prefer to call it (to me it’s all semantics now) started to beg me to leave.

I fought against it for a long time. I said no. I didn’t want to desert my community. I didn’t want to turn my back on the religion that had taught me so much. I didn’t want to abandon my friends and my family and my people. I didn’t want to leave.

affirmation card 1

I confessed my struggle to three Mormon friends on a girls weekend in Southern California a month before I left, and I broke down sobbing in the surfer-style restaurant where we were having brunch. I was being torn apart by the fork in the road that I could see up ahead, because I knew my friends would stay on the main path while I would go on a side road into uncharted territory. Religion promises safety and surety along tried-and-true routes; I couldn’t fathom navigating life alone.

So I did what my religion had taught me to do: I studied and I prayed. If a book or article felt like I’d been led to it, I read it with a prayer of gratitude. I read histories of Mormon polygamy that broke my feminist heart; I read counterpoints about The Goddess or The Great Mother or Mary Magdalene (all vague territory in Mormonism) that soothed my feminist heart. I even read conspiracy theories that helped me reconsider the rhetoric of every Mormon tale I’d ever been told. Mormons can be very trusting and very literal, so it took some wild reinterpretations of traditional stories to force me to see that the neat-and-tidy versions I’d accepted were probably not accurate.

(In fact, I no longer believe it’s possible to know history beyond date, time, and place with 100% accuracy. History is just his story (which already eliminates 50% of the truth, since we seldom get her story), and every person interprets events in a unique way.)

When I compare notes with other ex-Mormons, we’ve often read different things, but the universal factor is that we needed new perspectives to shift our thinking. Our guts already knew, but our brains had to be convinced. Mormon theology is semi–closed circuit; church authorities discourage using non-LDS religious resources, and to compensate, they produce more in-house material than any individual Mormon could read in their lifetime. With that size of a denomination-specific library, many of us had never touched non-Mormon religious writings or controversial LDS-produced documents.

I want to emphasize again that the research came after the gut feeling. Along with the coffee and alcohol misconceptions, there’s also a hypothesis that those of us who leave must have read “anti-Mormon literature” and allowed ourselves to be deceived by it. I don’t think that’s the case most of the time. It wasn’t the case for me. I just needed to wrap my head around how and why God could be asking me to leave what I’d been taught was His church.

And really, what ended up convincing me wasn’t the research. It was a Christian concept that Mormonism often emphasized: “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Good choices came with good consequences (good fruit), because anything good came from God, so to judge whether something was right or wrong you just had to reverse engineer it: Did it bear good results? Then it must be good. Happiness, joy, and inner peace—those warm, fuzzy feelings we taught the kids at church to recognize by filling a jar with furry balls for every good deed—were good fruits that came from listening to the Spirit and doing the thing God wanted you to do.

In the long months of fighting against my gut, I couldn’t find peace. Those months were full of struggle and emotional pain as I tried to convince myself I could stay where I was. It’s human to fear change, but that fear is multiplied when you’ve been taught to fear a certain choice. I’d been taught to fear coffee and alcohol and premarital sex and a whole slew of things, but at the top of the list was fear of apostasy—because then I’d be putting my eternity in jeopardy.

It’s a peculiarity of Mormon doctrine that Mormons sometimes grieve more for the “lost” than the dead. Mormon funerals are conspicuously void of black attire, like their eschewal of minor chords, because death is a happy day of being reunited with your Maker and with all your loved ones who’ve gone on before. The living are encouraged to keep their covenants and stay true to the faith so they will likewise receive that great reward. It’s a sobering reminder (indirectly, since Mormons are already alcohol-free and prefer to focus on the positive) that some choices are worse than death.

Parents with “wayward” children often got weepy when they described worrying that they wouldn’t be with their kids in heaven. I never wanted to put my parents through that.

But then I did. When I broke the news to them, they were full of tears and concerns about being together after we die. In the next sentence, they used the shelf to grasp at faith and optimism, saying that they’d have to trust God to make it all right. At the time, I wanted to tear their shelf down and beg them to see that none of us were dying and I was still right there in front of them. Even after separating from the church, I was operating from my long-held misbelief that I needed to fix other people’s paradigms. It took a little more time to release my grip on that too.

I read a Salt Lake Tribune article recently that claims a whopping 93% of ex-Mormons surveyed describe their post-Mormonism feelings as “freedom, possibility, and relief” vs 7% who feel “loss, anger, and grief.” The article hinted that the 7% might not be happy yet because they are still wrestling with what I would describe as the emotional fallout of disappointing the people around them.

I had to release myself from that responsibility for my tribe. I’d spent decades helping them however they wanted me to, be it playing hymns on the organ/piano or giving fifteen-minute talks or teaching Sunday School classes. I’d also spent those decades with ulterior motives, trying to morph an entire multi-million-member population into what I thought it should be. I finally walked away when I realized what message my inner voice was shouting: to let them live their lives the way they wanted without my constant push for change, and to stop forcing myself to live within a set of doctrines, policies, and expectations I didn’t like.

They were happy as they were, but I wasn’t. So I was the one who needed to change. I’d had it backwards all along.

braving the wilderness

I’ve been grateful for the love and acceptance and understanding I’ve felt from family and friends. A few months after I broke the news to my parents, my dad shared with me that he’d been praying to understand my change of course and had felt that this is the right path for me and that God really is guiding me. After all, God moves in mysterious ways. That’s a big deal, and I gave my dad a huge hug after he told me. Not everyone who leaves their community is as lucky as I’ve been in my relationships.

But the truly great reward is my relationship with myself. The inner peace has felt incredible. That’s the real bliss, which has very little to do with the mocha I sip each morning. I’ve come home to a place that’s a perfect fit: inside my own skin. Most of the shoulds I’d internalized throughout my life have fallen away, creating a freedom in how I view myself that also transfers to others. I’m no longer (as) guilty of thinking I know what’s best for those around me; I didn’t even know what was best for myself until that relentless gut feeling forced my hand! I’ve given up certainty in exchange for mystery—and it’s taught me to marvel and laugh at the ironies of life.

How My 100th Query Letter Revealed the Story I’ve Been Wanting to Read

queries
character notes and failed queries, including side-by-side comparisons on screen

I love to start a post with a good old confession, so here it is: Last year I thought my manuscript was done, I thought I was ready to query, I thought that I just needed to keep drafting new versions of that letter and getting feedback and even paying professional editors for help until I had an amazing query that would get instant responses from an agent and I’d be on my way to publishing.

I spent six months trying. I went through almost a hundred drafts of that query letter and a few hundred dollars in editing fees.

And then I accepted a conclusion I didn’t like—a conclusion so depressing that I didn’t open a single writing file for the next six months.

It wasn’t the query letter or even the complex plot that was the problem. It was my main character.

Here’s a hiccup I’ve observed about main characters: they make or break a story, and it’s easy for an author to inadvertently make them flat because the author identifies with them and assumes too much is obvious. You’re used to being in your own head, and in some ways you don’t see yourself as clearly as others do, and this transfers to your MC as well.

I spent the second half of 2018 stewing over this. Not working on it in the butt-in-chair, fingers-on-keyboard sense, but rolling it around in my head.

It reminds me of that Albert Einstein quote:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

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diving into the proper question: who is my main character?

Finally, I dug deeper into what I knew of my main character. What does she want? How is that tied to the story? Who is she really? I even paid $25 for her 30-page astrological natal report, which reminded me of her interesting quirks and issues that I hadn’t brought out in the story yet.

Last week I sat down and tried the query letter again for probably the 100th time. The goal is to sum up the MC’s story in three short paragraphs that tell who she is, what she wants, what’s thwarting her, what’s at stake, and what she does about it. I had thought my book was just so complex with 400 pages and multiple viewpoints etc that it was too difficult to sum up in three paragraphs. But instead, when I heeded the editors’ wisdom and let my MC drive the query, a wild and fun story unfolded. The three paragraphs sounded like a book I’d want to buy and stay up reading because they showed a character I’d want to know and adventures I’d want to experience in her shoes.

I’ve heard you should write the book you want to read, but I had had trouble describing why I felt so passionate about my story. After writing this new query, the trouble is gone. I summed up the book to my husband on our date night and to my sister on her couch with confidence and enthusiasm I’d been lacking before. The story gels in my head. The plot twists make more sense. The whole thing feels just right.

Next step: revise my MC throughout the manuscript so she lives up to the characterization of the query. After six months of avoidance, I’m ready and excited to make that happen.

Grammar & Style: A Book Story

A few weeks before the start of spring semester this year, the department asked if I could rearrange my schedule to accommodate a mid-afternoon course on grammar and style. Partly because I’m a nice person who likes to be helpful but mostly because I’m a confessed grammar nerd who was geeking out at the opportunity, I said yes.

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But it didn’t leave me much time to plan the syllabus, and the first decision was the most crucial: what text to use.

A colleague had mentioned Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style to me months before, so I pulled it off my shelf along with a couple of textbooks and hurried to weigh out the pros and cons of each.

The awful truth about most grammar textbooks is that they try to teach style without much flair. Technical definitions and lifeless examples are more soporific than inspiring. Some creep toward being interesting by dissecting sentences from famous writers, but the analysis is usually dry. I’ve even heard a textbook author admit this, blaming the approval process for sucking all humor and vulnerability out of the prose.

Pinker doesn’t believe in trite sentences. He believes, like I do, that to teach someone how to write, you better write well enough to show them what good writing looks like.

My gut said Pinker was the way to go. Read more

“To Kindle a Light of Meaning”

When seventeen people—human beings with names and lives and futures—were killed in Florida on Wednesday, I was writing a draft of a blog post about pain. I stopped, knowing it would take days of perspective to sort out my thoughts in this horrible new context.

braving the wildernessPain brings everything else to a halt, most of all when it’s sudden and violent. I think of Brené Brown’s description in Braving the Wilderness of drivers in Houston pulling over when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry. I think of lyrics from Les Misérables after the young revolutionaries are slaughtered: “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.” There isn’t anything we can say or do, so we stop, helpless.

I believe that’s how humans were created to function. Grief strikes us down because we are meant to feel that torture and use it to reassess our lives and choose a better course. Read more