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Ready to WRITE–Technically

Thursday, September 27, 2007

What’s the main reason writers go to conferences? It’s actually two-fold, though we may not realize it until we’ve been at it for a couple of years. First is to study the craft of writing at the feet of those who’ve been doing it much longer and more successfully than we have. Second is to learn more about the publishing industry.

There are also a few reasons why the editor/agent panels are held the first night of the conference. On the surface, it’s so we know what they’re looking for before we go into our pitch sessions. But seeing as how at ACFW, all of their editorial needs were posted on the website months in advance (and we had to sign up for said appointments months in advance), this really becomes more of an opportunity for attendees to hear it in the editors’ own words and ask for explanations of what some of their statements mean. Underlying this is the fact that knowing what editors are looking for can help direct our minds to being open to learning things in the continuing sessions and workshops we might not have even paid attention to before. Finally, it serves as a reminder that even though we may see our writing as our ministry, the way we shine our light for God, this is still a business.

Which brings us to today’s letter . . .

WRITE

Technical. There is a vast difference between technical and creative writing. Technical writing is what you see in computer manuals and government contractors’ proposals. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about writing our novels with technical accuracy. Study the craft. Study grammar. Study a style book (like the Chicago Manual of Style). Study other authors’ books. As a copy editor and writer, I cringe whenever I see posts to writers’ groups (e-mail or forums) with major typos, misused homonyms (your, you’re), and bad grammar (especially subject-verb agreement/disagreement). I’m not saying I’m perfect! I’ve sent my share of e-mails that have been truly cringeworthy when I’ve gone back and reread them. But I’ve learned to take a few steps–such as having the spell-check turned on in Outlook so that my e-mails are automatically checked before they’re sent. I’ve figured out how to edit my own posts in the ACFW forums as well as the forums at my grad school. I usually edit my blog posts four or five times in the few hours after I post them. It’s the same with my writing. Sure, I’m not as careful about editing chapters before I send them to my crit partners. I try to catch everything, but that’s a major reason I have crit partners—so they can catch what I missed. But when I send a proposal or manuscript out, I need to be confident that it’s as nearly perfect technically as it can be. In judging the ACFW Genesis contest this year, I spent a lot of time focusing on grammar and technical issues on most of them because there were some fundamental problems (especially with commas, pronouns, apostrophes, and quotation marks) in the majority of the thirteen entries I judged. I only counted off a point, maybe two, but wrote nearly a page of explanation. I suggested to each of them that they find a freelance copy editor (the Christian Pen is a great place to find one) before submitting anywhere. A great story will rise above a few typos or misused commas, but editors want to see the cleanest manuscript possible. So be creative with your story, but write technically.

    Poor is he who works with a negligent hand,
    But the hand of the diligent makes rich.
    (Proverbs 10:4)

Truthful. I’m once again going to invoke Madeleine L’Engle and the advice she gave in Walking on Water (but in general terms, since I don’t have the book in front of me right now). In talking about truth, she explains how sometimes, it’s easier to get people to understand or accept a truth if it is presented to them in the form of a fictional story. As I’ve already pointed out, Jesus did this regularly. Think about some of the truths we learned as children from nursery rhymes, bedtime stories, and especially Aesop’s fables. Who can forget the concept of “slow and steady wins the race”? That comes from a fable, a story made up to get a message across. In choosing a tortoise and a hare for this tale, Aesop infused truth into his fiction. The first time it was told, I’m sure people scoffed at the idea of a hare and a tortoise racing each other. Ridiculous! No one would ever believe a tortoise could win such a race. But because Aesop used the facts about each animal’s character, the truth of how each behaves, he was able to spin a story that not only was understandable and believable, but it has stood the test of time (if you don’t believe me, just watch TV for a little while and see how many commercials invoke it). Even though we’re making up stories, they must resonate as true with our readers. They must believe in the characters, even if we’re asking them to suspend their disbelief by creating fantastical worlds or creatures. Why is Lord of the Rings still so popular? Because we believe in the characters—we see the truth of humanity in each one.

    Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being,
    And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. (Psalm 51:6)

Tales. Ultimately, this is what writing is all about. Telling stories. Entertaining people. It’s a tradition that can be traced back to prehistory, in the drawings on the walls of caves, in the oral traditions passed down from generation to generation. When God created us, He gave us imaginations. Our imaginations seek out tales, stories, whether real or fictional. Seventeen years ago, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns figured this out when he made his epic Civil War miniseries. So many people before him had made documentaries about the War Between the States. But no one had ever spun it into a tale the way Burns did. He made the viewer connect with the human element, individual people’s experiences, by doing more than just focusing on dates and battles as most other histories have done. He included letters, diaries, personal accounts of life at home, battlefield encounters, the cold, the heat, how they cooked, brewing their own alcohol, the sounds, sights, smells . . . the truth as seen through the tradition of storytelling. He made it into a tale by following several historical figures throughout the four years—including Elisha Hunt Rhodes (U.S.A.) and Sam Watkins (C.S.A.), two foot soldiers who were seemingly everywhere throughout the war. He put faces and voices to history and let them tell us their stories. Set your imagination free. Let go of yourself and let the characters tell the story for you.

    And [Jesus] said, “A man had two sons.
    “The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. . . .” (Luke 15:11-12)

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

2 Comments
  1. Thursday, September 27, 2007 12:03 pm

    I need to spend more time with my CMS–I just know it! I’m terrible with commas, etc. And yet, I always think they’re in the right spot. OK, so commas aren’t my only issue, but the technical portion of this post zinged me!

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