How to Deepen Your Stories

May this piece be a blessing to those of you who want to deepen your stories:

While I prefer to have a life like a maple tree in spring—full of promise, growth, and branches that reach for the sky in greening prayer—I realize I’m a better writer when I’m an autumn oak, bereft of leaves, dried out, my arms brittle from the reach. On my run today, I see why. When trees begin their shedding, when the promise of life floats away on a crisp breeze, you see more of the sky. More sun, more blue, more clouds peek-a-boo through barren branches. What is hidden is revealed. I’d never see the curiosity of bird nests had the camouflaging leaves not fallen.

That’s the secret of great writing.

Naked lives letting the sun poke through, revealing snatches of life not otherwise seen.

That all sounds breathtakingly ethereal, but really, it’s pragmatism at its best. Because I’m at my best, literarily speaking, when I embrace my frailty. And I think you are, too. The best novels out there are populated with characters who fail, struggle, reach for heights but miss the mark, lose loved ones, rail at the heavens at the unfairness of it all. How can we possibly give our characters such beautiful angst if we’re not willing to experience life ourselves?

The best novel chapter I wrote came after an excruciating conversation with a loved one. Such hollowness poured over me, I asked the question, “What if my character had these same feelings? But toward another person?” With all the raw energy of my fragile emotions, I scratched out that scene, let it sit, then sent it to my good friend who’s an excellent novelist. She deemed it my best writing. I wept. I thanked God for the scarred circumstance that brought it about, how He made beauty from the ashes of a painful conversation.

In life we long to have things tied up neatly with a velvet bow; but life, in all its wild tumbles, wrestles the bow away, flinging the box wide open. It is that way with our stories. I’m guilty writing first drafts full of black and white characters and plots that tie up neatly and happily. I’m thankful for editors who point this out and make me go back, adding wayward flesh to my characters and twists of reality to my plot.

In that exercise, I only have to look at my own life to see that the most beautiful parts of my life were birthed in the cauldron of bitterness and unmet expectations—in the autumns and winters of my life. Why would I deprive my characters of that same experience by making everything springtime and summer? And why would I deprive my reader? They’ve experienced their own share of worry and heartache. They’re looking for storytellers who understand, who dare to tell their stories because that it what readers relate to.

It’s not easy to go there. It’s never easy. But how can you expect to mine the depths of human depravity and grace in your stories if you’re unwilling to mine them in yourself? Someday, if God opens the door, I’m going to teach novel writing. It will be unlike any other workshop I’ve attended. Of course I will delve into story structure and passivity and point of view, but before I begin any of that, I want to inspire writers to understand how we deepen our stories beyond mechanical constructs. I want writers to see that great stories grab you by the throat because of their terrible humanity, because readers feel the story is theirs somehow. And that can only happen when we’re willing to live in the pain and joy of our own stories. It’s my firm belief that great writing flows from the pen of self-aware writers.

Here’s your assignment. I give you permission right now to write something from a place of emptiness or angst or bitterness or bewilderment or nakedness. You know what I’m referring to. Take those emotions, feel them, pray about them, go to Jesus with them. Then, write like the wind. See your story not as a tree in cacophonic bloom, but as a shrub awaiting winter, leaves gone, glory faded. Let the sun glory through the spindly branches.

Sometimes I’m asked how I write deep, relate-able stories. It’s because I do what I assigned above. I recognize those autumn places, walk through them (not always graciously either), and translate those emotions into the landscape of my stories. This is something you can do. It’s something you must do. Embrace your frailty today, and venture forth. The world needs your story.

Write Naked

I’m reading one of those stark books (like Kite Runner) where the author writes pretty darned nekkid. What I mean by that is spare, harsh, in-your-face prose, the kind that evokes emotion and curiosity. The book? A recommendation by Mark Bertrand called The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Hear some of his prose:”For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and make stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die.” (p. 19).

Beautiful, ain’t it?

When I first started writing, I resembled young Anne of Green Gables (which my young daughter mispronounced and called Anne with Green Bagels). Full of pomp and circumstance, my writing flowered its way through sentences and paragraphs. Adjectives and adverbs were my trusted friends. But worse than that was a weird pompousness that came through, like I was touting my English major, thank you very much. It reminded me of that poetry you read and go “huh?” afterward. Great, effusive words strung together that had very little meaning.

I balked at editorial correction too, thinking myself high and mighty, a wielder of words.

But, as the years wore on, I realized great writing isn’t the stuff of prettification. It’s not full of bright lipstick and rouge. It’s natural, stark, raw. I started concocting sentences that evoked emotion, that kept rich in its description of place, but spare in its contrivance of human emotion.

Ew. Now I just read that last paragraph and it sounds a bit hoity toity. Maybe I’ll always have Anne and her green New York rolls lurking inside.

Even so, I want to write nekkid. To grab my reader and thrust her into the lives of my characters. I want my prose to serve the story, not detract from it. I think it’s working. To prove it, I’ll paste two snippets, one from my first novel (not published) and another from a newer novel (not published). See if you can tell the difference:

Sample one:

When Augusta finished washing the last jelly jar, the sun burst through the mist, and the lake water danced as it did every time the fog dissipated. To call its lifting a miracle might be an exaggeration, but she called it that anyway. Sometimes the house stayed shrouded until suppertime, other days it evaporated all at once. Sometimes it dissipated in tendrils, wild and inconsistent, leaving the valley resembling Grandma Ellsworth’s silvered hair. Today the retreating curtain of fog revealed the fields beyond the lake, their softness in stark contrast to the lake’s prismatic dance.

Sample two:

“We can go up,” he said. “Let’s take the stairs.”

“Why not the elevator?”

“Don’t you remember?”

“Refresh my memory.”

“We kissed there once . . . in our pajamas.”

My memories hung on a broken charm bracelet. Some charms suffered from inefficient clasps, dropping along the streets of life, never to be returned. Some broke apart, like the tiny hind leg of a horse that’d never trot again. Some blackened thanks to time’s tarnish. Yet others remained pristine, happy silver clasped securely to the chain. This memory was like none of those. This was a forgotten charm, one so crammed in between broken and happy charms that I’d forgotten it. Rediscovered, its brilliance startled me.

***

How about you? Can you see transformation in your writing? Are you moving from flowery to nekkid? Or the other way? As you’ve matured, how has your prose altered? Are your stories simpler or more complex? I’m curious.

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Mary DeMuth is a writer and speaker who is writing this in the third person because she likes to think of herself that way. At this very moment, she is writing next to her smelly dog Pippin who is wet and sleeping. You can find Mary here, here and here.

How do you know if you’re ready for an agent?

Recently I received an email from a long lost acquaintance who decided it was time to write a book. He asked me if I could give him contacts in the publishing industry, including my agent. In his letter, he proved he didn’t know anything about this crazy publishing industry, so I sent him my standard “Dear New Writer” letter and haven’t heard back.

The truth is, this writing gig is not easy. It’s not as simple as asking a friend in the industry to put in a good word for you. It’s tedious and time consuming.

My friend’s words got me thinking. How would someone know if they were ready for the bigtime? Is there a magical way of discovering when one is ready to find an agent? Curious? Read the checklist below to see if you’re ready.

Here’s a checklist for those of you who are wondering if you’re ready for an agent:

  • I have attended a conference (local is fine) and received feedback from someone in the industry. (And if that feedback is negative, I’ve learned to thicken my skin and change what needs to be changed.)
  • I have found a critique group (online or in my city). I’ve submitted several things to be critiqued and have learned to take criticism in a constructive, productive way.
  • I have learned (trained myself) to make deadlines. (If you haven’t done this, give yourself a deadline today. Say, “I will write three query letters” or something like that “by January 25th.” Then meet that deadline. Make another. Meet it.)
  • I have mastered the art of query letter writing.
  • I have published several magazine articles on the local level, and perhaps a few on the national level.
  • If I write fiction, I will have completely finished my novel and had it critiqued (or even paid for a critique).
  • If I write nonfiction, I will have finished my proposal and three chapters until they shine like a new copper penny.
  • I have learned the industry well. I am well-versed in Sally Stuart’s Market Guide. Purchase it on the right hand side of this blog.
  • I have a body of work that’s been recognized (either by being published, or garnering awards).
  • If I write nonfiction, I have a good, solid platform. (If you don’t know what this means, you’re not ready for an agent.)
  • I’ve established a readership online through a blog or website. I have a significant online presence.
  • I have read over five books on the craft of writing.
  • I am not naïve about the fiscal workings of the business. (I have a cursory understanding about advances, royalties, rights, copyrights, and how authors get paid.)
  • I am not delusional, thinking my first book will hit it big and land me on Oprah.
  • I am teachable.
  • I am not a one-book wonder. I have a good listing of book ideas.
  • I understand the concept of branding.
  • I have started to develop friendships within the writing community.
  • Someone in the industry has said that my writing is ready for publication (and he/she’s not related to me).
  • I write every day.
  • I have not despised writing in obscurity.
  • I value BOC time (bottom on chair).
  • I set word count or page goals and meet them.
  • I sense God pushing me in this direction.
  • I have integrity.
  • I am low maintenance.
  • I value professionalism. I am willing to make strategic investments in my career. (Professional photo and business card, website that doesn’t look slapped together, etc.)

If you can say yes to most of the things on this list, chances are you’re ready to start thinking about an agent. The best way to meet an agent is in person at a conference. But if that won’t work, do your research and start submitting. A word of caution: DO NOT SUBMIT unless you are completely sure what you’ve written is fresh, stellar and breathtaking. Agents are longing for excellent writers who have surprising, world-altering ideas. Work-work-work until your book is that. Study the market to make sure your idea is different.

A surefire way to improve your writing today: read your work aloud.

DSC_0093 This last weekend I flew to Nashville to record the Thin Places’ audio book. This is my first time reading for a book, and the whole process proved to be enlightening. Afterward, I realized that if every author read their work aloud, they’d improve dramatically? How? Four ways.

  1. Reading the book aloud, I found four errors. Remember that a traditionally published book goes through several phases of editing. The substantive edit is the biggie where the editor tells you your macro problems (leaps of logic, if a novel: story issues, lack of clarity, poor research, etc.) Then the book goes through a line edit where grammar issues arise. After that, you read through it again, then you receive the galleys to also proofread. So you’re typically looking at the manuscript four times, not to mention all the editorial eyes on the piece. Thin Places had been through all four of these stages, and yet as I read aloud, I caught blaring errors. I’ve emailed them to the publisher. Thankfully, the book is not yet in print, so it’s easily fixable.
  2. You find your pet words. Who knew I used the word “penchant” way too much? Or “mess”? Editors do catch these things, but sometimes they don’t. At this point in the game, I can’t replace my extra words, but I do wish I’d have read it out loud first so I knew.
  3. You catch awkward sentence structure. Nothing is better than articulating your sentences out loud to catch clunky wording. I stumbled a few times, having to re-read the sentence or paragraph to make it work. Had I read the entire manuscript out loud, I’d have caught these.
  4. You catch repetitive themes. I realized how much I wrote about how hard it is for me to justify my existence on this earth, how very broken and needy I was/am. How my insecurity bleeds into my life. (Of course, this is dependent on the type of book you’ve written. Since mine is a memoir, these are the kinds of things I find.)

If you truly want to grow, change and become an excellent writer, I highly recommend reading your work out loud. Sure, you risk your family thinking you’re bonkers, but at least you’ll be a better writer (crazy, yes, but better!)