Apples to Apples: Surprise at the Core of Three Great Books

Apples to Apples: Surprise at the Core of Three Great Books

IMG_2617My daughter Abby has the unique gift of comparing humans to animals. She studies a person, then comes up with the best animal comparison ever. She’s spot on every time, sending us into howls of laughter.

Sometimes I come across two or three wildly different books that have one or two similarities worth comparing. This time it’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Space Between Words by Michele Phoenix, and The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay.

The Austen Escape and The Space Between Words are classified as Christian fiction, both published by Thomas Nelson and written by established authors. Eleanor Oliphant is general-market fiction published by Viking; it’s Honeyman’s debut novel. Each book took me by surprise in elegant and startling ways.

All three books feature a protagonist who has experienced trauma. Eleanor Oliphant’s childhood in Scotland was one long trauma, at the center of which is an event that would have put almost anyone into institutional care.

In The Space Between Words, Jessica is wounded during the horrific shootings at the Bataclan in Paris in 2014. Not long after her release from the hospital, she embarks on a trip across France with her friend Patrick. They’re searching for treasures for Patrick’s vintage home goods store when Jessica discovers letters from Adeline Baillard, a long-dead Huguenot woman persecuted for her faith. This begins a journey through time to tell her story.

In The Austin Escape, Mary Davies accompanies her friend Isabel Dwyer on a two-week trip to Bath and a complete immersion into the world of Jane Austen. Isabel is writing her dissertation on Austen and hopes the immersion will help break her writer’s block. Mary’s well-ordered world—she’s an engineer—is thrown into chaos amid Regency dresses and long-buried secrets.

Eleanor Oliphant takes place in Scotland; The Space Between Words in France; The Austen Escape in Texas and England. The protagonists are smart, talented women; each one has an off-beat love interest whom the authors don’t force upon readers and who play second-fiddle to the real stories of healing.

Most importantly, all three books have a hidden side that will startle you and cause you to rethink the characters’ motives and actions. There’s no way I’m spoiling those revelations here, but suffice it to say that you’ll be confused along the way, challenged, and sighing with delight at each book’s end.

Each one of these books made me think more about trauma and its consequences, how we handle trauma, and how we heal from its effects. I came away thoroughly entertained, with deeper understanding, and eager to read more from the authors.

If you’ve read any of these books, I would love to hear your comments. If you’ve read all three, tell us how you would compare them—without revealing secrets!

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The Heart of the Book

The Heart of the Book

IMG_2529Two books I read recently made me think about books I’ve read in the past and how they have influenced my thinking and life. The pair couldn’t be more different: one a hilarious, profane, insightful look at books and ideas that had an impact on a librarian’s life; the other a literary, academic study of books that affected a teacher’s life.

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life is by Annie Spence, a real-life librarian in the Detroit area whose epistolary homage to the best and worst books she’s come across as a librarian and reader will have you laughing so hard you cry. And crying so hard you laugh at yourself.

What person doesn’t get a little teary reading about books by Judy Bloom, Anne Frank, Audrey Niffenegger, and Adriana Trigiani? There’s so much more than laughs, though. There’s needle-sharp analysis, pathos, insight, lit crit, and cool lists.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English, leads readers through her childhood, her angsty young adult years, and into adulthood via the tropes embedded in books such as Great Expectations, Gulliver’s Travels and Madame Bovary. She made me wonder about what books influenced me and how. She made me think about how novels and poetry speak to all of us through story and metaphor.

So, somewhere between the hilarity of one book and the literary analysis of the other, is a list of books that I read again and again. I offer little critical analysis as to why, and certainly no deep dive into my psyche.

  1. A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. As a child I loved this book of poems and line drawings interspersed with beautiful, four-color art. I found the book at my parents’ house some years ago. It’s inscribed as such: To: Ann, Mark, Dean; From: Daddy and Mommy, Christmas 1968. I would have been six years old.
  2. A biography of Luther Burbank. Why, in late elementary school, I repeatedly checked out a biography of a plant breeder/botanist is beyond me. I kill succulents, perhaps the easiest plant to keep alive ever. This book must have been the start of my love for memoir and good biography.
  3. Caddie Woodlawn by Carolyn Ryrie Brinks. A tomboy living on the Wisconsin frontier—what’s not to love, Laura Ingalls Wilder fans? I adored Caddie (and Laura).
  4. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I read all of the Anne books in hardcover, each one a different pastel color. Don’t get me started on why I no longer own these books in this format.
  5. Beloved by Toni Morrison. This book is powerful and awful and hopeful all at the same time. I read it three or four times and still don’t think I got everything.
  6. Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons.  I met Kaye at the Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing and had her sign the same book twice, once in 1994 and another in 2002. I read the book again twice—one right after the other—just last year.
  7. Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns. One of my favorite Southern novels, and I like a fair number of them (see: The Help, Ellen Foster, To Kill a Mockingbird).
  8. Eleanor Oliphant Will Be Just Fine by Gail Honeyman. I just read this book for my first-ever book club and am completely in love with it. Read it!

There are many others not included—children’s, popular fiction, memoir, biography, literary fiction—that touched me, taught me, or got me thinking about life. These books, however, stayed with me for reasons unknown or only lightly considered. Perhaps one day I’ll dig deep into why these books are still in my heart. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading.

Would love to hear your list of books that are important to you!

 

One Step Forward in 2018

One Step Forward in 2018

Untitled designEach year my writer’s group, called The Guild (this picture is not us, BTW), gathers during the holiday season to reflect on the past year and to look forward to the new one. Each of us picks a word for the upcoming year. My word was “release” for 2016 and 2017. Turns out I released a fair number of things in those two years. Life is lighter when the heavy things are gone.

For 2018, however, it’s time to step ahead. My word for this year is “advance.” One of the definitions is “move forward in a purposeful way.”

We talk often in my writers group, at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference (www.breatheconference.com), and among writer friends about taking the next step. Doing the next thing. Doing that thing that is right in front of you. It could be writing a blog post or a poem; submitting a short story or an essay to a literary journal; finishing the next chapter or contacting an agent. It also could be leaving a job, dropping an agent who isn’t a good fit, or saying goodbye to things or people who drain your energy.

It’s taking the next step in order to move forward in a purposeful way. It’s advancing inch by inch and step by step.

Here it is February already, and have I advanced at all? Yes! Taking those next steps, one by one whether I’m gasping in fear or not, has brought new things into my writing life. Ghostwriting a book with an entrepreneur from Haiti; first job through a group that links publishers/authors and freelancers; using social media more and better (this might take until June!); the release of Christian Publishing 101 in January. PBK15Render

I’m no different than every other writer out there. I’d rather do a whole lot of nothing than step into something that might be difficult or scary. But I look at that word—advance—and take the next little step and the next one and the next. Sometimes nothing happens except me taking that step—which is enough! Sometimes something does happen, which is even better.

How are you advancing in your writing life? What small steps—or big ones—have you taken this year already?

I’ll list some of those advances in a future blog post. And choose one person to win a free copy of Christian Publishing 101!

We’ll all be inspired by your next steps.

Author Talk: Q&A with novelist Mesu Andrews

Author Talk: Q&A with novelist Mesu Andrews

Mesu Andrews (pronounced mee-sue) is well known for her fiction based on biblical figures. Her novel Miriam was a Christy Award finalist and her newest novel, Isaiah’s Daughter, will be released in February. This accomplished writer talks about her fiction and her writing life.

Q: What do your readers say they like about your biblical fiction?

A: From what I’m hearing from my readers, they enjoy the fact that the characters they read about in Scripture become real people to them. When I put clothes on them, give them brown eyes, have them stub their toe, all of a sudden they have flesh and blood and a heartbeat.

My goal is to put readers in the story so they can smell and taste it, and the people are real to them. These people were real; we’re reading history, not a story book.

Q: How do you get yourself into the chair in order to write consistently?

A: I don’t have an issue with starting to write or keeping my nose to the grindstone. My issue is stopping. I tend to be a workaholic. When I have trouble thinking of the word “the,” it’s time to stop.

Q: How do you connect with your readers?

A: In the past I haven’t done a lot of release events. I do online things like Facebook parties because I tend to be a homebody. This year the North Carolina ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) is a new chapter, so the weekend before the release of Isaiah’s Daughter I’m doing a one-day workshop in Raleigh.

Q: How do you do your research?

A: I have a significant library thanks to my husband being a pastor and college professor, and I’ve been doing this a few years so every time I write I buy a few books. We recently moved to Boone, North Carolina, home of Appalachian State University, and I’ve found a lot of resources there on the Babylonian and Assyrian cultures. Children’s books also have been a great source, often full of pictures of houses and dress and other things.

The Encyclopedia Judaica is one of my favorites. Rabbinical texts have a lot of information on Jewish traditions, and there is so much legend in Jewish literature. I also have copies of the works of Josephus and Herodotus. Before I began writing books, in 2000 I visited Israel. I remember that trip like it was yesterday.

Q: What kind of criticisms and roadblocks have you faced, and how do you deal with them?

A: I went to my first writers conference in 2001 and I wanted to write one book: a Bible study on the Song of Solomon. Someone looked at me and said, “Wow, you really need to stick with speaking.” I kept writing anyway.

I had been speaking as a Bible teacher at women’s events and as a pastor’s wife. I was teaching 4-5 times a week, and traveling once or twice a month to retreats. But my body decided it was done with that. I got a virus in 1997, then in 2004 my body gave out again and I was in bed for six months.

Since 2005 I’ve had a daily migraine. I stay home, am quiet, and don’t do much. But the Lord has given me an incredible gift to be able to write. I teach with my writing. I absolutely love it.

Q: Tell us about your new book and your next project.

A: Isaiah’s Daughter (Feb. 2018) is the story of Hephzibah, the wife of King Hezekiah who was one of Judah’s best kings. Hephizabah means “the Lord’s delight.” I’ve always been fascinated by her, who was married to one of the most righteous kings in Judah and who mothered the most evil king in Judah. I love to think about her faith journey.

The next book is tentatively titled Of Fire and Lions and is about Daniel and his wife and is due out in February 2019. After that I want to write another book about Hephzibah and the second half of her faith journey, that of raising Manassah and up to her death.

Writing for the Books & Joanna Davidson Politano

Writing for the Books & Joanna Davidson Politano

2017 was a great year for novels with storylines involving writers. Four were on my reading list, and should probably be on yours if for no other reason than they are about writing.

Rachel Hauck’s The Writing Desk is a luscious time-jump tale with a writing desk in the middle. Tenley Roth has one bestseller, but is completely blocked when it comes to writing her second. Her estranged mother calls her to Florida where she comes across an old desk full of secrets, including those of Birdie Shehorn. Birdie lived during the Gilded Age, the daughter of Old Money. This is a useful—and entertaining—look at what it takes to really live a writing life amid obstacles.

The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck turned out to be one of my favorite novels of 2017 thanks to author Bethany Turner’s rollicking voice and story, as well as her slanting look at sexual tension in Christian romance. Sarah, too, had bestsellers—written before coming to faith and chock full of scandalous material. I enjoyed discovering how Sarah dealt with her previous books as she entered her new life. I would have given this book a starred review in Publishers Weekly if someone else hadn’t already done so.

I always love a good John Grisham story, and Camino Island was no different. It’s quite different from his legal thrillers, but I’m not arguing with a tale about a heist from Princeton’s library vaults of priceless F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts. Enter Mercer Mann, novelist with severe writer’s block, who is asked to help find the manuscripts that may be hidden in a bookshop on Camino Island.

Lastly, Lady Jane Disappears by Joanna Davidson Politano, another novel of two plots and multiple mysteries this time sent in Victorian England. Aurelie Harcourt’s father dies in debtor’s prison, leaving her with the task of finishing his wildly popular serial novel written under the pen name Nathaniel Droll. Aurelie must go live with her father’s snobbish family, and there uncovers mystery upon mystery surrounding her long-lost mother. She must keep her identity as Droll secret even as she writes about her family.

Joanna Politano visited Grand Rapids in 2017 and I was able to meet her and talk about her novel and writing life. She’s the mother of two young children, Elena and Levi, and lives with her husband Vince in Michigan City, Indiana.                                                              

Tell us a little about your writing journey and your debut novel Lady Jane Disappears.

The novel evolved as I wrote it over nine months or a year. It started out as a fun thing I did during my daughter’s nap time, then became a more formal project. I had decided to set aside my publishing goals to raise a family but God said no. He said, “It’s noble but not what I want you to do.”

I went to a writers conference where I met my agent Tamela Hancock Murray. She signed me and I finished the book several months later. We got interest very quickly.

What surprised you as you wrote Lady Jane Disappears?

It surprised me that the book became more of a mystery novel than I thought. For fun I put in every element that I like in a story. As I edited the book, the mystery became more of the story. In fact, what happened to Aurelie’s mother surprised me. I didn’t know if she would pop up, didn’t know who was the villain. My first readers had me rewrite the ending because it was boring.

What do you like most about writing?

I enjoy the connection with my spiritual life, how art integrates with my walk with God. God and I unfold the novel as a process together. I also love connecting with readers who are kindred spirits and who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I love to to sit down and play with words, to change sentences around, all the twists and turns of writing.

What is your best advice to new writers?

My advice is to not care so much about what people think of your writing. I also think writing to any kind of fad isn’t going to get you very far, and thinking too highly of yourself is only going to hinder you. There is a lot to be said for learning the craft, and I’m not trying to cop out on that, but you have to be true to your story.

Get feedback, enter contests, and really listen to the people trying to help you. It’s easy to think  your writing is really good and others just don’t get it. But if three or four people are telling you something, you need to listen.

What authors do you like to read?

I like to read anything well written. I grew up reading the Brontes and Dickens; now there are so many good novels out there, especially in CBA. I like Bethany Turner for contemporary, Lynn Austin for historical, as well as Jodi Hedlund, Kristy Cambron, Laura Frantz, Rosanna White, and Susie Finkbeiner.

Visit Joanna Politano at www.jdpstories.com, on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

The Professional Writing Life by Intern 1 (Sarah Traill)

The Professional Writing Life by Intern 1 (Sarah Traill)

image1During my months with Ann, I’ve had time to see the professional writing life up close. Here are a few of her tips:

First, have a master plan. Make sure to write down all your tasks and deadlines. If you don’t write them down, you’re liable to forget!

Once you have everything written down, make a plan to accomplish it. Allow for more time than you think you’ll need. Those last-minute technological problems or tea spills over that critical document you needed are bound to appear if you’re working on a too-tight schedule. By having a weekly or monthly master plan, the daily struggles won’t be as stressful.

Secondly, be fluid in your plans. As a professional writer, your schedule changes on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis. Accept these changes and allow both yourself and your plans to be flexible. If you’re unable to accomplish something on the day you wanted it done due to scheduling conflicts or some other issue, allow for that and get something else done instead.

Third, complete small tasks on a daily basis. Make sure you’re finishing at least one small task on your project (or projects) every day. If you try to tackle all the huge tasks, you’ll burn yourself out, so try instead to take a certain amount of time or a certain number of small tasks to complete daily. Start with just half an hour to work on one project and move forward from there.

For example, send three emails, research for 15 minutes, make one phone call and write for half an hour. That’s maybe an hour of work, but you’ve made substantial progress on several on-going projects. If you do this a few times a day, every weekday your projects will quickly be completed.

Fourth, be open to new possibilities. Keep an open mind towards new ideas, new writing projects, and new connections. You’d be surprised how many new opportunities appear because you asked others for advice or information. Connections come where you least expect them!

Fifth, make time for your writing. Life can get busy, but make time to write during your day. If writing every day is too much, try three times a week for a set amount of time instead. Or write every day for two weeks and take a week off. To succeed as a professional writer, you must make sure you are making time for writing as often as you can.

Finally, Ann’s favorite tip: be nuts! To be a freelance writer, you have to be a little crazy. But that’s what makes it so much fun.

What I Learned from a Summer of Not Blogging

What I Learned from a Summer of Not Blogging

IMG_0149I haven’t posted a new blog entry in months and I’m trying not to feel guilty about that. The summer was filled with writing two books which, frankly, took priority over blogging.

One book was a co-writing project with Bill Blacquiere, soon-to-be-retiring director of Bethany Christian Services. The Call to Care helps focus readers on how each one of us is called to care for vulnerable children and families. How we work out that call day to day is different for everyone.

The other project was my own book, Christian Publishing 101, releasing in January 2018. I interviewed many experts in the publishing field—editors, agents, authors, publicists—to help create this writer’s-conference-in-a-book.

Throw in a family vacation, writers retreat, helping plan and pull off the Breathe Christian Writers Conference, and being a good family/church member and mom/wife, and suddenly it’s early November.  There are a couple of lessons I learned during this blogging hiatus. Hopefully you can take some of them to heart.

1. Social media is fluid. I didn’t blog, but discovered the joys of Instagram. Who knew that #writingwithchickens would be so much fun for me and for readers? It started because every time I wrote outside on the deck or swing, our three chickens would rush over to get in my business. They walked across the keyboard, pecked at the keys, studied the screen, did other crazy chicken stuff.

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Once I started posting goofy pictures on Instagram, #writingwithchickens became a thing. People started liking and following the girls. We don’t have a ton of followers, yet I’m always surprised when people talk to me about those chickens. And they buy me chicken stuff! I now am proud owner of a tiny chicken notebook and a stack of chicken plates, plus a chicken item or two that I purchased.

I may not have blogged, but I now have an Instagram following and friends on Facebook who comment on the crazy fowl. Plus I’ve taken the girls on the road thanks to a traveling flock of three tiny chickens that fit in my pocket. (See if you can find them in the photo.)

2. Interns are fun and make me work. I had my first intern over the summer: the lovely Sarah Traill. Her guest blog posts will appear here soon. She was a true gift, helping me research, writing a bit, and generally making my writing life easier. This fall Hannah VanKampen, a senior at Cornerstone University, interns for two afternoons a week. She took the photo of my cool chicken stuff. Hannah is eager to work and learn, too, and a real gift.

Sarah and Hannah help me focus my writing life—because I have to give them something to do! Being accountable is always a good thing, and these two have helped me tremendously.

3. Guilt is a choice. I knew this already, but it’s good to reinforce that I don’t have to feel guilty about not doing everything all the time. As many in the publishing industry say, focus on what social media platforms you enjoy and let some of the others go for the time being. I was good at Instagram this summer; I’m adding blogging, which I enjoy, back into the mix now. It’s all good!

(Photos by Hannah VanKampen)

I would love to hear how you have balanced writing and social media, how others have helped you along the way, and how you’ve dealt with guilt as it has assailed you in your writing life.

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about Christian Publishing 101 and entering for a chance to win a free copy in January, email me at annbyle@gmail.com.