Talking Shop: Rabbit Trails

Recently, while drafting up a novel, I had to outline a scene that contained a smorgasbord of syrups. I didn’t have an IHOP within stone’s throw of my writing desk, so I fired up Google. Of course, within minutes, I was knee deep in search results, reading about the savory taste of birch syrup and the methods of creating a simple syrup from honey and water.

Your friendly-neighborhood-writing-professor just recoiled in horror. Conventional wisdom has always cautioned against such distractions while writing.

Doubtless, you’ve heard these warnings:

“The second you open an internet browser, you’ll break your flow state!”
“Multitasking in that way will wreak havoc on your writing.”
“Before you sit down to write, take a hammer to your internet router, cut your telephone lines, and board up your windows!”

This is one area where I break with tradition. That strange, ancillary effect writing has—forcing us to dive into unknown subjects—is a reason in itself to write. I’ve found curiosity begets more curiosity. The rabbit-holes I find myself wandering down are a boon for the creative process. At times, what started as the first draft of a story has caused me to learn more about architecture, vocations, nomenclature associated with various industries, and geography. In moments such as these, writing a novel feels as instructive and educational as my experience in college as a journalist.

So, my advice is simple: feel free to carve out some time to write without interruption. But also schedule some time with a little more leeway. Allow your brain a little more leash every now and again, and it just might do wonders for your creative process.

What’s New in 2021?

At this time of year, Santa isn’t the only one “making a list, and checking it twice.” As the embers cool on 2020, people are drafting up New Year’s resolutions to make 2021 a better year than last. And while that might not be a tall order for most, there have been some highlights from 2020 in my “writing life.”

I had a chance to publish my first poetry collection through a traditional publisher this year. I held my first book-signing, and got to play “author” for a day.  I enjoyed conversing with many of you here on WordPress regarding art, spirituality, and writing. I’m grateful to the Lord for each and every one of these opportunities!

Even still, I’ve made my own list of goals for the coming year. I thought I’d take some time to let you all know what to expect from me (Daniel) and this website (Bez & Co.) in 2021, Lord-willing:

1. Bez & Co. as a literary journal is officially kicking off in January 2021. Since I opened submissions, I’ve received countless poems, short stories, essays, and photos. I’m happy to report that many of these were incredibly enticing pieces of art. It will be my honor to run our first issue in January! It’s my hope that following a successful kick-off, I’ll be able to make this online literary journal a paying market in 2021.

2. I’m going to self-publish two new books this year. One of these books will be one of the longest poems in the English language. The other, oddly, will be a prose version of the same story.  I’m aiming to release the poem around March and the novel in December.

3. The novel I’m writing will be the first step into my foray into writing prose regularly. Though I’ve written three novels in the past, I’ll be the first to admit, I am not a novelist. With that being said, I’d really like to improve my prose, and I intend on writing and releasing some novels toward that end.

So, why self-publishing?

Many years ago, it was my goal to get a book traditionally published. To me, it was important to get at least one book under my belt that was “affirmed” enough in the industry to be published traditionally. Thankfully, with Wrenching of the Hip, this has been accomplished. Now, I’m pivoting to something that fits my long-term goals more closely.

By self-publishing, I can produce some more esoteric offerings that traditional publishers wouldn’t touch (such as, my very lengthy narrative poem told in heroic stanza.) I can keep 100% creative autonomy on the writing I’m publishing. Of course, the royalties are considerably better than traditional-publishing, as well. 

Lastly, and most importantly, self-publishing most closely aligns with my long term goal: starting a small press that honors Christ and furthers the Kingdom of God. The lessons I’ll learn through formatting, marketing, and promoting my work should pay dividends in trying to do the same for others’ work. 

What about you? What are your goals for 2021?

Talking Shop: Five Reasons Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘YA Books’ Succeeded

Those with even a cursory knowledge of my literary preferences will recall my fondness for the late Madeleine L’Engle

My first brush with L’Engle came when I picked up a beat-up paperback copy of A Wrinkle in Time in fourth grade. At that time, L’Engle’s books expanded my consciousness, creating in me a yearning for more–spiritually, creatively, and academically.

C.S. Lewis once credited the acclaimed Scottish author George MacDonald with “baptizing his imagination.” Throughout my childhood, L’Engle had a similar effect on me. I felt so indebted to Madeleine L’Engle for her numinous, soul-searching prose, that I named my only daughter “Madeleine.”

A week or so ago, I decided to pick up a book by L’Engle which I haven’t previously read. The book is titled The Arm of the Starfish. I was hesitant, because the book is filed squarely in the “Young Adult” section of the library. 

I’ll admit my bias. I tend to dislike most books that can be categorized as “YA.” for reasons that will soon be apparent. In short, I find most books in the genre lacking–both in substance and in any modicum of literary merit.
It’s an established fact that L’Engle hated when critics panned her work as “juvenile.” She famously quipped, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

Still, I approached the book with a little trepidation. I didn’t want to return to an author that I cherished so deeply for so many years and become ultimately disappointed that I’d outgrown her. I feared being disillusioned.

Ultimately, out of respect for L’Engle’s perspective, and her phenomenal track-record in my reading history, I decided to give this YA-novel a chance. 
What I found, to my relief, was a tightly-knit, cosmopolitan spy-novel that did anything but disappoint me. 

As I set the book down, I reflected a little on why L’Engle’s YA worked where so many others have failed. How is it that her books stood up, not only to the test of time, but also to the test of the audience aging?

I came up with the following five reasons:

1.She never shied away from “grown-up” topics.

In The Arm of the Starfish alone, L’Engle deftly navigates topics as complex as nationalism, the thalidomide disaster of the late 50s and early 60s, the Spanish Inquisition, and deep-seated theological issues. 

In the hands of a less capable writer, such a diverse survey of topics would quickly turn glib and disingenuous. L’Engle manages to explore these topics with aplomb, always rejecting an easy explanation.

2.Conversely, she didn’t resort to shock tactics. 

Without slinging mud at any particular authors, “YA lit” (writ large) often acts as a taxonomy on “edgy” or “controversial” subjects, such as teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, etc. 

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with addressing any of these topics for a younger audience, it’s often handled in a clumsy way, detracting from any real message and instead promoting controversial content for the sake of controversy. 

L’Engle’s doesn’t shy away from pushing the envelope, but it never feels contentious for the sheer purpose of bolstering sales.

3. She whetted the appetite of her readers.

Madeliene L’Engle was a walking, talking Liberal Arts education. Her works are replete with allusions to science, medicine, history, philosophy, mythology, linguistics, literature, theology, art, and music. 

In The Arm of the Starfish, L’Engle alludes (among other things) to the Tallis Canon, Jackson Pollack, and the Greek myth of Diana and the Golden Apples. She utilizes Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” as both a secret-code and a theme interwoven throughout the book. The subject-matter of the book delves into the topic of marine-biology: both real and speculative.

In every instance mentioned above, regardless of the topic, L’Engle instills in her readers the desire to learn more. Inspiring your audience to dig deeper into the humanities is a hallmark of great literature.

4. She never condescended to her readers. 

L’Engle had an impressive command of language, and she didn’t let the fact that she was writing for a young audience dissuade her from putting it to use. In The Arm of the Starfish alone, she writes in four languages: English, conversational Spanish, tidbits of Portuguese, and Koine Greek. 

Most of the words and sentences she employed can be understood through context clues, but in some examples (such as the “Phos Hilaron” hymn in the original Greek,) she requires her readers to do a little research outside of the pages of her own work to uncover the meaning and origins of the text. 

L’Engle never felt the need to “dumb down” her vocabulary on account of her younger audience, either. She used words like “echinoderms,” “anagogical,” “desultorily,” and “porcine.” 

She gave her younger readers the benefit of the doubt: if they didn’t know a word, they could look it up in a dictionary.

5. She weaves all of the above nimbly into a well-told story.  

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all of the above points are wrapped up into a well-plotted, breezy narrative. The net effect of reading one of her novels is that you ruminate deeply while simultaneously enjoying a great-read. Or, as she puts it while alluding to Frost, “your avocation and vocation become one.”

In so doing, L’Engle crafts dense, imaginative, sprawling concepts into tightly-packed, well-resolved stories. Regardless, even, if her books include the “YA” moniker.