Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: fiction

How a Master’s in Creative Writing is similar to being Born Again and Deconstruction

Got the MFA. Now what?

I suppose I assumed the fortune and glory would start pretty much immediately after defending my thesis. I mean, I did the work, right? I’ve pounded out hundreds of thousands of words. Cut, polished, and primed them into a lovely little novel. But what’s changed with me? I still seem to be the same.

Maybe it’s kind of like being Born Again.

When you convert to Evangelicalism, you are considered a new person even if you don’t feel different. Your perspective is new. Your priorities are reordered. You learn to endure, even delight in, esoteric rituals and readings—there is a skill to sitting quietly with your community, remembering an event none of you were there for, discerning it in words and the shared wine and bread.

Deconstruction™ is similar; everything is new. Values shift, painfully. Your community changes. There’s nothing easy there, but it gives power, too. The power to grow your own meaning, like tomatoes on the balcony. The power to prune and repent of sinful beliefs and practices that you’ve never been able to get rid of before. Perspective.

But we’re talking about an MFA here—being Born Again as a Master of writing. I think I can picture this the same way. I have learned to work through this strange art for hours on end, even when it hurts, and I hate it. I value readings and the furtherance of good writing. The very costly effort that was required to gain this title has deepened my approach to the craft.

So, I’m glad I finished this, even though nothing has changed except my perspective. Because that’s kind of everything.

Biblical Fiction: “Not Wanted on the Voyage” and “The Red Tent”

I’ll start reading any stories based on Bible stories. Ancient myths of all kinds are like fertile fields that grow new crops every time they’re sown. My favourites, so far, are Timothy Findley’s “Not Wanted on the Voyage” and Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent.” 

They’re completely different kinds of books.

“Not Wanted on the Voyage” is a deep and whimsical fantasy about Noah’s Ark.

“The Red Tent” is a stark and realistic portrayal of the life of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter.

Both of them grabbed me deeply.

Meanwhile, I have given up on Gore Vidal’s “Live From Golgotha.” It’s funny, clever, and I just can’t bring myself to finish it. The premise is interesting: time travelers want to shoot the crucifixion for NBC. There’s wit and anachronisms everywhere. But I just don’t care.

I’m wondering what Findley and Diamant have that Vidal (in this book anyway) does not. Here are my thoughts:

  • All three are willing to turn the patriarchs on their heads, but Findley and Diamant make it serve the story. Noah and Yahweh are hugely problematic characters in “Not Wanted on the Voyage.” Diamant paints Jacob just as double-sided as the Bible. There is irreverence, but not for its own sake. The irreverence serves the story.
  • Findley and Diamant dig deep when the suffering comes. They refuse to shy away from the depths of human hurt–and human apathy. But Vidal’s light touch makes nearly everything that happens in the story light. And since it is light, it doesn’t matter.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Diamant and Findley make me CARE SO MUCH about the characters. Like, ruin your day kinda care. Meanwhile, I can’t bring myself to invest much in the people in “Live From Golgotha,” despite its very interesting premise.

So if you’re looking for some really good Biblical fiction, pick up Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” and Timothy Findley’s “Not Wanted on the Voyage.” Both are engrossing, gripping, and more than worth your time. 

And if you want something that smacks like an irreverent Douglas Adams, “Live From Golgotha” might be for you.

Writing Foreplay

No, not writing about foreplay.  That’ll be a different sort of post altogether.

You ever have a feeling of drudgery when you sit down to do your thing?  You love writing.  You always have.  But these days when you try to actually get down to work, you feel overwhelmed and utterly intimidated.  You can’t remember how you managed to write two and a half novels.  You feel like you don’t know where your story is going, despite your detailed outlines and plans.  You stare at the computer screen and feel such a revulsion toward your task that you are afraid you were never supposed to be a writer.

You’re not in the mood.

You have a headache.

You’re tired.  You have to wake up early the next morning.

You’ve forgotten how fun writing can be.  You need some foreplay.

Open a fresh document.  Write these words:

Writing can be such a drudgery.

And then write some more.  Tell the page what you think of it.  Tell the page how pissed off you are about your lack of inspiration.  Rail and complain.  Beg and plead.  Pour out all the negative feelings in your soul onto that page.  Don’t stop.  Don’t think.  Let it go.  Just let it go.

Until you stop.

Then open your novel again.  Go to the scene you have to write.  You’ll feel better.  You’ll be in the mood.  You’ve had your foreplay.  Time to take it home.

Review: The Pillars of the Earth

“The small boys came early to the hanging.”

     My mother recommended this to me ages ago. I meant to read it. Really, mom, I did. But I forgot. I picked it up recently on a whim and did not remember a thing that my mom had said about it. And I’m really glad about that. Because if I had known what it was about, I probably would have left it alone.

     The Pillars of the Earth is a historical fiction about cathedral building.

     Erm… yay?

     Let’s be honest, it sounds crazy-boring. Most churches are boring. Old churches are even more boring. Building old churches sounds so boring that I feel like poking my eye just to get a distraction. And on top of all that, the book is nearly a thousand pages long. Wow.

     I’m so very glad that I had forgotten what the book was about.

     The author, Ken Follett, grabs you by the throat in his first line. And he doesn’t let go until the book is ending. His story is huge and he gives you characters to love and hate by the handful. And then he puts those characters through the grinder. What else could you ask for in a novel?

     In the end, the novel is about the inevitability of human suffering and the unbeatable human spirit that has been slowly, painfully, but assuredly making the world a better place.

     There is something very special about the book that makes you care about something you have no interest in. I don’t care about building churches. Even big churches. But Tom Builder cared. Prior Philip cared. And since I cared about Tom Builder and Prior Philip, suddenly I cared about their big church.

     The Pillars of the Earth is a great read. Its scope is huge, dealing every human struggle from intimate marital relationships to battles between kings and popes. Pick it up. You’ll love it. I swear.

Thoughts on Starting a Novel

     The Shadow’s Daughter is done. A couple beta readers are pouring over my final revision and I can’t wait to deal with their considerations, but for now, it’s done.

     When I started The Shadow’s Daughter, I had no idea where it was going. I was doing two strange projects at the same time. One was about a very typical rag-tag group of adventurers off to find a mystic artifact (blaaaah). The other was a series of romantic serials I was writing for my wife. Both those stories died, and from their ashes rose The Shadow’s Daughter, first book of The Chronicler and the Bard.

     Yay, and stuff.

     So now that The Shadow’s Daughter is done, I turn my eyes to the next installment.

     I had forgotten how it felt to start something new.

     I once heard that writing a novel is like walking through a dark wood with a lantern. You only get to see a couple steps ahead of you, but you can get through the whole forest that way.

     Whoever said that didn’t mention the most obvious characteristic about walking through a dark forest with only a lantern.

     It’s scary as hell.

     Seriously, what if you get lost? What if you lose the path? Worse, what if the path is so well travelled that there’s no point in walking it? What if you’re going the wrong way and you never should have entered this stupid forest and why didn’t you wait until daytime and OMG I’M FREAKING OUT!

     So, there’s that.

     It’s also lonely.

     You don’t get to write novels in tandem. And when you try to talk about an unborn novel, it never goes right. People look at you as if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Because, frankly, you don’t. Not yet. You’re still wandering around in the woods.

     Scary and lonely.

     Which is why I’m glad I believe in muses.

     The muse is that strange spiritual critter who tells you the story. She’s the lantern you’re carrying as you wander through the woods. She’s Navi from Zelda who keeps saying “Hey, listen!” And while she may annoy the hell out of you sometimes, she knows the way. She knows the story that she wants you to tell.

     She’s the one who won’t let me get side-tracked or lost. She’s done this before, too. For a jillion years her and her kind have been whispering tales into our ears. She knows what she’s doing. And that’s nice.

     So here I am, just entering the woods again. I’m holding my lantern high and peering into the darkness. I take a step forward, and the lantern’s light stretches a bit further. It’s going to be okay. No, better than that. It’s going to be freaking awesome.

Thoughts on Starting a Novel

     You might be tempted to think that a writer deserves a break once he or she has finished a project. I don’t really think so, though. Writing is a habit. And there’s no reason to kick a habit in the shin once it’s started to pay off.

     So I started my next book already. It’s neat to stand here, staring out at the ocean of blank pages to fill.

     It’s scary, too.

     I’ve got amazing plans and visions and ideas. A billion of them. They’re everywhere. And they scare the shiong mao niao out of me.

     Sitting down to write a book is like deciding to procreate. It’s generally a pretty easy process to get started. But it’s a terrifying one to see through. Getting ideas is as easy as having sex. But turning those ideas into a good and true story is as hard as raising a son or daughter to fulfill all the infinite and beautiful possibilities they are born with.

     So, yeah, I approach this new book with a healthy amount of trepidation.

     But if writing a book is scary because it’s like raising a kid, then it’s exciting for the same reason.

     My kids are wild. Ask anyone who knows them. They are bursting with personality and ideas and that wild, creative spirit that makes them little snapshots of God. And they have hardly even begun to show the world what they’re really capable of. I try to guess what they will turn into, and I can’t. Sometimes I think it’s blasphemy to even try. So I sit back, tweak things here and there, and let them run free.

     Starting a novel is like that. The idea was mine. The initial acts were mine. And I retain control even as the story progresses. But, in the end, it goes wherever it wants. And I’d be a fool to hinder it.

     So I stand on the brink, looking down at a virgin world, and wonder what will grow there when I start plowing and planting. It scares me, because I could screw things up royally. But it excites me, too, because the possibilites are endless. And I know, deep down, that if I just let the story be what it is, it’ll turn out fine.

Good and Bad Similes

A dented yellow and black taxi weaved like an epileptic snake in and out of traffic through Karachi’s dense streets.

     I admit it. I wrote that. My first novel was an unpublished practice run called The Foolishness of God. It was about life, religion and culture found within the blossoming romance of a Canadian guy and a Pakistan girl. Sound familiar? It’s never seen the light of day. And I wouldn’t let it, either. Not without some major rewriting, at least.

     Because it’s chock-full of bad metaphors and similes like this one.

     A metaphor or simile is supposed to connect the reader to whatever it is you want to connect them to. In this sentence, I was hoping to communicate the idea that driving in Karachi is whack. Instead, I manage to completely distract the reader by making them wonder what a snake with epilepsy would look like. By the time the reader figures it out and tries to apply it to the taxi, he or she is completely disengaged from the story. Bad simile, Matt. Baaad. Here’s one that seems a tad better (though significantly grosser):

I can hardly stand the food, and the stuff I do eat rushes out the other end like a garden hose.

This one works better because everyone is very familiar with water coming out of a garden hose. So when the garden hose is applied to the character’s digestive system, you get a very clear, and overly graphic, understanding of what the author wants to communicate.

     Most of the similes I used when I started writing were large and elaborate. Maybe I thought big, original similes showed people how clever I was. It tainted my writing, though. It tires the reader. So, in honor of bad similes, I made a list for myself so I can remember to keep my similes powerful and useful.

     Rules for similes:

  • They must be connected to human experience. That’s why the epileptic snake fails. You’ve never seen one. But everyone has seen a garden hose.
  • They must fit your voice. If you were writing an off-the-wall comedy, then maybe there would be a place for epileptic snakes being compared to driving. But The Foolishness of God was not a comedy.
  • They must not be trite. It’s trite when it’s overused to the point of meaninglessness. And trite is always bad. So never say ‘She blubbered like a little girl.’ or ‘He ate like a horse.’ Boring!
  • They must be more effective than simply stating what you want the reader to hear. If your simile or metaphor is so complicated that the reader has to scratch his head over it, maybe you should just say ‘She was sad.’ Yes, it’s always better to show her sadness, but if you can’t, just tell.
  • They must not be bound up by rules. If your muse demands it, throw all these rules away. I just made them all up, after all. Writing is like a puzzle with unlimited solutions.

What are some of the worst, distracting similes you’ve ever seen?

Opening Paragraphs

     I decide if I care about a story or not in the first couple lines.

     In a perfect world, this wouldn’t happen. In a perfect world, I’d read every story. I’d give every author the chance to tell their tale. But I don’t have the time or energy. So I give them a couple sentences. Or, if the book comes recommended or the world seems interesting, a chapter.

     Some books open like a textbook. Like the author wants you to understand how wonderfully complex their world is before you meet the people in it. Frankly, though, I hardly care about your world if I don’t love the people in it.

     Other authors try a bait-and-switch. I did this with my first novel. It was dirty. My opening scene was an action sequence with guns and blood and stuff. But the novel was about love and culture and a bunch of people chatting in coffee shops. Dishonest. If I ever resurrect it, that opening will be cut.

     But sometimes, glorious times, the author makes you care in a single line. It’s not a formula. It’s not a science. It’s like meeting a new person. Sometimes you just hit it off. Sometimes you just decide to be yourself and that authenticity works.

     Here’s an idea for a slick writing exercise: Write the first few paragraphs to a novel that you never plan to write. Make it good enough to bother you that it doesn’t exist. If you can pull that off, you’re dancing.

Moral Ambiguity in Fiction

     Real life in ambiguous. You’d rather it not be, but it is. In every action we become someone’s hero and another’s villain. We try to do the best and sometimes we pull off real, pure actions. But usually the human race bounces back and forth between good, evil and something squishy in between.

     So I sometimes get wearied when I read most stories with very clear-cut villains and heros. The world is full of Boromirs and Gollums; not Saurons and Aragorns. And our stories are meant to be elevated life, not idealized life. And all our good stories must be true, even if they never happened. So our villains must have good and our heroes must be tainted.

     These stories force us to think and bring us face-to-face with difficult questions and uncertainties. We are forced to think when Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke tries to choose a side in the war between the humans and the forest gods. We are forced to think when Michael Corelone takes his father’s place as godfather of a criminal organization. We are forced to think when we see Jaime the Kingslayer waffle between hero and villain.

     I understand most people don’t share my love for this kind of ambiguity in stories. They find it frustrating and ill-satisfing. We like our lessons easy. We like it when the world is easy to judge. We like to tell our kids that good and evil are very clear and good people and evil people are just as clear.

     But life isn’t like that. And even the greatest of Books shows that, doesn’t it? King David the murderer is called a hero. Lot is called righteous, though he tried to convince a mob to rape his daughters. Moses murdered and was a saviour. And I still can’t figure out if Joab was billed as a hero or a villain.

     Life is complex; good, true stories reflect that complexity. Yes, there are some wild-eyed heroes devoted to nothing but the higher good. Yes, there are some black-hearted villains, consumed with hate and greed. But only a few. There are no armies of black-hearted soldiers. There are no legions of light-blessed paladins. Most of us are a mix and that tells me that most of our stories should be mixed.

When Your Story Isn’t True

    I was stuck.

    Ever been stuck?

    On a creative project?

    It’s not writer’s block. It’s something different. Something elusive and singularly frustrating. A large, pulsating tumor of Resistance.

    This particular Resistance was centered around a certain section of the story. It pricked at me because I knew exactly what needed to happen. I tried every strategy I had heard of to break it.

    I tried outlining it to death. Useful, but the Resistance stayed.

    I tried leaving it and rewriting other parts of the book. Productive, but the Resistance stayed.

    I tried reading lots of fantasy books to jump-start my inspiration. Fun, but the Resistance stayed.

    I figured it out last night.

    I was bored. Restless. Distracted.

    That meant my story wasn’t quite true.

    You see;

Every good story is true. Even if it never happened.

So if the story is not good, it’s not true. And there are two possibilities when you find that your story is not true.

    (a) You have added false things to your story. Is there something false about your plot, characters or world? Falseness stands out in a story like the sound of nails on a board. Find the false and cut it out.

    (b) There is some important truth missing.

    It was (b). There was something missing. Once I realized it I immediately knew what it was. Scenes. Characters. An entire sub-plot. It’s a lot of stuff. Maybe ten thousand words of stuff. Or more.

    Now, if this was any other job I’d be upset about it. I’d be tempted not to add it, because of all the work it’s going to be. It could be a full two weeks of writing. And that’s if all my writing sessions are good ones.

    But I wasn’t upset.

    I wasn’t discouraged.

    I was elated.

    It doesn’t matter how much work a good story needs. I’m not too upset that George R.R. Martin took 5 years to write A Dance With Dragons. It was a good story. A true story. It was worth 5 years.

    And my story will be worth however long it takes to write.

    Will yours?