Beginning, middle or end?

Sunrise over St. John's College in Santa Fe

How do you start a novel? Every writer knows that each novel should include a definite beginning, middle, and end. But did you know those are also your starting options?

Usually I think of a sentence that seems like the beginning of a novel and it grows from there. This sunrise method works well for exploratory fiction, when you write to discover what you want to write. It’s been my standard operating procedure during most of the Novembers I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). But one year, I saw a scene in my mind and found myself writing to and from it.

I felt I was in good company on the scene start because C.S. Lewis claimed each of his Narnia and Space Trilogy books began with images in his mind, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.

Before Lewis describes this scene, however, he writes this:

The Editor has asked me to tell you how I came to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I will try, but you must not believe all that authors tell you about how they wrote their books. This is not because they mean to tell lies. It is because a man writing a book is too excited about the story itself to sit back and notice how he is doing it. In fact, that might stop the works; just as, if you start thinking about how you tie your tie, the next thing is that you find you can’t tie it. And afterwards, when the story is finished, he has forgotten a good deal of what writing it was like (p. 53, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature).

Wise words that make me wonder about analyzing at the expense of writing. But Lewis goes on to describe how he found his way from that image, and concludes:

Making up is a very mysterious thing. When you ‘have an idea’ could you tell anyone exactly how you thought of it? (p. 54, On Stories).

The initial success and timeless character of the fantasies by Lewis demonstrate beyond doubt that a story can start with an image in the middle of the tale. But there’s another way a narrative may begin in the middle.

hillsI met Nick Harrison while attending a mentoring retreat some years ago near Kansas City. He was mentoring authors in a nonfiction group and I was in the children’s fiction group, but we chatted a time or two. Yesterday Harrison promoted on his blog a new book by James Scott Bell, award winning suspense author and bestselling writing coach. Bell’s recently-released title is Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between.

A plotter figures out exactly where the story is going and how it will get there. A pantser sits at the keyboard and lets the story fly from fingertips, writing (as the cliche proclaims) by seat of pants.

According to Harrison, Bell advocates finding the “magic moment” that will lead to the protagonist’s change, then working your way toward that point and past it to the eventual final transformation. This seems like a helpful way to focus on the primary plot, and this high noon method intrigues me.

A star shines as St. John's bell tower is silhouetted at dusk

But the sunset method also piques my interest. Did you know books can start at the end?

Regular readers may recall that I attended the fiction workshop at Glen West last summer (here’s a reflection) At one point during that amazing class, Larry Woiwode shared he lately starts at the end and writes his way to it.

I’ve never begun with the conclusion, but I once had a near-end experience. You can read about that here.  I find Woiwode’s method a particularly fascinating, and possibly unique, concept.

How do you start your novel? From the beginning, in the middle, or at the end? You may have more starting options than you thought.




Lit! An elliptical book review

You say you’re not a reader? Readers are made, not born. Like anything else, we learn to do it through practice. You read a lot or you want to read more, but you feel like you need direction? Look to the light of Lit! by Tony Reinke.

The title is a clever play on words that intentionally conveys Reinke’s basic premise: appreciation for good literature, which reflects the Creator’s glory, shines in the flood lamp of a biblical worldview. Now don’t roll your eyes and click away, dismissing Lit! as a boring theological tome. It’s title also shows this is a short, easy read that engages and challenges.

I may have heard first about this book from Tim Challies, perhaps in a Facebook status update, but I’m not sure how I came across it. Tim has written at least three posts mentioning the book, and gives 5 reasons to read it. And The Gospel Coalition (TGC) blog features an interesting interview with Tony Reinke.

In any case, I purchased Lit! several months ago and sent it to my husband’s Kindle, but didn’t find time to read it until this month. That’s when I began reading Kindle books in bite-sized pieces as a way to force myself onto a newly-acquired used (and very old) elliptical. Lit! has short, easily-digested chapters that lend themselves well to these brief elliptical reading episodes.

Reinke doesn’t write like a theologian, but he writes from a solid biblical foundation. He doesn’t write like a professor, but he writes about literature from a broad liberal (in the academic sense) perspective. Reinke writes like a regular guy who comes up with unique phrases.

Take this hook from his introduction, for instance:

Perhaps you love to read. You get the same feeling from a new stack of books as you get from looking at a warm stack of glazed donuts. Maybe not. For most, reading a book is like trying to drink down a huge vitamin. You know you need to read—you’ll be healthier for it—but everything within you refuses to swallow! (p. 15)

Or this gem as he describes different bookstore experiences:

My hanging head notices an eight-hundred-page Russian novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The book cover is beautifully designed, the book was translated into English with great care (according to a friend of mine), and the novel is reasonably priced. My eye has caught the spine of this book many times before, and I’ve nearly purchased it on several of my frequent trips to the bookstore. But it’s also a very thick book that asks me for a serious commitment. And I’m already married! (p. 22)

Reading Lit! is almost an interactive experience. It’s like sitting across the coffee shop table from Reinke as he sips a hot latte and punctuates his sentences with expressive waves. When he dropped the names of old friends Anne Bradstreet, Leland Ryken, and Larry Woiwode, I actually spoke aloud: “Ah!”—which is elliptical shortspeech for, “Oh, you know him (her) too?”

The first part of the book presents a theology of books and reading. Reinke lays a scriptural and historical foundation before he recounts how personal sin and the gospel shape literacy. He then talks about developing a biblical worldview in an “Eye-Candy” culture.

Chapters 5 & 6 conclude his first section and contain the information I found most valuable. “The Giver’s Voice” presents seven accessible arguments for reading non-Christian books with discernment. Reinke writes, “As book readers, we are mistaken when we categorically reject non-Christian books. And we are mistaken when we read non-Christian literature uncritically” (p. 77). He reflects on John Calvin’s wisdom in this area, finding his model “generous, cautious, and sobering” (p. 77).

In his chapter, “The God Who Slays Dragons,” Reinke speaks about “The Purifying Power of Christian Imagination”:

The imagination is a God-given ability to receive truth and meaning. In an essay, C. S. Lewis wrote, “For me reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” Using fantasy in literature does not make a story fictitious; it’s often a more forceful way to communicate truth” (p. 87).

Fiction writers strive to write what’s true. While that may seem an oxymoron to some, discerning readers understand that truth shines bright in the best fiction.

The second part of Lit! gives practical advice on book reading, all of which can be implemented easily. Although I still cringe at his advice to write in your books. I understand the logic and wisdom behind his argument, but I haven’t quite summoned the strength to jump over my defacement hurdle. Maybe if I work out a little longer on the elliptical.

If you’re looking for a quick but thought-provoking read about reading, pick up Reinke’s Lit! And see the light.

The above book review by Glenda Mathes is on:

Lit! © 2011 by Tony S. Reinke
Published by Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois
186 pages

Hand at the chest

Image from

Today’s a wonderful Wednesday because in the process of reviewing Words for Readers and Writers: Spirit-Pooled Dialogues by Larry Woiwode, I found this quotation about deadlines that I’ve been searching for:

Do you worry about the ethics of all-nighters?—when you have to hand in a story by a certain date and hour, a deadline? Let me affirm that all writing is against a deadline, whether for a class or the staff of life on your table, or a publication that pays enough to scare you witless, or the end of life. All-nighters are not uncommon to the one who knelt on rock at Gethsemane. You can be sure the Spirit who causes cattle to calve will squeeze from your mind the pooling metaphor of acceptable words to fulfill an assignment or commission in an acceptable time.

Are you blocked?—feel you can’t write another word? That means you’ve reached an ethical junction you aren’t ready to face, or haven’t yet resolved, and you’re being held from it, because you’re not ready to take it on—the sensation of the hand at your chest keeping you from the page you want to fill, from a statement that may, ultimately, be irretrievable or rash or destructive (pp. 179-180).

Woiwode urges the reader to “live in trust, which is faith, faith itself the exercise of love—the giving of yourself to another in entire trust. Spend yourself prodigiously in your prose” (p. 180).

Since I’m trying to complete a devotional manuscript I’d hoped to finish by the first of last March, been intending to submit a book proposal for six months, and have two novels simmering on the back burners of my mind’s stove, these words bring comfort and lead me to trust.

The End is near


During a workshop at Glen West, when someone asked Larry Woiwode how he begins a novel. He said, “Most often lately, I tend to see the ending, so I find the beginning and get to the end from there.”

I sighed. I’d never had that experience. In fact, most of the time I come up with a first line and work from there. Once I saw a scene, so I wrote it and figured out where it belonged in the story. But I’d never begun at the end.

This week, however, I came close. I’ve been struggling with a beginning to a novel and was thinking and praying about it, when the end suddenly came to me. I have only a few chapters written in the work in progress, and I’m not even sure of the beginning, but I’ve already typed “The End.”

I have no idea if it will stay the way it is, but I have a feeling it will.

Creator, creation, and creativity

CIMG4024Glen West 2013 perfectly blended creativity and community with work and worship. The tag line for Image Journal proclaims: Art, Faith, Mystery. At Glen West, those theoretical concepts became experiential realities.

The high desert plateau setting of Santa Fe was new to me and played a crucial role in the entire experience. If I were talking about a novel, I’d say that setting became a character in the narrative.

Nature was the subject of Larry Woiwode’s remarks one morning when he opened the fiction workshop by reading from Psalm 19. Here are the first four verses of this Psalm from the English Standard Version:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.

In related remarks, Woiwode said, “Words are coming from the Word who created the world, and we can pick them up if we listen.”

He added, “Nature itself communicates the hidden attributes of God.” He encouraged us to observe nature by looking and listening.

“Pay attention in that careful way to nature,” he urged. “Nature will speak to you.”

Receptive observation helps us write true descriptions that convey the Creator.

“In descriptions done with fidelity,” he said, “the reader should sense the supernatural.”

Surrounded by layered blue mountains and green-dotted brown hills, surveying majestic clouds in clear sky, and breathing Santa Fe’s rare air, I sensed the supernatural. Never before have I felt so intensely and consistently in the presence of God. I rested and gloried in the Creator, his creation, and his great gift of creativity.

And, after a years-long involuntary hiatus from writing poetry, that week I wrote this poem:

At 7000 feet

I walk slowly
drink frequently
and breath deeply

I am far from home
and at rest in it

My love is distant
but Love fills my heart

I balance
on the precipice
of paradox

In the city of holy faith
modern adobe
and sun-warmed sage
I glory in creative energy

And in the presence
of I AM,
I fades

© 2013 Glenda Faye Mathes

Pragmatism, inspiration, and redemption

The mysterious staircase at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe
The mysterious staircase at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe

During the fiction workshop at Glen West, the first and most frequent question instructor Larry Woiwode asked was: “Does it work?”

That’s the primary consideration. Either a piece of writing works or it doesn’t. This may seem a rather pragmatic view, but it’s crucial to establish a work’s viability before going on to other important questions, like: “Can you trust this person to tell you the truth?”

Being able to trust the author is a key component of what makes a piece work. Those were questions asked about every submission we discussed.

During our discussions, we talked about some elements that apply specifically to Christians who write (note I didn’t say “Christian writers” or “writers of Christian fiction,” which should be explored in another blog post). Two elements Woiwode stressed that relate to believing authors were inspiration and redemption.

Each workshop began with Woiwode reading a Scripture text or spiritual writing excerpt. His comments brought each reading alive for the believing writer’s life.

One morning, he read from Psalm 51, noting especially verse 6 (text below from the ESV):

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
    and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

He spoke about wisdom in the secret heart as coming only from God, who delights in truth in the inward being. He said, “This is the closest thing we can get to inspiration.”

Another time Woiwode read from Psalm 37, including verse 3 (here in the ESV):

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
    dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.

“How do you ‘befriend faithfulness?'” he asked. Pointing out that Christ himself is faithfulness, he said, “You need to be immersed in the Word to become closer to Jesus.”

The closer we become to Christ, the more we find ourselves delighting in him: He noted verse 4:

Delight yourself in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:4, ESV).

Woiwode warned writers, “The secret area of your heart will come out.” But when we delight in the Lord, the desires of our heart change. They become less self-centered and more Christ-centered.

He also read verse 23:

The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
    when he delights in his way (ESV).

He pointed out how the psalmist’s “steps are established when he delights in the Lord” and encouraged us to walk in his way.

That idea of established steps ties in with what he read in verses 30-31:

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
    and his tongue speaks justice.
The law of his God is in his heart;
    his steps do not slip (ESV).

“The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,” he reiterated. “The more you receive him, the closer you move to his righteousness, the better you can speak justice.”

Interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe
Interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe

Woiwode later expanded on this concept: “As a person thinks, so that person is. The more Christ is in you, the more you’ll be disabled from doing anything but the truth.” He added, “Shine the light on evil. What is of the truth is built on rock.”

In an earlier class, Woiwode had spoken of “shining the light on evil” as “writing redemptively.”

In my mind, you can’t picture redemption unless you first depict the necessity for it. Writing “safe” fiction that avoids any distressing subject isn’t realistic. Evil exists. It should be shown and named for what it is. I’m not advocating graphic or nauseating descriptions. But I do believe evil cannot be ignored. Only when evil is exposed can writers express the power of Christ’s redemption.

Our writing then becomes realistic as well as redemptive. Our inspiration will come from Christ and will reflect his redemption. Fiction will stand on truth. The writing will work.

Telling the story eclipses intention and audience


Compressing everything I learned during my intensive Glen West workshop into brief blog posts seems impossible. But I can give you a taste through small samples.

Last Friday, I focused on the first day and wrote about beginning to write by writing. Two of the many literary terms we discussed on subsequent workshop days were intention and audience.

Our workshop leader Larry Woiwode didn’t seem particularly keen on the concept of authorial intention. “The critic never knows the writer’s intention,” he said. “The only person who can know your intention is God. Saying you know the intention of the author is promoting yourself.” He added, “Write to tell a story, not to convey intention.”

He wasn’t a big fan of writing for a particular audience either. “Don’t worry about who you’re writing for,” he said. “Do the best you can and it will find the audience.”

Do you see a pattern? Woiwode stressed expending your best effort in telling your story. “Tell the story properly,” he urged. “Do the best you can.” He described a well-written story as one that “has dimension under it,” saying, “We feel underneath it the thought that conceived it, compressed it.” He spoke of “the story beyond the story,” which “you want the reader to think about for the next week.”

I believe it’s accurate to say that, for Woiwode, story-telling trumps intention and audience.

Begin to write by writing

The post-it note centered above my computer monitor daily reminds me, “Begin to write by writing.” It’s a phrase that struck me during a writing course years ago. Anyone can think about writing, but you have to put your fingers on the keyboard and actually write if you want to be a writer.

Glenda Mathes and Larry Woiwode in the fiction classroom at Glen West
Glenda Mathes and Larry Woiwode in the fiction classroom at Glen West

Readers of my previous post know that I recently returned from Glen West, where I participated in a fiction workshop led by Larry Woiwode. One of the first things he said in the first class was, “If you want to be a published author, you have to write every day.”

He talked about how beginning authors often think they can’t write an entire novel, so they decide to start with something easier, like a short story. But Woiwode told us the short story is the most difficult to write. He spoke about the “Aha!” moment at the end, when “you bump your head on the first sentence.” He said, “The first sentence develops an incline and the story goes down it.” And, “A lifeline runs from the opening sentence to the last sentence.”

Woiwode recommended drafting a story in one sitting so that it’s “trapped in time and space.” He even said about writing a novel, “You must draft it straight through.” He added, “There’s great integrity in a first draft” because “no one else has entered it.” He suggested getting the first draft down without showing it to anyone else. Once you’ve let other people read and comment on it, you’ve allowed their influence to invade the narrative. “Get it down once,” he said. “You have the rest of your life to get back to it.”

The narrative in fiction can be a powerful force for expressing truth and bringing healing.

“Truth-telling best happens in stories,” he said. “Many professions have found that if you can fix someone’s narrative, you can heal them. That’s what we’re doing in storytelling.”

While we worked through previously-submitted manuscripts, Woiwode used subjects in the discussion to launch into related instruction. He spoke about the importance of establishing the person and point of view. “You have to have a person in a particular setting at a specific time. Place the person,” he said. “One way to do that is through a clear point of view at the start.”

When questioned about his class description stressing place (see my “The Place of Place” post), he said that description was meant to be “provocative.” It was.

The above reflects only part of the wisdom gleaned during the workshop’s first day. The challenge now is to implement a viable plan for prioritizing fiction. How do you do it?

The Glen West experience

Sunrise over St. John's College in Santa Fe
Sunrise over St. John’s College in Santa Fe

How would you like to spend several days participating in a productive workshop and living within a creative community? Attend Glen West!

Many years ago, Gideon Strauss and I chatted about Christianity and culture. I was writing a series of articles for Christian Renewal on Christians in the arts, and he’s passionate about promoting art and leadership excellence to influence culture. I lamented my lack of community with other writers who want to produce work of excellent literary quality that would interest mainstream publishers. Gideon said, “Many of my writing friends recommend the Glen.”

In the intervening seven years, I researched the Glen Workshop, subscribed to Image journal, and read each Image/Update email newsletter. Every year I studied the listings of workshops and instructors, longing to attend, but for many different reasons it didn’t work out. Last fall, I saw the instructor for this year’s fiction class at Glen West would be Larry Woiwode.  I was familiar with Woiwode’s work and had interviewed him for my earlier series. I knew it was my time.

cloudsGlen West daily exceeded my expectations. The workshop, worship, community, and setting combined to create a memorable and priceless experience.

Larry Woiwode led the workshop with a laid-back style that complemented his organizational preparation and productive instruction. Our group consisted of 15 unique individuals from widely divergent backgrounds and at differing writing stages, ranging from college to retirement age, but each one was a competent writer who brought insight to the discussion. Meeting the other writers brought greater appreciation for their work, and working together developed a stimulating group dynamic.

Evening worship set an almost sacramental seal to the close of the day as we quietly and reverently focused on the Creator who bestows creativity.

hillsGlen West’s community is incredible. Even longtime attendees are warm and welcoming to newcomers. A sense of underlying creative energy is palpable.

It’s difficult for me to determine how much of this energy comes from workshop, worship, community, or setting. I believe it’s a combination of all the above. Certainly setting plays a significant role.

Santa Fe means “Holy Faith.” Native Americans valued the area as a sacred location, and Spanish missions brought Christianity in the early 1600s. Today hundreds of artists live and work in Santa Fe, whose streets are lined with art galleries. At 7000 feet above sea level, Santa Fe’s rare air is crisp and fragrant with pine, pinion, and sage. Striking clouds tower in the intense sky above green-dotted brown hills and layered blue mountains. At night familiar constellations appear lower and closer.

A star shines as St. John's bell tower is silhouetted at dusk
A star shines as St. John’s bell tower is silhouetted at dusk

The Glen West experience was a series of meaningful events, each of which I’d have liked to take time to process, but came one on top of the other to produce a cumulative emotional impact. Think summer Bible camp on steroids. Image Journal proclaims: Art, Faith, Mystery. At Glen West, those theoretical aspects became experiential realities.

Post-Glen West

Bell towerGlen West is an amazing, exhilarating, creative experience. Monday afternoon I returned home after spending several days as a participant in its fiction workshop under the instruction of Larry Woiwode.

Remember how I recently reflected on the Place of Place?  That post quoted from Woiwode and concluded:

Wouldn’t you love to learn more about place by working with other writers under the direction of Woiwode? I’d like that.

Well, I did.

I’m still processing the extraordinary experience, but I intend to write more about it later.