One of the best things about Facebook is reconnecting with old friends, and I recently had an interesting exchange with a few far-flung friends from my school days.
We talked about the word God is leading us to choose for 2018. We may all view this word a little differently, but essentially it captures an attitude or quality we want to try to develop or focus on more during the coming year.
I’ve done this for the last couple of years, and I’ve been amazed at how much God reveals to me about that word during the course of the year. During 2016, God impressed upon me over and over the abundance of JOY in him and his word. Because I was alert for joy, I discovered it more in Scripture, in books I read, in other people, in creation, in myself, and especially in God. I’m convinced we can’t begin to comprehend the incredible fullness of God’s joy.
As I prayed and considered a word for 2017, I began thinking about PEACE. Frankly, I didn’t really want that word and was a little concerned about it. Why would I need peace? What might happen during 2017? Choosing the word generated a gnawing anxiety. Even my vivid imagination never created a scenario in which I would lose my sister, my mother, and my father within the year. But that’s what happened.
My sister’s health deteriorated quickly and she was placed in hospice care. We siblings kept vigil at her bedside for five days, and she went home to Jesus on January 12. Less than a month later, while we were still reeling from that loss, we learned that my mom’s cancer had returned with a vengeance. Her only option was hospice care. After eight extremely difficult weeks, the Lord took her home on April 10. The grief of losing our mother less than three months after our sister weighed heavily on us, but Dad’s loneliness, after 68 years with his beautiful bride, nearly crushed him.
His struggle with memory difficulties had made him heavily dependent upon her, and we doubted he could remain in his independent living apartment. Surprisingly, he lived there successfully (although not without a few concerning issues) for six months.
He had survived polio as a baby, but it may have affected his balance later in life. Falls or near falls brought him to the emergency room too often in too short a period during October. He spent ten days in nursing care, while we worked with his doctor and others to determine the proper placement for him.
In God’s providence, we were able to move him into an assisted living apartment in the same building. It even had a window overlooking the parking lot—his most crucial requirement! He adjusted amazingly well.
On Christmas Day, my husband and I planned to pick him up and bring him to our house for lunch. When we arrived, he was experiencing a great deal of pain. I called 911. We spent the rest of the day in the ER and hospital. That evening we learned that his abdominal aortic aneurysm, which we’d known for some years could kill him instantly, was enlarged and bleeding into his abdominal cavity. He could survive for a few weeks or it could be a matter of hours. He initially was doing so well, we thought we might have him with us for a month or more.
Two days later, he entered the Comfort House. He was alert, able to talk and sit in the chair. During his first night there, his condition worsened and he became unresponsive. On the last day of the year, a Sunday morning, he went home to be with his Lord.
In God’s gracious providence, I’d lived over six decades without a significant loss. In his bitter providence, he took three members of my original family home to heaven within one year. I definitely needed PEACE in 2017.
For several weeks, I’ve felt compelled to focus on HOPE during 2018. In the recent Facebook conversation, one of my school friends encouraged me to go with HOPE. She expressed her hopes for me “to start sleeping better” and for a year “with less grief and many healing memories….of great book sales and many inspired words written down” as well as “spontaneous laughter” and so on. May it be so. That is my HOPE.
The 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded last Thursday to Kazuo Ishiguro, which is good news. Ishiguro writes literary novels that defy genre boundaries and garner popular appeal.
Here’s the New York Times online story about the award. And here’s a Times 2015 interview with Ishiguro that explores his reading opinions and related reflections. A former editor, Robert McCrum, muses about his friendship with Ishiguro in this piece. And James Wood, of the New Yorker, gives his take here.
If you want to dip into the award-winning literature of Kazuo Ishiguro, be prepared for the unexpected. You may want to start with The Remains of the Day, his portrayal of a dignified butler on an introspective journey at the fading of his days.
This morning, two of my favorite Scripture texts became real to me as never before. You probably love these passages as well. The first is Isaiah 40:28–31.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
The second similar text is Psalm 103:1–5.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
All my adult life, I’ve considered these as beautiful, meaningful, and true verses. But they hadn’t come to expression in my life. I knew God did all these things in the figurative sense, even in the literal sense for some people. I saw God blessing me in many of these ways over and over; however, I felt older and weaker as I aged.
Yesterday was particularly brutal for some reason. Perhaps recent grief sapped my physical strength. Maybe my adrenaline reserves had been depleted. I suspect I’m fighting off a cold. Whatever the reasons, my physical strength seemed at an especially low ebb. Immediately after dinner, I fell asleep in my recliner. I woke and spent a brief time on the computer, before stumbling to bed at 10:00.
And I felt just as exhausted when I woke this morning. Although I’d slept fairly well, I was still tired. I crafted some correspondence and did a little online research that initially seemed a waste of precious time. Then I did my devotions.
I’m reading The One Year Chronological Bible, published by Tyndale, and I finished Job this morning. I absolutely love that book of the Bible! I love God’s direct speech to a mere mortal: “Brace yourself like a man” (Job 38:3, 40:7). I love God’s vivid imagery and relentless litany describing His power and sovereignty.
We’re all a bit like Job at times. When we suffer with no apparent cause, a niggling part of our sinful nature would like to give God a piece of our mind. Certainly, we’re tempted to ask, “Why?” But as someone once suggested to my husband and me, better questions to ask God might be, “What do You want to teach me through this?” and “How do You want me to serve You in this?”
As I spent time communing with God after my Bible reading, I realized how my earlier correspondence and online research had piqued my literary interests and fueled my flagging creativity.
The more I thought and prayed, the more I became aware of God’s blessings in my life and His awesome power. Is anything too hard for the God who laid the earth’s foundation and marked off its dimensions, who stretched a measuring line across it and laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy (Job 38:4–7)?
My spirit was refreshed and my strength renewed. I felt as eager to tackle my work as a war horse spoiling for battle (Job 39:19–25). I’m rising on eagle wings.
Since last March, I’ve been writing biographical sketches about Puritans. These will appear in Puritan Heroes, which I’m writing with Dr. Joel Beeke for Reformation Heritage Books.Puritan Heroes will be formatted similarly to RHB’s popular Reformation Heroes. Marketed for all ages, it will be written to appeal to twelve-year-old readers.
This is a big project that I was reluctant to take on. Puritans? What do I know about the Puritans? The required research seemed staggering. And weren’t the Puritans a bit boring? How in the world would I make biographical information about them interesting to adolescents?
But the Lord led me to believe this was something I should do, so I signed the contract. My life seemed busy before, but it has been intense since. And, like most people, I have family and other commitments that keep me from focusing exclusively on work.
As usual for a large project, I created a chart to schedule my writing. I’d have about three weeks per Puritan. Wow! That was tight. A little too tight for comfort, but I kept on schedule…until what we euphemistically call “the holidays.” That oxymoronic time of year when we feast and fellowship with family, giving thanks to God for all He’s given us and (a short time later) praising Him for the great gift of salvation through Immanuel, God with us. The last two months of one year and the beginning of the next are full of joy, but always seems to include unavoidable stress. This year, my schedule became unexpectedly complicated with another project and family matters.
I fell behind on the Puritans. Still, I’m more than halfway through the project with the first drafts for twelve of the twenty-two proposed subjects completed. I’ve focused on one at a time, and God has provided the information needed for each story.
Something surprising happened along the way. I fell in love with the Puritans. I felt an amazing affinity for each individual and rejoiced in their wholehearted faith. I had long known Anne Bradstreet as a fellow poet and kindred spirit, but many of these dead white men now live vibrantly in my mind as well.
What joy to learn from John Howe about Delighting in God, to witness the marital love and fruitful ministry of Joseph and Theodosia Alleine, and to discover the “warm-hearted divinity” of Richard Sibbes (p. 128, Richard Sibbes, Early Stuart Preacher of Piety by Harold Patton Shelly).
Lord willing, Puritan Heroes will be close to being in your hands by this time next year. Meanwhile, I’m embracing the challenges and blessings of my Puritan journey.
When you’re submitting a manuscript to publishing professionals, you want to avoid written work that screams, “Amateur!”
While editors may be able to plow past glaring errors and see the potential of your epic story, why create roadblocks? You may think your manuscript looks fine, but someone in the industry can spot amateur mistakes at a glance.
Formatting is the foundation that supports the content of your submission. This reminds me of the birdbath my husband’s father made decades ago. Constructed of concrete, rocks, and a tire rim, it’s heavy. Far too weighty to sit directly on the dirt of my flower bed. It may look okay from one side, but a different angle clearly displays its actual tilt. It needs a solid foundation.
In much the same way, your view of your work may differ from the perspective of an industry professional. Before reading a word, an editor can spot basic formatting mistakes that identify the writer as an amateur. Give your work a solid foundation to avoid an initial off-kilter impression.
This post addresses five basic formatting errors to avoid: not double spacing, extra spacing, double spaces, emphasis formatting, and fancy fonts. Those first three sound spacey, don’t they? And a couple of them may sound like double speak, but they’re not. Trust me.
Not double spacing
Manuscripts ought to be double-spaced. It’s true that some kinds of work or parts of submissions may be single-spaced. For example, my magazine editor prefers that I single-space my article and paste it into the body of an email message. Also, a synopsis or query letter in a book proposal could be single-spaced. But the line spacing for all manuscripts should be formatted as double.
To do this in my version of Word, I go to Format on the main menu, pull down Paragraphs, and click on the Indents and Spacing tab. Then I chose Double under the Line spacing option. If you have another software or newer version of Word (which is very likely), you can do a quick online search to find directions or a tutorial.
As an aside, always check for a publisher’s guidelines and follow them. Why cause an editor to shake her head and think, “Didn’t this writer read our submission guidelines?”
Extra spacing (first line indent thrown in for FREE!)
While you’re formatting your document for double-spaced text, take a moment to check for extra spacing between paragraphs. You don’t want six, twelve, or more points of extra space either before or after each paragraph. In my version of Word, I can make this choice directly beside Line spacing. Find the Before and After boxes under Spacing and click on the up or down arrow until you reach zero. This will avoid unsightly extra spacing between paragraphs in your manuscript.
Before you leave that Indents and Spacing box, look under Indentation and choose a First Line indent of .5 inches. If you’re already back in the document, you can format this with the indentation indicators on the left side of the ruler. They look like two triangles touching each other above a tiny bar. Move only the top triangle to the right a half inch.
Many amateur writers indent the first line of each paragraph by hitting the tab button. This isn’t something a publishing professional will immediately see, unless they happen to highlight hidden markings. But should you be so fortunate to secure a contract, the copy editor will not appreciate having to reformat all those tabs. And don’t you want to be your copy editor’s friend?
This formatting issue may seem to contradict the first one I listed, but I’m now referring to spaces between sentences rather than spaces between lines. Given my age, I totally get this problem. I well recall my high school typing instructor’s command to insert two spaces after each period that ends a sentence. What surprises me is how often younger writers do this.
Here’s the deal: computers are smarter than typewriters. They automatically format the correct amount of space between sentences. When you press the space bar twice, you format a wide space that looks weird. Period. Space. Then type the next sentence.
If you’ve hit the space bar twice throughout an entire manuscript and now want to change all those extra-wide spaces between sentences, it’s an easy fix. Use the Edit menu to Find and Replace every instance of two spaces with one space. Bam! Done. Works slick.
You want to emphasize a word or a phrase, so you underline it, right? Wrong. In these technology-driven days, underlining indicates a hyperlink. Don’t confuse your reader or frustrate an editor by underlining anything that isn’t a hyperlink.
Perhaps you should bold words you want to emphasis? No. While style guidelines vary, editors seem to frown on bold formatting. The best thing is to write in a way that clearly shows the emphasis. But if you simply must highlight a word or phrase, use italics.
Italics also are sometimes used for thoughts inserted into first-person or deep point-of-view narratives. But it’s a good idea to use italics sparingly.
And exclamation points? Almost every editor advocates avoiding them. Some go so far as to say (perhaps tongue-in-cheek, but I’m not totally sure) to use only one per manuscript! (I know, sometimes you simply HAVE to use one.) Oh, and that ALL CAPS thing? You know it conveys shouting and is considered rude, right?
If you can find style guidelines telling you how to use bold and italics for a particular publisher, go with them. Otherwise, use special formatting sparingly. Bottom line? Write for emphasis, don’t format for it.
Editors don’t like fancy fonts. Unusual fonts make text difficult to read and distract from the content. You don’t want to distract an editor from your scintillating story, do you? Stick with tried and true fonts like Times New Roman (still the most frequent one I see listed on guidelines) or Arial.
I’ll admit I sometimes use Verdana or Tahoma or Trebuchet, depending on the editor or organization. If you’re self-publishing a book, you’ll want to use something other than the old standbys. You should do some research to see what fonts are recommended for the type of book you’re publishing and what fonts to avoid. For most submissions, however, I recommend sticking with plain Jane fonts.
Again, if you’re submitting something to a specific magazine or publisher, check the website for guidelines. Then follow them to the letter. Why risk annoying an editor because you didn’t take time to read and follow published guidelines?
To recap, these are five glaring formatting errors:
Not double-spacing between lines
Extra spacing between paragraphs
Double spaces between sentences
Formatting for emphasis
An editor may look past these formatting mistakes and actually read the submission before judging the writer’s ability. But why detract from your writing with poor formatting? Why not lay a level foundation to support your stellar writing?
This year, I’ve been working in my flower bed. I placed a stone foundation under that heavy birdbath. The picture of the process gives you a glimpse of the difficulty involved. Although I tried to do it myself, I had to accept assistance in order to accomplish my goal.
Laying a basic formatting foundation isn’t nearly as difficult as placing the birdbath on a stone. But I hope this post will help you avoid appearing inexperienced. Taking time to format your work according to industry standards will help your manuscript croon, “Professional.”
Have you ever heard the whip-poor-will cry down the twilight? Years since I’ve heard the haunting chant, it still echoes in my mind. A chance glance recently reverberated melody and memories.
As a subscriber to Iowa Outdoors magazine, I receive its lovely DNRcalendar each year. Each month features a gorgeous picture showcasing Iowa’s natural beauty. The dates are sprinkled with fascinating facts and timely reminders. May 2 tells us: 1890 Large meteorite strikes 11 miles northwest of Forest City, and Walleye season opens on Iowa’s Great Lakes.
A May 24 notation made my body pause and my mind reel backward: Look for return of whip-poor-wills.
Five years after my husband and I were married, we built our house on a wooded acreage. We would live in the basement and finish the hollow frame bit by bit. Soon after we moved, we discovered one of our location’s treasures: whip-poor-wills nested in the shrubbery along the fence line about fifty feet from our front porch. On summer evenings, we sat on the cement block serving as a temporary step and listened to the onomatopoetic call. (You can hear it at this link.) But we never saw the elusive and well-camouflaged nocturnal bird.
What a thrill to hear that rare call! And what piercing memories my mind associates with it. Little boys leaping to catch fireflies. A young husband’s strong arm cradling my shoulders. Stars sharpening in a darkening sky. Cool air. Warm hearts.
But one year the whip-poor-will was silent. The new neighbors on the other side of the fence had dogs. Whip-poor-wills don’t build nests, laying their eggs directly on the ground. We never again heard the whip-poor-will sing.
Some years ago, I wrote this poem, dedicated to my husband:
The poem’s persona is imaginary, but grows more real to me as I age. The whip-poor-will echoes in my mind may haunt me, but whatever losses in my life, I wait for a return far more significant. I look for the return of the King of whip-poor-wills and every other created being.
Next time you see a writer, you may want to offer a sandwich. If you’re meeting with a group of writers, bring a platter of sandwiches.
I’m talking about the sandwich method of critique recommended by Eva Marie Everson and Janice Elsheimer in Word Weavers, a small book describing how Word Weavers International began as well as how to start and function within a local chapter.
Simply put, the sandwich approach places constructive criticism between two layers of positive praise, like meat between slices of bread. You begin a critique by noting something you liked or something the writer did well. Then you point out things that could be improved, suggesting ways to do that. Conclude by saying something positive about the piece.
My Word Weavers group employs the sandwich method. We try to couch constructive criticism within encouraging comments. This allows us to affirm each other while honing craft.
Over my years as a writer, I’ve participated in many critique experiences. And I must say: some people are better at this than others.
People frequently skip right over the first slice of bread and get right to what they view as the meat. They point out every typo and awkward construction, often repeating what others have already said. Then they end with a negative comment, leaving off that last slice of bread. What happens when you try to eat a sandwich without any bread? It can be pretty messy, can’t it?
The sandwich approach is not unique to Word Weavers; other organizations also utilize it effectively. On this page, Rob Kelly writes about using it in his Toastmasters group and describes the three steps of the method. Some writers within the business community, such as Roger Schwarz, suggest replacing the sandwich method with a more direct approach.
Functioning as an effective team leader in a corporate context, however, is very different from assessing someone’s speaking or writing. In those situations, sandwiches remain palatable and nourishing food.
Writers work primarily in isolation. They don’t have a boss coming by to give them a verbal pat on the back. They don’t receive promotions or performance awards. They may see some sales reports, but they rarely see people actually reading and enjoying their books. Most only occasionally hear compliments about something they’ve written.
While writers differ greatly in personality and self-esteem, their artistic temperament makes them in general a sensitive bunch. Most feel vulnerable within a critique context. It takes courage to share something you’ve written for public view and criticism.
Because words gestate in the womb of the writer’s mind before the finished product is birthed, authors often view written work as their “baby” (see this post on the Birth of a Book, relating how my Matthew juvenile fiction series came into being).
Who wants to offer their precious baby on the altar of criticism? Who wants to see it slashed and bleeding before their very eyes?
Harsh criticism not only seems like an attack on the work, it also feels like a personal attack against the writer. Authors pour themselves into their work. Writing isn’t a hobby or a 9 to 5 job for them. It’s their lifeblood. They eat words and drink inspiration. They bleed ink.
Many writers become reluctant speakers. They know it’s a necessary part of the marketing and promotion they must do. Perhaps they feel God is calling them to share some of what they’re learning. It’s wonderful to travel and meet other people, but timid speakers may prefer to stay home and weave words.
When critiquing someone’s writing or speaking, it’s easy to point out the faults. It’s more difficult to think of something encouraging to say. But it’s far more important.
Writers require affirmation. How can they know they are doing their work well if people don’t tell them? They may frequently remind themselves that they’re working for the Lord, not for men (Colossians 3:23), but how will they know that effort is effective if God’s image-bearers don’t share ways their hearts are touched?
If you have an opportunity to critique a writer, don’t discard the bread and throw only meat, as if the writer is a ferocious beast in a cage. Think about what you can say that’s positive, express criticism in a constructive way to help the writer improve the work, and then end with a bit of praise that will stick in the writer’s mind. Such a sandwich will provide the nutrition necessary for joyful growth.
An article I wrote about why Christians should read fiction appears in the November issue of The Outlook. You can page through this online preview to read that article as well as a lovely review of my Matthew books.
Her review captures the spirit and time frame of the novel as she describes Matthew and his problems in creative ways. She notes that any reader with siblings can relate to some of them. She also mentions his struggle with how to grow up as a Christian “without necessarily thinking in those terms.” She writes:
As the son of a pastor he knows the expectations of his community, but his inclinations don’t always match up. He’s at the age where kids are beginning to question of what they’ve always been taught and how it applies to them personally. Matthew has no hidden supernatural abilities and will not be chosen to save the world, but the Holy Spirit is at work in him anyway, and it’s a struggle worth watching.
Many Christian Renewal readers may be familiar with Janie B. Cheaney as a regular columnist for WORLD magazine. But you may not know about her multiple writing successes. She and another writer launched the RedeemedReader.com website to focus on children’s literature. She has written creative writing workbooks called the Wordsmith series. She has several published fiction books: two Elizabethan-era young adult novels (The Playmaker and The True Prince), a middle reader novel set in the WWII time frame (My Friend the Enemy), and two contemporary-setting middle readers (The Middle of Somewhere and Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous). She anticipates publication of another middle reader novel in June of 2015 (I Don’t Know How the Story Ends).
Booklist magazine chose The Playmaker as a top ten best young-adult books by debut authors, and it as well as The True Prince were on the list of the New York Library’s Best Books for the Teen Age. The St. Louis Dispatch named My Friend the Enemy as one of 2005’s top ten books for children, and the book was a finalist for the Pen award for best children’s novel. The Middle of Somewhere was nominated for the Texas Bluebonnet award, the Florida Sunshine State Young Readers award, and the Indiana Young Hoosier list. Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous was named a Junior Library Guild’s 2014 Fall selection.
Janie is not only a successful author; she’s also a humble believer invested in a local Reformed congregation, Gospel of Grace Church in Springfield, MO. Christian Renewal’s Glenda Mathes recently communicated with Janie about her work and faith.
Christian Renewal: Janie, you’re a regular columnist for WORLD magazine and have written several award-winning novels as well as a creative writing curriculum that continues to sell well. What’s the “secret” to your success as a writer?
Janie B. Cheaney: There’s a practical secret and a spiritual secret. I’ll deal with the practical first, because it’s the easiest. The easiest to state, that is; not so easy to do. The main secret of writing success is to show up for work. For beginning writers this is a tough hurdle because they haven’t established themselves as a salable commodity. Writing is a unique occupation in that the writer must produce a substantial body of work before the job actually begins. It could take years just to develop the craft and learn certain tricks of the trade. Then the sales job begins, during which you create a product and try to find a market. Over time you’ll develop a resume and a contact base leading to assignments, like any other line of work, but at the beginning the only thing that keeps you at your desk is your own conviction and determination. And, I might add, a certain inner need that all writers have; we are compelled to shape words around our thoughts and stories and to strive for our own trademark style. If you can keep going after months, or perhaps even years, of rejection letters and emails, you know you’re a writer.
The spiritual secret is this: if the Lord intends that you write, he will see that you get the opportunity. So much of publishing appears to the world like a matter of luck (dumb or otherwise): connecting with the right editor at the right time or catching a trend on the rise. For a Christian, all these mysterious hits and misses are divine appointments.
But you still have to show up for work!
CR: Most people who write for a living limit themselves to one genre or type of writing, perhaps for their entire career, but you may be writing a column for WORLD and a novel during the same week. How do you manage your various writing commitments or organize your time?
JBC: Organization is key, especially as your commitments increase; unfortunately I’m not an extremely organized person. One thing I must do is get up early so I can lay claim to the maximum number of uninterrupted hours. How early is early? Try 4 a.m. A detailed daytimer with each calendar day divided into time increments is also a big help to me. Writing down when I plan to do something doesn’t guarantee that I’ll do it, but at least I can imagine that it’s possible.
CR: Your method enables you not only to write efficiently, but also to write excellently. You’ve received several awards, and your recently-published novel, Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous, was a Junior Library Guild’s 2014 Fall selection. You structure the novel in an interesting way with an almost-unheard-of nine points of view. Why did you want to portray so many characters?
JBC: Most of my children’s novels are written for middle graders, an interesting transition time. That’s when their primary loyalties are beginning to shift from parents to peers, and that’s a natural process even in the most loving families. It’s an identity issue: kids are beginning to wonder who they are apart from family, and they become almost obsessive about what their peers think of them. My idea was to take nine middle-graders (one for each month of the school year) who all live in the same neighborhood, many of whom have grown up together, and tell each one’s story over a year of shifting self-images and relationships. They are all tied together by a central mystery, which is, Why does the driver make the same stop on the way to school every morning, when there’s never anyone waiting there? She refuses to say, and it troubles some of her passengers more than others. Over the school year, each one of them will pick up a clue to the mystery of the empty bus stop, and by the end (of course!) it will be solved. We also learn who will be famous, but I’m not telling.
CR: The novel ends with an exciting and satisfying conclusion that finally answers questions raised in the reader’s mind at the very beginning. How did you decide on that crucial first scene?
JBC: The first problem with posing nine protagonists in a novel is introducing them. Most authors when beginning a story will be careful not to crowd too many significant characters into the first chapter, because a reader needs time to get into the story and feel comfortable with it. Throwing eight or nine people at the reader in the first few pages is more likely to frustrate than intrigue. After my first version of a completed manuscript had been rejected a couple of times, I decided to use a trick.
The climax of the story involves a bus wreck—in a driving rainstorm, the driver swerves to avoid a passing car, the bus hydroplanes and slides off the road and down a slope towards a creek. I decided to move that incident to the very beginning of the novel: the rain and wind, a highway patrolman receiving a message about a school bus and racing to the scene. No names are mentioned and only two characters from the bus actually appear; one limping down the hill toward the patrolman, and one trudging uphill. Then the scene shifts to “nine months earlier,” with eight of the children getting ready to board the bus on the first day of school. The idea is that the reader knows the wreck is coming, but who are these people and what will happen to them? Any injuries? Any deaths? I’m hoping that after the prologue the reader will be invested enough to keep reading, just to find out.
CR: While your juvenile fiction novels convey deep truths, they are not overtly Christian or marketed at Christian readers. What’s your writing philosophy, and how does your Christian faith inform your work?
JBC: I think a writer’s worldview will automatically emerge, whether or not she sets out to write an explicitly Christian novel. We sense a structure and purpose to life, and simply can’t end a story on a nihilistic note. At the same time a Christian should understand sin and evil better than an unbeliever; there’s a reason for tragedy, but redemption waits just over the horizon. As Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, and that’s where the wisest of nonbelieving authors end: with a conflicted heart. But God does not end there; he draws that line straight through the heart and ties it to Christ.
Since all my published fiction is for children (so far!) I can’t plunge into the depths of human depravity, but all children’s novels have the same theme: they are essentially about growing up. In the course of growing up, my main characters make mistakes and have to confront their own flaws. I never know what the theme of the story is when I begin writing; that will emerge from my embedded worldview and from the demands of the story itself. The Playmaker and The True Prince, my first published novels (both for a slightly older age than middle grade) are set on and around the Elizabethan theater, so the natural theme is about establishing your true identity in the midst of playing a part (as almost all young teens do!). My Friend the Enemy is a World War II homefront story involving a friendship between an all-American girl and a Japanese-American boy; it’s about seeing below the surface and determining who your friends really are. The Middle of Somewhere is a contemporary humorous novel about finding enchantment in the ordinary, and Somebody on This Bus is basically about adjusting one’s expectations. My next novel will be titled, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, and the setting is Hollywood during the last year of World War I and the early years of the silent movie industry. It turned out to be about accepting profound changes in life that are contrary to the “story” you imagine your life to be.
All of these have resonance for a Christian. The solution to the central problem might not be what the characters had hoped for, but it gives them hope, and sets them up for the next challenge in their journey to adulthood.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 34-36 of the February 25, 2015, issue of Christian Renewal. The following book review by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 37 of the same issue.
Take nine middle school kids, combine them in a bus, stir in diverse personalities, sprinkle with literary elements, drizzle in mystery, and shake well. That’s the basic recipe for J. B. Cheaney’s well-written Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous.
Few authors would attempt to incorporate nine different points of view into any novel, let alone one for middle grade readers, but by layering nine primary chapters—each focusing on one student and one month of the school year—Cheaney creates a delightful treat.
Another challenge with multiple points of view is introducing the characters, particularly when standard procedure is to keep characters to a minimum in the first chapter. Cheaney beats that problem by creating a gripping initial scene set in a terrible thunderstorm (the Storm of the Decade!). Readers learn only that a bus has crashed and children are hurt. They’ll have to read to the end to discover what’s happened, and by that time they’re heavily invested in all the various characters.
Cheaney keeps readers invested by lacing the plot with an intriguing mystery and spicing it up with realism. Believable action, dialogue, and thoughts reflect the wide range of problems and emotions experienced by these kids and the adults in their lives. The author garnishes the narrative with fresh literary elements that appeal to young readers. Many girls will identify with this one: “On the outside, she looked the same but was really a virtual human, trying to act normal while a snake wrapped around her quick-beating, mousy little heart” (p. 77). And most middle grade boys will enjoy: “It may be the kind of idea he should forget, but it’s like a booger that won’t shake off his finger” (p. 219).
Kids will enjoy the tasty writing, but parents and teachers will also have fun reading this delectable book to their children and students. Cheaney’s superior writing leaves a palatable aftertaste readers will continue to enjoy.