Tuesday, July 29, 2008

PNWC: Bob Mayer on Who Dares Wins

Friday morning at PNWC was devoted to an editors and agents forum. I didn't take many notes because in my opinion it wasn't all that informative. It was way too general, complete with the standard lines. All editors and agents are looking for "fresh, original voices." Really. They are. They all say that at every conference.

The most interesting industry tidbit was a Scholastic editor saying that YA as a genre is really tight now. When YA got huge a few years ago, publishers who didn't have YA lines rushed to start them, so now you've got too many books competing for too little shelf space. It's not dying out, but it's a harder sell than it was in '06 or '07.

In the afternoon it was workshop time again. I went to another Bob Mayer talk--"Who Dares Wins," which applies lessons from his Green Beret background to the writing life.

He started with a digression on working with agents. He's on his fourth agent, and he says he's happy with her because she's selling his career, while the previous three were just interested in selling his current book.

Other opening remarks:
- What stops most people from getting published is themselves.
- You need to ACT, not REACT.
- One power you have as a writer is the power to say no.
- 10% of first novels succeed. The other 90% fail to earn out.

Then he moved into the nine tools of "Who Dares Wins":

1. What. What do you want to win? What is your goal? You should have goals for both your current book and your career as a whole, and you should be able to state each in one sentence.

2. Why. What is your intent? What do you want readers to feel? Again, this applies to your career as well as to an individual book. What's the payoff of your book (the last scene)? Does it fit your intent?

3. Where. Walk the terrain of your story. (Me: You gonna pay for my tickets to England and arrange for me to take two months off work, Bob? Until then I'm stuck with Google Earth.) But note: fiction is not wholly authentic. It has to have internal logic, but not necessarily external.

Dissect books that are like yours. You can do this in an Excel spreadsheet. Set up three columns for each scene: 1) What's in the scene? 2) What's the purpose of the scene? 3) What can I do in my story?

When you finish reading a novel, go back to the beginning and look for what you didn't know before. You'll notice foreshadowing and themes that resound throughout the story.

4. Character. Consider your characters' goals and motivation--what they want and why.

Also, know yourself. Your characters will come out of your life whether you like it or not. (Me: This is so true. I've met several of my favorite authors since starting to write and hang out at conferences, and I've yet to be surprised by an author's personality. Authors match their books. Even those of us who would never write an autobiographical novel, who set all our stories in worlds past, future, or fantastical, leave our spiritual fingerprints all over our work.)

Templates can be useful in character development. Consider profiling. 99% of what we do is habit, not conscious decision. Look at behavior patterns and what they tell you about a person. Other resources include Jungian archetypes, Myers-Briggs, etc. (Me: Working with chaplains, I have a professional resource for this sort of thing. I've done enneagrams for my major characters, and once my boss and I spent half of our weekly touchbase session discussing birth order dynamics in large families.)

5. Courage. Most people's primary motivation is fear. Fear isn't about actual events, it's about the expectation of events. Fear isn't always bad, and you need to acknowledge its existence. If you have no fear at all, you're a sociopath (though it's possible to be a sociopath without being evil).

One way to combat fear is to develop a catastrophe plan. If you plan for the worst, you don't have to fear it and can focus your energy on working toward your goals. And think ahead--one book ahead, even one series ahead.

6. Change. 95% of people don't. Only 5% can change through internal motivation. If you want to succeed as a writer, you must be part of that 5%. Perseverance is more important than talent.

7. Command. As a writer, you will put together a team (agent, editor, publicist, etc.). You must be the leader of this team because you care more about your book than anyone else does.

When approaching an editor or agent, look at it from their POV. What do they want? How will they receive your pitch? How do you want them to perceive you and your work?

Learn from any source. Be open-minded and able to admit when you're wrong. And have patience and self-discipline.

8. Communication. We're writers. We create words on a page that come alive in someone else's head. That reader is the most important person. Think about whether/why the reader would be excited about a story.

9. Complete. Break the rules. Be different. But know the rule, have a good reason for breaking it, and take responsibility for it. (Me: I don't remember why that connects to "Complete." It's been over a week now.)

Two final thoughts:

If you're not where you want to be, you need to do something different. What will your sustained action to bring about a change be?

Fiction marketing is tough. Oprah is NOT the talk show host who moves the most books--Jon Stewart is, with his nonfiction author guests.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

PNWC: James Thayer on the Top Novel-Writing Mistakes

The second workshop I attended at PNWC was, in my opinion, focused on beginning writers. As someone who's been at this awhile, receiving quite a bit of positive feedback along the way, I think of myself as the literary equivalent of Triple-A. I've got the skills, and I'm just waiting for that Call to transform my life by inviting me to the Show. So it's tempting to feel like I can't get anything out of a beginner workshop. But as in sports, you never get so good you don't need to drill the fundamentals every once in awhile, and I have to admit I'm still prone to some of these mistakes.

1. Beginning a scene too early and ending it too late. When editing, look at each scene to see what you can peel away from the front and back. If your scene opens with someone driving, walking, getting out of bed, etc., you're probably starting too early. Don't document preparation.

I'm prone to this error in the rough draft stage, when I pretty much write down whatever comes to mind. But I correct it on editing. Usually. I think.

2. Backstory and flashbacks. Should be avoided. Your characters' pasts are more interesting to you than they are to your readers. We always want to share how the character became who he is, but the reader doesn't care. When backstory is absolutely necessary, keep it in brief segments, never more than a page at a time. Ration it out.

This one I am very guilty of. I envy 19th century authors who could get by with including a biography every time they introduced a character.

3. POV that jumps around. Each scene belongs to the character with the most at stake. Too many POV shifts tend to disengage the reader from the story. Use observation and speculation to show what non-POV characters are thinking.

I'm clear on this one. I wrote my first manuscript in first person, so I learned early to stick in one head no matter how nice it would be to see what the other characters are thinking. Now I enjoy the freedom of third limited to give multiple perspectives, but I have no trouble sticking with one person at a time.

4. Too much interior monologue (aka Thinking). A scene should not be something that happens in a character's head. Thoughts are not as interesting as dialogue and actions. Think cinematically--could this scene be staged?

Guilty, guilty, guilty. I overthink, and I write overthinkers. But I fix on edit, reluctantly and with much grumbling.

5. Failure to describe characters physically. Your reader needs to see the character inside her mind, so give her the tools to do so. The more important the character is, the more detail you should use. And don't forget posture and mannerisms.

This actually contradicts most previous advice I've heard on this topic. And it's a challenge in Invasion because my two main characters are heterosexual men. If one of them lingers too long on the other's blue eyes and lean, wiry strength, well, they suddenly don't seem quite so hetero anymore. That said, one of my critique groups has been heard to grumble that they still don't have any idea what these people look like.

6. Use scenes, not summaries. I don't have much in my notes on this one. Show, don't tell, basically.

Thayer then segued into a discussion on how to write dialogue, which he recommends we do as much as possible. Readers are drawn to it, and their eyes like the broken-up text.

1. Avoid small talk. Everyday social lubricant is not interesting in fiction. Make the reader feel he has arrived after the small talk is over and is leaving before it starts up again.

2. Argument is the best dialogue. Accusations are more interesting than flattery. Bickering is more interesting than billing and cooing.

3. Modifying the word "said." Here Thayer gave the standard advice on avoiding adverbs. I always snarl a bit when this Rule of Writing comes up, because I think that anti-adverb brigade has gone too far. Should you have them after every line of dialogue? Heck, no. Are they occasionally useful? Absolutely. But you tell beginner writers that adverbs are bad, writers who haven't yet learned that the Rules of Writing are like the Pirate Code--more like guidelines--and they become fanatical on the topic. And I've run into one too many critiquer or contest judge who red-pens everything that ends in "ly." Drives me crazy, so it does.

Don't get me wrong. Adverbs can be overused. When I'm editing, I look at every one I've written and cut out probably two out of three. But they're a legitimate specialty item in the writer's toolkit. Use them when they work. Adverb proudly.

4. In dialogue, a character should seldom answer a question directly. I.e. you often don't need "yes" or "no."

5. Avoid As-You-Know dialogue. Characters should never tell each other what they both already know for the benefit of the audience. To this advice, I can only say "amen." Nothing drives me crazier than stilted, unnatural backstory exposition through dialogue. Automatic wallbanger, for me.

6. Avoid "John and Marcia" dialogue. I won't bore you with why it's John and Marcia, but the error here is having characters continually say each other's name. It feels stilted and unnatural.

Thayer then closed with two bonus tips:

1. If your character cries, the reader won't have to. If you give your character a reason to cry and she doesn't, then the reader will cry. It's as if letting the character break down takes away the tension.

2. Eliminate exclamation points. They make your novel read like a teenager's diary.

PNWC: Bob Mayer on How to Pitch

Last weekend I went to the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference here in Seattle. I hadn't planned to attend. In fact, I'd already registered for the Willamette Writers Conference, which is coming up NEXT weekend. But I finaled in the associated literary contest, so I decided to go to enjoy the little perks of being a finalist and to be there in person in case I finished in the top three.

Which, incidentally, was a good decision. My Napoleonic-era alternative history, Invasion 1805, took second in the science fiction & fantasy category. Huge ego boost there, I gotta admit.

Anyway, I'm finally making time to go through my notes, so I thought I'd put them on my blog so others could benefit, too.

My first workshop on Thursday afternoon was with Bob Mayer, the ex-Green Beret military thriller writer who lately has been collaborating with Jenny Crusie. The title was "How to Pitch," a topic which guarantees a packed house at any conference, and this was no exception. I got there five minutes before the start and still had to sit on the floor at the back of the room.

Mayer opened with some general thoughts on marketing your book and navigating the shoals of the publishing industry:

1. TITLES: The only marketing tool you as an author sorta-kinda have control over is your book's title. As such, you want to make sure it invites the reader into the story. Too obscure, too generic, etc. is a bad thing.

2. TIMING: A factor you can't control. Sometimes you've got the right book at the wrong time. This one struck home for me, because I really think the best of my three romance manuscripts, The Sergeant's Lady, is of publishable quality, but just doesn't fit the current market zeitgeist. While all my creative energies are focused on Invasion, there's still a part of me that dreams of TSL getting its moment to shine. Maybe the market will shift. Or maybe I'll get lucky and become so gosh-darn popular that it'll sell just because it has my name on it. A girl can dream.

3. FOCUS: You need to know your goals and focus on them. E.g. at a conference you should filter everything you learn through your goal in publishing.

4. PITCH: Emotion is the key. First you need to hook the editor or agent to the emotional core of the story. If s/he's hooked, s/he'll move on to the next question: "Can I sell it?"

5. WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU'VE FINISHED A BOOK: Let it sit awhile before rewriting and submitting. Publishing is a slow industry, and you are the only one involved who's in a hurry. Start work on your next book even before querying on your first book. Once your book is on the market, it's not your baby anymore--it's a PRODUCT. Your emotional investment belongs to what you're writing NOW. Give up your Type A personality and focus on the most important character traits a writer needs--persistence and patience. Develop a 3-year mindset. It'll take you a year to write a book, a year to sell, and a year in production before the book hits the shelves.

6. THE MARKET: Don't write for the market, but invest in Publishers Lunch and understand the market and how you fit in. Network, network, network. And have a low PIA (Pain in the Ass) Factor. You don't want to lose a deal by being obnoxious.

Then Mayer moved into the meat of his presentation: how to distill the heart of your story down to 25 words or less. Basically, the "elevator pitch"--a quick one-liner designed to answer the question, "So, what's your story about?" and hopefully to hook the hearer and lead to more questions.

Mayer urged us to focus on "The Original Idea." Original here doesn't mean "unique"--he stressed that there are no truly unique ideas left--but rather "at the origin." You're to ask yourself, "What was it that made me write this book?" You'd think this would be obvious, but we often forget, and it's often where you find the emotional core that will resonate with readers.

Here Mayer digressed a bit to talk about character and its centrality to marketable, memorable fiction. What makes your book different from every similar book is character. You need to look at your protagonist's arc. If you put your protagonist as he is in his first scene into the climax of the book, he should lose, because he needs to grow over the course of the book to meet the challenge you throw at him in the climax.

Then he went back to more issues to consider in putting together your pitch:
- You want to lead with the most interesting aspect of your book.
- What's the payoff?
- What's your intent? What do you want readers to feel about your book?
- What's your protagonist's anomaly? What makes him or her unique?
- In general, less is more.
- Be wary of author comparisons. The invite the response of "No, you're not."

All through the second half of the talk, I was furiously scribbling away at my one-line pitch, because Mayer announced that at the end, he'd read out pitches from the audience and comment upon them. My Original Idea was maybe not as helpful as most people's would be, because Invasion started as a mental exercise to see if I could find a way to get the Napoleonic Wars onto English soil. (Why I engaged in such an exercise is a long story, and one I'd like to save for if/when the book sells.) After about eight attempts, I finally turned in "In a world where Napoleon conquers England in 1805, Arthur Wellesley (our world's Duke of Wellington) becomes a renegade resistance leader."

As luck would have it, mine was the very first pitch Mayer read aloud. He said it intrigued him, as someone who likes history and alternative histories. It's just a premise--we don't really know what's at stake, i.e. why we should care or root for England. A world where France conquered England 200 years ago might actually be BETTER, who knows. But he thought it was a good hook, a good premise that should lead to more questions. Oh, and he told me I needed to cut "Arthur Wellesley" and just say "our world's Duke of Wellington," because that's what my hearers will actually recognize, and there's no need to clutter the pitch with extra words. Good point. I should've known better, but I'm constitutionally incapable of calling my protagonist "Wellington" prior to 1809, because it wasn't his name yet. I nitpick, therefore I am. I am pedant, hear me pontificate. Also, I've come to think of the real man as Wellington and my interpretation thereof as Wellesley. Makes it simpler when talking to my critique partners, and frees me, somehow, to plunge into his head and play as I take him on a very different journey than the real Wellington ever experienced.

So. That's my one-line pitch, and I have to say it was effective as I tried it out on various people I met during the weekend. I have to work on a longer two-minute pitch and a query letter, but it's not urgent, since I'm still a few chapters shy of a completed first draft. It never occurred to me that anyone would question the "rooting for England" aspect of the story. As far as I'm concerned, I'm squarely in the Hornblower/Sharpe/Aubrey-Maturin tradition. Rooting for England is just what we do. It's a valid question, though, and I do play with issues of what freedom really means and what is worth fighting for.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

BTVS: No Future for You (Book #71)

No Future for You (2008) is the second installment of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer "Season 8" series. As always, even though comics aren't my natural reading medium, it's good to see the characters again, especially Faith and Giles.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Kushiel's Mercy (Book #70)

For the past several years, Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series has been among my favorite reads. It's epic fantasy, but atypical in being written in first person and having quite a bit of sex. It hits all my epic sweet spots--big stories, big stakes, characters you get to know well and care about over the course of multiple 700-page doorstops of books. And I love the way Carey plays with real history, creating echoes but not quite duplicates of our world.

Kushiel's Mercy (2008) is the final book in the second trilogy. The hero/narrator, Imriel de la Courcel, son of traitors and foster-son of heroes, has to prove his worthiness to wed his kinswoman Sidonie, Dauphine of Terre D'Ange. The queen orders him to find his missing mother and bring her back to Terre D'Ange for justice, but other threats intervene.

I enjoyed the book, and I hope the loose ends here and there mean we haven't seen the last of this world. I'd love to see a trilogy featuring Sidonie's sister Alais having adventures in Alba, for example. But I thought Mercy suffered a bit from being in first person, which I'd considered a strength of earlier outings in the series. There were sections in the second act where it felt like the main action was hundreds of miles away from Imriel, and rather than adding to the suspense, it frustrated me. I would've liked to see what was going on from Alais' eyes, or Drustan's, or Barquiel L'Envers'. (Speaking of L'Envers, I think I can say without introducing spoilers that I was delighted to be proven right about him.)

In general, a solid end to a strong series.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Time To Fight (Book #69)

(Standard statement for posts of this type--I don't blog about politics, except insofar as my reading diary touches upon such issues.)

I've been impressed with Jim Webb since I first heard about him in the run-up to the 2006 elections. He's not a humble man (are there humble senators?), but he has a combination of integrity, honor, and independence that I find highly admirable. Also, as someone who shares his Scots-Irish cultural and ethnic background, I just recognize him. He reminds me of the men in my family, stubborn, contrary, and noble.

A Time to Fight (2008) is his most recent book, and it discusses what he views as the biggest problems facing America, such as the widening gulp between not just rich and poor, but also rich and middle class, and the decline in open, honest political debate within the government and society at large. As far as I'm concerned, he's spot on, especially in Part 2, where he delves into specific issues, including a lengthy section on America's post-WWII wars and the shift in relative control between civilian and military leadership.

Webb recently removed himself from the Obama veepstakes. I don't know why--it could simply be that his history of outspokenness makes him too risky a choice, and he knows it. But having read this book, I think he'd rather stay in the Senate, where he can do his part to help restore a healthier balance between the three branches of government. And I wish him all the best in his efforts.

Blogroll Updated

I decided to update my blogroll to more accurately reflect what I read. I've included some humor sites, so if you're feeling in need of a laugh, I recommend Cake Wrecks, Crummy Church Signs, and It's Lovely! I'll Take It! in particular.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Medicine Woman (Book #68)

Kathleen Eagle is best known for her contemporary romances and women's fiction set in the Indian Country of the Dakotas and Minnesota, but I recently learned that many years ago she wrote a few historical romances. I tracked down some of them, including Medicine Woman (1989). Set in the 1820's, it tells of a white American botanist who, in his explorations of the flora of the prairie, meets a Lakota woman who's been somewhat set apart from her tribe because of her dreams and visions.

It's a subtle, slow-blossoming romance, rich with Eagle's firsthand knowledge of Lakota culture and values. I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On Wellington (Book #67)

On Wellington: the Duke and his Art of War (Jac Weller, 1998) is a collection of essays and articles compiled after Weller's death. It's sort of an odd read. It assumes a certain level of knowledge of military history in general and Wellington's career in particular, but since the essays are short and topical, I didn't learn much I didn't already know. Probably the most interesting section, because it was new to me, was a discussion of the impact of Napoleon's and Wellington's tactics and strategies on the Civil War, followed by a speculation on how Gettysburg might've turned out if Wellington had commanded the Confederate force. (He thinks the South would've won the battle and possibly the war--it seems like that in Weller's view of the world, there's no military problem that couldn't be solved by time-traveling Wellington. He might be right about Gettysburg, since Lee's hands-off command style just didn't work after Stonewall Jackson died, IMHO. But I can't agree with an earlier essay that suggests that Wellington could've turned things around for the US in Vietnam. There are limits to what one man can do.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Rapture Ready (Book #66)

When I picked up Rapture Ready (Daniel Radosh, 2008), I was expecting pure snark, pure terror, or a blend of the two. Those are common approaches, you see, when outsiders try to write about the evangelical Christian subculture: either "OMG we'll be living in a theocracy within a decade if these people aren't stopped," or else "OMG look at the freaks." Radosh doesn't refrain from snark where it's deserved, but he's willing to engage with the Christians he meets as human beings worthy of respect. As a result, Rapture Ready is one of the best books of its kind I've read.

Radosh takes a tour of evangelical pop culture, observing everything from Christian pro wrestling to the arty, alternative Cornerstone music festival, from "creation science" museums to Christian comedians. He's a good writer and a perceptive, open-minded observer, and I enjoyed touring a culture I spent many years in and still inhabit the fringes of through his eyes. (And I was surprised as he was to discover that Frank Peretti is a pleasant, thoughtful, and considerate person!)

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bath Tangle (Book #65)

I'm pretty sure I read Bath Tangle (Georgette Heyer, 1955) when I was 14 or 15. My hometown library had an extensive Heyer collection, and the plot sounded familiar. But since that was more than half my life ago, I decided it counted as a new read.

It's not my favorite Heyer--I prefer The Grand Sophy, The Spanish Bride, and Frederica--but it's a fun, frothy romp, and I like its relatively slow pace and large cast of characters. One trend I don't like in modern romances is how the hero and heroine are often the only three-dimensional characters in sight, and they fall in love and commit within the course of a few days (perhaps out of relief in finding someone who isn't a 2-D cardboard cut-out!).

That said...is it just me, or do English writers of the mid-20th century actually show more classism than those from about 150 years earlier? This isn't the worst in Heyer's canon in that regard, but there's a definite sense that everyone has their level and really ought to stick to it. Dorothy Sayers is the same way--one of these days I'm going to post my rant about how I want to step into the books and make Bunter strike out on his own and stop being so damn servile when anyone can see he's just as clever as Peter and Harriet if not more so. And I remember as a child being baffled when CS Lewis has Prince Rilian in The Silver Chair tell Jill that her bravery must be a sign that she comes of noble blood. I even asked my mom what that had to do with anything, and she did her best to explain about how Lewis wrote from a different time and place and so on.

I still like Heyer, and I downright love Sayers and Lewis, but I regularly want to wring their necks over how they treat class. But while there are plenty of class issues in Jane Austen's work, I never want to do more than "tsk-tsk" at her when she says something that goes against my values as a 21st-century American with blue collar, borderline hillbilly antecedents. And on the whole, that's how I feel about 18th and early 19th century writers in general. Yes, they generally accept a class structure I'd rail against if I found myself caught in it--but it never feels quite so rigid as in those mid-20th century authors.

I'm not sure my perception is accurate, though. It could be I'm just willing to cut Austen et al. more slack than I am a set of people whose lifetimes overlapped those of my parents. Thoughts?

Friday, July 4, 2008

My first half of 2008 in books

I can't quite call 2008 a slow reading year. I'm on pace to read 120 books or so, after all. (I'd consider any year I read less than a hundred books a bad year, since I'd have to be either too busy to read enough to make me happy or completely unable to find enough books worth finishing.) But so far this year has been about good books rather than great ones. Novels that pleasantly whiled away bus commutes but didn't linger in my mind afterward. Nonfiction that gave me interesting and/or useful information but didn't have that extra spark that made them excellent books as opposed to informative collections of facts. I did, however, on reviewing my blog posts find five books that stayed with me after I finished the last page.

A Soldier’s Wife: Wellington’s Marriage - Joan Wilson: This biography of a bad marriage between good people broke my heart and gave me a fascinating and intimate look at aristocratic British life 200 years ago--making it the rare book that spoke to both my heart and my head. This may say as much about my particular historical obsessions as the book itself, but it's the most moving book I've read all year.

Soldier's Heart - Elizabeth D. Samet: Memoir of a civilian English professor at West Point, and the book that convinced me I need to read War and Peace. (Which is now on my bookshelf awaiting the moment I'm ready to fit something so dauntingly LONG into my packed schedule.)

The Sharing Knife: Passage - Lois McMaster Bujold: Beautifully written romantic fantasy that balances the romance and fantasy better than anything else of its kind I’ve read.

Private Arrangements - Sherry Thomas: Not a perfect romance, but a fun, well-written one that’s renewed my willingness to give debut historical romances a chance.

Napoleon and Wellington - Andrew Roberts: Extremely readable dual biography.

We'll see how the second half of the year goes. I'm looking forward to reading the new Kushiel book soon, and there's also a new Temeraire book about to come out, though I'm going to delay reading that one for at least a few months. Even though my Napoleonic alternative history lacks dragons and has a different style and focus, I don't want to read something that close to my WIP while I'm deep in draft mode. Anyway, I still haven't read the newest Loretta Chase, and I'm probably going to try Bernard Cornwell's Arthurian and Saxon series this year, so I've got plenty to look forward to.

Wellington and His Army (Book #64)

Wellington and His Army (Godfrey Davis, 1954) assumes reader familiarity with the general course of the Peninsular War and Waterloo Campaign, focusing instead on Wellington's personality, his interactions with his officers and men, and everyday life with the army. I didn't learn much new from it, but I do try to keep myself immersed in this kind of book, because these are the people and the world I write about. (More or less. Since I'm doing alternative history, everything is a little...different.)

One thing that struck me with this book is the degree to which the archetypal Wellington story involves some soldier getting out of a flogging or worse by making him crack up. A typical example: a soldier in the act of stealing honey is accosted by Wellington, who asks him where he got that. The soldier, not recognizing the army's commander because his face is half-hooded against the bee stings, tells him where to find the hives, and helpfully urges him to hurry up if he wants some, because there's already a crowd helping themselves. Wellington laughs, and the soldier goes unpunished. There must be at least half a dozen similar incidents reported in books like this, and of course it's impossible to tell at this distance which are real and which are apocryphal. I'm struck (probably because I'm geeky and strange) by the contrast with, say, the archetypal Robert E. Lee story, which usually involves him showing semi-anonymous mercy and personal care to some soldier, whether Confederate or Union--the Lee stories emphasize that general's reputed saintliness, while the Wellington stories instead undercut his reputation for seriousness and strictness.

(Yeah, I know. I'm geeky and strange.)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Crazy for God (Book #63)

Frank Schaeffer grew up and came of age as a child of the evangelical Christian "aristocracy" during a time of transformation. Crazy for God (2008) is his memoir of his childhood, his decade or so as an evangelical "superstar," and his eventual abandonment of an absolute, highly politicized, Calvinist evangelical faith for the rituals and mystery of the Orthodox tradition.

He's the son of the founders of L'Abri, a mission/community in Switzerland that's had a huge, yet subtle, impact on American evangelicalism. For example, the area director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Philadelphia during my Penn years was at L'Abri as a young man around 1970, and he never stopped raving about the profound impact it had had on his life. A lot of the 1960's and 70's "Jesus People" passed through L'Abri--which gives me a tenuous connection to the place myself. My church, Bethany Presbyterian, has been around for over a century, but it was revitalized by Jesus People, and I think you can still see the movement's influence in Bethany's quirky mainline-yet-evangelical nature and informal yet contemplative worship.

All that is early Schaeffer, what L'Abri was during the 50's through the early 70's, and overall it's a good thing. (I'm speaking from a perspective not unlike Schaeffer's current theology--I have more questions than answers, and I don't remotely consider myself part of the Religious Right, but I continue to seek God and find comfort and joy in being part of a church community.) But then the elder Schaeffer, with his son urging him on, got involved in the conservative politics and celebrity culture of the rising Religious Right...

Crazy for God has raised some hackles in the church, and in some cases I can't blame people for being offended. Schaeffer has mellowed with age, but he hasn't entirely shed the elitism and intellectual snobbery his brainy parents raised him with, and I couldn't help reflecting that the ordinary American evangelicals he all but calls inbred "sheeple" are, well, my kin, seeing as how I was raised Southern Baptist and have roots in the red clay of central Alabama. But it's still a worthy memoir of a dysfunctional childhood and an informative tour of the last five decades of evangelical Christianity.