What we want from Orthodox children’s books

Almost always, an adult is the starting point for a child’s exposure to a book. We choose the books, we purchase the books, we pack our offspring into the minivan and herd them into the children’s section of the library. They can’t obtain books without our help, so we play a large role in their encounters with literature.

That being so, it’s interesting to reflect on the assumptions and wishes that prompt an Orthodox grownup to reach for a particular book. What do we expect from “Orthodox kidlit”? There are many specific answers to that question, but here are three underlying ideas that I suspect are present when a book is invited into your child’s world.

It’s trustworthy.

If a book purports to be Orthodox, it must meet certain standards. You would be stunned to discover it was championing heresy, of course. But there are other, more subtle expectations. You expect it to support your child’s faithfulness, to offer good theology in simple terms, to help you out as a parent. Sometimes we offer a book to our children because we hope it will do a better job explaining than we could, or will at least make a change from our own voice constantly telling them how to be good. We expect the author to be “on our side,” sharing our motivation to pass on the faith to the next generation. If you’re writing Orthodox kid lit at all, you must be a member of the team that walks each child from the baptismal font to a fruitful Christian life when they reach maturity.

IT’S ENGAGING.

To be honest, parents are constantly being let down by books. Sometimes this happens because parents and children are human beings, and what they find appealing and compelling differs. Your child might not see what you see or hear what you hear in the story. But sometimes a book lets you down by failing to present concepts or adapt packaging to meet the needs of the target age. A child’s heart can’t be engaged if you’ve failed to accommodate her developing brain.

I’ve also learned, in recent years, that we adults can frustrate children by overexplaining. They quickly perceive that we don’t see them as capable of perception and discovery. The old advice to writers, “Show, don’t tell” could be a motto for adults interacting with children. I’m thankful for a recent conversation with my friend Sarah, who spoke eloquently about the importance of approaching a child as a full human, a whole person. Drawing on this wisdom, I believe a good book brings the child into experience directly, sparing them the tiresome process of being prompted to enjoy second-hand knowledge of someone else’s transformative delight.

It’s well done.

By this I mean something other than the quality of the book’s content. Like many new things, Orthodox children’s literature as a genre began life looking a bit “home-made” and frankly unprofessional in some instances. When you begin to do something no one has done before, your early attempts will be amateur and faulty. It’s the nature of new things, and it’s an honorable kind of failure, in my view. You have to start somewhere, and you have to make all the mistakes to propel the endeavor to higher levels of achievement.

But I’d posit that the exemption for new effort has expired for this genre. Our readers and their parents have the right to expect expect high-quality illustrations, well-crafted and well-edited text, good paper, durable covers, and the like. Children learn something from every facet of their daily life, and they will notice if the “church” books always look a little shabby next to the secular books.

KEep trying harder!

With no degree programs and only the beginnings of professional development or support for creators of Orthodox children’s books, it may seem presumptive to demand excellence in this field. But still – we should demand it. Any creative process thrives on concentration and persistence. We should be willing to push ourselves, to ask hard questions of our work and welcome honest answers. There’s a temptation to settle for second best, assuming that because there aren’t many Orthodox children’s books, it’s acceptable to put out work that is “at least better than nothing.” We may unconsciously expect that with smaller publishers and a market defined by our faith group, we don’t have to meet the same high standards that would be applied if we were submitting work to Random House or Harper One.

I reject that mindset.

Orthodox publishers in the United States are growing and changing. Higher standards and the ability to be selective are the natural consequence for companies that are thriving. This is an opportunity for sacrifice, or almsgiving. We can give our first fruits to the Lord, a gift that reflects the best of our ability, a gift that is, to the extent possible to a human maker, without blemish.

Clever Myths and Eyewitness Accounts

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” 2 Peter 1:16

This verse is part of the Epistle reading from this morning’s liturgy for the Feast of Transfiguration, and it sparked a shower of ideas I feel are directly related to my ongoing study of Orthodox children’s literature.

If you read my post from yesterday (7 Serious Questions about Orthodox Children’s Books), you know I’m studying Orthodox children’s literature as a genre, a mission, a product, an experience – everything about it that I can learn and ponder. This research quickly touched on another ongoing quest of mine, to envision and create truly faithful, truly literary work. It’s possible the principles of this effort are fundamentally the same, no matter the age of your expected readers.

But what struck me with such force in this Bible verse is the question of clever myths and eyewitness accounts. At first glance, you’d think that was a reference to fiction and non-fiction, wouldn’t you? And that is true in a literal sense. Peter is explaining to his readers that he didn’t make up all that stuff about Christ. It happened. He was there and saw it.

Hold that thought.

TWO CATEGORIES OF CHRISTIAN FICTION

In my observation, “Christian fiction” can be divided into two categories: books about people “being Christian” and books in which the inherent Christianity of creation shines forth. These two characteristics aren’t mutually exclusive in their natures, but they don’t often appear together. There are plenty of instances in the human attempt to infuse faith in fiction in which the agenda left no room for anything to shine, not even the writing. It strikes me now that while immature literary skill is certainly a factor in such cases, lack of faith might be the greater fault.

I don’t mean that the writer is not Christian enough to write well. Not at all. I mean that the writer, perhaps unconsciously, assumes that the reader won’t see the truth, won’t be converted, unless everything is blatantly spelled out. The reader must be convinced by the writer. Persuasion must occur, and the more urgent your personal conviction, the harder it is to trust persuasion to anything but your own arguments.

PERSUASION AS FAILING FAITH

This reflects a two-fold faithlessness, in my view. First, it assumes that the reader is not intelligent enough to detect or appreciate nuance, or symbolism. When the murderer makes a point of turning off the lights so he can commit his foul deed in darkness, the reader won’t realize that spiritual darkness is also indicated. Are our readers actually so dense? Do they really need us to explain everything we’re doing? Do we need to hear them say, “I see what you did there”? I doubt it.

In fact, I believe readers bring a wealth of meaning to our words, drawing on their own thoughts and memories. The author is not the only one able or likely to infuse a text with meaning. We give birth to our stories, but their lives extend beyond us when we send them into the world. Like children, we must let them grow into the life God made for them, even when they travel beyond our horizons, even as we acknowledge we’ll never know all the people who read them, all the ways they’ll be misread, reconstructed, and understood.

Bringing the Man Downstairs

The second faithlessness of the over-explained Christian novel is the assumption that God is not everywhere present, filling all things. I’ve recently encountered fascinating scraps of the “re-enchantment” discussion swirling in theological, literary, sociological, and other circles. The primary value in the conversation, to me, is the startling reminder that God IS everywhere. Several years ago, Fr. Stephen Freeman wrote a book called Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, in which he takes on the worldview behind calling God “the man upstairs.” The man UPSTAIRS. Not the man down here with us. Not a presence in the air and earth and human life around us. The man somewhere else.

We enable a seismic shift in Christian literary art, for children and adults, when we bring God back downstairs. DO you believe God is EVERYWHERE present? Then you will be able to write Him into your fiction simply by manifesting the patterned loveliness of His works. Metaphors work because God is downstairs. Symbol is inherently, intrinsically spiritual. It’s our second language, the code of our invisible dimension, and God made it and speaks through it. With His merciful grace, sometimes we can, too. Sometimes, with sweat and prayer and those holy, euphoric bursts of inspiration, we can write the story of realization, our small visions of the miraculous reality.

And that’s why in 2 Peter 1:16, I see an affirmation of well-made Christian fiction. The father of lies will always provide us with clever myths, and his myths may masquerade as light. But fiction crafted from keen awareness of that magnificent Presence? That kind of fiction needs only symbol, finely observed, to become an eyewitness account.

Rejection Letters: 5 Types and What They Mean

You work hard on your manuscript. The setting and characters are fresh in your mind, so clear that you have memories as if they are real people and places. You have the writer’s constant urge to TELL the story, to put words on paper that other eyes and hearts will see. It is so important to you that the publisher grasps what you communicated and finds it worthy.

But sometimes, that doesn’t happen.

There are many reasons why manuscripts get rejected. Sometimes, the writing isn’t good enough, but there are other more complicated realities. In a recent conversation, someone shared a comment they’d heard from a friend in the publishing industry. Not all good books are “good publishing.” For better and worse, publishing is a business. Personnel, paper, and presses all require financial support, and publishers need to publish books that sell. Publishers should absolutely take responsibility for their impact on market forces and their opportunities to influence culture. But they still can’t operate at a loss. What they can sell might not be the book you can write.

To survive as a writer (and as an adult human), you will develop emotional coping strategies. It’s my hope that your professional strategy will benefit from these perspectives on rejection letters, drawn from my experience and that of writers who kindly shared their favorite rejection letter with me for this post.

What kind of rejection letter is it?

Rejection letters come in many forms, but they seem to fall into five categories: total silence; generic, no details; personal, some details; second chance offers; and second chance rejections.

I personally have received all five types.

I also have 9 published or contracted books.

It’s important to remember that a rejection letter often tells you as much about the publisher as it does about your writing. If Charles Dickens submitted A Tale of Two Cities to a publisher of action hero graphic novels, he too would be rejected. The Bible is the only book that can truly be said to have the whole human world as its audience, and even that statement would be argued by millions. With that in mind, let’s consider the five types and what they mean.

Total Silence

Many publishers, especially the larger ones, note in their submission guidelines that they respond only if they are interested in pursuing publication. That means the vast majority of authors will never hear back. At all. The guidelines often tell you how long to wait before giving up. “If you do not hear from us in 6 months, you can assume we are not interested in publishing your book.”

So, you mark the date on your calendar that is 6 months from when you hit send, and when that date arrives with no response, you can consider yourself rejected.

This is unpleasant, but it’s a measure of the publisher’s size and of the avalanche of submissions that came in before and after yours. Some publishers that consider unagented submissions do so by adding them to a large file, where they remain unread except on those occasions when the publisher commands a staff member to dive into the large file and retrieve anything suitable for whatever project is afoot. The large file is deep and wide. The odds are not good. And the publisher does not have the time or personnel to respond to the thousands of authors whose manuscripts lie therein. Hence the policy of silence.

Generic, NO DETAILS

This type is a polite form letter. It comes from an actual human being, and it indicates that someone read at least a few sentences of your manuscript. Or the proposal. Or the entire proposal and a portion of the manuscript. They do know what you’re offering, and this is a time-saving way to say “Thank you, but no thank you” without troubling to spell out why.

Here’s an excerpt from an actual rejection letter I received from a small-to-midsize traditional publisher.

We have completed our review of the manuscript. We appreciate the time and creativity you have put into this work; however, we have decided not to accept this submission for publication, as it does not fit our current editorial needs.

This is from a Christian publisher, and you can see the writer took trouble to be kind. More often, generic rejection letters are like this one (also real).

Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, at the moment we do not have room in our publishing schedule for it. 

This is still polite, but be honest – they would have room in the schedule if they wanted to have room in the schedule.

Generic rejection letters tell me one of two things: either I misjudged the publisher’s interests (“current editorial needs”), or the writing is not strong enough or appealing enough in their view to justify the effort and expense of publishing it (“we do not have room in our publishing schedule”). Publishing schedules do fill up. Thousands of manuscripts are submitted to thousands of publishers every year. But it’s a publisher’s job to sift those thousands, searching for the gold dust hidden in the sand. Sometimes, you just don’t sparkle the way they think gold should sparkle.

Personal, Some Details

If you’re lucky, the publisher will tell you why you are being rejected. This is a gift. Read their words and take them to heart. You may disagree, but don’t fail to value the glimpse of your writing as someone in the business saw it. Almost always, you can learn from a professional who takes the time to coach you.

I’m delighted to share a sample of this type provided by a published author, who we’ll call David Taylor. David recounts the following experience which occurred while David was querying agents for a fiction manuscript. David writes:

I was querying with my second novel and having no luck when a Manhattan literary agent with an impressive list who had the first 50 pages requested a full. Two weeks later, I received a three-paragraph critical rejection that pointed out my main problem: “You’re a strong writer with a compelling story. Reading on, we were disappointed to find that you kept us at a distance.”

A three-paragraph critical rejection is amazing. It’s a mini-critique group just for you, and it’s a sign that although you are being rejected, the agent or publisher thinks you show enough promise to be worth coaching.

Think hard about the advice you’ve been offered. Will it help you achieve your goal for this manuscript, or is it simply a more detailed explanation of why you should apply elsewhere? In some cases, you can incorporate that advice and submit your revision for a second chance.

Second-Chance Offers

On occasion, a publisher will reject the manuscript in its current form but extend a second chance. They’ll explain what it would take for the book to succeed and give you the option to make those changes.

As with David’s letter above, your next step is to decide if you want the second chance. What are you being asked to do with your manuscript? Will the changes improve it, or do you feel you’re being pressured into something that doesn’t match your goals?

If you decide to try for the second chance, follow the directions. You’re asking the publisher to reconsider, so you need to prove you can be coached and that you’re capable of producing what they want.

This process can take patience and a sense of humor. My first children’s chapter book began life as a short story that I submitted as a picture book. The picture book was rejected, but the editor thought the story might work as part of a collection of short stories for children. I wrote and submitted the collection. The editor responded that the acquisitions board didn’t want a short story collection; the board wanted a chapter book of the same length with one story arc through the whole book.

I considered banging my head on the wall.

Instead, I pulled one of the stories from the collection and expanded it. That story was finally accepted for publication.

Second-Chance Rejections

A second chance doesn’t guarantee acceptance. Your revised submission may prove to the publisher that you aren’t a good fit for their market, or that you haven’t taken their direction in the way they hoped. The person who read your manuscript the first time may no longer work there, or someone else may have submitted a book they like better in the meantime.

This type of rejection is final. You had a chance, and it didn’t work out, and they don’t want to see a third version of your book. Respect that. Look for another publisher, consider self-publishing, or sit down with coffee and quiet to rework your manuscript.

If you’re fortunate, you’ll get good feedback in the final rejection letter. I recall one such letter I received about a decade ago. The editor offered a second round of criticisms, some that had not been mentioned the first time and therefore were not addressed in my revisions. The letter closed with some tough love: “I have no doubt you have another great book in you. This may not be it.”

What can we learn from rejection?

Rejection is not final. It is not the only possible opinion of your work, but neither is it worthless. Don’t let it kill you, but do let it teach you. In time, you will learn to distinguish between usable criticism that can improve your writing and rejection that simply means the publisher or editor is not your intended audience.

My friend Phoebe, a published author and established blogger, gives the best advice on submitting writing for publication. “I always keep in mind a fallback option,” she says. Decide before you submit the manuscript what else you can do with it. What’s the next publisher you will try? Where else can you use that writing – on your own blog, a friend’s blog? If you have a plan, it will remind you that rejection isn’t final. It’s the next step on your path, and you’re ready for what comes after it.

Bev. Cooke, another published friend, will be sharing a story on this blog soon about a rejection that led to something better. Rejection is only final if you let it shut you down. Don’t fear it. Take it in, break it into parts and analyze what it means and doesn’t mean, and then proceed with your plan.

Never forget that rejection is part of the writing life. Walk through a bookstore, staring at the loaded shelves, and murmur to yourself, “This author got rejected just like me, and now she’s published. This one, too. And this one. He got rejected, and he kept going. I can too.” It’s encouraging, and it’s also true.

I’d like to close with a wonderful rejection letter shared by Steve Robinson. He even sent a photo of the letter, which he framed and hung on the wall.

Steve says:

I still have my first rejection letter framed (and my first acceptance letter). The book sat at Multnomah for months going through rounds of meetings before I finally got this. I was appreciative of the “complimentary rejection” because it told me I was on the right path. Most publishers just send a “form rejection” with no input unfortunately. (It eventually got published as “Lord of the Hunt and Other Tales of Grace).

That’s how to make meaning out of rejection. Be grateful for the criticism, and read between the lines so you know when you are on the right path.

4 Publishers Accepting Submissions for Orthodox Children’s Books

Do you write Orthodox Christian books for children? Are you a new writer wondering where to submit your manuscript? Are you a previously published writer who needs another outlet for her work?

This post is for you! It’s the information I wished for when I first approached the Orthodox publishing world, and several times since.

As the market for high-quality Orthodox children’s books expands, so do the number of publishing options for writers of these books. Publishers watch what sells to understand what needs are being met, and what needs are being expressed but are not yet met. A book purchase is a vote for the book being purchased and, indirectly, for other books of the same type. This is as true in the Orthodox world as it is in mainstream publishing. It’s encouraging to observe the upward spiral of demand for Orthodox children’s books and publication to meet that demand.

WHY DOES THIS LIST MATTER?

My childhood and my human identity are firmly rooted in the stories I read and loved. Those memories begin before memory. I can’t remember a time without books, without someone reading to me, and then without my own endless adventures through the printed word. I believe faith and imagination are strongly bound, so I want the number of good books – faithful, beautiful, funny, poignant, and beloved – to grow and grow.

In addition, as a writer, I want the blessing of multiple options when it’s time to submit a manuscript. Writers write. We grow, we change, and we write some more. Publishers release a limited number of books each year, and competition for those spots is fierce. The more publishers are accepting submissions, the better chance we have of being published.

BEFORE YOU SUBMIT YOUR BOOK PROPOSAL…

All publishers are different, but in more than a decade of writing books for publication, I’ve learned that some things are consistently true, no matter which publisher you are considering.

1 – Read the submission guidelines. No, really. Read every single word. The company wrote those guidelines to ensure submissions will have the best possible chance of matching their requirements. Do you want the best possible chance? That means knowing EXACTLY what the publisher wants and doesn’t want.

2 – Follow the submission guidelines. Having read the directions, your next step is to follow them. In most instances, the first person who sees your submission when it arrives at the publishing house is an editor. Editors are detail-oriented, educated, word-smithing, book-loving, and generally strong-minded people. They work hard and will bless you for making things easier for them by following the guidelines. The guidelines can also help you discern whether your book is a good fit for the publisher, and whether the publisher is a good fit for you.

3 – Explore the publisher’s website BEFORE deciding to submit. Visit their webstore. Browse the entire collection of books for children, including those they choose to sell that were released by other publishers but focusing especially on their own line up. Be a good observer. Watch for trends. Compare your proposed book with what you are seeing. Does it fit in? Do they already have four other books on the same topic? If you don’t see anything that looks like your book, is that because you would be the first to fill a real need, or because they wouldn’t see a need for your book? Take your time with these questions. You might need the answers as you craft your proposal.

4 – Always have a back-up plan. This piece of excellent advice comes to you from my friend Phoebe at Being in Community. When you submit a manuscript to a publisher, you should be thinking about what you’ll do if the publisher says Yes! But you should also have a plan for that book’s next step if the publisher says No. I’m working on another post about rejection letters, so that’s all I’m going to say about this here.

THE LIST

Here it is! Note – you do not need to be represented by an agent to submit to any of these publishers. The information given below is drawn from personal experience and from contacting the publishers directly. In each case, you’ll find the publisher’s website, a link to their submission guidelines, and some notes on what the publisher is looking for, together with anything I’m able to add from my own experience publishing with them.

Ancient Faith Publishing

This is the publisher I know most about – both as an author and as an employee! I’ve seen the whole publishing process at Ancient Faith from both perspectives. I’ve had manuscripts rejected and accepted by them, and I’ll always be thankful for what I’ve learned from their editors.

You can find Ancient Faith’s submission guidelines HERE. The guidelines include descriptions of what Ancient Faith is looking for and specific directions for submitting each type of book proposal. You can find the children’s section of the Ancient Faith Store HERE. Ancient Faith accepts and reviews submissions on an ongoing basis; there is no submission deadline.

Jane G. Meyer, the children’s book project manager, explains, “We want those projects that have so much Orthodox Christian flavor that other secular or religious publishers probably wouldn’t be interested in them. We also want submissions to come in that have been worked and reworked–that are free of obvious mistakes, and have been edited and revised for style. The stronger a piece is on the first read, the more likely it will move forward in the process.” She adds, “The best way to gauge what books we want is to look at the books we’re currently publishing. Our catalog is a good indicator.” 

SVS Press

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press published their first board book this year – Saint Ia Rides a Leaf, by Melinda Johnson (yes, me!), illustrated by Kristina Tartara – and Kristi and I are already contracted for a second board book with them. SVS is returning from a hiatus in children’s publishing. You’ve probably seen some of their older children’s books, many of which are still in print, but this is a season of change and development for them. It’s a fun time to jump into the line up.

You can find the SVS Press submission guidelines HERE. You can see the children’s section of the SVS Press Bookstore HERE. SVS Press reviews submissions at quarterly acquisitions meetings. The dates of the meetings and the deadline for submissions for each meeting are listed with their guidelines at the link above.

Sarah Werner, chief marketing officer for the press, offers this perspective: “SVS Press has long been seen as an ‘academic press’ and we are proud to carry that title into the future. Though, our renewed vision is to not just be an academic press for scholars alone. Our goal is to provide scholarly theological texts, quality translations of patristic writers, as well as quality theological material for ALL ages and walks of life. Our children need quality theological works just as much as adults! We are always looking for Orthodox writers and illustrators who are able to create and tell stories of our faith that are appropriate for little eyes and little ears. We are looking for material that accurately teaches children about our faith and inspires lifelong engagement with and love for God and His Church.”

Park End Books

Park End Books is a newcomer in the Orthodox publishing world. It’s a well-organized effort and already bringing books to market. I encourage you to visit the website to learn more about the company. Its advent is a positive sign of the market’s growth and a welcome new option for writers in search of a publisher. I recently received a contract from Park End for a children’s chapter book that will release in late summer of this year, and to date, I have been thrilled with the process. Summer Kinard, the founder and senior editor, was an author before she was a publisher, and I’ve noticed many aspects of the Park End experience that benefit from her dual perspective.

You can find the Park End submission guidelines HERE. Note that Park End accepts submissions at specific times, so be sure to watch the website for updates. You can see this new company’s growing webstore here.

Asked about Park End’s plans for children’s books, Summer reports, “We are planning three board books for the coming year as well as [my book, mentioned above]. For board books, illustrations are a big deal. We’re commissioning one, and two are from an author-illustrator team with a cohesive style. Our 5-year plan includes getting our books into mainstream bookstores, so we favor books that will reach beyond our target audience of Orthodox readers by tapping a broader cultural need. Our main goals are accessibility and beauty, and we love diverse voices and stories. We’re happy to accept Byzantine Catholic, Western Rite Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox manuscripts, too, since our niche is meant to bring our whole corner of the church into the public awareness by getting into Barnes and Noble and other bookstores.”

Paraclete Press

Paraclete Press, in their own words, publishes books that present “a full expression of Christian belief and practice—Catholic, evangelical, mainline Protestant, Orthodox…” This means that Paraclete books may reach different readers than some books released by other publishers on this list, and that the staff you work with will be from a variety of faith backgrounds. Paraclete Press published my first board book, Piggy in Heaven, and I found them to be friendly and professional. The finished book was sturdy and adorable.

You can find Paraclete’s submission guidelines HERE. You can see the children’s section of their store HERE.

Publisher Jon Sweeney notes, “Children’s books are essential to our publishing, even though we only publish two or three per year. And we focus mostly on saints, holidays, and seasons of the church year.”

DID I MISS ANY?

If you know of any publisher of Orthodox children’s books who is currently accepting submissions but does not appear on this list, please post that information in the comments. We all want to hear about it!

God willing, this list will be twice as long five years or a decade from now. In the meantime, I wish you the blessing of time and strength to write, patience to persist, and the pure delight of seeing your published books in the hands of happy little readers.

The Best Part of Writing for Children

This.

This is the very best part. I love writing because I’m made that way, and I adore seeing my words illustrated. But my favorite blessed miracle of it all is a little one happily reading a book I wrote.

I love the innocent little beings we are before the world gets to us and the struggle begins. I love the warmth of our better selves that surfaces when we care for children. I love that the veil is thin for these little ones and the flutter of angels still discernible around them.

Perhaps I also love the reminder of my own journey through that little world. The shabby picture books on a shelf in my office, the ragged rag dolls and moth-eaten stuffed animals in a crate downstairs, the old photos in which the incandescent light of home still shines…these are treasures I plan to carry till I lay my burden down. They are a door I like to stand near, treasuring the glimpses I catch when it opens for a moment, reminding me that time is circular and limitless.

The Children’s Hour

BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

Between the dark and the daylight,
      When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
      That is known as the Children’s Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
      The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
      And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
      Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
      And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
      Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
      To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
      A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
      They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
      O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
      They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
      Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
      In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
      Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
      Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
      And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
      In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
      Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
      And moulder in dust away!

Seven Holy Women: Who are the 7?

This week, I shared the first letter and the number of letters in each of the names of the seven women saints who are part of my next book, a storytelling journal I wrote with seven friends. Here’s what the clues looked like.

The guesses were interesting, and I learned the names of saints I haven’t heard of yet! It was fascinating to see which of our seven saints are known and unknown. Today, I announced the correct answers. How many of these saints do you know?

This book grew out of a series of short stories, which I wrote because of a long-held sense that the lives of saints have a lot of story potential! I browsed long lists of saints and their stories, looking for incidents in their lives that leaped out at me as unusual, thought-provoking, picturesque – all the things you look for in a good short story. As I wrote, I realized that my short stories were trying to be a book. But the idea of writing the whole thing myself made me so tired!

At this point, I embarked on what I like to call the Holy Spirit Theory of Writing – in which you let the book be what it wants to be and follow along in a spirit of joyful curiosity. I realized that I could ask friends to help me write the book, and after staring at my list of saint names and daydreaming for a bit, I asked the friends who seemed to go with the saints.

I’m so glad I did! This is seven times the book it would have been if I had written it all myself. And it was exciting and mysterious to see the ways that the seven saints matched the women writing about them. In every case, there was some aspect of that particular woman that was drawn out and filled with light by the saint she was writing about. I can’t wait till you read this book!! In one case, we even decided that the woman writing looked a lot like the portraits we found of the saint she was writing about.

Beauty leads to beauty, and love to love. Writing the book together is drawing us closer to each other, and I think also closer to the saints we chose to meet in our writing. It’s the beginning of many conversations, not the least of which is an exploration of creativity, or what might be called an educated imagination, in our life of faith.

#SevenHolyWomen #book #journal #storytelling #shortstory #Orthodox #saints #faith #imagination #writing

Quick Fixes: Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing

Two days into running a private Facebook group for Orthodox Christian Children’s Writers and Illustrators, I’m thinking about writing technique, publishing tips, illustrators I like, group activities, and other delights in every available moment. This evening, while washing the dishes, I decided to jot down my list of hard-earned “simple fix” wisdom for writers. Here are 10 questions to ask yourself as you read over your work. Ask yourself before an editor asks you! And no, number 1 is not a question. It is a command.

  1. Spelling. Seriously.
  2. Are you relying on “to be” verbs too much? What stronger, more specific verb could you use instead of “is/was/are”?
  3. Are you over-explaining? Are you saying “As she stepped out of the car, she opened her umbrella because it was raining and she was getting wet” instead of saying, “She opened her umbrella as she stepped out of the car”?
  4. Are you writing in the active voice or the passive voice? There is only one right answer to this question. ACTIVE.
  5. Are you speaking for your characters, or are you letting your characters speak for themselves? When you write a piece of dialog, are they saying what YOU would say or what THEY would say?
  6. Are you using the same word twice in one sentence, or in adjoining sentences? Do not do this. Find another word or another way to make the statement.
  7. Words are music. Listen to the beat or rhythm of your sentence. Is it musical or awkward?
  8. Are your details consistent? Is that sofa the same color in every chapter?
  9. Is your point of view consistent? Do you keep switching from one perspective to another mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-chapter? Did you forget what your characters would and wouldn’t know because you’re the author and you know everything?
  10. Is your agenda bleeding through your narrative? Are you noticeably judging your characters? Is your plot buckling under the weight of the point you are hammering home?

Those are my 10 simple fixes for writers. What are yours?

Writing in Faith, not about Faith

I think I just found THE words for an idea I’ve been striving to express for decades. The idea sprouted before I was Orthodox, but here it is in my present context.

Good Orthodox fiction is written IN Orthodoxy, not ABOUT Orthodoxy.

Fiction written ABOUT Orthodoxy (or Christianity in general) will crumple under the weight. Fiction does not do the work of nonfiction; it does a wholly different work, though it can bear similar fruit.

Fiction written IN Orthodoxy is fiction. Fiction may be full of light or full of darkness. The light’s the thing.

Narrative can only act for apologetics, in my view, the way a tune can remind you of a lyric. Faith-informed fiction is the melody only. If it’s rendered accurately, you will know the words.

It’s the difference between an oil painting of a flower and the shredded description of the flower pasted to the canvas in a floral shape. Let the explanation be the explanation. Let the portrait be the portrait.

Vase of Flowers. Creator: Jan Davidsz de Heem. Date: 1670. Institution: Mauritshuis. Provider: Digitale Collectie. Providing Country: Netherlands. PD for Public Domain Mark

Corgi Seven Leaf: Book Projects Update

This is a happy year in my writing life. I have three books coming out in three genres, from two publishers. I love that!

Corgi

The first book out is actually a third book – it’s the third book in the #SamandSaucer trilogy. The first two, Shepherding Sam and The Barn and the Book, introduced us to Sam, his corgi friend Saucer, and his friends and adventures at the Monastery of St. Gerasim. Sam struggles hard. Sometimes he’s angry, sometimes he’s happy, sometimes he wants to be left. alone. please. Saucer, corgi that he is, loves Sam and follows Sam around and barks at him and pats his foot and even, when occasion demands, takes a good mouthful of Sam’s pant leg and hauls him along where he needs to go.

Corgi standing under a blooming cherry tree
Photo by Alvan Nee on Unsplash

I just handed in my second round of revisions for this third book, and most of what’s left now will be copy-edits and minor adjustments. This book happened in layers, more than the last one did. I originally thought there wasn’t a third book, but with some prodding from my editor, I discovered there was indeed a third book. Like all my books, it fell out of the sky and hit me on the head. This is perhaps not the most dignified writing process, but it works for me! I wrote the story all in one gasp, so to speak, and then set it aside because there was time before the release date. The editor read through her pile and got to my story, and we started in on her first round of big-picture suggestions. The book gained several chapters, the characters gained depth, and it went back to her again for another round. She pointed out a few other adjustments, and that’s what I sent back to her last Sunday night.

I liked working on the characters this time around. They’re two years older than they were in the first book, and I did a little research to help me build out Sam. At no point in the books do we have a name for Sam’s particular kind of struggle. Many people have suggested that he’s on the autism spectrum, and my researched honored that suggestion. However, life has taught me that people with labels and people without labels have more in common than they think. This third book puts Sam together with Macrina, his arch-nemesis. Macrina would be the first to tell you that there is NOTHING the matter with her. But as the story developed, I realized, along with one of their mutual friends, that Macrina and Sam have more in common than either of them would like to admit. Perhaps we all do. For that reason, Sam still does not have a label. Macrina doesn’t either. There’s something in each of their struggles that most of us can relate to.

This book, like the first two in the series, will have a cover and three interior illustrations by the friendly and talented Clare Freeman! And that means I’ve also sent in a detailed list of information for the illustrations – listing scenes I hope will be chosen for pictures, and details of setting, clothing, facial expression, etc, Clare will need to create those pictures.

Seven

Seven Holy Women is a story-telling devotional I’m writing with a group of friends. All told, there are eight of us involved, but our math still works because the book focuses on seven women saints. It’s unique in my experience, for two reasons. First, I’ve never written a book with a group of friends before! Second, I’ve never run across a book like this one. Perhaps one exists somewhere, but it hasn’t popped up yet. Our book is unique because it uses short stories written in the second person to help our readers grapple with their own connections to these saints. “You are Morwenna,” the book begins. YOU. Your brain is wired to read those words and drop your imagination into the story, gazing out at the events as if they were your experiences, in your life. You aren’t Morwenna, of course. You are several centuries too late for that, but when I started writing the four short stories that were the root of this book, I loved the mental and spiritual exercise of trying to stand in these holy shoes, for a few moments only.

I needed help to make this book all that it should be, and that’s where my friends come in. Each of them took one of the seven saints, befriended her, and wrote about her. Each section includes personal surveys and a journaling opportunity, and as of this month, all seven sections are in the manuscript. The only remaining task is for me to write the final chapter, and that’s what I’m pondering now. I’ll wander back through the sections written by my friends and then I’ll have to make up my mind just what that final chapter needs to contribute to finish the book neatly and completely.

Leaf

St. Ia Rides a Leaf, the board book just contracted with SVS Press, is now in the storyboard stage! Kristina Tartara, the illustrator, has sent me the first illustration of Ia, and we’re talking over the color of her dress. This is a story set by the Irish Sea, so nearly every illustration will include shades of blue and green. Ia is a red-head, good Irish girl that she is, and we’ve tried four dress colors, drawn from our research on the dyes available to her in her place and time, and social class. Ia was a princess, so her clothes would be more colorful than those of neighboring peasants.

Meanwhile, Kristina has the final text, and this week she’s breaking it into pages and sketching the rough outlines of the scenes that will appear on each one.

I truly love watching the illustration process. I’d enjoy it for anyone’s book, and to watch my own story appear in pictures is one of my favorite parts of the writing life. It will never grow old! It’s especially delightful when I get to work so closely with the illustrator. Kristina communicates with me often and kindly sends me sketches and snatches at every stage. It makes me happy.

BLOG

And of course, my other writing project is this blog! I am so glad I came back to blogging. I’m finding all kinds of interesting people here in the blogosphere. I enjoy your words and pictures, and the ways they stretch my mind. Thank you for being here!