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What I've Written So Far and What I've Learned
January 20, 2017
I feel excited and proud to have self-published three novels at this point (with a new book coming out in 11 days) but as I continue to grow, I’m able to look back and recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the work I’ve released before. It actually feels like a very comfortable place to be, reflecting on what I’ve been able to produce with a stark clarity that will, no doubt, spur me on to become a better writer and storyteller.
In fact, I feel grateful when I think about my upcoming book, The Day I Disappeared, and how I can confidently say it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. I’ve got countless story ideas and outlines that I’ve jotted down and have been slowly but surely constructing into something real and all of that will be revealed in time as well. I think I have found my rhythm and come to terms with my identity as an author and am becoming much more disciplined in taking the time needed to translate these ideas into a fully-formed book.
As a Christian, I’ve grown up in church and have felt a certain sense of obligation to incorporate what I believe to be Truth in my writing. I was never interested in producing any kind of overly-sanitized “Christian” art and I think that’s evident in what I’ve released so far, but I’ve always struggled to find the right balance in saying what I want to say while not compromising the story or characters. There’s nothing worse (whether coming from a religious or secular angle, conservative or liberal) than finding yourself being subjected to a sermon or a lecture when you thought you were reading or a book or watching a movie. It’s co-opting a medium and making it something it’s not meant to be; it’s corrupting art into propaganda (or at the very least, something resembling the cousin of propaganda) and I’m not interested in that.
So that’s always been the struggle for me. How do you communicate these ideas that I’m passionate about without sacrificing the narrative? How do I make sure that I’m creating real, vibrant characters and not just puppets used to spout talking points? Further still, I want to tell stories that are universal and relatable like the books that mean the most to me growing up (and continue to do so) because I think that’s what makes art so special and powerful. So I’ve always searched to find ways to express my faith and walk through those themes without being alienating and I think I continue to grow in that practice. Of the many projects I have in the works, some deal with faith directly (with one of them dealing pretty explicitly with church culture) while many others do not. There are also a lot of political and social issues that I want to delve into and my views don’t always necessarily line up with those of many Evangelicals in this country so I feel like if they want to check out my work because of my faith, they may still end up being turned off by some of my other views so I can’t win.
Of the first three books I’ve written, I don’t think I wrote anything with the intention to please any one group and I’ve been pretty comfortable--sometimes too comfortable--in just doing my own thing. But as I’ve matured, I think I understand more what that means and how that looks and how it can be most effective. The rapper, Lecrae, released an album called Anomaly a while back and it resonated with me because it accepts and celebrates the fact that he doesn’t fit in any particular box. He’s a Christian and vocal about it and that’s caused some setbacks in the hip-hop community, but his conservative Christian fans often turn on him when he speaks up regarding political or racial issues. He doesn’t back down, recognizing that his art and his platform are for him to express himself and there’s no way to please everyone so why even try?
It’s a refreshing place to be and it’s where I want to find my identity fully and completely as I venture forward. I want to tell stories that matter, contemplate things of consequence and reveal bits of my own heart and mind without ever betraying the artform. As I look back at my first three novels, there are some things I’m proud of and a few things I could have done better. As I enter this new chapter, I thought I’d offer a few transparent observations on the past to go along with my hopes for the future.
If you haven’t read the books mentioned, there will be some minor spoilers but I’ll keep most of the major stuff under wraps.
What I’m Most Proud Of: Cassie Moore is a fully-realized, complicated character and though we’re with her through some pretty loathsome things, I think I succeeded in telling a raw, honest story where she was able to be more than just a monster. There are a couple of surprising moments, one in particular, that I’m pretty proud of and I think they were effective in jerking the reader around a bit and shocking them in a way that was fair and made sense when the revelations appeared. Cassie’s dark, twisted sense of humor can sometimes be a little heavy-handed, but often times when I’m rereading it, I find myself laughing at some of the stuff she thinks and says and even as my harshest critic, I have to admit that a lot of it holds up. There are some spiritual themes that show themselves throughout the book and for the most part I’m pretty proud of how that was executed. There are some really honest conversations tackling themes of faith and redemption that I think effectively stir something in the reader, causing them to ponder and reflect on things in a new way and that was the intent.
What Could Have Been Better: Those honest conversations that infuse themes of spirituality into the story were really difficult to construct and probably wander a little more into the vicinity of sermonizing than I would like. I was trying to do something very deliberate and explicit with this trilogy and it ended up being a very fruitful challenge for me to take on as my first complete novel. I could argue that some of that stuff could have been cleaned up a little but even when it ventures towards becoming a sermon, I don’t think the characters or story are lost and I’m proud of that even if I think I’ve learned how to pull something like that off a little more gracefully since then. The biggest criticism I have of Deny is just that the violence is way too gratuitous. I’m not afraid of violence or against it being used in raw, graphic ways in the service of a story, but I think you can see my immaturity in the ways violence was used in Deny. It’s gratuitous in a way that just feels excessive and artless in a number of instances. It loses its power in some ways because it is featured in such frequent, over the top fashion and I think I’ve learned a lot since then about the laziness and immaturity often related to relying so much on shock value. That’s the biggest fault of the book, a book, by the way that I still generally stand by and am proud of, but I recognize its shortcomings. There are also moments of attempted social commentary that I wasn’t really prepared to start wading into that are sprinkled into the text and a pretty dark moment where violent sex is implied and I’m not sure I successfully justified or explored that moment enough (and I cringe thinking about my mom reading that scene, for sure). And Lake and Summer and the flashbacks...probably could have done without that stuff too.
What I’m Proud Of: It’s hard to talk too much about this book, the sequel to Deny, without including spoilers so I’ll be kind of brief. I think this book carries a significant weight to it in dealing with unforgiveness and how hating others can lead to hating yourself. A different narrator takes over in this book with Cassie only making sporadic appearances, but I think that a lot of her journey is very true and honest for someone who has had the experiences she had and I’m proud of how that all came together even if I don’t necessarily love everything involved with her storyline.
What Could Have Been Better: When writing Deny, I had a very clear vision for how the story should end but felt like a single book couldn't justify it. I thought a trilogy was more fitting for this particular arc but when I actually tried to make that happen, I realized developing the final book was going to be a lot easier than the second. This is a bit of a bridge book and is a lot quieter than Deny and Turn, the eventual conclusion that will come out somewhere down the line. In the end, I think there are substantial enough character moments to justify the existence of Release but a lot of it came together during a really crappy time in my life and I had to tap into the deepest recesses of my soul to get any words down the paper, so I sometimes fear it’s too dull or too quiet. This book certainly taught me about the added pressures and challenges of constructing a trilogy and I think I’ll be sticking with standalone books for a while after this. Turn will see the light of day, but after The Day I Disappeared comes out this month, I have four projects I’m pursuing and Turn is fourth in line so it might be a while. I do want to finish the story and do it justice because despite my criticisms, I’m proud of the picture these books ultimately paint but after trying to power through, I realize that I needed a little break from this world to find myself in a place to give it the right ending.
What I’m Proud Of: In many ways, this book succeeds the most at being what I hoped and intended it to be. I needed a palate cleanser after all the murder and mayhem of The Cassie Trilogy and I have no idea where this story came from, but I found myself writing from the perspective of a snowman as he bonds with a boy named Reese over the course of a winter. I definitely want to be an author that jumps around to different genres because I’ve never been attached to one single thing, but this is very different than probably anything I will ever write again. It’s very sweet and humorous and has this nice, family-vibe to it. Despite having the premise of a children’s book, it’s not for kids and ends up contemplating a lot of really adult things, but in a really hopeful way. I enjoyed writing it and I enjoy reading it and even if everyone else sees it as the weirdest, most random detour possible, I’m glad it happened.
What Could Have Been Better: Sometimes I worry the whole thing is stupid. I mean, it was always gonna be a little cheesy and it’s meant to be a slice of comfort food to a degree, but this is definitely the book that generates the most fear and self-doubt when I read it. I think it’s kind of a nice...but then again, is it just dumb? Haha I really don’t know some days.
The Day I Disappeared
Coming January 31st
Well just like any author, singer, director, actor, etc., my newest project is the one I’m most excited about and I’m very proud of it. More details coming later this week but I will say this, the idea came about during a stretch of unemployment where the career that I’ve made with my day job seemed threatened forever and I decided to deal with that in a story about alien abduction and a strange case of amnesia. Writing it was cathartic and freeing and it turns out that a lot of the themes are timely in ways I couldn’t have predicted. Really excited to share more. Stay tuned for more details this week...