Update on the novel writing

For those of you tracking my adventure in novel writing, the word is in.  At a writer’s conference last June the owner of a literary agency invited me to submit my work, and a few days ago I got this note:

Dear Jeremy,

Thank you for allowing me to read your submission for THE ROBOT’S MAKER. I really enjoyed your engaging narrative voice as well as the light touches of humor throughout. However, I unfortunately didn’t quite fall in love with the story in the way I would need to to offer you representation. Therefore, I do not think we would be the correct agents to market this project in today’s competitive book publishing industry.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to read your work. I wish you the best of luck with THE ROBOT’S MAKER and your future endeavors.

All best,

Shira S. Hoffman

Now isn’t that about the sweetest rejection letter one could ask for? I’m truly grateful to have achieved my first goal, which was to get a rejection letter from a literary agent.

Continue reading “Update on the novel writing”

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New Advent CD from Wyoming Catholic College

Last year I had the honor of reporting that my poem “David’s Town,” set to music by Peter Kwasniewski, was performed by an ensemble in Scotland.  This year I am happy to announce that “David’s Town” has been included on Wyoming Catholic College’s new Advent CD.  It is a special song, because it is the only hymn to my knowledge that devotes one stanza to each of the “three comings” celebrated in Advent:  the first coming in humility, the second coming in mystery, and the third coming in glory.

The new CD is beautifully done, recorded by a special student ensemble led by Kwasniewski.  You can find lyrics, information, and a way to purchase the CD here.  Take a look!  We’re doing an important work at WCC, and every CD purchase helps us keep the lights on both literally and figuratively.

Meanwhile, to give you a sense for the quality both of the performance and the recording, here is the “David’s Town” track:

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There Are Ticks in the Woods

Today’s offering, a silly poem I wrote for my children and recited at one of those glorious Friday family poetry-fests.  It is to be read (a) out loud, (b) briskly, and (c) with a straight face.  See if you can manage all three:

There Are Ticks in the Woods

There are ticks in the woods!
There are ticks in the woods!
They are flying to get fixins
For to make their wicked tixins
For to bite the juicy children
Who would walk in the woods.

There are tocks in the woods!
There are tocks in the woods!
They have shoes and put their socks in
For to make their evil toxins
For to bite the juicy children
Who would walk in the woods.

Now the ticks with their tixin
Dug a pit and threw some sticks in,
While the tocks with their toxin
Made a trap and put some rocks in.
But a tick fell on the rocks
And a tock fell on the sticks,
So the tick was sick with toxin
And the tock was socked with tixin.

So beware of the woods!
Beware of the woods!
Clever traps could draw a fox in
To the ticks that now have toxin,
So beware, all juicy children
Who would walk in the woods.

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The Painted World

Today, my freshmen and I will discuss the end of the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses ascends the mountain to look out over the Promised Land–and die.  That scene moves me mysteriously.

At one point, in a particular situation, I wrote a story based on that scene.  It is a strange story, a difficult story, and I am not even sure it is a good story, but every time I go back to it I am moved again and I can’t quite bring myself to chuck it.  With some trepidation, I now post it where anyone can see what flights of fancy erupt where a man with too little learning to match his love seizes access to a keyboard.

The Painted World

Thomae Aquinatis Super I Tim., cap. 6 l. 3: Res ergo, quae sunt actus quidam, sed non purus, lucentia sunt, sed non lux. Sed divina essentia, quae est actus purus, est ipsa lux.

Painted WorldDeuteronomy 34:10, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.”

Colossians 2:17, “These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.”

James 1:17, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

Chapter 1

Before you take up and read, look at the picture above this story. There you see me, the author of this story: my hands point to a well-watered land, dark woods and verdant pastures, and to the city on a hill overlooking all; my eyes look back to invite all those behind to enter and take this land. Look closely at my eyes: see how they plead, see how earnest and how sad they are. You behold me.

I do not say that you see me depicted, or that you see a depiction of me. I am not the man depicted in the picture above this story, who was a great man of your world; rather, I am his depiction. The drawing above this story is not a representation of me, but it is I myself: I am the drawing. You hold me in your hands.

Forever do I stretch out my hands, and never will I cease. Although my bent knees and backward glance suggest action, I never straighten my legs or turn my head. In fact, for me there is neither moment before nor moment after, and so no memory of the sort that you enjoy: I am fixed in a single moment, in a single feeling, which is yet not like your feelings colored by consciousness of yourself feeling, which depends on awareness of time passing. I am a drawing, and so there is only one moment in my world, one now. I have only a glint of the rich being of your world.

If all this is so, you may ask, who is the author of this story? Surely writing word after word implies an unfolding of thought, and a succession of action. A frozen figure cannot move from line to line and from word to word, still as he is in the immobility of one gaze and one thought.

You are right, and yet I am the author of this story. How that came to pass is my story.

Chapter 2

A moment passed, the first moment of my life. I stood in a stupor, like one who wakes from a dark and dreamless sleep to find himself standing erect under the noonday sun. Infants and children live as in a dream, but the passage from infancy to animal cunning to reason unfolds gradually, as the light before the dawn leads to sunrise; I leapt from sleep to full awakening in an instant, and the terror of that moment cannot be expressed. To the very young, a single day may seem a year, while to the very old even a year may pass as a day; entirely without age or past, I experienced that first moment as though it were eighty years.

I stood in a broad and spacious room, the walls decorated with paintings and pen drawings and pencil drawings of every manner of thing: there were landscapes of sea and sky, mountain and plain, forest and flower; fish and birds and land animals of every description peered out of the decorated frames; and portraits of famous heroes joined the rest. Here and there throughout the room moved onlookers in a variety of garb, staring first at one painting and then the next with astonishment.

A corpulent man beside me touched my arm. White and black robes flowed over his massive figure, and his eyes, dark brown, were so intense as almost to be black. His voice when he spoke was deep: “Look there.” The massiveness of his hand was absorbing, as though he were thicker and more real than everything else in the room.

Reluctantly, my eyes turned to a drawing the wall. Dimly familiar, it showed a valley, and several waters, and many trees—recognition came with a shock, doubly so because this was my first experience of recognition. “I belong there,” I stammered at last, “That is my world.” The big man waited. “But look at how flat it is!” I went on. “There are trees and rivers and buildings, but the trees only differ from the buildings by a bit of coloring! And this tree here is just like that tree there, except that it is of painted on this bit of canvas instead of that. My world is not—I am entirely unreal!” Here words failed me.

“You are right, and you are wrong,” the deep voice resounded. “In your world, a things are what they are by the arrangement of colors: a tree is a tree because its colors are arranged this way, while a river is a river because its colors are arranged that way. What it is to be a tree, in your world, is to have this arrangement of color. And you are right again: this tree is this tree because its color is on this part of the canvas, and that tree is that tree because it is on that part of the canvas. Individuals in your world are apart from other individuals by the part of canvas their color is on.”

Here his voice lowered, if that were possible, as though about to share a secret. “But you are wrong when you say that your world is entirely unreal. A painted world has a certain kind of reality, inasmuch as it can be seen by others. In fact, for a painted world, to be is to be visible.” His eyes threatened to bore through me: “I say it again: in your world, to be is to be visible.” And I saw that he was right: if there were no light in the world to brighten the painting, it would not be even a painting; but when the light fell on it, it sprang before the eye as at least a real reflection.

This comforted me momentarily, but, as my gaze turned from my painted world to my new teacher, I saw again men and women of every description staring in fascination at one painting and then another. “How real they are!” I observed, “How thick and substantial! They move about, they remember and compare.” But the scene began to look strange: “If I were real as they are, I would delight in nothing more than contemplating the real around me. Why do they look only at the paintings and never at one another?”

My guide took me by the arm as he dismissed the room with a wave. “They think that the law of your world is the law of their world: they think that, even for them, to be is to be visible to eyes.”

Chapter 3

What followed then was such as death must feel within your world. For I was rent, I was changed; I could not see as you see round you, nor could any eye as yours see me. It was as though I had awoken. No grammar captures what I knew, because there was no silence flowing on which by our speech was broken; there was not ever he-was-speaking, only he-had-spoken; no time within our repartee, but now—then now—then now—then now, like points in separate planes.

Put into words, what my companion said would be, “Look back.” My obedience was not a turning of the head but sight, a view; and I knew the room which we had left. But from outside that world and looking back, I now could see behind and in front of it, and I saw that your world is like to mine. As a man is a man in my world because of an arrangement of colors, so a man is a man in your world because of something like shape, which is yet not shape but more real than shape, although like it. And as this tree is this tree rather than that tree in my world because it is painted on this part of the canvass rather than on that part, so in your world this man is this man rather than that man because his shape is the shape of this stuff rather than of that; he is not on a canvass, but his shape—which is more real than shape—binds this together rather than binding that together.

In the same glance, I noticed that I saw all this of myself and not because my teacher explained it, because my vision was not of colors but of the very being of things. Just as the color in a painted man is lit up and so is visible, the shape and stuff of your world is “lit,” is held forth into being. My view was of the “lit” things, and just as canvass is colored and color is lit, so in your world stuff is shaped and shape is held forth.

All this and more I shared with my teacher, in the same act by which I saw it, together with my question: “They do not see this?”

“They do not.”

“What do they see?”

“Shadows and reflections, with the eyes.”

“How are they lit?”

And turning, again I died: I saw him. I saw him. I saw him.

Chapter 4

Words will not that life with form endow;
Sequential speech, all time entangled, is unfit.
There was no now, and now, and now, and now,
But my gaze, and his, to which my depths submit,
A changeless being-grasped, a steady sight.
Ev’ry nook and nature of your world is “lit”;
This “Thou” above all being is the light.
As my world’s static pose to vibrant motion stands,
So your world’s flux to stable, changeless being bright;
While motion shade of color, varied hue demands,
In him there is no darkness; shadows from him flee.
No partial shadow life his brightness understands.
Light withdrawn, all paintings, just as paintings cease to be;
Him withdrawn, your world must perish, utterly.

Chapter 5

On my descent back through your world and on to my own I will not dwell. Suffice to say that you see before you the result, this small story written in witness. One of your world would have been a more worthy messenger, it seems to me, and one from the world above worthier still, but my guide stated firmly that I was chosen precisely because my world is below yours. Perhaps my reader will understand?

For my part, I can only urge: You who have substance, look around you and see! How noble your world, how thick, how real—and yet how much more real is that which is real of itself. There is rest, there is warmth, there is light! He gave me to see what yours can be, but I shall not pass over.

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Going to heaven with the Eucharist

Austin Kleon, creativity guru, has this advice for literary types:  “Don’t try to write a book while taking care of a newborn baby.”  That, of course, is exactly what I have been doing, and the blog has suffered accordingly.

Happily, sometimes a friend steps in to do my work for me.  Peter Kwasniewski took some e-mails I wrote to him years ago and reshaped them into the first half of an article on the Eucharist; he sent a draft to me and I made some edits, drafted a new introduction, and ta-da!  A new publication.

My own advice for literary types:  Always include at least one over-achiever in your circle of advisors.

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Phase 1: done. New: Phase 2.

Last Saturday, in a burst of I-can-smell-the-water energy, I finished my first book-length work of fiction.  After a festive dinner, the family gathered in the living room for one last read-aloud, and the thing was done.  Phase 1 of the sabbatical plan is complete.

Now we turn to Phase 2, which has two parts.  Perhaps most urgently, I have to do some editing work for The Aquinas Institute, LombardSentenceswhich has an NEH grant to bring out a translation of Book IV of Aquinas’s Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard.  They’ve been waiting on me to move on the project for a very long time, and I hope nobody dies of shock when I do.

But definitely closer to my heart is the projected book on the senses of Scripture.  It’s a funny project, because (a) I have no research library, and (b) I couldn’t read if I did.  Since I was very young I have had tremendous difficulty reading even moderately small print, and for a year or so now I have had difficulty reading normal size print.  I read by putting things on a Kindle or having them transformed into audio.  But I have lost my gigantic Kindle DX, so even that modicum of scholarly activity has been trimmed.

Fortunately I have a reservoir of past research to lean on.  Just recently I learned that my article on “Participation and the Meaning of Scripture,” which I wrote about a decade ago, will be published in a volume of essays from Brepols.  Upside:  It’s great to put that name on my CV.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADownside:  Nobody can afford books from Brepols, so this is pretty much a very ornate tomb in which to inter my old research.  I can reuse the ideas in my book and no one will even notice.

A lecture I gave some three years ago is about to be published in the journal Nova & Vetera.  No downsides there:  it’s a vibrant publication that has the attention of exactly the people I would like to reach.  Way back when I wrote the piece I told my wife that it was the best thing I had ever written, and N&Vthat if I died now then I would have done something worthwhile with my career.  Going over the proofs a few days ago, I thought the same thing.  I’ll definitely be recycling those ideas.

The first step in Phase 2b is going through my old stuff and taking notes.  I need to map out more clearly the connections between the somewhat imposing complex of ideas in my idea-bucket.  I know in a fuzzy way what I want this book to do, but I do not yet have the master framework in view.  Meanwhile, this blog will probably be livelier as I explore my way to the starting line.

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Novella ho!

Today the silly story I am writing for the kids passed 30,000 words, which seems to be a commonly accepted minimum for dubbing your fiction a “novella”.  For reference, Google indicates that Charlotte’s Web is a bit over 32,000 words, while The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe weighs in at 36,000 or so.  According to this site, I’m on a course to hit the optimal length for the age range I have in mind.

Without putting a full day or even a half day into it, I can hit 1,000 words per day reliably. Daily Rituals When I throw a full day at it that number goes up to about 3,000 words max.  When I need to get a new chapter out and just can’t think of what to do, I take a page from Woody Allen’s playbook as reported in Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals.  In Allen’s own words,

If I go up and take a shower it’s a big help.  So I sometimes take extra showers.  I’ll be down here and at an impasse and what will help me is to go upstairs and take a shower.  It breaks up everything and relaxes me.

He’s right:  the shower always busts up my writer’s block.  But this is my favorite quotable quote from Curry’s collection, this time from novelist Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22:

I gave up once and started watching television with my wife.  Television drove me back to Catch-22.  I couldn’t imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.

 

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Walking through the door

While I work on my rather silly novel about a monster robot who takes over Middleton, my daughter has been writing a somewhat more serious fantasy novel about cultural conflict between peoples.  She began back in November as part of the NaNoWriMo project.  Over the course of the month she wrote words enough and half again to meet NaNoWriMo requirements, but her story was not finished.

In fact, she’s at 95,000 words now and still not finished.  For a while she was reluctant to let anyone see her work in its draft state, but a few days ago she made some edits and decided to let me read what she has.  So I started yesterday.

Let me share with you a passage I read just before bed last night:

The mountains that Kathleen could see in the distance had become more pronounced.  They towered where before they had just loomed in the distance.  They were losing the blue tint the distance gave them, and now she could clearly see the white on the tops, green patches, brown patches, and she thought she could even make out the largest of the canyons.  Then suddenly one day, as though they had crept up on them in the night, the mountains were there.  They soared overhead, tall and multilayered.

Could you guess from this paragraph that the author is fourteen years old?  I know I did not have so powerful a voice at that age–heck, I would be happy to have written such vivid scenic description at thirty-eight years old.  It gives me goosebumps.

A while ago, I casually mentioned the NaNoWriMo project to Bernadette and then dropped the subject.  It’s hard to encourage your children to pursue their gifts without being pushy:  you have to open doors, stand back, and let them decide whether to walk through.  But Bernadette chose to walk through that door, and I hope her creative writing will be a joy to her for years to come.

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Tilling the Soil for Spring

While I work on writing a novel, I am also gearing up for a project more people would recognize as coming out of my academic background. Over the years I have had various thoughts about the nature of Scripture, about its multiple senses, and about its role in Christian life, and now and then someone tells me, “Hey, that’s really helpful!” When these people are theologians and biblical scholars themselves, it tells me that my ideas are either old enough or new enough to be worth writing out. So my project is simply to lay out the various dots that have occurred to me and see if I can connect them.

Right now I am reading Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation, by Telford Work, a Pentecostal theologian who is himself living and active at Westmont College.  (Work also authored the Brazos Theological Commentary on Deuteronomy.)  Years ago, my then-colleague Gregory Vall told me that Work had “really nailed it,” so I bought the book and planned to read it. But because the print is slightly small, and because my ability to read even slightly small print has vanished with time, it never happened. But as I revved up for this work I discovered that the book is available for Kindle! So I’m a bit more than half way through. Continue reading “Tilling the Soil for Spring”

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It’s all a plot

When I was in graduate school at Marquette University, I had the opportunity to see their amazing Tolkien collection.  Among the displays of Tolkien’s handwritten LOR drafts, I saw an interesting chart Tolkien had made for himself.  At a point where Frodo and Sam are in Mordor, Aragorn and company are fighting somewhere else, and Merry and Pippin are with the Ents, Tolkien had drawn parallel vertical columns on a page with one column dedicated to summarizing each line of action.  Items that lined up with each other across the columns were happening at the same time–he had written dates in the margins to get the chronology exact.  This arrangement let him see, for example, what Pippin was doing in the forest when Aragorn was fighting a battle at the city.

I have never seen this technique described in a book about writing, but it sure makes sense to me.  So when I reached a point in my own story where I couldn’t keep the interweaving plot lines straight in my mind, I had a white-board session with a vertical column for each major character:

I know the good guys have to win, but I don't know how....
I know the good guys have to win, but I don’t know how….

I don’t know how the story ends yet, but I’m really hoping it ends faster than the Lord of the Rings.

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