Greg Wolfe on The MA

  • "An excellent example of a group blog, a true community of like-minded but highly individual writers. . . . Topics range from the state of Christian publishing to craft issues to lyrical meditations on writing as a spiritual discipline."

    GREGORY WOLFE in Christianity Today, March 2008


  • The Master's Artist is a group blog for writers united by the blood of Christ and a love for language. We come from different backgrounds, have different theological outlooks, and are interested in a wide variety of genres and artforms. The opinions expressed belong to their authors alone -- and you're welcome to share yours.

« Aim for the Mark | Main | Planning a Novel, Part 2: Pre-Writing »

November 15, 2007


Christopher Fisher

This was great, Mike! Thanks.

So what I have to do is start writing and see what happens. Eventually I get to know the world that comes trickling down from my brain and out of my fingertips.

I like this. It reminds me of something Flannery O'Connor once wrote:

"I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again" (O’Connor letter to Elizabeth McKee, June 19, 1948).

Maybe you're smarter than you think. :)

P.S. One day, I'd really like to meet this dumb dog.

Madison Richards

"gelatinous and nauseating..."

Have you been eating hospital food again?

Jeanne Damoff

"I’m like Paul, sort of, the things I know I don’t really know. And the things I don’t know I continue to not know."

Perfect. 75 points.

Entertaining post, as always. And small world! I'm also a fan of sugar-encrusted orange slices--an affection George has never understood. But then he's also never understood why Jack Handey's deep thoughts make me laugh till tears pour down my cheeks. "Laurie got offended that I used the word 'puke.' But to me, that's what her dinner tasted like." Isn't that just like Dave Barry distilled into poetry?

Of course, we all know poetry is an acquired taste. Kind of like orange slices, I guess. I shouldn't begrudge people their lack of sophistication in such matters.

Keep writing what you don't know, Mike. I have a crush on your characters, too. They (and you) inspire me to go forth and be haphazard. After all, life is short. Carpe pullus! (Seize the gray!)


I get the loving the characters thing. That's it, isn't it? Makes that story real for me. The hard part comes when you have to say goodbye to them. Makes you want to write all kinds of sequels, a series even. Unless you kill them off. Then you mourn for months on end and wonder why you had to do that to them, how you could kill your own character who you loved. Sick.

"And research makes my teeth hurt. I'm woefully unqualified to write about history or geography or science. Mystery requires more brain cells than I can afford. Fantasy worlds make me really irritated and itchy. And I find the prospect of the future sort of gelatinous and nauseating."
I am so there with you.

michael snyder

Chris, if you're going to compare anything I ever wrote to anything Flannery O wrote then you can HAVE my dumb dog! (I guess I would miss her though, the big idiot.) I like the way she said it better though.

Madison...that is too darn weird, and autobiographical. Didn't even realize how much.

Jeanne? Points? Orange slices? Seize the gray? Way too cool.

And Nicole...I'm so glad I'm not the only one. Good thing for me is, that so far at least, I'm ready to wave goodbye to my characters when we're done. I still love them, but like my Seinfeld DVD's...sometimes enough is enough.

Rachelle G.

Hmmm. Loving your characters... that's an interesting point. But I'm not sure it's a requirement. Wolfe may have disdained his characters but "A Man in Full" is still an amazing book. I loved every minute of it. (Didn't go back for a second dose, though. Maybe I'd think differently if I did.)

So... we don't have to write what we know or what we love, and I'm not sure if we have to love our characters. Are there ANY rules that apply across the board besides "Write an awesome story"?

Stephen Parolini

I don't think you have to love your characters in a "Gee, let's invite that nice Mr. Lecter over for dinner...he has such pretty burgundy you think he likes Chianti?" way...but maybe in more of a, "Gee, despite your despicableness and rotting teeth and propensity to spit when cursing your existence or throwing rocks at kittens, you seem so real to me I find myself compelled to love you because my commitment to Christ tells me to."

Or not.

Is there another universal rule for great fiction? Absolutely. Find a way to use the word "flotsam" in your story. This will guarantee a literary triumph (especially if you use it sans "and jetsam"). If you prefer a bestseller, frequent use of the words "stifling," "negligee," and "was" are highly recommended.

michael snyder

Opening line of my first bestseller: “Steve, your stifling negligee is the flotsam of my soul!” (Thanks man...the royalties are in the mail! Eventually.)

I don’t disagree with you at all Rachelle…A Man in Full is still an amazing book, an inspiration to me in the truest sense of the word. But more for Wolfe’s use of language and description and his uncanny talent for portraying humanity. I think I remember great depth of character in that book. Just that he didn’t seem to be pulling for any of them either.

You nailed it when you say that story is paramount. Second on the list for me though is character. Maybe ‘love’ isn’t the right word either. I may have to go back and see what I see now in that book. But from this distance, the characters in that story feel more like caricatures. Expertly drawn caricatures for sure though. (I'm reading Anne Tyler now...she slips into caricature as well. But somehow she makes me want to see the 'why' behind the emotional carnage. I'm definitely going back to AMIF now to see if I'm right.)

And maybe Steve nailed it in that hilarious analogy when he used the word ‘compelled’? Again, given my memory I should find the book and read it some more before supposing what I might have meant. But I think I remember being compelled to watch Wolfe’s characters, as if I couldn’t look away, like wrestling or carnivals or auto accidents. I just can’t remember loving or hating (or remembering) anyone. It seems now like the heartstring Wolfe plucked hardest was empathy (but even that was eclipsed by irony). That’s not necessarily bad (he sold a lot of books! And we’re still talking about this one!), just maybe not what I’m striving for. (See? Maybe that’s the problem…it’s all about me!)

Stephen Parolini

Great opening line. But too literary. You want a bestseller?

Try this one (and I'm doing my best to keep the voice of the author intact here, for reasons that still confound me in my 20th year as an editor). I've put my notes in brackets, a) so the text is essentially unreadable, and 2) to justify my existence.

"Steve [I think you should change the name to something your audience might better relate to such as, "Charity" or "Hope" or "Frodo"], your [note the following changes] discarded negligee was a welcome wave of fleecy remembrance on the empty shores of my stifling soul. [Could you also somehow weave in a bit of dispensational premillennialism? Or you could go all preterist if you like and ride the waves of controversy to the top of the charts. Hey, you decide. It's your book after all. BTW, I think "Frodo" works best.]

Robin (the pensieve one)

Even though I'm not a writer...or even a writer wannabe (that's a lie), you've just scared the snot out of me. But I loved this post because it gives me hope. Hope for what? Who knows? But hope is a good thing, no matter how you orange-slice it.

Plus, the comment thread entertained me....

I'm warning you, though, if you get Stev(ph)e(n) cranked up, he might not stop....

We've recently moved to the Tennessee Valley (four years is pretty recent) and your middle Tennessee reference caught my eye...that, and that writing in third person thing ;).


Michael Snyder, don't you dare backpedal here. Your point and opinion were well made and just as valid as any others posted here. Crummy characters might not keep you from finishing a well-written book, but they sure don't make a good lasting impression of it--or the author I might add. Just because you can create beauty with words doesn't mean you have something valuable to say.

Michelle Pendergrass

I like the green ones. The spearmint slices. Those rock.

Jeanne Damoff

Ha! 50 points for Steve. Love the image of Frodo waving his "fleecy negligee" (oxymoron is the icing on the cupcake of irony) on the empty shores of such-and-so. (Or was it discarded and then it became a welcome wave? Whatever.)

I take issue with your deletion of flotsam, though, especially given the wave-on-the-shore imagery. Let the poor word play for once. I bet flotsam was the last ones chosen for teams in gym class, too. (Bullies always pick on the literary types.)

Even so, Steve, you get 25 more points for justifying your existence through bracketry. That's amazing.

Stephen Parolini

Oh, hi Robin.

You're a writer. You just haven't admitted to it yet.

About the thread here, though - the word I accidentally stumbled into using above ("compelling") which Mike has noted might be one of several possible nails being hit is speaking some sort of truth to me on this topic (does that mean I'm talking to myself? Maybe, but you do that all the time, Stev(ph)e(n)).

Badly-written characters probably aren't going to be compelling no matter how lovable they appear. However, well-written characters (even ones who come across as cold or distant or even paper-thin by design) make good stories great. The fact that I can't recall a lot about a specific character in a novel I read years ago but still recall the novel with fondness or respect suggests to me that within the context of the whole, the characters fit, they made sense, they were well-written enough to compel me to "believe" in the greater story.

BTW, here's the missing quotation mark from my earlier comment (for those of you who lean more toward the "copyeditor" side of the editorial tendencies scale).


michael snyder

Thanks guys and girls. This is fun., that was really good. I think you should bracketize an entire novel. Just don't ask me to edit it!

Robin...a belated 'welcome' to Tennessee. (Think of it as a 'publishing welcome'...very, very slow). And I looked at your blog. You are too a writer!

Nicole...your timing is great. I was already thinking about coming back to announce 'challenging' myself on this one. My memory really is that bad. So my plan is to go back and experience the novel again and see if I'm remembering properly. But no worries on original point is about loving my characters and the ones I read about. That will always be a prerequisite for my writing and have tremendous bearing on how much I like what I read. The ideal of course is to have it all...great story, 3-D characters, strong voice, delicious prose, and at least a little bit of humor!

Michelle...we'll trade then.

Jeanne...give yourself points for the use of 'bracketry'.

michael snyder

Steve...yep, 'compel' seems to be the operative word here. And I don't mind saying so cuz I stole it from your original comment. I like that word cuz it screams for something to happen. And something happening is way better than nothing happening every time., whadda ya think? Do we need to deduct any points for Steve's missing quote mark? Your call,as you are the point-dispenser queen.

Stephen Parolini

Jeanne...the decision to delete flotsam was not meant as a slight to its limited dodgeball skills. It was, instead, an attempt elevate the word by removing it from view so it would have to sit alone in the shadow of the bleachers, pining to be as pretty and popular as something like that iconic "kissing in the rain" imagery that is required writing in every contemporary romance, and in so doing, this lonely word would develop a rich, deep, ache-filled and complex inner life that someday might earn it a key role in a brilliant literary novel that, quite appropriately, would include no such reference to "kissing in the rain." At this point, flotsam would undoubtedly shake its head and smile humbly and say "gosh, I don't deserve this...but thanks." sorta looked lonely there without "and jetsam." Because what is Milli without Vanilli?


Ste{ph}ve{n}! Stop it! Get back to your novel and just quit!

Stephen Parolini

I can't help myself. Comment threads like this are my cocaine. Robin was right.

I think I'm gonna need an intervention. I'll warn you, it's not gonna be easy...I'm holed up in a Barnes & Noble in North Carolina. I won't go easily. There are words all over this place and I'm not afraid to use 'em...


Someone call 911 and get a negotiator over to the Barnes & Noble ASAP!

Jeanne Damoff

Actually, Mike, I'd already been contemplating the consequences of the missing quotation mark before you brought points into the picture. A final quotation mark functions much like the final note in a melody--omit it and you leave the ear in tension, waiting, waiting, waiting for resolution. "Frodo, your discarded negligee was a welcome wave of fleecy remembrance on the empty shores of my stifling soul . . .

Has the speaker paused to organize his thoughts? Is he gathering bits of lint from his fleecy remembrances to share with the reader? Will he further open his stifling soul and invite us to walk with him along its empty shores? Or did he merely get distracted by a NASCAR article on the Sports Page and forget to finish his sentence? WILL WE EVER KNOW???

When you think about it, it's all very post-modern. Avant garde. Edgy. Tres mot du jour. So, no point deduction. Indeed, I'm inclined to add points, even though Steve ultimately admitted the omission was an oversight. By playing the missing note later in an entirely different comment, we're brought back to the poignancy of the original mood, the tension is released, and our own souls emerge less stifled.

Bravo, Steve.

Now, about flotsam. First, judging by your take on "kissing in the rain," I gather you don't consider Nicholas Sparks literary. (I typed that last sentence for my own amusement. It worked.) I do see your point. We wouldn't want flotsam to miss out on deeper forms of character development due to shallow, adolescent successes. However, contemporary romance requires a cast of supporting characters, and who better to magnify the popularity and prettiness of the homecoming queen than the lonely word hiding in the shadow of the bleachers? Then, when said homecoming queen's rain-kissing days are over and she's living with Bubba in a rusted out mobile home, flotsam's acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature will shine all the more bright in comparison.

Jetsam can play, too. Far be it from me to separate Milli from Vanilli.

Stephen Parolini

Point taken on Flotsam's role in a contemporary romance. Point also taken on the Nicholas Sparks literary slam. (Just don't laugh too loud when a reviewer writes of my first novel "Toss in a kissing-in-the-rain scene and Nicholas Sparks might as well have written this.")

Jetsam is sort of like "tittle" of "jot and tittle." I mean, Jot has this whole other life in the world of impromptu note-taking (he's the quick-cut generation's answer to perfect penmanship). But tittle? I think jetsam and tittle would get along famously. Surely they would spend many long hours listening to Art Garfunkel solo albums. Perhaps they would pause and pay tribute with a moment of wistful longing while contemplating the hope-giving redemptive nature of Sonny Bono's successful, if tragically brief political career.

Jeanne Damoff

"I bruise you, you bruise me. We both bruise too easily . . ."

No wonder Art is the patron saint for the tittles and jetsams of the world.

Robin (the pensieve one)

Oh,'s a party, and I'm p r e t t y sure someone's going to be dancin' with a lampshade on his (not her) head before it's all said and done.

Where's Min a.k.a. Prunella? Does she know about this place? I see a certain someone has hijacked someone else's comment where have I seen this before...?

Stephen Parolini

Why are you looking at me, Robin? Hijacking a comment thread? I've never heard of such a thing.

Um...these aren't the droids you're looking for?

Anyway...have I mentioned, Mr. Snyder, how much I enjoyed your original post? Yeah...Good stuff as always. Thanks for being a generous host for this little comment party, too. Well...I have to go now. The men in the white coats are la Garfunkel!


But just when the men in white casually circled the book nook where the odd man dressed in a flimsy negligee with a garish imprint of Art Garfunkel on its bodice pretended to be reading an advance copy of My Name Is Russell Fink, the stranger leaped over the nearest chair leaving them with nothing but handfuls of flotsam and a rear view they would not soon forget, forced to write every jot and tittle of their unsuccessful attempt to corral the errant literary buff (literally) in their report.

michael snyder

You guys are all invited back every other Thursday and any time you want on my blog too! Not only was it fun, I'm just vain enough to really enjoy the big number on the comment thingy.

Michelle Pendergrass

Mike, Why would I trade? You have me utterly confused. Unless you want my orange ones and I get your green ones. That goes for the spice gum drops too. I get all the greens.

Robin (the pensieve one)

I had to come back and re-read your post and comments. It's bettah the second time around, in the way a pot of leftover spaghetti is better (but probably not the garlic-laced belch that might follow). No...make that I was compelled to return.

Mik(cha)e(l), a whole lot of thoughts going on on my end, let's enumerate for fun:

1) Double-digit comments are nice.
a) It could make you think you were a brilliant writer (case in point, this post--an absolutely Seinfeldian post about nothing that left me laughing (Jeanne and her points, Steve-finn and his insanity), applauding (Nicole and her use of every gratuitous "literary" word in one sentence), salivating (you and Michelle and your sugar-laden orange/lime slices), wondering (Rachelle's thoughts on AMIF), and I'm sure I shed a tear or two, debatable whether that was from laughing or crying. All this in response to your anti-musings about writing what you know.
b) However, in my case, my ridiculously record-breaking high comment thread was NOT about my refulgent writerly skills, it was more about some torrid and convoluted love affair between a certain unnamed editor and a "friend" of mine. (

2. I really, REALLY had some more thoughts to share, but in the seven minutes it took me to type the above, I have been interrupted nine times by my three children. Who can think with that going on?
a) For the record, they're old enough NOT to interrupt.
b) There's also gaming going on in the background and that banality is enough to squelch any free thinking on my end.

3) (grrrrr, interuption #10--"Can we take this bookbag back to T.J. Maxx that I just found under my bed?" [THAT I FREAKING BOUGHT IN AUGUST AND DIDN'T KNOW WE STILL HAD!!) I was going to tell ya, you had some GREAT lines that made me laugh.out.loud (if I was a point doler-outter like Jeanne, you would've scored BIG).

"...Not to mention that the only folks who could really relate to my dreams spend all their money on heroin."
"And research makes my teeth hurt. I'm woefully unqualified to write about history or geography or science. Mystery requires more brain cells than I can afford. Fantasy worlds make me really irritated and itchy. And I find the prospect of the future sort of gelatinous and nauseating."

And your whole memory-impairment thing because, sadly, I relate to that all too well :/.

Ok...I'm done...this is about all I can muster with the 11th, 12th & 13th interruption since the last time I mentioned it.......

(maybe I need to be doing something else right now, hmmm?)

Stephen Parolini

Just to clarify should anyone be tempted by the dark side to click Robin's link (thankfully a broken link due to that right parenthesis) - the "stephen" you see in the thread at her site isn't' character I created. Yeah, that's it. It's all part of a rich back-story I was developing for a novel I intend to write someday about this guy who gets stuck in a comment thread and can't get out.

But to swing back around to the original post - when I created that character over at Robin's site, I wasn't writing about what I knew...I was writing about whatever I could find at Wikipedia. Maybe that's the secret to a great novel - Wikification.

Michelle Pendergrass

Get it right woman, they're spearmint slices. Ick. gag. Lime. Ewww.

But I'll forgive you cuz it's good to see you 'round these here parts.

Michelle Pendergrass

Oh and by the way, you should visit Mike's blog on Thursdays.

Dee Stewart

I don't know if loving your characters is the answer either. I've interviewed authors who felt haunted by their characters and their stories are amazing. Olympia Vernon is one that comes to mind.

What I've seen after reviewing many books are the ones that leave me wanting a reread have characters that the authors care deeply for. They take the time to put them inside a story that lights them up. I just saw Mr. Brooks with Kevin Kostner. The story was crazy, but I got that character. I watched the special features on the DVD and the writers talk about how they built this story and it resonates with your post.

Also, you people are loopy loop negligee wearing Frodos. I'm praying for y'all!

As Hope's negligee floated along the morning breeze, she wrung her hands in heartache as she realized her stifling marriage to Frodo was nothing more than forty years of flotsam floating down an endless shore.

The comments to this entry are closed.