Posts Tagged: Joseph Bentz

What Mount Hermon Taught Me About Writing and Life

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by Joseph Bentz

The Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference has been a crucial part of my calling as a writer. Of the nine books I’ve published, all but the first one came from connections I made at Mount Hermon. I connected with my publishers and also found my agent there. I have made many friends at Mount Hermon and have also served as a faculty member at the conference about fifteen times.

Oddly enough, I didn’t really want to go to the conference the first time I signed up. I didn’t know much about writers’ conferences and had never heard of Mount Hermon. I signed up only because I happened to see a brochure that showed a particular editor I wanted to meet was going to be there. I went solely to see him. It was a seven-hour drive from my house, and at the last minute, I almost backed out.

I’m Glad I Went

The editor I wanted to see ended up canceling, so I didn’t meet him. But I fell in love with the conference anyway. I had brought nothing to pitch and had no idea what sessions I would attend, but I soaked in all the information I could and met fascinating people at every meal and in every workshop. With all these writers surrounding me, I had found my people. I was hooked on this conference.

The next year I came back more prepared, and I have attended most years ever since, either as a conferee or faculty member.

Important Lessons Learned

Mount Hermon has taught me some important lessons about writers and writers’ conferences. Here are a few that I wish I had known from the start:

• I don’t have to force everything to happen in my career as a writer.

As a newer writer, I often went to Mount Hermon feeling great pressure to get some specific result. I felt I had to meet a certain editor or had to get someone interested in a particular proposal. I eventually realized the best things that emerge from the conference are often much different from what I go there to seek.

One year I brought a proposal for a series of World War II novels I hoped to write. I got nowhere with that proposal, but on the evening before the conference officially started, I happened to sit down with an editor who listened to an idea I had for an entirely unrelated nonfiction book I thought about writing someday. She loved it and asked for my proposal. I told her I didn’t have one, I was just talking. I went home and worked on the idea and proposal over the next six months, and that led to a contract and a relationship with her publishing company, which resulted in my next five books, with more to come.

• Knowledge is important, but relationships are even more important.

Some people who can’t decide whether or not to go to a writers’ conference ask, why pay all that money to go to a conference? Can’t you get most of the same information online? If information were the only thing that mattered, I might agree. But I would not trade the relationships I have made at Mount Hermon for anything. I am not referring only to connections with editors and agents, as helpful as those have been. I’m talking about friendships I have formed with some of the most amazing people I have ever known. What’s not to love about a place stuffed with fellow writers and fellow Christians with remarkable stories to tell?  

• Some of the best answers I receive at the conference are for questions I didn’t even know to ask.

Mount Hermon has helped to expand my universe of what is possible for me as a writer. It opens up ideas, genres, markets, techniques, and opportunities that never would have occurred to me on my own. I go with my eyes and ears wide open, asking, what might I try next?

•  Mount Hermon is a spiritual place, bathed in prayer, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit for more than a century.

The physical beauty of Mount Hermon is inspiring, and the way God shows up is breathtaking. If you listen, he will speak to you there.


Joseph is mentoring a nonfiction clinic at Mount Hermon this year. The title of his sessions is Writing the Irresistible Nonfiction Book. Find out more about Morning Mentoring Clinics here.


Joseph Bentz

Joseph Bentz is published in both fiction and nonfiction, with four novels and five nonfiction books. His most recent book, Nothing is Wasted, was published in 2016 by Beacon Hill Press. His novel Dreams of Caladria was published by Enclave in 2015. He is currently at work on a book about passages of Scripture that have changed the world. He is a professor of English at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California, where he teaches courses in writing and American literature. His blog, Life of the Mind and Soul, can be found at www.josephbentz.com. He frequently teaches at writers’ conferences and also speaks at churches, professional conferences, and other venues around the country.

Creating the Perfect Opening for a Novel

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Blogger: Joseph Bentz

Creating the Perfect Opening for a Novel

Joseph Bentz Book Pages

If you come to Mount Hermon to learn how to be a better fiction writer, one concept you will no doubt hear repeatedly is how important the first few pages of your novel are. If done well, they can invite the reader into your book, but if handled poorly, they can slam the door shut and prevent the reader from proceeding to any good material that follows.

How can you write a compelling opening for your novel?

In a California literature course I teach at Azusa Pacific University, we study Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, a classic of hardboiled detective fiction that features private investigator Philip Marlowe solving mysteries in a noir-ish and unforgettable Los Angeles setting.

After the students read the book, one of the first ways we study it is simply to read out loud and analyze the first few pages. Chandler wastes no time. His opening establishes the novel’s tone and atmosphere, captures the personality of the narrator Marlowe, and propels the plot into motion. It isn’t easy to do all those things at once. If you don’t believe me, try it.

Joseph Bentz The Big Sleep Cover

Take a look at The Big Sleep’s first two paragraphs:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. he didn’t seem to be really trying.

What information do we learn from these two paragraphs? A private detective has dressed up in a nice suit in order to call on a wealthy client who lives in a mansion.

Those are the facts, but Chandler’s words tell us much more. Why describe the outfit in such detail, even down to the socks? If you pick up a hint of sarcasm in that little bit of over-description, it is confirmed in the next sentence: “I was neat, clean shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.” That declaration conveys more than the surface meaning of the words. As one of my students put it, “Someone who is usually sober doesn’t need to point out that he is sober.” The same is true for being clean and shaved. Marlowe may be revealing a few weaknesses in that sentence, but also a few strengths: he’s frank, down-to-earth, and he has a self-deprecating sense of humor. I like him already.

Almost every sentence in these two paragraphs has something to commend it. For example, take at “I was calling on four million dollars.” A lesser writer might have settled for something like, “I was calling on a wealthy client.” Chandler’s sentence is better than that in both tone and content. We now know how wealthy General Sternwood is (his four million is in late 1930s dollars), and more importantly, the tone indicates Marlowe is not over-awed by money.

His sarcasm toward ostentatious displays of wealth is extended in the second paragraph, when he describes the Sternwood mansion. He doesn’t need any direct comment about how gaudy he thinks the place is. The fact that the entrance doors “would have let in a troop of Indian elephants” tells the reader plenty about Marlowe’s attitude toward the house. His commentary on the stained-glass artwork tells us as much about the unpretentious detective as it does about the questionable artistic taste of the Sternwoods.

The opening paragraphs of The Big Sleep let us know we are starting a journey with a narrator who knows what he’s doing, both as a detective and as a storyteller. We like him from the start, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. He doesn’t disappoint.

Joseph Bentz, a freelance author and an English Professor at Azusa Pacific University, is part of the faculty for the 2015 conference. Click here to read the full bio for Joseph Bentz.

Joe Bentz casual

Joe will join us at the conference, March 27-31, 2015, to serve as a Morning Mentoring Track Nonfiction Mentor and teach an afternoon workshop. Click here to view the workshop summary for Strategies for Writers with No Time to Write.

 

Does the opening to your novel need strengthening? Do you want to make your fiction more compelling? Think about taking your fiction to the next level in our Head Start Pre-Conference Mentoring Track. 

You Will Have to Neglect Something

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Meet another one of our esteemed faculty members ~ Joseph Bentz, a freelance author and an English Professor at Azusa Pacific University. Click here to read the full bio for Joseph Bentz.

Joe Bentz casual

Joe will join us at the conference, March 27-31, 2015, to serve as a Morning Mentoring Track Nonfiction Mentor and teach an afternoon workshop. Click here to view the workshop summary for Strategies for Writers with No Time to Write.

Blogger: Joseph Bentz

You Will Have to Neglect Something—Make Your Choice

How big a place in your life should writing be given?

That question frequently comes up at writers conferences like Mount Hermon. When you’re surrounded by writers who are constantly pitching this and that to agents and editors, it’s easy to think writing should be everything. As you look around at other writers, it’s easy to feel guilty that you haven’t written more or published more, but it’s important to put writing in perspective.

Writing is important, and most of us could do it better, but writing isn’t everything. It is one part of life that should take its proper place among other priorities. But how do you determine what that place is?

cat at keyboard

I used to think that if only I could get organized enough and follow the right disciplines, I could find a way to fulfill my goals and obligations in my personal and professional life without having to leave work undone or relationships unsatisfied.

I no longer believe that. I now believe that time and energy are so limited that I will have to neglect something important to me. I simply have to choose what that will be. Will I write less than I want to? Will I devote less time to my family than I want to? Less time to my church? Less time to my students?

The Limits of Our Attention

A writers group I am part of studied the book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In one section, the author discusses the idea that attention is a limited resource but crucial to creativity. Since we have only so much of it, we must decide where we’re going to put it. Then he makes this memorable point:

“Another consequence of limited attention is that creative individuals are often considered odd—or even arrogant, selfish, and ruthless. It is important to keep in mind that these are not traits of creative people, but traits that the rest of us attribute to them on the basis of perceptions. When we meet a person who focuses all of his attention on physics or music and ignores us and forgets our names, we call that person ‘arrogant’ even though he may be extremely humble and friendly if he could only spare attention from his pursuit.” (10)

Creativity book Joe quoted

As we pursue our passions, few of us want to be perceived as selfish, arrogant people who care only about our writing or our music or our art or whatever other work we feel called to do. Better to be a generous, well-rounded person who cares about others but also makes a meaningful contribution to our field. However, with the truly creative person who brings about a groundbreaking change in a domain, Csikszentmihalyi writes that “it is practically impossible to learn a domain deeply enough to make a change in it without dedicating all of one’s attention to it and thereby appearing to be arrogant, selfish, and ruthless to those who believe they have a right to the creative person’s attention” (10).

During the 2012 Olympics, one TV commercial showed athletes training vigorously, and in voice-overs they told some of life’s pleasures they had given up for their sport: “I haven’t eaten a dessert in two years,” says one athlete, and others told of giving up television, burgers, etc. The list they gave focused mostly on trivial pleasures, but I’m sure many of them also sacrificed more important things also, such as spending time with family, hanging out with friends, and so on.

At certain points in life, I have practiced the kind of focused discipline those athletes are talking about. While I was still single and in graduate school trying to finish my dissertation, I gave up television for a couple years, dedicated one room of my apartment to nothing but a computer and dissertation materials, and set rigid hours for working on the project until it was finished. Even now, when I write a book, I commit to working on it at least a little every day until it is finished.

Deciding Where to Set the Limits

As a writer today, I am willing to sacrifice for my passion, but I will go only so far. I believe all of us make trade-offs, but we don’t always knowingly make them. Often we simply slide into letting things get out of balance in one direction or another.

The choice I knowingly make now is that I am not willing to sacrifice my family for my work. When my son says, “Let’s go play soccer in the backyard,” I go. I take him and his sister to their sports practices. I take long walks with my wife. I have more writing projects than I can ever complete. I want to get to them. I do the best I can with those projects, and I get some of them done. But I know that I will simply have to neglect some of them.

My teaching also holds me back. So does my church. So do my friends. So do my other interests. So be it. I care about those things and intend to give each of them some of my Attention. When I teach American literature, I sometimes teach authors who had writing as their only priority, even when it brought shipwreck to their personal lives. They were creative people. They made a contribution to literature. The cost was high.

For me, writing has an important place, but as much as I love it, it doesn’t get all of me.

 

YOUR TURN: What have you given up to write? And if you haven’t given up anything yet, what are you considering giving up for more time and attention to devote to writing?