Mary DeMuth

Mary E. DeMuth is an expert in Pioneer Parenting. She enables Christian parents to navigate our changing culture when their families left no good faith examples to follow. Her parenting books include Authentic Parenting in a Postmodern Culture (Harvest House, 2007), Building the Christian Family You Never Had (WaterBrook, 2006), and Ordinary Mom, Extraordinary God (Harvest House, 2005). Mary also inspires people to face their trials through her real-to-life novels, Watching the Tree Limbs (nominated for a Christy Award) and Wishing on Dandelions (NavPress, 2006). Mary has spoken at Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, the ACFW Conference, the Colorado Christian Writers Conference, and at various churches and church planting ministries. Mary and her husband, Patrick, reside in Texas with their three children. They recently returned from breaking new spiritual ground in Southern France, and planting a church.

Subtlety in Fiction

The world may listen to shouters, but we are changed by those who whisper...

It’s the word God keeps whispering to me. And it stretches my soul. I’m the out-there girl, saying it all, holding back nothing. Even in my prose.

When I sing, I’m loud.

When I bang on the piano or play the guitar, I resound.

When I tell a story, I shout to the reader’s face.

Last night as I listened to my daughter’s choir concert, a memory flashed inside me—my voice coach tutoring me in high school. He’d put a hand on my shoulder, tell me to focus and to restrain my voice. My problem was a strong break between my chest and head tones—so strong I fancied myself only an alto, and would shy away from those breaking notes, G or A, depending on the day.

He taught me that I could nullify the break in my voice if I quieted down.

I still sing loud, still break at G or A. Thickheaded me!

Then I remembered my piano teacher in college. (Don’t get any wild ideas. I’m no pianist. This was beginning piano.) I’d treat every series of notes as a crescendo, pounding the poor piano to death. My teacher, an aging Jewish man who spoke with reverence and beauty, told me to relax, to breathe. “Breathe, Mary. Slow down. Life’s not about getting to the end of the piece. Enjoy playing it. Don’t rush.” He saw into my character even then and spoke wisdom into me, but I resisted.

Surely life couldn’t be about subtlety. Mustn’t it always be shouted? Proclaimed? Told boldly? Painted with red and black and blue and yellow?

In the quiet of my home on the grayest of Texas days, I see the wisdom of both my music teachers. The world may listen to shouters, but we are changed by those who whisper, who sweetly coerce. The stories that cling to soul are those that unfold gently, like an elderly mother unfolds her daughter’s yellowed christening gown. Layer upon subtle layer is the stuff we are made of. To believe otherwise is to cheapen our worth.

Just for a moment, I’d love to hear my teachers’ voices cautioning me to slow down, to quiet my voice, to listen to the rhythm of life beating its hushed drum. I’d like to think I’d stop and listen—and actually heed this time.

Isn’t it amazing how God circles around His messages to us? In my latest novel, Daisy Chain (releasing this December through Zondervan), I pounded that plot to death, shouting, hollering, pointing. My editor, wise man that he is, restrained me, daring me to let the story hush its way to climax. He wrote, “Overall, the book needs more subtlety and development instead of up-front flatness.”

So I spent months working through the subterranean plot of my book, creating subtlety and nuance. I worked to make the threads flow seamlessly. I stopped banging the reader over the head with a scene. I let the story unfold.

Too abstract? Here’s an example:

First draft:

There, facing the bush, he smiled. Mama had stolen again—this time from old Mrs. Ree, known for her tangles of championship roses. Hap never saw the need for flowers, but Mama thrived on them, so she took to “borrowing” them from neighbors at night.

Second draft:

Facing the bush, Jed spied clean cuts where the neighbor’s roses had been given a haircut. Mama didn’t garden; she pruned flowers from other folks in the neighborhood, being particularly smitten with Ethrea Ree’s tangle of roses.

My editor’s comments about the second draft:

Even though I knew the answer, I thought, Now, why the heck does Mama do that? Which means: that’s exactly it. That’s what I think will give your readers only enough to make them keep reading, and you phrased it just perfectly. Excellent.

Instead of spelling out (shouting!) the why of Mama’s actions, I left it mysterious, inviting, and less insulting to my reader’s intelligence.

Lewis Carroll wrote this:

When you are describing,
A shape, or sound, or tint;
Don’t state the matter plainly,
But put in it a hint;
And learn to look at things,
With a sort of mental squint.

I’ve framed that quote in my writing office to remind me to rein in my outlandish words, to revel in subtlety, to do the harder work of weaving, rather than thrashing, a story.

Subtlety doesn’t meander its way through me, I know. But that doesn’t mean God can’t weave those threads through my outlandish soul. And it doesn’t mean I can’t learn how to create a subtler story. Both fixes (soul and words) require listening, reflecting, thinking, and taking a deep breath. At the end of the day, I know my soul and my stories will be better for it.

Mary DeMuth