The Soul of a Writer

by Dave Milbrandt

Some might say Joseph Bentz, Ph.D., has the perfect life for a novelist. He is a full-time English professor at Azusa Pacific University who does not have to depend on proceeds from his novels to pay the electric bills or the mortgage. His fourth novel, At Close of Day, is scheduled for release in early April, and the 41-year-old La Verne resident has the freedom to work at his own pace.

Bentz discovered his passion for writing in elementary school and has continued to develop his literary talent ever since. “I hardly remember when I wasn’t writing stories of some kind,” he said. “I feel really called to writing. It is how I worship.”

In the beginning, he wrote about fantasy. That interest inspired his first book, Song of Fire, which was published in 1995, a decade after he began writing the novel. Like all firsts, the process was ripe with learning and insights into how to do it better next time around.

Today, Bentz works on a strict writing schedule. In the summer, that means writing four pages every day. During the school year, this drops to about 90 minutes of focused research or writing at the end of the workday. And instead of dreading the daily task, he eagerly awaits the chance to exit the world of papers and syllabi and enter the fictional realm he is in the process of creating. “When three or three-thirty comes around, that becomes my reward. I think ‘I have fulfilled my duties, now I get to write,’” he said. “The writing is an escape, in a sense. It is the thing that is mine.”

The result of such organization is a streamlined writing process, and in turn, a more prolific publication list. His second novel, A Son Comes Home, was published in 1999, Cradle of Dreams in 2001, and At Close of Day in 2003. He is currently working on an untitled book about a German translator living during the World War II era.

While concerned about being organized in his approach to writing, Bentz rejects the highly structured format of making detailed charts of character and plot summaries before launching into the writing process. “I just can’t even imagine doing it that way. I don’t even think of them as characters, I think of them as people,” he said.

Instead, Bentz utilizes a two-step process he calls the Playing Stage and the Manuscript Stage. The first step can involve composing several hundred handwritten pages of dialogue, scenes, setting and other general ideas that may become part of the story or may end up in the trash can. “In the playing stage, I can write anything,” he said.

And he can write anywhere too. Sometimes it is on his legal pad between notes for a class, other times it shows up as snippets of dialogue in his journal just below a diary-style entry.

Once the playing is done, it is time to take the raw material and create a novel. The handwritten notes become a cohesive story on the computer screen. This is generally a time of pruning and molding a story, but in A Son Comes Home, it became much more. Bentz threw out the 200-page first draft of his second novel and started again from scratch.

His third novel, Cradle of Dreams, was probably the most difficult to write because the story of a couple wrestling with infertility closely mirrored the struggles he and his wife, Peggy, faced. Because he was inextricably bound to the story line, Bentz found himself much more protective of his work when his editor recommended revisions. “In some ways, it might have been better to write that book five to 10 years after the event,” he said.

For someone who rarely has problems with writer’s block, Bentz learned that agreeing with the publisher on a title for a book can be the most challenging part of the writing process. On his first and fourth books, the titles were accepted as is. Finding the right wording for A Son Comes Home and Cradle of Dreams were not nearly that easy. “Some of [their recommendations] were so bad, I would have been embarrassed to have them out there,” he said. “The publisher sees titles as a marketing tool. The writer sees titles as part of the text.”

In the midst of his success as a part-time professional writer, remains the age-old insecurity about the quality of one’s work. Dickinson faced it, Fitzgerald battled it, and Bentz is no stranger to it. “To me, it’s a miracle that any of my books got published,” he said. “[At times,] I’m sure no one is ever going to publish another one again.”

With his latest work, he faces a significant set of obstacles. His editor has retired, his publisher, Bethany House, has been bought out by Baker Books, and his three-book contract ended with At Close of Day. In addition, his original publisher told him to stay away from historical fiction. Despite these challenges, Bentz is forging ahead, confident in the abilities of the Divine editor. “I’m going to write this book and let God take care of the consequences.’’

A good plan, indeed.