Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Grand Finale

Going into the finale, things are not good. In the next 75 pages or so, that has to change. We’ve been going mostly downhill since the midpoint. At some point, we hit rock bottom and we’ve been there for a while. What that amounts to is that the reader is primed for something to happen. The hero has lost. The villain has the girl and there’s no hope. How do we give the reader the exciting ending he craves?

 

Step 1: Decide What to Do

Coming into the finale, the hero is out of options. Everything he has tried has failed, so the first thing he has to do is to brainstorm a new plan. He may call upon his friends for help or he may develop this plan on his own, but he’s got to have a new plan. It has to be something different than he’s done before.

Step 2: Put the New Plan into Action

Our hero has something he can do now. He thought he had had exhausted all options, but there was one more and he is ready for action. It isn’t enough to have a plan. It may be dangerous. It may be a risk, but we’re ready to take that risk.

Step 3: The Twist

In spite of the risk, our hero has put the plan into action. He enters the villain’s lair. It isn’t easy, but our hero is on his way to saving the girl or winner her heart or whatever it is that he needs to do. But wait! The villain isn’t there. Neither is the girl. The plan worked well, but it doesn’t matter.

Step 4: New Plan Now

We need a new plan now. We don’t have much time. Whatever the hero has learned or however he has changed throughout this process, he’s going to have to put it to work. If it’s a thriller, he may have to jump in feet first where he once would have been hesitant. In a romance, he may have to express his need for the girl when before he didn’t think he needed anyone.

Step 5: Execute the New Plan

All that’s left to do is to put the plan into action. He kills the villain. He professes his love for the girl. Whatever needs to be done, he does it and our story finally comes to a resolution.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What is the Character Doing?

When we write, it’s easy to get caught up in all this stuff about the emotions of the character and the details of the what he sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels. We don’t want flat writing. There’s a place for all of that, but we must not lose sight of the most important thing. What is the character doing?

No story is about how a woman feels when she looks into her lover’s ice blue eyes or smells his cologne or feels his hardened biceps. No story is about the pain she feels when she remembers her former lover, presumed lost at sea, or whatever. I won’t say those don’t have a place in writing, but they are unimportant if we don’t do well in telling what the characters are doing.

The place those things have in writing is that they explain why a character does what he does. A character places his hand on a pot and quickly pulls it away. Why? Very likely, because he is in pain. The pot may be very hot. But its his reaction to the heat that makes the story, not the pain he feels.

When we consider the actions of a character, we must consider his motivation. Every character in every scene has a motivation to do something. We might have two characters talking. That is a great way to convey information to the reader, but the motivation of each character will determine what he says and what he does.

Good stories are often those in which characters do interesting things. But why does he do those things? In The Best Man by Grace Livingston Hill, the main characters leave the train they are on and decide to walk. Since this book is a romance, it makes a lot of sense from a writer’s point of view, since there has to be some alone time for the characters to get to know each other, but we have to wonder what would motivate these characters to get off a train and walk across country. As it happens, the leading man is carrying the MacGuffin. A private detective is also on the train, trying to recover the MacGuffin and the leading man is trying to get away unseen. But the woman, who knows nothing of this, sees the leading man leaving and decides to stick with her man. We could spend a lot of time talking about the emotions involved, but the actions are all we need to get it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

To Outline or Not

Some people outline their novels before they begin. Others do not. Respectively, we can call these people plotters and pantsers. There are advantages in disadvantages to both approaches. I’ve tried both, but I’ve settled into being a plotter. I think the main reason for that is that I tend to be a big picture thinker and a top down approach guy. Some people like starting with the details and then seeing where they all fit. To each his own, I suppose.

When I think of a story, I see it all as one picture, beginning, middle and end. I don’t have the details yet. I may not know much about the cast of characters, but I know how it begins, how it ends and how we get there. As I worked to a writeable story, I develop more and more details across the board. As the picture become more detailed, it becomes impossible to hold it all in my head. I have to record it in some way. That’s where the outline comes in. I start with a high level and work down to more detail.

I love know where I’m going and I love a good ending. A story isn’t much of a story if you don’t have a good ending. That’s one of the things that frustrates me about literary agents. I appreciate their need to quickly evaluate an author and a story, but most literary agents ask for something like the first ten pages of the manuscript. That’s enough to tell you if it will grab people’s attention in a store, but it says nothing about the story itself. With many books, the first ten pages could be thrown away and not one would miss them. In The Shack, “great” literary work that it is, the first chapter struck me as being completely unimportant. In Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, the first ten pages are all back-story. In fact the first thirty-three pages are back story and could easily be thrown away. I’m not alone in thinking that. The “First Pages” from the Amazon.com preview of the book begin on page 45, presumably because the publisher or Amazon.com thought the prologue was too boring. My point is that the first pages of a story don’t deserve the attention they receive and without seeing the whole picture, you know little about the story.

A story has to end well. Take Romeo and Juliet for example. It wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t die in the end. Or Oliver Twist, if he doesn’t find his family and the crooks get their comeuppance, it just wouldn’t be the same. The beginning and middle of a story are only their to give us a great ending. So I like to know all three when I start and since I know them, I might as well write them down.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Final Question

The final question from the 20 questions for leaders that Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee asked Mike Hyatt is What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?

I wish I could answer this by saying that I'm doing all of this great stuff. I wish I could say that I have this great mentor who is helping me become a better leader. I don't. I wish I had it all together as a leader. I don't. But you want to know what the really cool thing is? With all of my shortcomings and all the stuff I do that I shouldn't do or the stuff I don't do that I should, I see God molding me, shaping me to become something better. I figure that at the rate I'm going, I'll have this stuff all figured out about the time I close my eyes in death. But that's okay. I figure that's the whole point. When we get it figured out here and our faith grows strong, we move on to that home prepared for us on the other side. I don't know what God has planned for me, but it must be great because he sure is investing a lot of time in me.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Till Death Do Us Part

Fiction Friday

Editor’s Note: For your readying pleasure, a scene from—well I’m not sure what it’s from, but I hope you enjoy it.


It was dark in the cemetery as he began his work, but he had enough light to see without the aid of a flashlight. The full moon shined down on him from high in the sky. He planned it that way. He needed the light of the moon so a flashlight wouldn’t draw attention to him. The pole light over by the little church helped too. Mostly, it lit up the area around the big silver propane tank, but it helped.


He heard the singing tires of a car on the highway. He crouched down and waited. The car slowed to round the curve. For an instance, the headlights swept the cemetery, making the shadows from the tombstones look like ghosts moving in the night. The car sped up and went on down the road. Ryan didn’t have time to worry about ghosts.


The flowers had to go first, but that was easy. He pulled them off the small mound of dirt and set them off to one side. They had begun to wilt, but they had severed their purpose. They had lived a short life of beauty and then they died, like the man whose name was on the headstone, still missing the date of death. But Ryan didn’t care about any of that. He sunk his shovel into the loose dirt, scooped it out and lay it to one side. The work went easy at first. The gravediggers had used a backhoe, but it had broken up the dirt enough that Ryan didn’t have to press hard on the shovel to get it to do its work. It helped that it was a new shovel. It still had the point at the end and he had used a file to sharpen the edge.


By the time he removed two feet of dirt from the grave, sweat stung his eyes and his back ached. He sat on the headstone, rested his chin on the shovel and wondered why he hadn’t thought to bring water with him. He kicked at the blue tarp. It flopped over, revealing a woman’s face and hand. Her eyes were closed and in the moonlight she looked like she did when she slept. She looked like she could wake up at any moment. Ryan reached down and felt of her hand, just to make sure. It was stiff. Her rings glinted in the moonlight. Ryan pulled those off and slipped them into his pocket. He pulled the tarp back over her face.


He kept digging, taking very few breaks, until the shovel hit the top of the vault. He didn’t uncover the rest of it, but lay the shove aside and pulled at the tarp until it and the body fell into the hole with him. He pulled the tarp free from the body and climbed out. He folded the tarp neatly and set it near the flowers before he picked up the shovel begin moving the dirt back into the hole. It would have been easier work, had he not been tired from scooping it out. But it had to be done and it had to be done quickly. He couldn’t see it, but Ryan sense that the sun was nearing the eastern horizon.


When the flowers were back in place, Ryan picked up his shovel and the tarp. He threw them in the trunk of his car and left the cemetery, content that he was free of his wife at last.


He hadn’t noticed it so much in the cemetery, but in the car, the smell of dirt filled his nose. He reeked of dirt and sweat. He grabbed a tissue and blew his nose to get the smell out, but it filled the car. He turned on the interior lights. He held his hand up in the light. Dirt—on the skin and under his fingernails. He looked down at his pants legs. There were streaks of dirt. He tried to brush it off. His right tire hit the gravel on the side of the road. He jerked the wheel to the left, pulling the car back to the road, just as he came to a curve. He slammed on the breaks and slowed just enough that he didn’t go careening into the trees.


The road straightened out and he saw another small church off to the right. He pulled off into the gravel parking lot. The chat was packed hard and there was grass growing up so that it was hard to tell where the lawn ended and the parking lot began. He shoved the transmission in park. He opened the glove box and pulled out a small package of moist wipes. There were only a few left, so he made a mental note to ask Shirley to buy more when she went to the store. He laughed at himself. Shirley wouldn’t be going to the store—not while her body lay buried in that cemetery a couple miles back. He would have to be the one to go to the store now, but that was a small price to pay.


The dirt on his hands came off easily, except for what was under his fingernails. He tried to clean his trousers too, but the wipes just turned the streaks of dirt into streaks of mud. “If you ever do this again,” he said to himself, “pick somewhere that doesn’t have so much clay.” He folded the muddy wipes and put them in the trash before he pulled the last wipe out of the package and cleaned his hands one last time. He stuffed it in the trash bag too, being careful that he didn’t touch the other wipes or the sides of the bag.


The morning sun blinded him as he approached the city limits of Cape Girardeau. He hadn’t planned for this. He had planned to be home and in bed before the sun came up, but who could have guessed that digging a hole would take so long. But it was done and he knew to allow for variations in his plan.


When he pulled into his drive, he looked at his neighbor’s house. The blinds were still closed, so if he worked quickly, his plan might still work. He pulled into the garage, shut off the engine and pulled the lever to pop the hood. He grabbed the wrench he bought especially for this purpose from the garage and raised the hood. More filth. He loosened the connections on the battery and pulled it out. He was sure his hands would never be clean again. He hid the battery behind some boxes in the garage and checked his neighbor’s battery charger. The other battery hadn’t charged. That much was going according to plan.


Ryan stepped into the shower and let the soap and hot water wash the filth away. There was so much of it. He could see the reddish brown mud, running down in a stream toward the drain. He washed it out of his hair and somehow managed to get it out from under his fingernails before he stepped out and dried himself off. It felt good to be in clean clothes. Put the others in a plastic bag. He had planned to wash them immediately, but he hadn’t considered how dirty they would get and he didn’t want to get that filth in his washing machine. He would take them to a Laundromat and wash them there. Then he would throw them away. Wearing them again would be out of the question.


The doorbell rang. As Ryan went to answer it, he looked at the clock on the mantel. Seven o’clock. It was early, but he had expected that.


“Are you ready to see if we can get your car going?” Ryan’s neighbor asked.


He wasn’t a big man, but bigger than Ryan. He looked like the kind of man who would let dirt fester under his fingernails for days and do nothing about it. By Ryan’s standards, he was quite stupid, but he had a decent paying job at the paper plant outside of town.


“Let me go open the garage door,” Ryan said. His neighbor turned around as Ryan closed the front door.


In the garage, Ryan flipped on the light and did a quick scan of the area to make sure nothing incriminating was in view before he hit the button to raise the door. His neighbor stood at the door, watching it go up, like an idiot.


“I hope I’m not keeping you from going to work,” Ryan said.


“No, not at all. I’ve got the day off.”


Ryan knew that. He had planned it that way.


“I hope we can get this thing working,” Ryan said. “I’ve got a class at ten. And then I’m supposed to pick up my wife at the mother’s house.”


“We’ll get it working by then. I’m sure it’s just the battery,” his neighbor said. He walked over to where the old battery was connected to the charger. “Would you look at that? It isn’t taking a charge at all. I’ll drive you down and we’ll get you new battery. That’ll take care of it.”


The parts place didn’t open till eight, so Ryan had to put up with his neighbor’s rambling until then, but it gave Ryan an opportunity to further convince his neighbor that he had to have been home all night, since his car was parked in the garage with a dead battery.


He let his neighbor find the battery they needed and do all the work. If his neighbor thought he couldn’t replace a battery in his own car then so much the better. What he needed most was a good alibi that didn’t look like he had created an alibi.


The call came as his neighbor was connecting the battery.


“Shirley disappeared,” his mother-in-law said.


“What do you mean she disappeared?”


“She isn’t here. I got up this morning and she isn’t here.”


“She must have gone for a walk or something,” Ryan said. He fought the urge to suggest that someone had kidnapped her during the night. He wanted to get the sheriff involved as soon as possible, but until Shirley had been missing twenty-four hours, the sheriff’s department wouldn’t do much, unless they were bored. It was better to let it play out. Her mother would call the sheriff soon enough.


“But I’ve been up for a good two hours!”


“I’d give it a while longer,” Ryan said. “Sometimes she likes to take long walks.”


“Is something wrong?” Ryan’s neighbor asked.


“Hopefully not,” Ryan said. “My mother-in-law got up this morning and my wife was gone. I told her she probably went for a walk, but with the way the world is these days, you never know what might have happened.”


“I hear that,” his neighbor said. “Go crank the key for me and we’ll see if it starts.”


Ryan turned the key and the little engine came to life. His neighbor closed the hood and Ryan shut off the engine.


“I told you we’d get it working,” his neighbor said. “It’s running so good, your wife may think you’ve got a new car.”


Ryan laughed, but knew his neighbor was wrong.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Validation and Imposter Syndrome

Here’s what I’m supposed to want. I’m supposed to want an agent. I’m supposed to want a publishing contract. That’s the only way for an author to prove that he’s worth anything. It’s about validation. I’m convinced that I’m brilliant, but only a publishing contract will tell me whether I’m right or I’m delusional. That’s the story the publishing industry is pushing anyway. Everyone from publishers to agents to authors are pushing it.



But what if I don’t want to buy into that? I don’t really want to make my living as a writer. I like my day job—not all the time, but I’m not anxious to give it up. The average “successful” author makes $31,000 a year. I make more than that. Then there’s those agents and publishers you have to mess with and there’s so much stuff you have to do just to get the $31,000. I’m not sure I want that. Writing as a hobby? That’s great. Writing for a little extra spending money? Excellent. Writing as a career? I’m not so sure.



Then there’s Imposter Syndrome to contend with. For that matter, that may be why so many people hunger for validation to begin with. Imposter Syndrome is when someone is afraid to internalize his accomplishments. For writers, it works like this. The writer gets a publishing contract. Finally, he has the validation he craves, but it doesn’t turn out that way. He submits his work to the publisher and he dreads getting a response because he knows they are going to write back and tell him that they made a mistake. His writing isn’t as good as they thought it was. His book makes it into the bookstores and now he is afraid that it won’t sell. He may have fooled the publisher, but the buying public knows what’s good and what isn’t. The publisher is going to regret that advance. The book does pretty well, but the author knows its just a fluke. He gets a second contract, but he knows the book is going to stink. He knows he’s an imposter and it won’t be long before other people know too.



We seek validation, hoping it will prove we aren’t imposters, but it never will. Imposter Syndrome is an internal thing. Validation won’t overcome it. Only we can do that. If we could reduce our need for validation, it might free us to consider what we really want out of this gig. If we didn’t care if people discovered we are imposters, then we would be free to ignore what other people tell us the successful author looks like and define our own measure of success. If what you are hoping for is a life of touring the country doing book signings and speaking engagements to sell more books, then maybe it’s the same as how the industry defines success, but maybe that isn’t what you want. And maybe, just maybe, validation is keeping you from getting what you really want.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Literary Agent For a Day

What if you could be a literary agent for a day? I don’t know about you, but here’s what I would do:



First, the slush pile has got to go. If it’s paper, burn it! Or if you happen to be eco-conscious, shred it and turn it into compost. These days, with the Internet from shore to shore and around the globe, there’s no reason for anyone to be sending a 300+ page manuscript as a physical document. Any author who hasn’t figured that out, I’m sorry you wasted your money on postage, but take heart in knowing that your story is doing a great job helping my daisies grow better.



Now that we’ve established that I won’t be accepting paper manuscripts, lets move on to the electronic slush pile. Anyone who sent a paper manuscript is welcome to resubmit to the electronic slush pile, but don’t be too hasty. I won’t be accepting e-mail submission either. I don’t need an inbox full of manuscripts either. Instead, I need everyone to resubmit their manuscripts through my new web based Manuscript Handling System. In the fields provided, give me a brief description of your book, identify the genres and include a synopsis. Tell me about your platform and why you are the best person to write this book. In the last field, past the complete contents of your book. You’ll be lucky if I read more than the first paragraph, but it’s a waste of my time to request additional material. So, since time is far more important than money, let’s trade hard drive space and bandwidth for time. If I’m at all interested, I’ll have your manuscript available so I can go right ahead and read. That way, I won’t have to spend time later trying to remember what I liked about it.



I can’t promise a personal response. I don’t have time for that, but I will promise feedback. If you want it in the form of an e-mail message, go ahead and check the “e-mail me” box at the bottom of the form. Otherwise, visit the website often and check the status of your query. After you first submit, the status will be “submitted.” Once I have viewed your query it will move to “under consideration.” It will stay in the “under consideration” state until I decide either to reject your query or to offer representation. If I reject it, the system will display the reason why I rejected it. The system will not allow me to reject without reason. Reasons include, “Reject – poor writing,” “Reject – genre not selling,” “Reject – submission incorrectly formatted,” “Reject – don’t represent genre,” etc. There are others, but I think you get the idea. If I choose to offer representation, the system will simply say, “Offering Representation” and you can expect to receive correspondence from me. It’ll be sometime today, since I won’t be an agent tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What You Can’t Do

Stories are about doing the stuff you can't do. Think about it. Children love stories about fantastic creatures that don't exist--elves, dragons, wizards--actually, I like those too. But consider some of the adult stories. Secret agents, spys, police detectives, all tracking down villians who are far worse than the average criminal. Not all books are that way. Some touch on romance. These too fit the trend. The men in this books are not like the men their readers have married, but like they wish their men were. These men do great things and talk of love, while real men only do stuff like go to work to earn a living and come home so tired they can barely find their way to the couch before they pass out. So women escape into these books and imagine that their men did the wonderful things the men in the books can do. They imagine what it would be like to have the fairytale romance of the book instead of the romance of the guy snoozing on the couch or watching the game.

 

There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as readers keep reality firmly in check. As writers, it tells us something about what we should aim for. We should aim for the dream, not reality. Often, we write a scene and we think, “That would never happen in real life.” But when we write it the way it would happen, the scene become bland. If we look at it the other way and ask what we wish could happen but probably wouldn’t, a dull scene comes alive.

Take a scene at a fast food place that isn’t. A customer is waiting in line and he can see the workers in the back just goofing off. In real life, what would probably happen is that he will either keep waiting, bawl someone out or simply walk out of the store. That makes a rather boring scene. What we would like to be able to do is jump behind the counter (yes, I said jump) and start barking orders with a megaphone and a whip. We can’t do that because someone would probably call the police, but in fiction we can do that and the police don’t have to be involved. No, it isn’t believable, but with the wonderful suspension of disbelief it can work.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What Am I?

My trade is that of a software engineer. If you don’t know what that is, you might know it by another name, computer programmer. That may not tell you much either. We occasionally show up in fiction. Tron had a computer programmer who entered a computer and was able to speak to his programs. As much as I would love to do that, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. You may recall in Jurassic Park that the villain was a computer programmer. He was a little more true to life, but trust me, a real computer programmer wouldn’t have been able to write a million lines of code by himself.

In real life, hundreds or even thousands of software engineers may work on a single product. You may think of software as programs that run on you computer and that is true, but these days there is computer code in almost every electrical device you can think of. Your microwave oven, for example, may have code that controls what it does when you press the buttons. Rather than wire the microwave a specific way, the keypad is connected to a chip that has code that tells it to operate various other circuits. That’s a relatively simple example. Something more complicated, like your car or an airplane may have many thousands of lines of code.

 

I’ve never written code for a microwave, but I would expect that the manufacturer has a team of about ten people who are responsible for that code. After it is decided what features the new product will have, the team goes to work designing the system. There is code that reads the input from the keypad. There is code that displays messages to the user. There is code that sets the time. There’s code that reads the sensors that determine if the food is done. The team goes to work writing code. Then it has to be tested. You wouldn’t want the microwave to come one when it shouldn’t or fail to shut off when the timer reaches zero. There are many things that code go wrong if the code isn’t right. It’s far more work than one man can handle, but if you’ve got a mind for it, it can be a lot of fun.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Don't Mess With the Bride

The question today from the 20 questions for leaders that Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee asked Mike Hyatt is What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

Remember your place. In particular with ministers in a church, I would remind them that the Lord's people are like his sheep and leaders are only the undershepherds watching out for them. When someone hires you to watch his sheep, he is more concerned about the sheep than he is about you. We might also remember that the church is the Lord's Bride.

I don't remember Dad getting upset about much of anything when I was growing up. O, I got my fair share of spankings, put I don't remember him being angry. But I do remember one time when I was a teenager that I said something I shouldn't have to Mom. I may have called her a name, but I don't think that was it. Dad and I were going to go somewhere. I remember having a conversation on the way. It was about as close to Dad being angry with me as I can remember. I could tell he was upset. He made it very clear to me that I needed to apologize. I don't recall apologizing to my mother for much of anything, but I did that time, because you don't mess with a man's bride, no matter who you are.

There's something to be said for applying the same principle to all forms of leadership. You might think you are something special because you are in charge, but guess what, you are nothing compared to the collective importance of the people you lead. You don't mess with them. You don't cause them undue harm or pain. If you do, you you're asking for trouble because you might be messing with some man's bride.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Mystery

Editor’s Note: No editor’s note this week.

Thus far, I’ve stayed away from true genre fiction. I have an unpublished manuscript that could be classified a mystery, but that’s at a stretch. However, if I were to write genre fiction, which I believe I might in the near future, I would write in the mystery genre. As a child, I read the typical teen detective stories and eventually moved into Agatha Christie’s books. There was also Sherlock Holmes. On television, there has been Murder She Wrote, Diagnosis Murder, Columbo, Monk and who knows how many others that have influenced me. I’ve loved them all. There just can’t be too many good detective stories.

The best detectives are always eccentric. Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, Mr. Monk, they are all eccentric. Not in the same way, but they were all eccentric and they had to be. They don’t face ordinary criminals that the guys down at CSI can catch. These criminals are often your super villain who is smart enough to confuse the evidence and get it to point toward someone else. Columbo is a great character who looked like he would never solve a case unless someone helped him and yet he always knew a little more than everyone else and used his appearance to put the killer off guard.

I love the inverted style of Columbo, not that there is anything wrong with the other styles. It’s just that it is a contrast to something like Murder She Wrote in which it is established that the whole cast of characters have a motive to kill the victim before the murder takes place. That’s fine as long as it’s believable. In the story I’m considering, the murder takes place in a church and the detective is a new church member. I wouldn’t want to make the whole church look bad by establishing that any of them could have done it, but one of them decided to do it first. By inverting the mystery, the church is unscathed in the eyes of the reader, but we still have a mystery because we don’t know why the villain has done what he has done.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Are You a Gossip?

Facebook is an interesting place. It's the kind of place where you can know what your friends are thinking, even before they think it. There’s one particular fellow I have followed on Facebook and Twitter who often talks about his experiences with various companies and often he does so hoping that someone from that company will see his comment on rectify the problem. I suppose I got drawn into this concept somewhat, but every time I’ve tried that, I’ve felt guilty and have wondered how this fellow has felt comfortable doing that. I don’t know why it took so long to sink in, but doing this is essentially gossip. Yeah, we might think that we are motivating the company or person to “do the right thing,” but it still amounts to gossip.

If we are going to talk about a bad customer service experience online, shouldn’t we first exhaust our opportunities to resolve the issue before telling others about it? It’s one thing to warn people about a company that is consistently bad or has a policy we oppose, but quite another to broadcast a single bad experience as a reason to avoid the company or person. Unless we have enough experience with the company to know that they always have bad service, we aren’t qualified to say that our bad experience wasn’t just a bad day for the company. Things happen.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Timing

Boy meets girl. Boy courts girls. Boy and girl live happily ever after. It’s a standard sequence of events in a typical romance novel. Of course, it is usually dressed up a little, along the lines of: Super rich oil man meets poor school teacher. Super rich oil man takes poor school teacher on whirlwind tour of the world. Super rich oil man and poor school teacher live happily ever after. The direction of this story is clear in that we want to move the characters from sad and single to happy and married, but if we were to follow this outline, we would have a boring story. No one wants a story about someone getting everything he ever wanted. Let me amend that. I can think of one bestselling novel that is written exactly that way, but it is the exception rather than the rule. What we want is a story about overcoming adversity. The thrill of victory is proportional to the struggles we faced in getting there.

But consider what happens if we rewrite that story as Super rich oil man and poor school teacher are alone. Super rich oil man goes on tour of the world alone. School teacher spends the whole summer at home eating chocolate. Super rich oil man and poor school teach live happily ever after. Now you’re left scratching your head and asking how that happened. They’ve never met, but now they’re riding off into the sunset together. We’ve gone from boring to ridiculous. For the story to work, we have to have a progression of events leading up to the happy ending, but if things go too smoothly it doesn’t work either. The story only works when we have both hardship and success. How much of each do we need? If we aren’t careful, we have a sagging middle, even if we include both success and failure.

The difference between a good story and a great story is often a question of timing. When a problem occurs, there’s no question that the character won’t bring it to a resolution, but when should he do that? If he responds too quickly, it doesn’t seem like a problem. If he responds too slowly, the story seems to drag. It is the writer’s responsibility to know the answer to that question and put space the events adequately.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What’s Wrong With the Day Job?

Writers seem to have this plan that after they sell their book they’ll be able to walk into the boss’ office, lay their resignation on the table and walk out. The fact is that few writers are able to do that. I’ve heard that among full-time authors, the average annual income is $31,000. You could live off that, if you had to, but I don’t think that’s what most writers have in mind as they dream of their future success. There are other things to consider as well. If you are self-employed, you have to pay your own benefits. If you want health insurance, you will have to pay for it. Your retirement plan may also take a hit. Even if all your company does is match half your contributions to a 401k, quitting your day job and taking a pay cut will hurt your plans for retirement.

I hear people complain about their day jobs a lot. It is part of our culture, but the fact is that most people like what they do. They may not enjoy it all the time, but there’s something they like about it or they would have given up in desperation. The problem with writers is that they think the grass must be greener on the other side of the fence. They see the writer’s life as blue skies and green grass. The birds are always singing and the writer is in complete control. Every job done well has stress associated with it. So really, what’s wrong with the day job? What could be so wrong with keeping the day job and writing as a hobby? It may not fit our dream of a life of ease, but realistically, it seems like the better plan.

Monday, September 14, 2009

When Writing Gets Hard

Writing is hard, or so I’ve heard. It seems easy enough. You simply put pen to paper to fingers to keyboard and let your thoughts flow. It’s great when that happens. So what’s so hard about writing?

For me, writing gets hard when I’m writing along and I realize, “this is boring.” When we write, we begin with a theory for the story. When the theory works, the story flows from the fingers. We write scene after scene and it keeps on going. When the theory fails, it is difficult to write. If we’ve diligently outlined our story, we know we need the scene, but it’s boring. The characters aren’t moving the story forward. They’re just sitting around waiting for something to happen, something to respond to or they’re talking about something that they’ve already discussed or no change is taking place. The conflict is minimal. It’s boring.


What’s the Theory?


The theory for a story is all those decisions we make before we begin that we think will present the story in the best way. One of the biggest decisions is point of view. You’ve heard of the blind men and the elephant. Every character has a different version of a story and we have to pick one. For that matter, we have to decide who the characters are. Once we do, we have to decide whether we want that character to tell the story (first person) or have and outside observer tell the character’s story (third person). Also in the theory are the decisions about the format of the story. Many stories are laid out as a play-by-play account where we are able to see events accurately. Some are not. Daddy Longlegs is written in the form of letters of a student to her benefactor. The author had a theory that it would work and stuck with it throughout the book. Some books follow one character. Others follow a couple. Still others hop from one character to another. Those decisions are all part of the theory. The author can’t try every conceivable approach but must develop a theory and stick with it.


When the Theory Fails


The theory doesn’t always work. Suppose the theory called for the whole story to be written from the point of view of a dog. The author has convinced himself that this will create an intriguing story. Things go well for the first few chapters, but then the writer realizes he has a problem. There are long periods of time in which the dog can’t see what is happening in the story. It is becoming tiresome listening to the dog’s owner recount the story during their walks in the park. The theory is busted.

This is where writing gets hard. As authors, we know that we’ve got to make changes, but those changes are going to be extensive. Whole sections will have to be rewritten and there’s no guarantee that the new theory won’t create as many problems as it solves. If we just change the point of view for a few chapters, we risk including references to things that the POV character shouldn’t know about. There are tons of things we have to keep up with as we rip out our original idea and try to hang our story on something new. Yeah, that’s hard.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Web 2.0 and Robert's

Social networking, is the topic from the 20 questions for leaders that Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee asked Mike Hyatt Can you explain the impact, if any, that social networking and Web 2.0 has made on your organization or you personally?

I hear that Web 2.0 is dying as a term. It is probably just as well, but the stuff it is will remain for a long time. A few weeks ago, we had a student in our Sunday school class who was absent. When I got home, I sent her a simple little message on Facebook saying something like "Missed you in class." I encounter people on a daily basis on various blogs that I will probably never meet in person. I spend far more time with social networking than I probably should, but I have yet to see any significant change in our church because of it.

E-mail has finally caught on. It seems like our committees are doing more work through e-mail these days than we are doing when we meet face to face. I know Robert's Rules of Order says that isn't a good idea, but it seems to work for us.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Space Story

Editor’s Note: This week, rather than give you a behind the scenes look at my books, I thought I’d give you a look at a little of my thought process as I write by telling you a story. Before I write page one and before I draw an outline, I often begin with a story concept that looks something like the one below. This particular story is unlike any of my books, but it is one I’ve enjoyed contemplating.

Deep in the blackness of space, a cargo ship is underway toward a planet on the other side of the galaxy. On this trip, the ship is also a passenger ship of sorts. Few cargo ships make a such a long journey without taking on a few paying passengers along the way, but this ship is loaded with stasis pods—hundreds of them. Most are medical patients who have picked up a deadly decease on one planet or another. They have paid a great sum of money for the hope of a cure on a distant planet. A few are travelers who prefer traveling in stasis to spending months in space. Some of the pods bear the king’s seal. Most of these hold men and women on their way to stand trial, but two hold the king’s daughter and her personal assistant.

The ship is behind schedule and is taxing its engines, though no more than usual. The ship is making an arc around a region of space that the law requires all ships to plot a course around. He could trim three days off his journey and arrive on time by cutting through the region, but f the stories are true, there is a planet near the center of this region that is the home world for all humans. The early space pioneers were able to look into the future of their planet and learn of technology that would allow them to travel between worlds. Scientists fear that if the future of that planet is altered in any way, even if the light from a passing ship were to reach that planet before the time when the technology will be observed, it could destroy billions of lives. The penalty for violating that law is death. With the royal guard onboard to watch over the pods with the king’s seal, the captain doesn’t dare risk it. After a couple more runs, he hopes to retire and let his son take over the ship.

An explosion rocks the ship and it drops out of hyperspace. Alarms blare throughout the ship. There is a large hole in the side of one of the cargo bays. The royal guard rushes to check on their pods, while the crew rushes to seal the breach and discover the reason for the explosion. While they are investigating, there is another explosion that damages some of the pods and sucks the crewmembers and royal guardsmen in the area out into space. The remaining crew are the captain (who has been injured), his son, the doctor, the pilot, a Lieutenant in the royal guard and the cook.

The lights on one of the damaged pods in the cargo bay in begin to flash, an emergency measure that will give one of the prisoners on his way to trial a chance to survive before the pod shuts down for good.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Form Letters

Form letters are a fact of life. I suppose some people hate them. That seems to be the opinion of some literary agents anyway. They refuse to send a response of any kind. But me, I love form letters. No one expect busy people to respond to write a personal response to every piece of correspondence they receive. For that matter, most people don’t care if the response is personal, as long as they get a response. We know that some of the mail we send never gets past the secretary and the response is either a form letter or written by someone else.So maybe there isn’t much to love about that, but what I love about form letters is that occasionally one will come that is a little different. It is a reminder that we aren’t just another face in the crowd.

The other day, I received an e-mail from a particular library saying that they would like to have copies of my books in their library and asking if I had copies I would be willing to donate. I gladly sent them a copy of each of my books. A few days later, I received a letter in the mail. It was quite obviously a form letter, worded to generically thank individuals for donations and very likely printed off in batches to be signed by the director of the library. But at the bottom of this letter was a handwritten note in his own handwriting. It wasn’t very long or very significant in what it said, but it was enough to indicate that he recognized and remembered me. You see, this particular library director is a personal friend of my father’s and a man I have seen many times over the years. I have received similar form letters from presidents of colleges and other institutions. I’ve never donated enough to warrant a handwritten letter or a phone call to thank me and a form letter is more of a response than I require, but to receive the occasional hand scribbled note is nice because it tells me that that person thought about me, not as just another donor, but as someone he remembers, for a little bit of his day, even if only a few seconds.

There is value in a response, even if it must be a form letter. And when the person sending the letter is able to add a short sentence that tells us we are important to him, a form letter can seem as personal as one drafted by hand.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Universal Beauty

One of my favorite flowers is the Dogtooth Violet. You might say that I prefer it to some other flowers, such as the African Violet and yet, I have an African Violet growing in my living room window, but no Dogtooth Violet anywhere. The important thing to note here is that our preferences don’t keep us from recognizing the beauty of something else.


The other day, I mentioned 5 Favorite Plot Devices. These are things that when they appear in a book, I want to read the book. In response to that post, Michelle wrote, “There’s several of those that I actually avoid.” What I prefer, she doesn’t. Music is the same way. Some people might like Country, others might like Rock, and still others might like Classical or Jazz. I pretty much like any kind of music, as long as it isn’t Country or Southern Gospel. That is my preference; you don’t have to agree with me. It’s subjective and so are our preferences where books are concerned.


You’ve heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But what if it isn’t? Even though we may have preferences for one flower over another and some people may not like flowers at all, we seldom find a person who doesn’t recognize that a flower has beauty. There seems to be a universal beauty that transcends our preferences. I many not care for Country music, but I can tell a difference between a good singer and a bad singer. My list of good singers wouldn’t be much different from a list made up by a fan of country music. There’s something universal about that.


With writing, there are some things that are nothing more than preferences, while there are others that are matters of universal beauty. Remove all the issues that deal with personal preference and what we are left with is the question of whether a manuscript has beauty or not. Some agents refuse to address this question. They don’t want to discourage writers, so they say nothing worse than “not for me.” The assumption is that just because it doesn’t meet her personal preference doesn’t mean that it won’t meet those of another, but we often see manuscripts that are down right ugly. Anyone other than the author’s mother will reject it and she’s using it to line her birdcage. At the other extreme, there are writers who write beautifully, even when composing an e-mail. It seems like such a disservice to them when we imply that beauty in writing is completely subjective.


The same is true for story tellers. Some people simply know how to tell a great story and it doesn’t matter what it is. I was enthralled one time listening to a guy tell about going to get the mail out of the mailbox. He had an audience of five, but he could have held the attention of a large room. There was universal beauty in that story.


I hate this notion that we can’t really decide whether writing is good or bad, only whether it is likely to sell in the current market. I suspect it has come about because some agents don’t want to tell people their writing is terrible, but it takes something away from the truly good writers and prevents the rest of us from having a goal. Writing the next breakaway bestseller would be great, but it isn’t a goal, it is wishful thinking. We can’t aim for what will be hot next, but if there is universal beauty in writing, we can aim for that. We can take steps to improve our writing, though we may never time the market right.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pet Peeve: Page Numbering

Where should a book begin? I don’t mean the story. I mean the book. One of my pet peeves is that so many books are numbered incorrectly. Pick up a book and look at chapter one. What page is it on? Zondervan begins Frank Peretti’s The Oath on page 3. They begin Terry Blackstock’s Line of Duty on page 11. Kregel begins Miralee Ferrel’s The Other Daughter on page 9 and Maureen Lang’s Pieces of Silver on page 7. Oddly enough, some publishers get it right on one book but not on another. It’s like that don’t care. I will say, however, that some publishers do seem to get it right, allowing for the occasional mistake. I randomly looked at some of the books published by Thomas Nelson and they each began Chapter One on the proper page. Which page is that? Page one, of course.


What many publishers are doing is that they numbering from the first page in the book, rather than the first page in the story. This makes the book look sloppy because by they time we include all of the front material, the title pages, the copyright information, the author’s acknowledgement, the blurbs, etc. the first page of the story may be deep in the book, giving us a number like 11 or 13. Often, the front material bears no page numbers anyway, so it makes no sense to count them in our page numbering.


This is the way I would like to see books formatted. Begin with the title page of the book. This should have the title of the book and the author’s name. Next there should be what I think of as the legal page. It includes information about copyrights, permissions and whatnot. If you care to number these pages, they should be numbered with lowercase Roman numerals. Next should come the acknowledgements page and then the preface, still numbering with roman numerals. Then should come the story title page, with no page number. Usually, this will have the title of the book, but if the book has multiple stories, it may be different. Unless there are multiple authors, this page shouldn’t have the author’s name, but rather it should have a lot of white space so the author has a place to sign his name upon request. After that, the story begins with either Chapter One or the Prologue, so it should begin numbering from Page One at this point. After the end of the story, it should revert back to a Roman numeral page numbering.


Sloppy numbering is a sign of laziness or of overworked typesetters. Many POD books are numbered this way because the typesetters don’t have enough time to read through the text and determine where the numbering should begin. Typesetters at traditional publishers may be facing the same problem. It is easier to just dump whatever the author and editor provide into a template and spit out a product. But I long for publishers to take pride in their work and number their books properly.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Quibbling Over a Comma

Speaker attributes tell the reader who is speaking. Some writers believe that readers often skip over the word said, seeing it briefly only to ignore it. Others try to avoid speaker attributes as much as possible. Some writers like to use speaker attributes to indicate how a person said something. Rather than just, “he said,” such an author might write, “he whispered” or “he shouted.” Some writers will extend this and write such things as “he laughed” or “he smiled” in their place, but some writers and editors will strike out these statements, saying that laughing is not a way of talking, so it should not be included as a speaker attribute. They would prefer, “he said as he laughed,” or something like that. The writers who would strike out speaker attributes all together would likely tell us that we should replace speaker attributes with an action beat. Instead of the following:
"Fascinating," he said as he walked through the door.
They would have us write:
"Fascinating." He walked through the door.
If you notice the pattern of the quote followed by an action beat, it looks very much like:
"Fascinating." He laughed.
Compare that to:
"Fascinating," he laughed.
My point is that the difference between a quote followed by an action beat and a quote followed by an incorrectly formed speaker attribute is only a comma. Now, my preference is that writers don't go and replace "he said" with "he laughed," "he snorted," "he joked" and the like just to add variety, but it seems to me that their readers understand what they mean. When we consider that action beat writers are doing something similar, only after a period instead of a comma, I can't help but wonder if this is worth quibbling about and yet it is a topic that will make some writers very angry. He sighs heavily. "That is the nature of art, I suppose."

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Derailed Career

Now for the question from the 20 questions for leaders that Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee asked Mike Hyatt that I should probably dread, but I shall rush in. Today's question is What is the one behavior or trait that you have seen derail more leaders’ careers?

Adultery. That's not a trait, but it is certainly a behavior. I don't hold to the idea that people are born adulterers.

Several (many?) years ago, just before my adolescent years, there was this pastor that I admired. He was working with a church that was small, but growing. They were meeting in a store front and working with college students. I remember us visiting their church frequently, primarily to give them support, I suppose. I was too young to know, but I thought him an elquent preacher. I remember one of his sermons, it was about David and Bathsheba. Looking back now, I can't help but wonder if it might have come from a guilty conscience, because he got involved with one of the college students that was a member of the church. It ruined his marriage and ended his career as a pastor. And it hurt me too. I liked him. I liked the young woman he ran off with. Then to learn what happened, I didn't fully understand and I still don't.

Friday, September 4, 2009

An Interview with David

Editor’s Note: This week I’m interviewing a character who doesn’t exist yet. In other words, this character may change before he makes an appearance in a book. All the same, I sat down with this non-existant character at Ellen’s CafĂ© and we had a nice talk.



Timothy Fish:
David, it’s good to see you here. It sure beats me going out to California.

David:
Glad to stop by. I was going to be in town anyway. I understand that I may be spending a lot of time around her for a while.

Timothy Fish:
Yes, I heard that you guys are looking at filming a movie here. Is there a reason why you would pick here over some other location?

David:
We thought some of these old buildings would look great on camera. But the main reason is that when the boss says he wants you to film a movie in a certain location, you film a movie there.

Timothy Fish:
I take it you aren’t happy about filming here.

David:
I wouldn’t say that. I’m the one who suggested we consider it, but I didn’t expect us to just ignore the other possible locations.

Timothy Fish:
I assume there’s a reason for that.

David:
Of course there is, but I’d better not say what I think it is.

Timothy Fish:
Have you always lived in California?

David:
No. Actually, I grew up just across the river in Illinois. I might still be there, if my grandfather wasn’t a major shareholder in studio.

Timothy Fish:
What is your official title?

David:
That’s a tough one. I don’t really have one. I think the last time they stuck my name on something they called me an Associate Producer. I’m supposed to be learning the business. What I usually end up doing is helping out wherever I can. They’ve even let me do some directing.

Timothy Fish:
Was that for anything we would recognize?

David:
It went straight to DVD, so no, I wouldn’t think so.

Timothy Fish:
Have you done any acting?

David:
Yeah, a little of that too and I don’t think I’m terrible.

Timothy Fish:
Do people treat you differently because you’re the owner’s grandson?

David:
I don’t really know. I don’t think so. I don’t go around telling people that and a lot of people don’t know. But I suppose it might make a difference with some people. If anything, it gives them one more person to gripe at. We have so many people who are only with us for a short time. There are actors and extras who are with us for a few hours or days and then they disappear.

Timothy Fish:
Are you enjoying this line of work?

David:
Oh, yeah. I went to work the other day and got to watch them blow up a car. How many people get to say that?

Timothy Fish:
That’s all we have time for, so thanks for your time. I’ll let you get back to blowing things up and such.

David:
My pleasure.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Circling

I decided to change one of my characters. I was afraid that she looked too much like a certain character on a television show and I didn’t care to mess with that, so I changed her story. But by changing her story, I changed that of her two best friends and another character. That caused me to change the plot of a book I plan to write in the future, but by changing the plot I wonder if it is worth writing. If it isn’t then I question whether I should introduce this character in my current WIP. If I take her out, then her story is all just back-story that won’t be going into the book and it doesn’t really matter if I change it or not. So here I sit, wondering which direction to take and it all seems to go around and around in circles.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

5 Favorite Plot Devices

With thousands to choose from, it’s hard to pick a plot device and call it a favorite, but today I want to talk about five plot devices that I have a hard time passing up. I won’t say that I read every story I find with these plot devices, but base your story around one of these and you’ll be a whole lot closer to convincing me to buy your book.

Secret Identity


You know these stories. There is Superman, Cinderella, spy stories, undercover cops and Hannah Montana. What can I say? These stories are everywhere. They even show up in the Bible. Abraham tried to pass his wife off as his sister. Tamar once played the part of a harlot to get pregnant by her father-in-law, Judah. There’s just something I find interesting about stories where people pretend to be people they are not and as popular as some of them are, I think other people must too. I figure it has something to do with the inherent conflict in the story.

Premature Marriage


When a couple get married before they fall in love, what else can it be but a premature marriage? Aside from arranged marriages and marriages of convenience, we don’t expect to see this happen in real life, but there are plenty of fictional situations that we can create where it happens. I once read a story where a spy showed up at a wedding in disguise and somehow managed to get married because he couldn’t reveal his true identity. It was too far fetched for real life, but it made for an interesting read.

Mother by Choice


I also enjoy adoption stories. The Little Orphan Annie story is a classic example. Oliver Twist is another. Though, in both of these cases it is more of a father by choice. Search for Mom also falls into this category. What I like about this plot device is that it reveals love. Most mothers love their children, so there’s nothing special about that. We take that for granted, but when a woman (or man) chooses to love a child as her own, even when she doesn’t have to, that is something extra special.

Parent and Child Reunited


A child walks up the steps to a house and rings the doorbell. “I think you’re my mother,” he says to the woman who answers the door. Even though it usually means someone was doing something he or she shouldn’t, I love stories like that. What makes these stories is that there is some strong reason for the people involved to come together while there is also a very good reason they should stay apart. Once the cat’s out of the bag, decisions have to be made about how to resolve the issue because there’s no way for things to go back the way they were before.

The Magic Portal


When an ordinary person steps through a door and finds himself in an unusual world, I’m there. Or when someone from another world steps through a door and finds himself in ours, I’m there. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, not to mention the Wizard of Oz, are well known examples.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What Backlog?

What happened to my backlog? As I write this, I have just realized that I am down to one regular blog post waiting for its scheduled time of publication. In the past, I’ve had so many that I wondered if some of the posts would ever see the light of day. It kept growing and growing, but as I look at it now, it is nearly gone.

 

It isn’t from a lack of ideas. Over the past several weeks, I have begun several posts that I discarded before I buttoned them up. Some I deleted, while others I saved as drafts, but they too will disappear in time. Somehow, all those post disappeared and I’m down to nothing.

Check back tomorrow anyway. Yes, there will be a post. I don’t know what it will be, but there will be one and I promise it won’t be just a repost of something I already put out here. That isn’t my thing. I know a lot of people like doing that, but not me. Maybe Friday will come early this week and I’ll let one of my characters talk. I don’t know, but I’ll think of something.