Thursday, February 25, 2010

Deathtrap

We need a way for our villains to seem dangerous, but give our hero plenty of time to find within himself a way to escape. This is where a deathtrap can be a very useful plot device.

In spite of its name, people rarely die in a deathtrap, unless it is a redshirt or the villain himself. A deathtrap is an, often, overly complicated device by which the villain attempts to kill the hero. Rather than just pulling the trigger, the villain might hang the hero over boiling oil and then place a candle under the rope, so that when the candle burns through the rope, the hero drops into the oil and dies. The idea seems to be that the villain will get more enjoyment out of killing the hero if he knows the hero has to face his own death knowing he can’t escape. The deathtrap can also serve another purpose. Haman, the villain of the story of Esther, hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow to him. The king actually wants to honor Mordecai, rather than allow him to hang him on his 75 foot gallows. Only a deathtrap had any chance of working in his favor.

One way to make a death trap work is to give the villain a reason to keep the hero alive a little longer. Maybe the hero has information the villain needs, so he wants him to talk, but he can’t watch him all the time. If the villain can rig a device to kill the hero after the villain has boarded a plane, then the time of death will make it appear that the villain is free from blame.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I Remember

I remember a story from when I was in grade school. I don’t remember who wrote it or where I saw it, but I remember it was about some school kids living on another planet. Because of the cloud cover on the planet, the sun wasn’t visible for years at a time. Most of the students had never seen the sun, but they were excited because there was going to be a break in the clouds that day. There was one student in the class who had lived on Earth. The other students speculated about what the sun would look like, but this student told them they were all wrong. They became frustrated with him and locked him in a closet while they continued to speculate. Then someone came in and told them that the sun was shining. They rushed outside to see it and in their haste they forgot about the boy in the closet. What they saw was exactly like what he had said it would be.

Why should I remember that story so clearly and forget so many others? I’ve often wondered about that and as storytellers, we want to know how we can make our own stories memorable. I’ve considered this carefully and what I’ve determined is that the reason I remember that story is because I found it upsetting that the other kids would lock the new kid in the closet so that he wouldn’t be able to see the sun. It wasn’t the ending I wanted. While the kid won the argument, it came at a price that, had I written the story, I might not have wanted to make my character pay. I wanted him to get out of the closet and stand in the light of the sun along with the other students.

One of the things that can make a story memorable is that it doesn’t end exactly like we want. It helps when the reader has time to think about how he would have liked for the story to end. If the story ends like he wants, the story is done and he can move on to something else, but that lack of resolution, that feeling that something isn’t quite right cements the story in his mind.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Final Enemy

The battle with the biggest villain always comes last in our stories. Our hero battles his way through the minions, each is worse than the last, then comes the final enemy. Everything that the hero has learned to this point goes into defeating the enemy who has been behind all the problems he has faced. Only then is there a final victory.

 

In life, we have a final enemy. That enemy is death and there is no enemy quite like it. If we face it and lose, there is no coming back from eternal separation from God in a place of torment. If we face it and win, there is eternal joy and peace. But win or lose, to face death is to face pain and agony. Though some go quietly in their sleep, there are so many ways to die that are far from peaceful. A man’s heart stops and though he may keep breathing for a while, it does him no good because he runs out of oxygen. He gasps for air and fears the end is upon him. He knows he is dying, but there’s nothing he can do. A woman driving her kids to school is distracted and runs a red light. She sees the truck bearing down on her and hears the crunching metal and breaking glass as it slams into her door. In pain she tries to reach for her children, to see if they are okay, just before she slips into the sleep of death. The final enemy is an enemy that we long to avoid.

When we tell our stories, our characters may not all face death, but they all face a final enemy. In the best stories, they don’t rush into that final battle any more than we seek to face death. In the movie E.T. you will recall that though the children did what they must to help E.T. phone home, they really didn’t want him to leave. In Where the Red Fern Grows, the protagonist faces the final enemy only by the loss of his best friends. In The Dollmaker, the final victory comes down to a choice involving a block of carving wood. It is a choice that she puts off for as long as she can, but she must face that final enemy in the end. Our characters should be the same. They should not want to face the final enemy at all. They should fight against our efforts to force them to, but we must push them on. We must no spare them, no matter how tempting it is.

Monday, February 22, 2010

People of the Book

Junk mail may find its place in the trash unopened. Bills may sit unnoticed until they are due. But something personal—a love letter—doesn’t go without notice. The recipient opens it carefully, anxious to see what the one he loves has written. His heart swells with joy as he reads each word. He holds the paper close to his face and takes in the faint scent, bringing him closer to his beloved. He’ll put it back in the envelope for a while, but he puts it aside with care. It won’t get torn or carelessly dropped in soup. And then the time will come when he will take it up again and read it, memorizing portions of it without even trying.

I recently saw a post about the use of scripture in sermons. It seems that many preachers are being encouraged to reduce the amount of scripture. Some seem to suggest that while it is good to read scripture a preacher must move quickly to something relevant to the people in the audience if he doesn’t want to lose them. And lest you think it is just overactive worry on someone’s part, I once visited a church in which the preacher got up read one verse of scripture and never referenced his text again. All I remember of the sermon after that was that he talked about why his sermons were so short and that what he said was about what I would expect out of a Psychology 101 class. It was a very large church and they had a beautiful building, but I was not impressed with his sermon.

 

Just as we treat mail differently based on our attitude toward the sender, the value we place on the Word of God in our churches and in our everyday life is based on our attitude toward God. Show me a preacher and a church that put the Word of God central to the sermon and I’ll show you a church that worships the Lord. Show me a preacher and church who will put the Word of God aside in favor of something that is “more relevant” and I’ll show you a church that isn’t interested in God and that doesn’t believe God desires to communicate with us through his Word. When people aren’t interested in what the Word of God says, it isn’t a problem with its ability to hold an audience, but rather it is a problem with the people.

Consider Proverbs 29:18, Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. So many preachers will take this verse and try to make it “relevant” to the people of today and talk about leadership, but it speaks to the underlying problem. Without the Word of God, people perish, but those who have it are happy. But in the quest to change what church is, there are many people who seem to be losing sight of the most important thing.

At the end of the day, one of the highest compliments a church can receive is for someone to say that they are people of the book. As fiction writers, we may not have the same opportunities to include scripture directly in our text. To do so often comes off as just a character quoting stuff that most of us don’t remember, or as a block quote that is skipped at the first of a chapter, but we too need to keep The Word—God’s vision—central to our writing. It has been said that all truth is God’s truth. We should turn that around and say that God’s truth is the only truth.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Questions

A reader who is reading Searching For Mom for a class she is in asked me several questions. I am posting them here so you can also see the answers I gave:

Where are you from?
I am from southeast Missouri, which is also the area in which Searching For Mom takes place. I took some artistic license with the town in which the story takes place, but the heart of it is very much like what you might find in the area of Cape Girardeau and Jackson.
How old are you?, Are you married?, Where do you live?
I am 34 years old and I live in Fort Worth, Texas.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
As a young child, I wanted to be a fireman. To some extent I lived out that dream in that I helped setup a volunteer fire department in a rural community and I spent one summer during college working for the fire department at a large diaper plant.
What books have most influenced your life most?
At the top of the list of books that have influenced my life, the Bible sits very comfortably. To say it has influenced my life is something of an understatement in that I can trace so many of the decisions I have made back to it and it is so engrained in my daily life. Other books that have greatly influenced my life include a book on how to program a TRS-80 Model 4. Though I have forgotten the name of the book, I doubt I would have considered software engineering as a career without it. The book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder has had an influence on how I write novels.
Can you share a little of your current work with me?
I am currently writing a non-fiction book about plot devices. It looks at many of the plot devices that writers include in stories and how we use them.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
As I child I had thoughts of writing a book. In college, I had a professor who came to class and showed us his book. He told us that the royalties only amounted to enough to pay for a night out at a nice restaurant once in a while. I liked that idea, but I didn’t actually write a book until ten years later. I think it took me that long to convince myself that I could write a book.
What does your family think of your writing?
My family loves my writing and are always anxious to get their hands on the next book.
Aside from writing, what is one talent you wish you had?
I’ve often thought that I would love to be able to play the trumpet and a number of other instruments. I can play the piano and the recorder, but I have never taken the time to learn some of the others.
Why do you write books?
I write books in order to communicate. Some people write for the money, but that’s before they realize there really isn’t much money in it. Most authors must supplement their writing efforts with a day job or the income of a spouse. People who don’t have a better reason to write won’t stay with it.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I read a lot as a child. I suppose my interest in writing originated from that.
Do you have a specific writing style?
My writing is somewhat influenced by the work of Cynthia Voigt. One of the things that has impressed me with her work is that nothing comes easy to her characters and what passes as a happy ending is that her characters survive. But her writing is also very emotionally tiring to read. It is my hope that my readers will find my work a little easier to read.
How many books have you written and which is your favorite?
I have written one non-fiction book and four novels. As with most writers, it wouldn’t be wrong for me to say that my favourite is the last book I wrote. The title of that book is And Thy House. It is the story of a man who discovers that everything he taught his daughters about God is wrong, but it may be too late for him to teach them what is right. But For the Love of a Devil also has a special place in my heart. It was inspired by the book of Hosea, which tells of God’s love for Israel, but that telling comes in the form of a man who marries a woman who leaves him for other men. He does what he can to continue to care for her, but she continues to reject him. She is eventually sold into slavery, but he buys her back, takes her home and loves her.
When did you write your first book and how old were you?
I completed my first book in 2007. I was 32.
What inspired you to write your first book?

My first book is a non-fiction book called Church Website Design. While there are many good books on website design, I felt that one of the problems a new church webmaster would face is that with so many options available he would be overwhelmed or might try to do too much too soon, when all he really needs is someone to give him a path that would get him started.

The first novel is Searching For Mom. It was inspired by a scene from a made for television movie called Mary Christmas. In the scene, a young girl is eating cookies and calling all the women her dad knows, trying to find anyone who might make a suitable wife for him. That story followed a different line, but I wondered what a girl might do if she had her heart set on finding a mother. So the scene with the telephone became an Internet dating service and Santa Claus doesn’t appear in my story. Instead, Sara must find a way to do it herself.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Though he is now deceased, Glen Fox is one of the best mentors I have had. The books he wrote can’t be found in bookstores and he isn’t well known outside of the circle in which he wrote, but I learned much from him in the way he lived his life.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fake Prayer

Saying something against prayer seems like a bad thing to do, but recently I have had a few reminders that prayer isn’t always a good thing. I saw a blog post recently about “praying the Psalms.” I’ve often wondered if God bothers to listen to prayers that people read out of a book or have memorized. The Psalms are great for meditation and if that leads someone to pray about something personal that’s great, but I sometimes get the impression that people think they can use prayers written by other people as some form of incantation. It doesn’t work that way.


Somehow I get drawn into some of the strangest discussions. The other day Michael Hyatt had a post on his blog about the tension we authors experience concerning self-promotion. I disagreed with the guest blogger and she took far greater offense at what I said than what I could have anticipated. She had included the words of one of her fans and had disagreed with that fan. I basically said that I thought the fan was right, so some degree. Somehow that turned into diatribe against me using harsh words. Then at the end of her response, she included a written prayer. I appreciate people praying for me, when they are sincere, but the context of the prayer made it seem most inappropriate. Along those lines, I suppose I would say that if you feel the need to pray for me, please do, but pray in your prayer closet. You don’t have to send me a copy of your prayer.


You recall that Jesus told of two men who went to the temple to pray. One man, a great religious man, spoke with a loud voice, looked up into heaven, told of his great deeds and thanked God that he wasn’t like the other man. The other man spoke softly and prayed for mercy because of the sins he knew he had committed. Jesus praised the second, but not the first.


Words read from a book are just words. A bless put at the end of an argument for the purpose of squelching further discussion is no prayer. Words spoken in praise of ourselves are not the words God wants to hear in our prayers. True prayer comes from the heart and is spoken to a living God. Though the Psalms are beautifully written, God would prefer a prayer of no artistic value spoken in sincerity. Suppose you wanted to borrow a friend’s car. Most likely, you would go to that friend and say, “can I borrow your car?” Would he be more likely to say yes if you were to copy a well written speech of someone else who had borrowed a car and then you were to read it to him? “O thou my great friend. Canst thou see fit to allow me to borrow thy car so I mightest take my dying grandmother to the hospital.” The friend would probably laugh. “But your grandmothers aren’t living,” he would say. If we can see the problem of using that technique with a friend, who may or may not be able to recognize what we are doing, why would we use that technique with God who knows exactly what we need and why we need it?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It isn't that you don't have a voice. I just don't like it.

A writer’s voice is that part of his writing that makes him unique. Read Mark Twain and you know it’s him. Read Dickens and you know its him. Read Poe and you know its him. Voice is a lot like a person’s accent. We may think we don’t have an accent, but we all do. We have all learned to say words a certain way and to move our mouths a certain way. It is unique for each of us. A writer may spend time trying to “find his voice.” You don’t have to “find your voice.” If you are writing from who you are, then your voice is already there on the page. If you are cynical, that will show. If you are light hearted, that will show. If you are meticulous in word choice, that will show.


So what happens when you get a rejection letter and the agent says, “you need to work on your voice?” The agent isn’t saying that you don’t have a voice. We all have a voice. What the agent is saying is that he doesn’t like your voice. That’s a little like the American Idol competition. A few years ago, there was a woman on the show that the judges all liked, Fantasia Barrino. If you’ve heard her sing, you know that she has a very unique voice. Once you’ve heard her voice, you could pick out one of her recordings by hearing just a few words. As unique as her voice is, you won’t find me paying money to purchase her recording. Why? Because I don’t like her voice. It grates on my nerves.


I find a similar situation with some authors. The story may be well written and the voice unique, but I don’t like the voice. There is an author I know of who spends a lot of time talking about bodily fluids. Her voice is unique, but I don’t care for it. Some people do. Some people think it’s funny. That’s fine for them, but I don’t.


But I do think we have some ability to change our voice. Our voice is a product of the choices we make, which are a product of what we believe is important or funny. A public speaker might think it funny to make fun of his wife, but someone might have a good talk with him some day and convince him otherwise. His “voice” will change because his jokes won’t be at the expense of his wife. When our attitude changes, our voice changes in our writing. So we may need an attitude adjustment.


Sometimes, what we need is to choose a subject that fits our voice. You voice might be fine for juvenile fiction, but it may not work for a crime novel. The television show Pushing Daisies has a voice that is similar to the voice in A Series of Unfortunate Events. It works for A Series of Unfortunate Events, but it is irritating for Pushing Daisies. So when facing the impossible task of convincing an agent to like your voice, maybe what you really need to do is pick a different story.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How Can I Make a Story Compelling?

As writers, we want to write compelling stories. The Bible has many compelling stories that we can use as our example, but today I would like to do a case study of the most compelling story of all, that of Hosea. It’s a short story that you should go read for yourself, but allow me to paraphrase.


The Lord spoke to Hosea and told him of a message he had for his people. As a way of illustrating that message, the Lord told Hosea to go marry a woman from a family involved in prostitution. Hosea goes and marries Gomar. They have a couple of children together, but then there is a third child that may not have been Hosea’s. Gomar seems to have tired of Hosea at this point and leaves him for other men. She believes they can give her what she wants better than Hosea can. Hosea remains aware of what is going on and takes care of Gomar by giving the men she is with the resources to provide for her. She is unaware that it is him taking care of her and not the men she is with. He withdraws his help and the men leave her. She is then sold into slavery, most likely as a means of paying her debts. At the slave auction, Hosea buys her back. He takes her home but as his wife, not as a slave. But now, Gomar is happy to be his wife and stays.


This story is the story of God’s love for the children of Israel as told through the life of Hosea and Gomar. On the surface, we might imagine that the thing that makes this story compelling is that it involves a man buying his wife out of the slave market. That certainly helps, but that isn’t all of it. We might think that it is because it is about unconditional love. That also helps, but when we look at the Bible we find that there are other places where God tells us about his unconditional love and buying his people back. But suppose we changed the story and told it like this: Hosea marries a whore. She goes back to her lovers. Hosea buys Gomar out of slavery. Gomar rejects Hosea and returns to her lovers.


Though the actions of the protagonist, Hosea, are unchanged, the story isn’t compelling without Gomar returning home. The reason it isn’t compelling is because no change takes place. It would be more compelling if Hosea moved on, found another wife or whatever, but Hosea is stuck in this story. He represents God and God never changes. If God loved Israel at the first of the story, he is going to love her at the end. Likewise, Hosea can never stop loving Gomar. His love must be truly unconditional. We are drawn into the story because we see Gomar falling farther and farther away from Hosea. We wonder how much farther she will go. But the events of the story transform her.


Every compelling story is about that transformation. A character enters the story one way and comes out another. The story itself is about how that transformation took place. We humans love to watch change take place. A simple screensaver that displays a few lines that move across the screen, changing colors, can be mesmerizing. While we wouldn’t normally think of that as a story, we can find ourselves sitting and watching the change take place over a period of several minutes. In our stories, we are trying to duplicate that by showing progressive change for our characters, so that the reader is always seeing something new, until the end of the story.


If you find the story of Hosea intriguing, I would also like to encourage you to consider reading my novel, For the Love of a Devil.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Cost of the New CreateSpace

Some time ago, I did a comparison of BookSurge, CreateSpace and Lulu in terms of value per dollar related to self-publishing a book. Both BookSurge and CreateSpace are owned by Amazon.com and recently they merged. I don’t think this surprised anyone, considering that having the two companies using two different pricing schemes only made things confusing, which is part of why I did that comparison. I recently received an e-mail from a reader, asking me to do a similar breakdown of the new CreateSpace. I am happy to do so.



For our purposes, we will assume the author has a print-ready PDF for both the interior and the cover of the book. The author may have done this work himself, or he may have had someone else do it for him, but as he enters this process he believes he is ready to upload his files. In the new CreateSpace, he has several options. One is the Author’s Express Package. This is essentially the same cheapest possible package that was available under BookSurge and costs $299. The other option is the self-service program and is advertised as “free of charge”. This is essentially same as the old CreateSpace package. Then to make things interesting, there is a Pro plan and a Standard plan.



The difference between the Author’s Express and the Self-Service option is whether or not you have someone double checking your PDF file and providing assistance if needed. Most people will decide they don’t need that service, I’m sure, but it’s easy to make mistakes.



The Pro plan is worth our consideration. You will notice that for the Author’s Express option, the Pro Plan actually reduces the number of books you have to sell in order to make a profit. It also opens the door to allow book stores other than Amazon.com to order our books. If the book is selling at all, the Pro Plan pretty much pays for itself. There is an annual fee, so you may want to remove your book from the Pro Plan at some point, but as long as it is selling about three books a year, the increased royalties will cover the cost.

Friday, February 12, 2010

29 Days to Go

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is the second entry in Lieutenant Gamble’s Personal Log. (Reading Time: 2 Minutes)


Lt. Gamble’s Personal Log (29 D.T.D):


The outlook didn’t look any better when we woke this morning. Doc thinks he has the time of our death pinned down as close as he can get it, but he wants to run a few more tests to make sure. He’s using the equipment at the national hospital, which is just down the street from the palace. We’ve made the palace our base of operation. It and the hospital are about the only two places that haven’t lost power. It also has some of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever seen and there’s still food in the kitchen. It’s frozen, but I suppose the royal family must have had too much to take with them.


Doc seems to think the people of this planet left after they found out they were exposed. If we can get off the planet within a week or so, we might be alright too, but that doesn’t look likely. The princess keeps asking our prisoner a bunch of questions. She thinks he can tell us something. But he isn’t very talkative. She thinks we should let him go. I don’t think that’s a good idea. She’s left the decision up to me, for now. I would just like to know more about what he’s thinking. If he’s afraid to die, I can’t tell it.


There aren’t any people lying dead on the street, like you might expect. There are animals of all kinds, but the people aren’t here at all. But that makes sense. I look out at the stars and I know where they are. They’re out there, killing our people. But they won’t win. We’ll push them back to their own planet and they can all die from whatever this plague they’ve unleashed is.


I’m going to get out and look around. A planet this size is sure to have a ship that will get us out of the atmosphere. We might have to sit in orbit for a while, until someone comes and picks us up, but at least we’ll be alive. Maybe we can rig the escape pods. The aren’t designed for that and we wouldn’t have any room. No, I think we’d die anyway. I’ll see what else I can find and I’ll let you know.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What's Next?

I’ve got one more book in the series I’ve been writing over the past few years. The cover will be blue. I know most of the characters. I know something of the events that will be taking place in town at the time of the story. I know some of the things that will happen. I used the previous book to setup part of the story. I just have one problem; I don’t know what the story is about.



With me knowing so much already, you would think I would be set. If I were like some authors, I might just start typing and see what happens, but I haven’t found that to be an effective way to work. If someone were to ask me about the story, I could say that Sara is the protagonist and that a movie is being filmed on the street in front of Ellen’s cafĂ©. Kelly has a role in the movie. David and the other movie people from And Thy House are all there. Ellen has a contract to feed the cast and crew, so Sara has a good excuse to hang around the movie set. Kelly’s dad will be making an appearance. I may bring Neal home for the summer, and Kelly’s mother still has all of her problems. With Kelly’s dad in town and Kelly involved with it, she is not going to be a happy camper. But all of that is just setting and backstory. What I need is a premise that is suitable for a character of Sara’s caliber and one that will allow me to incorporate the storylines of the other characters.



It comes down to a question of what will happen in the first part of the second act, which in our Universal Outline is the fun and games section. What is it that Sara will be doing in her effort to accomplish whatever it is that she wants to accomplish? In Searching for Mom she was looking for a suitable mother through an online dating service. In For the Love of a Devil, Geoff was doing things that showed his love for Heather, even when she was much too affectionate with other men. So what goal can Sara try to accomplish in this next novel that is suitable for the situation? When I can answer that, I’ll have a story.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More On Book Videos

Last week we talked about book videos and whether they are worth the time and trouble. One commenter saw no reason for an author to have a book video unless the money is available to advertise on television. When we consider the cost of television advertising, that would pretty much rule out any book videos except for bestselling authors and for those authors with books that are suitable for infomercials. The argument for that attitude is that no one really watches video except on television. I’m a video guy and I couldn’t disagree more. I promised to address other uses for book videos than expensive fifteen or thirty second ads.


Facebook Status Updates


I was surprised last week at the number of comments from people saying they had only watched one or two book videos. My experience has been that I watch video online all the time. When someone posts a video to a blog or on Facebook, I frequently click on it just to see why they thought it was interesting. I’ll admit that I don’t always watch the whole thing. Often what I do is click on the video and watch part of it, but then I begin looking at other websites, blog posts or whatever. For that reason, a book video without a speaking voice is useless. But when we consider that any of our “friends” on Facebook or any other social networking site might click on the video and let it play, video can be a great opportunity to make casual online acquaintances aware of our books.


Speaking Engagement Lead-ins


One of the things that some authors have the opportunity to do is public speaking. While people don’t want an author to show up and just show a video, videos can be an effective way to get information across to the audience that may not be as easy to convey through speaking. Missionaries trying to raise money for their work on a foreign field will often show a video showing the people and country where they will be working. After people have a brief overview, the missionary then speaks about what he personally will be doing and answers questions. The author of a book can take a similar approach by using a video that introduces the problem the book solves, then the lights go up and the author can provide more information and bring it down to a level that is specific to the audience.


Additional Information

People love behind the scenes information.

That’s part of the reason why people love DVD’s. A book can provide the bulk of the information, but there are some things we can’t communicate except by showing people. A video can allow us to show that information. For the novelist, a video can show the reader a little of what it is like in the home of the author. The video may also provide more information about the characters and backstory as well as the inspiration behind the story.


Conference Booth Videos


If an author attends a conference or his publisher attends a conference, there may be an opportunity to have some kind of display in which the author's book is included in the display. While stacking the book on the table may help get people's attention, a video with the author talking about the book or demonstrating a concept from the book can be running so that when potential buyers approach they will see what the book is about, with no effort on their part. They don't even have to pick up the book. The author, meantime, can be off doing other things, like attending sessions of the conference.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Heaven Bound?

I stumbled across a television show when I was looking at Netflix’s offerings. The name of the show was Dead Like Me. While I can’t recommend the show and I don’t know that I should have watched it myself because of foul language and sex scenes, what I have seen of the show got me thinking about the perception of the world. The premise of the show is that there are grim reapers living among us who are responsible for collecting souls when people die and escorting people to their final reward. They don’t get paid for what they do, so they must find a way to support themselves, through jobs or whatever is required. But what I found most interesting is the view the characters have of God. Even though they have already died, the grim reapers aren’t sure whether there is a God or not and the writers keep bringing in this concept that “the Universe” will keep everything in balance.


In one episode, a Catholic priest dies, but before he does, he questions whether there is a God or not and reveals that he would like to see proof. I know he is just a fictional character, but it made me sad to think about the many people who find themselves in that same boat. They “believe” there is a God because their religion says there’s one or they look at the splendor of the Universe and they assume that there must be a God, but they don’t know God personally, they question their beliefs and they wonder what will happen to them when they die. “Heaven or hell?” They wonder.


Some people have said that what makes Christianity different from all the other religions of the world is that we have a risen Savior. That may be true, but that is only relevant to people who believe we have a risen Savior. Many people do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for our sins and rose from the dead the third day. To those people, there is no difference between what we believe and someone inventing a new religion that has a leader who rose from the dead. In fact, the Bible tells us that Satan will invent such a religion, the leader will appear to be fatally wounded and he will recover. So the real difference isn’t that Christianity teaches that we have a risen Savior, but that we have proof.


A big part of our proof comes from the Bible. We know that the Bible isn’t just an ordinary book because the prophecies came true. If a man told you that tomorrow at ten o’clock there would be an automobile accident at specific intersection and it would involve a blue car and a green truck, you would doubt him, but if tomorrow came and it happened exactly as he said, you would wonder about that. If he predicted another accident and it came true, you might start believing him. The Old Testament accurately predicts when Jesus would be born, where he would be born, which family he would come from, how he would die and many other things. Every detail (more than 300 in all) came to pass, just like it says. No ordinary book can make those kinds of predictions hundreds of year in the future. And for those who would make the argument that Jesus read the Old Testament and fulfilled the prophecies based on that knowledge alone, show me a man who can fulfill 300 prophecies by his own will alone and I’ll show you Jesus.


But people have their doubts, even people who believe themselves to be Christians, just like that silly priest character. I think some people have given up on the possibility of knowing that there is a God, knowing the way to heaven and knowing whether they are saved or not. This makes them miserable, but you don’t have to live that way. We have proof that God exists. This God points us to his Son as the only way to heaven. And the Bible tells us that we can know whether we have peace with God and are on our way to heaven or if we do not and are on our way to hell.


Question: Are you certain that you will go to heaven when you die?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Direct My Steps

Plans change. When I was in college, I had a vision for the future. I would graduate, get a job in St. Louis, start attending a big church, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after in a big house. It didn’t quite turn out that way. I did graduate, but I didn’t move to St. Louis. I didn’t start attending a big church, though it seemed big to me at first. I did fall in love, eventually, but we didn’t get married and I haven’t a clue where she is now. I don’t live in a big house, but its big enough for me.


A man’s heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps.
Proverbs 16:9

My dad studied botany. His plans were to work for the US Forest Service after he got out of college. But God called him to preach and he ended up pastoring a church and working in fire protection at a diaper factory. I don’t know much about the US Forest Service, but I’m pretty sure it would be difficult to work for them and pastor a church at the same time. When I was younger, I hoped God would call me to preach. He never has.


Plans are important, as far as they go. There are some things that we could not do without making plans, but when it comes to the important stuff, the stuff of life, we have very little control. But that’s okay.


I see a lot of writers out here. The vision is almost always the same: write a book, get published, and be well known and popular. That is unrealistic and it isn’t long before writers start changing their plans: learn the craft, write another book, learn to write a query, get an agent, get a publisher, and work on building popularity. That’s a little more realistic, but many writers will never see this happen. When faced with this possibility, many Christian writers respond with, “I’m relying on the Lord. God can overcome whatever difficulty I may encounter in the publishing industry.”


That much is true. God can take a writer and all of this headache that is the publishing industry is nothing compared to his power, but for every published author who says she got where she is because God overcame the difficulties you will find ten maybe a hundred obscure authors who are “relying on the Lord.” We may try to rationalize that away by something along the lines of “many of those people may be outside the will of God and they might not even be saved, so it’s different for me.” Maybe that’s true, but then again, maybe it’s not. We might try to tell ourselves that because we are special to God, he will give us this thing we want so badly, but God is no respecter of persons. We are special, yes, but that doesn’t mean he has to give us everything we ask for. We might try telling God that it makes God appear weak when he doesn’t show himself strong on our behalf. We might try “claiming a promise” in the Bible and hold that up in prayer to force him to give us a publishing contract. What insolence! It’s a wonder he doesn’t strike us all down.


Though we make plans, the Lord directs our steps. That doesn’t mean he makes sure our feet follow our plan. We set our face in one direction and we may find that our feet are carrying us in another direction. It is very difficult to walk when we are facing a direction that is different than the way our feet are going. As much as we might like to see our books in every bookstore in the country, that may not be what the Lord has in store for us. Our job is to be okay with that. I would love to walk through an airport and see several people holding my book in their hands. I would love to walk through the door at home and someone already be there. For that matter, I’d love to see daylight once in a while. But if I take a step back and take a look at my life, I can’t deny that the Lord has been faithful to me. I don’t know what direction he will take me from here, but I trust that what he has in store for me is better than my plans. And though I may still long to one day see the most beautiful woman in the world coming down the aisle wearing white and though I may still want to see my books sitting atop the bestseller lists, I can’t complain about the way he has directed my steps so far and more of the same wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Lt. Gamble's Log - 30 Days

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is the first entry in Lieutenant Gamble’s Personal Log. After abandoning the best starship in the fleet for fear that it would explode, Lieutenant Gamble finds himself stranded on a planet with seven other people. The planet was once thriving, but now it has either been evacuated or the population has been killed due to a type of plague. The eight of them must find a cure or a way off the planet, or they will suffer the same fate 31 days after their arrival. (Reading Time: 8 Minutes)


Lt. Gamble’s Personal Log (30 D.T.D):


It’s a terrible thing knowing when you’re going to die. I used to imagine that it would be nice to know, you could do all the exciting things in life without having to fear dying. I really wished I could have known that when I joined the military and received my orders to board a starship going out into deep space. The war had just started and Mom was sure that the ship would explode as soon as it went into battle. I assured her that there wasn’t thing to fear because the ship I would be on was the newest, largest and most advanced ship we had; the enemy might try to destroy it, but nothing they had even compared. That really didn’t help much and I wished I could have shown her the date of my death, just to prove that I would return home safely and live to be an old man. Now I know that isn’t the case.


I’m writing this log, even though I don’t know if anyone will ever find it, so there will be some record of our last days that doesn’t look like an official mission report. I’m also keeping records for the official record, but that is all about times and dates. Most people don’t want to read that stuff. I’m writing this in hopes that someone will find it and they’ll take it back to my family, so they’ll know we died. I’m writing it especially for my niece, Kim. I promised her I would bring her something from another planet the next time I went home. I know now that I won’t be able to keep that promise and I know how hard children take things like that. I’m also writing it to try to keep my mind off the fact that I only have thirty days to live.


Let me back up a bit, so you’ll know how we got to this awful place. It seems so long ago now, but yesterday morning I woke in my quarters, excited about what lay ahead. We were on our way home. The battlefield was at our six and we were many light years away. Many of us would be returning, but not before we had spent some time at home, visiting our families and remembering why it was so important for us to win this war. The ship was in need of repairs that could only be done in space dock. There’s no discounting luck on the part of the enemy. A lucky shot had knocked out the aft cannon. We all knew that we could survive a long time without it, but there were six more powerful cannons waiting for us in space dock and we were sure they would put an end to the war more quickly. We also had the unpleasant responsibility of transporting more than thirty prisoners of war and the joy of providing Princess Eloise back home, but I had seen neither the prisoner nor Princess Eloise, except for when they were brought onboard and when the princess spoke to the crew, as a way of encouraging us all to keep on fighting until our enemy retreats to their own planets, were they belong.


I stopped off sickbay because—just because and let’s leave it at that. It was nothing major, just a minor inconvenience. I saw one of the prisoners in there, under the watchful eye of a private standing near the door. The Doc indicated that he would be with me shortly and continued running some scanning device across the man’s head.


“I think you’ll live,” Doc said. “I can’t find anything wrong.”


“What happened?” I asked the guard at the door.


“We were moving him this morning and five guys decided to pick a fight with him. He was holding his own until the corporal stepped in and knocked him out cold with the butt of a rifle. But you should see the other guys.”


I was about to ask more about what had happened when the ship rocked with the sound of a great explosion.


“That sounded like a cannon blast,” the private said. I didn’t know from my own experience because I had never been on a ship when it was hit with a direct blast.


The signal for battle stations sounded and I rushed out the door, leaving the private to guard the prisoner, but wondering about the wisdom of a corporal who would stick one man at guard over a prisoner who had held his own against five trained solders. I hadn’t gone far and was passing through the corridor where the VIP quarters are—pardon me, were—when another explosion rocked the ship. The lights dimmed and I felt a hand on my arm. As the lights flickered back on, I saw the princess’ body guard.


“What’s going on?” she demanded. She would be pretty, if she weren’t built like a battle cruiser.


“I don’t know,” I said. “I think we’re under attack.”


Then came those words that I hoped I would never hear. “All hands, abandon ship.”


My mind raced as I tried to think of where the nearest escape pods were. But the princess’ body guard didn’t skip a beat. She went through one of the doors along the corridor and seconds later she came back out with the princess and her secretary following close behind. She seemed to know where she was going and I found myself following behind the three of them. I saw Doc, a nurse, the private and the prisoner, now in handcuffs, climbing into one of the escape pods as we approached. The four of us climbed into the next one. The airlock sealed, the pod separated from the ship and we were away.


For the few seconds that I could, I looked out at the ship we had just left. Near the center of the ship, I saw two gaping holes and though I’m no expert on explosions, it appeared to me that the blast had come from the inside, pushing the metal frame outward.


Funny things happen when you abandon a ship in an active warp field. Escape pods have a small warp field generator, which is supposed to get you to the nearest habitable planet, but it can’t sustain the warp field of the mother ship. And you wouldn’t want it to. You don’t leave a ship at warp unless you think it’s about to explode and with that much energy sitting there, you don’t want to be anywhere near it. So escape pods get you out of range as quickly as possible, and then they look for a safe place to land. It’s hard to guess where that will be. Engineers have done studies and shown that two escape pods leaving a ship within one one-hundredth of a second of each other can end up as far apart as twenty light years and that’s before they begin searching for a safe planet. But I’ll leave that to he engineers to figure out. I’ve also heard rumors of escape pods leaving the warp field so close together that they merged into one. The people inside merged too and completely lost their old identity.


I don’t know where the other pods landed, but only two came to this planet. It’s always easy to tell because they are designed to look for other pods and land near the others, in neat little rows, if possible. When the hatch opened for our pod, we stepped out to see Doc, the nurse, the private and his prisoner, all standing around, stretching their legs after being cramping the escape pod for several hours. Our ship was supposed to be arriving at home at this time, but I found myself on a planet I had never visited.


“So what do we do now?” Princess Eloise asked. She had hardly spoken the whole time we were in the pod.


“We wait,” I said. “The pods have enough supplies for us to survive for several days. We’ll need to set up a shelter, but someone will respond to our distress signal soon.”


“You might want to find out where you are before you start making too many assumptions,” the prisoner said.


“I know where we are,” I said, recalling the name I saw displayed in the escape pod, “This is BR429.”


The prisoner just shook his head.


“What do you know that I don’t?” I asked.


“I know that no one is going to come get us,” he said. “I know that we don’t need to waste our time setting up a shelter.”


“He’s just trying to mess with our heads,” Princess Eloise’s body guard said.


“I’m not so sure,” I said.


“Believe me or don’t,” the prisoner said, “But we aren’t where you think we are.”


“Just where do you think we are?” I asked.


The prisoner sat down on a rock, put his handcuffed hands behind his head, leaned back against a tree and closed his eyes.


“Private,” I said, “You head north and I’ll head south. Doc, you go east.”


“You want me to go west?” his nurse asked. I nodded.


“Report back if you find anything.”


“Sir,” the private asked, “who will watch the prisoner?”


“She can watch him,” I said, pointing at Princess Eloise’s body guard.” I could tell the Private wasn’t happy about my decision, but I wasn’t sure we had enough people to guard him anyway.


Going south, I found nothing but trees and undergrowth. I did see some dead animals that I didn’t recognize. Looking back, I realize that seeing them should have told me something about the planet we’re on, but they weren’t the first dead animals I’ve seen on an alien planet. I continued walking, deeper and deeper into the forest. I came to gravel road and was considering following it when I heard a voice coming from my radio.


“Lieutenant,” the Private’s voice came through the speaker, “I think you’ll want to see this.”


“What have you got?” I asked, turning around to walk back in his direction.


“It’s some kind of ranch,” he said. “I’m not sure what they’re raising, but they’re all dead. I counted over fifty of these things all lying dead in the field.”


I ran most of the way back and then to his position. I saw a lush green field with large four legged beasts lying dead across it.


“I found three more fields just like this,” the Private said. “And there’re some other animals. They’re all dead. There’s a barn and a farm house. No one is home.”


“Maybe they just left and didn’t take care of their animals.”


“I really don’t think so. I’ve never seen anything decay like that. I mean look at that. Every other planet I’ve been on, there’ve been insects flying around the dead animals. There aren’t any insects. And I haven’t seen any birds. I think the whole planet is dead.”


For the first time, I realized that he was right. It was silent. The only sound was that of the wind blowing through the trees and the grass, but no insect or animals.


Doc was waiting for us when we got back to the others. “Find anything interesting?” he asked.


“A bunch of dead animals,” I said.


“Yeah, I expected as much.”


“You know something, don’t you?”


“Yes, but I can’t tell you about it,” he said. “You aren’t cleared to know.”


“But you know where we are. You can tell us that.”


He hesitated.


“It isn’t like we won’t find out if we look around enough. There are people on this planet.”


“There were,” the prisoner said. I don’t know if he moved from his spot at all while we were gone.


“Lieutenant,” the nurse’s voice came through the radio. (I must learn her name if I’m going to continue writing this.) “I can see a city in the distance. It’s about five mile from here.”


“Don’t go too close,” I said. “We aren’t sure what kind of reception we’ll get.”


“It’s deserted,” the prisoner said. “The wealth of Ohanidoh is just sitting out there for you to take.”


“Wait,” I said. “This can’t be Ohanidoh. We’re at war with Ohanidoh. No one’s going to look for us here.”


“It’s worse than that,” Doc said. “If what I’ve heard is true, we don’t have long to live.”


“How long is not long?”


“Thirty days, ten hours and forty-seven minutes,” the prisoner said.


I thought he was joking, or more likely, trying to be contentious. I looked at Doc, but he wasn’t smiling.


“I don’t know the exact figure,” he said, “but that sounds about like what I remember. After that, we’ll all look like those animals we’ve been seeing around here.”


“But there’s something you can do,” Princess Eloise said.


“Not that I know of,” Doc said.


“They were supposed to be working on a cure,” the prisoner said. “We should go to the city and see what we can find. At least we can find comfortable bed. I’m sure there are plenty.”


It sounded like good advice, but this was the enemy and I couldn’t get it out of my head that he had a different agenda than our own.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why Do Book Videos?

Rachelle Gardner’s post yesterday was about book videos. Do we need them? Do we not? Do they sell books? Do they not? The fact is that we don’t know how much we need them and how many books they sell, if any. That hasn’t stopped us from doing other things, such as handing out bookmarks, or book signings or blogging, but book videos are getting a lot of discussion. The real problem is that they are expensive. Even if we do it on a shoestring budget, book videos require an investment of time, but when we get the publisher involved, the cost of a book video starts at around $3,000 and a well produced one could run into tens of thousands of dollars. Is it worth it and what’s the point?



Let’s step back and take a look at the big picture. Most readers don’t spend their days watching book videos, so even if we have one, that fact alone isn’t going to push our book sales up. It is a little like killer bees. One bee sting probably won’t kill you. Two bee stings probably won’t kill you. You may have a couple of swollen spots, but you’ll live. The problem with killer bees is that they attack as a swarm. One bee sting may seem insignificant, but thousands of stings will certainly kill you. We ask whether book videos sell books and we might say no. But if I have a book video and I hand out bookmarks and I have a blog and I tell my friends about my book and I visit forums and mention my book and I visit book clubs and I do guest blog posts and I do radio interviews and I convince people to review my book, I’m going to sell books.



Any of the things I mentioned could be considered insignificant, if we consider them alone, but combined they produce results. It’s all about raising public awareness of our book. The first time people see a book, they may see it as just another book, but if they see it multiple times, they will begin to recognize it and they may purchase the book just to see what all the hype is about. So, while book videos are expensive and may not sell books alone, they are a part of the much bigger picture and have their part in making people aware of the book and the author.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Villain or the Antagonist

Yesterday, I mentioned that the antagonist and the villain aren’t the same thing. Today, I would like to export that in more depth. In our example yesterday, I talked about the villain in a comic book. In a situation like that, the villain is very often the same thing as the antagonist, but when we move out into different kinds of stories, we find that the antagonist may not be the villain at all.

 

When we think of the villain, we think of one character. Lex Luther, for example, might be the villain in a Superman comic. But when we consider the antagonist of a story, we find that though it may be one person, it may also be several people. In one chapter, it may be one person. In the next chapter, it may be the another. In yet another chapter, it may be the weather. They all work together to keep out protagonist from his goal, whatever that might be.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Villain is Key

I’ve heard that some actors prefer playing the villain to playing the lead character. I won’t go into why they prefer that role, but as writers it might do us good to pay attention to this. So many times, it seems like we give the most attention to the protagonist, but I would like to suggest that the most important character in any story is the antagonist or the villain. For our purposes here, we need not go into the finer points of the differences between an antagonist and a villain and we’ll simply focus on the villain, though I suspect those finer points are part of the reason we don’t more readily see the antagonist as the most important.


To demonstrate my claim, let’s consider a simple comic book story in which we have a Superhero and a Super Villain. In this story, the villain is bent on taking over the world. He has commandeered a fleet of ships and is on his way to Washington D. C. Our hero discovers his plot, swoops in and saves the day. Now, let’s look at the next issue of this comic book. In this issue, we have another Super Villain bent on taking over the world. He has developed a machine that can reduce the global temperature to below freezing. He has turned it on and refuses to turn it off until all the world governments relinquish their power to him. Our hero discovers the location of the device, swoops in and saves the day. If we pay no attention to the contribution of the villain, these stories are essentially the same. A villain is plotting to destroy the world. The hero swoops in and saves the day. We see something similar when we look at television shows. Watch them on DVD and you’ll see many similarities in the stories from week to week, but the villains are always different. In our two example stories, there is a great difference between a villain who is about to take over the world with a fleet of ships and one who is freezing the world. So it is the villain who makes our stories special. It is the problems the hero faces that make a story interesting, not the hero himself.


A Villain Can Be Likeable


If we’re writing a comic book, we can get by with a villain who is bent on taking over the world and hates everyone, but a much better villain is a character that the reader would rather not be the villain. It makes for a hard balance, but we want the reader to be torn between seeing the villain get what is coming to him and seeing him get off the hook. I think of Fagan from Oliver Twist, or The Artful Dodger. They are villains in the story, certainly, but we like them all the same. Bill Sikes, we don’t like him so much, but that’s good too. We need a few characters like Bill Sikes.


A Villain Has a Good Reason for Doing Evil


No villain sees himself as a bad person. A business owner is closing down a factory, putting many people out of work and moving the production lines to Mexico. We could play him up as being vindictive in nature, but if we examine the situation more closely, we find that the reason he is doing this is because the company will go bankrupt if he doesn’t and instead of putting three hundred people out of work, he will be putting three thousand people out of work. But our protagonist disagrees with what he is doing and wants to save these jobs. Both of their hearts are in the right place, but they can’t both get what they want. That creates the best kind of conflict, because people won’t move from their position when they know they are doing the right thing.


A Villain Should Do Interesting Things


It doesn’t really matter what the protagonist does to defeat the villain. He can shoot him, if he can get away with it, but we want the villain to do interesting things. The villains in Oliver Twist were interesting. Bill Sikes put Oliver through the window of a house and killed Nancy. He wasn’t good, but he was interesting.


The Villain is the Focus of Our Story


A lot of writers would find it easier to stay on theme if they would focus on the villain instead of the protagonist. As we tell a story, what we should be doing is telling how the protagonists faced a problem in his life. If we follow the protagonist, there are many things that he may do that have nothing to do with the problem we are exploring, but if we focus on the villain through the eyes of the protagonist, then we can hardly get away from the problem.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Case For Profit

In my day job, I work in an engineering environment. Surrounding me on a daily basis is a bunch of really bright guys. There are some women, but mostly guys. A lot of the time, an engineer will be working on a project, just trying to get it done, but keep in mind that these are bright guys. Someone will come up with an idea. It may be something that can be implemented right away, or it may be something that requires some research. Inspiration strikes and someone decides that he would like to go investigate something, rather than doing what he is doing. Well, the company sets aside some money for that, but that money is limited. While it’s good to pursue fresh ideas, there are too many of them to let everyone do whatever he wants, no matter how good his intentions.


There are similarities between this and the publishing industry. For an engineering company, there is usually some group of people who decide which ideas are worth pursuing and which aren’t. Those that show the most promise get funded. This is not unlike a publishing company agreeing to publish a book. But I think engineers are less vested in their ideas than are authors. If an engineer’s idea is rejected, it is disappointing, but there may still be plenty of work he can do helping to develop someone else’s idea. For authors, it tends to be feast or famine. Still, I think there are things that authors can learn from the engineering process.


Research money is made available for a couple of different reasons. One, the end result could save the company money. Two, the end result could provide more income from product sales. An engineer who wants to research a concept that does neither would be better off working for a university. The point is that when an engineer walks into a meeting to make his presentation, the thing that must be at the forefront of his mind is how his idea can increase the company’s profit. A beautiful concept is not enough.


We authors sometimes forget this. We take rejection much too personally and we compare our writing to published authors. We highlight the quality of our writing. We highlight that we have followed “the rules.” We highlight that our mother liked the story, or whatever. None of that matters. Of course you wrote a well written story. Of course it is a higher quality story than most of the published stories out there. You are probably absolutely right that if the literary agent would read it then she would see how good it is. But none of that matters. The real question is, Why will readers buy this book?


We can talk about the quality literary nature of the book or the importance of the subject all day. All of that is important, but if we can’t make the case that a publisher will be able to make money from the book, we’re wasting our time. We sometimes think that just because a book is good we have all we need to make the claim that the publisher can make money, but that is far from the case. If the market is over saturated with the type of book we’ve written, the publisher will have trouble pushing it, no matter how good it is. If people don’t know who we are, it doesn’t prevent a publisher from selling the book, but it doesn’t help either. If this isn’t a high concept story, it may be good, but it might be hard to sell. If we can’t show a publisher how they will make money by publishing our book, we shouldn’t be surprised if the publisher declines.