Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye 2008

We’ve reached the end of 2008 at last. This has been a really strange year for me. So much has happened this year that I didn’t expect. At the beginning of the year, I expected to publish three or four books this year. I published two and one of them isn’t even mine. I did finish one of the books I had planned and I have made it more than halfway through writing another book, but not one of the ones I planned.

I at this time in time in 2007 I never would have expected that I would be carrying around an Elite status frequent flyer card now. I really didn’t expect to spend thirteen weeks flying back and forth between Fort Worth and Atlanta. Looking back at it, I kind of enjoyed it, but it isn’t something I expected to happen.

There are things that I wish would have happened this year that didn’t. I’m not complaining. That fact is that the Lord has blessed me far better this year than I deserve, but I don’t think there’s been a year that I was as happy to see disappear as this one. It has been a long tiring year and there is a limit to how much I can take. So, goodbye 2008, I can’t say I’m sorry to see you go.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Golden Silence

I watched an old Columbo episode the other day. As always, the episode begins with the focus on the killer, but in this case it was especially interesting because it begins with silence—five minutes of silence. There are the normal sounds, like water running and footsteps, but no one speaks for the first five minutes of the show. I found myself wondering if I had muted the television or something. Five minutes, in television, is a very long time to go without saying anything.

We would normally expect that the first five minutes of a television show would take five pages of a script, but it is possible that the first five minutes of the show required less than one page. That tells us something about silence and the writing. They don’t mix very well and yet there is something about silence that can make a scene especially poignant. The writer may have said something like, “INTERIOR, DAWN: man removes power charge from shell casing and replaces with four strips of C4, while sweating profusely.” More details are required to describe the scene completely, but no more than a paragraph is required.

One of the things a novelist might want to ask is how we can translate the silence we might see in a movie or television show into something that appears on the page. Silence is more than just writing paragraphs without dialog. We could write pages and pages without dialogue and still not have silence. Silence is an action and like all actions it has a duration. The Bible tells us that there will be silence in heaven for thirty minutes. For there to be silence in a novel, we must bring the dialogue to a halt, but the clock must march on. That means that we can’t replace the dialogue with description, because description brings out clock to a halt. We must then show that the clock is still moving by action and as much as possible it needs to be action that doesn’t require sound.

Let’s look at some examples. First, a noisy example:

Kim watched Ella coming out of the field with an armful of yellow flowers. “I see you’ve picked some really nice flowers.”

”I drive through her every day and I just had to take part of this home with me.”

A dead stop:

In the field, as far as the eye could see, there were yellow flowers. A few green plants had grown up among them, but the rest was a sea of yellow. A woman stood silently gathering flowers. Two cars sat beside the narrow farm to market road. The morning air had a slight chill. The only sound was from a distant sawmill churning out rough cut boards.

True silence:

Ella pulled the car to the side of the road and came to a stop next to the field of yellow flowers. She opened the glove box and pulled out a small knife before she opened the door and stepped out of the car. She crossed the ditch, being careful not to step in the water still left from the rain two nights earlier, and waded out into the sea of yellow. The pedals of the flowers felt like smooth silk as they brushed against her hands. She examined several flowers before she saw one she especially liked and cut it free with the knife. From plant to plant she went in her search for only the most perfect and the most beautiful flowers. Each time she found one, she took the knife and sliced into the woody green stems.

That’s a start. We could go on, but it would make this post extra long. The first example shows no silence at all. The second is silent, but no time is passing. In the last example, we see time passing as she moves from one action to the next. The more we focus on the actions she is taking the more silent the scene becomes. We don’t even want to hear the thoughts in her head. Perhaps she isn’t thinking about anything except which flower she will cut next. She is alone in her world and there is silence.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Toward Unique Writing

In all art forms there is a line between method and content. It isn’t always easy to discern, but it is always there. A couple of days ago I showed you a stained glass window I have done. If you look, there are mistakes I made that wouldn’t be there if I had spent more time perfecting my technique, but the image you see, the Bible with the earth and the sun, is what makes it unique.

With writing it is a little more difficult to separate method from content. Some people are complaining that writing workshops and writer’s conferences are creating writers who are producing manuscripts that are too similar rather than standing out as being unique. Part of the reason for this may be that they are crossing the line between teaching writers how to improve their methods and telling them what content to choose.

People may choose to ignore the mistakes I made with the stained glass window. Others may be more critical, but all people will include the image as part of their basis for liking or disliking the window. As writers, we need to understand that, though it is important to improve our technique, the choices we make in how to apply that technique must be our own.

It is much easier to tell someone how to be like someone else than it is to tell someone how to be unique. To be unique one must have the freedom to create. When we rely on the experts at writer’s conferences too much we listen to what they say and then we want to go to them and ask “am I doing his right?” Any expert worth his salt will hand the manuscript back without looking at it and say yes because there really is no right or wrong way. There are guidelines that may be helpful, but we should never assume there is a right way to write. When we do we begin to lose the thing that makes our writing unique.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Real Problem With Merry Christmas

Yesterday, was Christmas. If you read my blog, you may have noticed that I didn’t use the word Christmas—not one time. You may have been offended because I chose to say Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas. You might be upset with me for taking Christ out of Christmas, but what you can’t do is say that my blog post wasn’t Christ centered. It is probably the most Christ centered post I have had in a while.

I say all that to make a point. For the past few years, I have seen many Christians who are upset about people saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. A few years ago no one cared, but now people are upset about it. The irony is that people are ready to get up in arms about a lost man saying Happy Holidays or telling his employees to say Happy Holidays, but many of these people won’t say a word about this man’s need for salvation. The issue of Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays isn’t really about taking Christ out of Christmas. It is really about change. People don’t like change, so when someone suggests we might be doing away with Christmas they get upset.

If we Christians were more concerned about where the store clerk will be going when she dies than what we are about what she says to us as we pick up our shopping bags and walk out the door then there wouldn’t be an issue about Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. Instead of spending our time telling the lost world what they can and cannot say without offending us, what we need to be doing is telling the lost world how they can be saved.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays!

December twenty-fifth is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Happy Holidays! (More on that later.) Somehow, it isn’t what it used to be. When I was a child all I worried about was what new gifts I would be getting. Now I spend more time worried out how I’m going to find the time to buy gifts for everyone else and hoping they won’t be too upset with whatever I give them. Next year, I think I’ll just tell everyone that we can just exchange cash. I’ll hand someone a twenty dollar bill and they can hand it back.

Even with all the stress that’s associated with it, I’m glad we have this day to celebrate the birth of our Savior. If that day had never taken place I would not have the opportunity to celebrate an even more special day, August 7, 1983, the day I accepted Jesus as my Savior. I hope that everyone reading this has a similar date that they can go back to and celebrate. We talk about the meaning of the season, but without having a day when you met Jesus there is no reason for the season. Sure, it gives you a time to get together with family and friends, but what good is that if compared to an eternity in hell?

Today we have a reason to celebrate Jesus coming to die for our sins. If you don’t have a reason to celebrate, you can by acknowledging that you are a sinner, believing that Jesus died to save you from you sins and asking God to forgive you of your sins and to save you from the punishment you deserve. If you put your trust in him, he will save you.

Now here’s a quick question. What, seemingly important, word did I not use in this post?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

For the Love of a Devil Reviewed

A good review is always nice, it gives me a chance to brag a little. (I promise I won’t brag too much.) For the Love of a Devil received what I would call high praise in review published in the December 3, 2008 edition of the Baptist Trumpet. The editor, Diane Spriggs, wrote “Although it has been compared to Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers (which I have read), For the Love of a Devil, by Timothy Fish, is written in a modern setting that I could more readily understand and takes a decidedly different approach to this Old Testament love story. I enjoyed both books.”

Mrs. Spriggs continues her review by writing about how she felt as she began reading the book, saying that she felt “a little uncomfortable” at first, but it made her think of her personal relationship with God. As she ends her review she states that “more than anything, when I finished the book I felt loved and pursued—not because of who I am, but because of who He is!”

I am grateful to Mrs. Spriggs for publishing this review in her paper. And I am thrilled that a review by someone who is neither a family member or a close personal friend speaks so highly of the book.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Conquering Writer's Block

I’ve heard many people talk about writers block. I think the most likely cause is stress. Writer’s block is a little like what a speaker might experience if he goes to a meeting and someone asks him to get up and say a few words. I remember one of my high school English teachers talking about how to overcome writer’s block. The suggestions weren’t all that satisfying. The one I remember is to use brainstorming to come up with some ideas. We had brainstorming exercises we had to do. I hated that.

I think the best thing a person can do when she can’t come up with anything to write is to just relax. That’s hard to do when you have to have something written within the next day or hour or whatever, but all good ideas come from thinking about other things than our need to write something. Simply put, writer’s block occurs when the writer is trying too hard.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Word to the World

Our church is building a new gym. We decided to put a three foot stained glass window on the front of the building. I have a small amount of experience with stained glass and I do mean small, so I had the opportunity to design and build the window. The result of my efforts is show here. I went with this design because it reflects the primary mission of our church. our mission is to carry the word of God to our world. Now that it's done, maybe I can go back to trying to finish some of the other things that I need to finish.

Friday, December 19, 2008

What Time Is It?

Time is a funny thing in fiction. I can speed it up, slow it down, bring it to a dead stop, jump forward or back, even have multiple times simultaneously. The only thing I can’t do with time is eliminate it, for it is a constant companion. Consider a story about a time traveler. Even as he is going through the process of moving from one time to the next, we may describe what he sees. In television they like to use tube like things to show people are moving through time, but there is a passage of time relative to the character. In all forms of fiction, to end time is to have nothing.

We think of time as measured by clocks, the sun or the moon, but time is about moving from one event to the next. In out daily lives there are many events that don’t matter much, but as we move through them they help us keep track of time. In fiction we ignore the insignificant events, so the storyteller tells us how much time has passed, if it is important. Sometimes the storyteller leaves the listener to assume things about time. In a television show liberties are often taken with time because the crime fighters must solve the crime in a week. Real life isn’t that way, but viewers are fine with it because they really don’t care how long it takes to get DNA results back, only that they were used to solve the crime.

Clearly, we can use liberties with time in our stories, but we also need to be selective. There are some things that must take as long as is required. It takes nine months give or take a few weeks, for example, for a woman to have a baby. Unless she is carrying an alien child, you don’t mess with that. That doesn’t keep us from mentioning the pregnancy test in one paragraph and the birth in the next, but we shouldn’t then tell the story like these things were a day apart.

Time is often as much a character in a story as anything else. It doesn’t follow the rules of time in the real world, but it is always a part of the story.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


The following is an example of infodumping:

For ten years the two planets had been at war. Thousands had died in battles to control the trade routes between the stars.

The following is an example of incluing:

“Just how old is this?” the Starship Captain asked, biting into the ration.

“At least ten years. I had it before we went to war.”

“You would think one of these cargo ships we’re protecting would carry some decent food.”

In info dumping we quickly get to the point and give the reader the information she needs. In incluing we take that same information and spread it out across several pages or even chapters with the goal of giving the reader the information without telling the reader we’re giving him background information. Both approaches have their place, but incluing is typically a better approach. Readers tend to skip infodumps unless they are very short and they don’t take the time to remember the details we would like for them to remember. The reader is much more likely to remember if we use incluing.

Consider the example above. Without looking, how many people died? Now how many years has the war gone on? You are more likely to remember that the war has been going on for ten years than you are to remember that thousands have died. It is easier to remember that the Captain is eating ten year old food, which has been around since the beginning of the war than to remember the details of the info dump.

Incluing gives us a way to reveal important information without slowing down the action. Info dumping works better when we want to set the scene, but the information isn’t important. Of course we need to ask ourselves why we are revealing information that isn’t important.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

in medias res

In medias res is a Latin term meaning “into the middle of things.” As a literary device it refers to beginning a story somewhere in the middle rather than beginning at the beginning and following the sequence of events in order. An author might begin with a battle scene and then later in the book include scenes that lead up to the battle. A romance novelist could begin with the obligatory fight between the two characters and then begin to explain what happened before.

The reason we might want to use in medias res is because it quickly gives the reader something interesting. The idea is that we throw the reader into the heart of the story and then he’ll stick around long enough to figure out why people are shooting at him or whatever. The author tells the reader these things through flashbacks or dialogue. This frequently gives the timeline a horseshoe bend with the story is moving forward and backward at the same time. Revealing history in reverse chronological order makes it easier for the reader to connect the initial scene to the events revealed later.

What we are trying to do is to frontload the story with action. What we shouldn’t try to do is reorder the plot structure. Even with an exciting event up front, the climax still goes toward the end of the story and the inciting incident still falls somewhere besides page one. The midpoint still falls at the center of the story. For in medias res to work, the scene must help reveal the problems of the protagonist. There are many ways of doing this. Killing off a red shirt is one way. Once we understand the problems, the story needs an inciting incident to convince the protagonist to act. This could be part of either the forward moving or backward moving story. In the forward moving story, the protagonist’s life may be threatened, inciting action. In the backward moving story, a character may tell the protagonist something that reveals that the death of the red shirt wasn’t an accident, inciting him to seek out the murderer.

If we put the story events in chronological order, they might not make sense, but in story order they should fall in the expected locations.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Importance of Subject

Part of the author’s task is to pick the right subject. Actually, the author gets to create the right subject. Since all the good plots are predefined and the theme is probably whatever bee the author has in her bonnet, the creation of the subject is the author’s opportunity to stand out.

Look at the stories of Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee. They both have the same plot. They both have the same theme. But they are very clearly different. The difference is in the subject. In Mary Poppins, the children are fairly good and the only real problem is their father works too hard. The nanny is attractive, “practically perfect in every way,” and gives the children medicine with a spoonful of sugar. In Nanny McPhee, the children are terrible and their father is grieving the loss of his wife. The nanny is ugly, gives the children what they deserve and no amount of sugar would make the medicine she gives them taste good.

The decisions an author makes about the subject determines what events can take place, or the events that take place can limit the subject the author can use, depending on how you want to look at it. The love story of two starship captains would be different than the love story of two high school sweethearts. It would also mean a difference in genre. One would be science fiction and the other might be teen fiction, even if they have the same plot and theme.

Stories are about how the subject changes over time. We like subjects with problems because they have a need to change. It is helpful to see the subject as a conglomeration of characters and other things because some characters may not need to change in a way that relates to the theme. These characters may exist to encourage others to change or as a narrator through whose eyes the reader sees the world.

Monday, December 15, 2008

While We're on the Subject

Artists, such as painters, often produce several pieces of art that are very similar, so much so that experts can guess the artist without looking at the signature. In publishing, this might be called the artist’s brand, but if we look closely, what we see are subject and theme. A painter’s theme, for example, might be common flowers. One painting might be of a rose, another of a tulip, another of a daffodil, but they all follow the theme of flowers you might see in your own yard. The subject is the specific flower the painter chose. If he paints a red rose one day and a tulip the next, then his subject is different, even though he has stayed with the theme.

In writing, we see a similar phenomenon. One of the most common themes is romance. There are hundreds of authors writing nothing but romance novels. You might think that readers would grow tired of the same theme, but the subject is different. The characters are cowboys and farmers and business owners. Some are young. Some are old. Some are rich. Some are poor. Some are widowed. Some divorced. Some are dying of a broken heart.

If theme is the statement we wish to prove, subject is the tool we use to prove it. We shouldn’t think of subject as just the characters, though they are a major part of it. The circumstances and time period are also be a part of the subject. We can talk about love (theme) in an office environment as easily as we can in a war zone (subject), but the end result looks very different, just as a painting of a tulip looks different from that of a rose.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Theological Fiction

There is a term, Theological Fiction, that doesn’t seem to heavily used, but it’s used to describe a subset of Christian Fiction. We can think of theological fiction as being similar to science fiction, but where science fiction is centered around scientific theory, theological fiction is centered around theology. As with science fiction, theological fiction tends to fit within the realm of speculative fiction. Randy Brandt says that “[theological fiction] seeks to teach us something about God and Christianity, not just about people who are influenced by Christianity in some way.” I’m not sure that his definition sufficient, but it works for now.

Much of the Christian Fantasy that is hitting the shelves is Theological Fiction. Compare something like The Shack with a pure work of Fantasy like Inkheart. Young has a clear agenda to change the reader’s view of God. He spends a high percentage of his book having “God” explain what is wrong with traditional Christianity. Of course we could have a book that spends a lot of time explaining what is right about traditional Christianity and it would amount to the same thing. In Inkheart, Funke doesn’t spend much time telling us what she wants us to believe. It is clear that she believes books are important, but we never get the feeling that she wants to force that belief upon us. She presents the idea that someone could read a character out of a book, but the reader isn’t expected to accept that outside the universe of the story. She might want us to believe that how well be craft our words and read the stories determines how alive the story becomes to the audience of a book, but it is by no means forced.

In the Ink World that Funke describes, there are various strange creatures. We recognize some of creatures. She has blue fairies, which we have seen in other books. She also has strange creatures we haven’t seen anywhere else. We don’t need to know what makes these creatures possible, only that they exist in her Ink World. Theological Fiction also has strange creatures, but instead of fairies, elves and luck dragons, Theological Fiction has angels, demons and false prophets. If some other type of creature appears, such as a vampire, the Theological Fiction author explains how it might be possible by having an angel, demon or false prophet disguise himself as whatever fanciful creature it is. The author implies that his story is possible, but we don’t understand the spiritual realm well enough to see it happening in our everyday life. This could become mysticism if we aren’t careful.

There is room for Theological Fiction to improve. I would like to see it move in the direction of good Science Fiction. In good Science Fiction the author does spend much time arguing that something like time travel or transporters are possible, instead he spends his time telling a story that takes place within a world where these things exist. From that we learn about benefits and problems these technologies might cause. In Theological Fiction, I would like to see authors present a story in which a theological view holds true and then reveal the impact that has on the world.


Theological Fiction: Should There Be Boundaries? – Randy Brandt

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Second Draft Role Reversal

I talked before about character based writers ignoring the advice of plot based writers and vice versa. Now let’s consider when they should apply advice from the other side. Once a character based writer finishes a first draft, she goes back and reads her work. Maybe the plot isn’t as interesting as she thought it was while she was writing. Maybe it drags in the middle. Now’s the time to push aside the books by characterists and pick up a good book by a plotter.

Plotters develop a framework to hang their story from. If they have done a good job, when they begin writing they don’t have to worry about sagging middles and other plot structure problems. With the first draft done, we have access to the whole plot and we can make changes that make it work better. The main reason why the character based writer didn’t do this in the first place is because she couldn’t see the whole plot, but after the first draft is done she doesn’t have that problem.

People who develop the plot first may have another problem. Once the first draft is finished the characters may come off as bland. The plot is great, but the characters need work. So now we look to the character development experts to help us solve the problem. It may be as simple as giving a character a limp or it may require more significant changes, such as making him a poor man instead of a rich man. The changes may require changes in plot, but after the first draft is complete we can see the character more clearly for who he is and figure out how we need to change him to make him more interesting.

Another way to look at this is to say that the characterist and the plotter which roles in the second draft. If you wrote a character based story in the first draft then you are going to be checking the second draft to see how the plot needs to be changed. If you wrote a plot based story in the first draft then you are going to be checking the second draft to see if the plot is consistent with the characters that have now been defined.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What I'd Like...

If I had my way, Christian Fantasy would lose its fixation on Spiritual Warfare. A book has angels or demons in it, so it must be about spiritual warfare. A book has knights on horseback who take up swords to fight the enemy. This too must be an allegory for spiritual warfare. Someone steps in a mud puddle and it must have something to do with spiritual warfare.

While there is nothing wrong with writing about spiritual warfare, if it is handled in the right way, do we really need so much of it? Fantasy is an excellent place to talk about a wide variety of subjects, but at some point we have to question whether every sword must represent the Bible and whether we really need to talk so much about demonic forces when its real flesh and blood people that we need to be concerned about.

Christian Fantasy needs more pure fantasy in which a sword is just a sword and the evil king is just the enemy. I would like to see more Christian Fantasy that is written for no other reason than the enjoyment of the writer and reader. Allegories have their place, but sometimes it’s not to not have to figure out the hidden meaning behind the author’s words.

Among Allegories, I would like to see Christian Fantasy have more books that deal with current events. Good allegories are opinionated. Animal Farm was written to ridicule Communism, for example. They let us talk about people who may be offended without calling them by name. When I look at Christian Fantasy and see so much Spiritual Warfare, I wonder if some of these authors have an original opinion at all or if they are just blind to the stuff that’s going on around them. Can we honestly say that we believe demonic activity is a more important subject than something like divorce among Christians or some other current issue?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

God Bless Us With Thorns

What’s the purpose of thorns in the Bible? They are first mentioned Genesis 3:18 after Adam sinned. There were no thorns before that. You will recall that Paul had a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble. In Hosea 2:5, 6 we see a reference to thorns and a wall that were to prevent the harlot from going after her lovers. It seems similar to the reference to Saul kicking against the pricks on the road to Damascus. Many times in the Bible we see a parallel between thorns and the chastisement of God. Thorns and snares are in the way of the forward: he that doth keep his soul shall be far from them. – Proverbs 22:5 When we are following a trail and run into thorns, we know we’re off the path. While suffering is never pleasant, we can think of thorns as a gift that God uses to keep us on the right path.

In a practical sense, thorns take many forms. The contempt of a co-worker may be a thorn that causes us to reconsider how we treat people at work. A traffic ticket may be a torn that encourages us to obey the speed limit. A speech impediment may be a thorn that reminds us that our speaking ability isn’t as important as how the Lord uses our efforts.

Thorns that we encounter aren’t sin, but rather a hedge between us and sin. They are often the consequences of our sin. Satan doesn’t like that hedge and would like to see it taken down (Job 1:10). The hedge seems to work both ways in that it keeps us from drifting into sin and it prevents Satan from harming us. But our goal isn’t to live among the thorns, but rather to stay within the clearing that God has made for us.

Monday, December 8, 2008

I Don't Need Your Money

We don’t always get to choose how the Lord blesses us. In fact, many times we pray asking for something and never receive what we ask, but when we sit back and let him choose, it can be fun to watch him work.

A few days ago, I donated some money to Lifeword through our church. I won’t tell you how much, but it had a couple of zeros in it. I wrote the check, kind of figured they needed the money more than I did and sent it on its way. I never expected to get it back, but a few days after I wrote that check my employer gave me a bonus for some work I had done earlier in the year. The bonus was the exact amount that I gave to Lifeword.

Sometimes the Lord blesses us and we don’t see it so clearly, but it’s nice when he shows us in such an obvious way. I could have gone years without missing that money. I didn’t need the bonus, though it isn’t unwelcome. I have been doubly blessed. I was blessed by being able to support an organization like Lifeword and I was blessed by God handing the money back to me, as if to say, “I don’t need your money.”

How often do we feel like we are somehow doing God a favor by giving our tithes and offerings? But it isn’t he who benefits from what we give. We are the ones who benefit. We can’t give him anything that he doesn’t already own.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Theme and WWJD

This week’s theme has been theme. In fiction, theme is where we make our claim that we want to prove or disprove, but it isn’t the same as with non-fiction. Going back to the tithing theme of earlier in the week, if I were to write a non-fiction piece in support of tithing, I would probably state my claim then back it up with Bible verses and real life examples. In fiction, we must be much more subtle. We don’t want this:

“I don’t believe in tithing,” he told his pastor.

“Then you’re robbing God,” the old preacher said. “Malachi 3:8 says, Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed Me! But ye say, ‘Wherein have we robbed Thee?’ In tithes and offerings.

It gets the point across and it may even sound like a real life conversation, but it comes across as corny fiction. It doesn’t help that a novel is probably not the best place to talk about tithing, but if we wanted to do so we should craft a story that leads the reader to draw the conclusion that we ought to tithe rather than picking up our Bible and bopping people over the head.

One possibility is to tell the story as an allegory. Many allegories are Fantasy. Instead of God, you might have a king. Instead of church members, you might have citizens of a country. Instead of tithes, you might have taxes. But an allegory doesn’t have to be Fantasy. Instead of the church, you might have the volunteer fire department. Instead of tithes, you might have dues.

You can also address the topic more directly without addressing it bluntly. Charles Sheldon addressed a similar theme in In His Steps and it did quite well, though some may say it is still blunt in a few places. Sheldon handled his theme suggesting that we should live life as Christ would by showing the lives of fictional characters trying to live life by asking what Jesus would do. In His Steps stands as one of the few Christian classics because Sheldon successfully persuaded people to ask the question What Would Jesus Do? and he did so without directly telling the reader to ask that question.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Review of House of Dark Shadows

Robert Liparulo’s House of Dark Shadows is the story of a family that moves from L.A. to a small town. They move into a house that just isn’t right. Sounds don’t always come from the right places. People enter one room and come out another. The linen closet connects to locker 119 at school. Doorways in a hidden hallway lead to exciting adventures in far-off places in different time periods. The target reading level for this book appears to be fifth or sixth grade.

Let’s start with the good stuff. The premise is great, obviously, and provides an example of what Christian Fantasy should be aiming for. What kid wouldn’t want to live in a house where the linen closest transports him to school, and then to have the ability to travel through time? Excellent!

The theme for the book is something along the lines of tell the truth or face the consequences. We see this in that the father lies to his family to get them to move to the strange house and the boys are secretive about exploring the house. The end result is that at the end of the book some odd creature kidnaps their mother and carries her off into one of the worlds to which the house is a gateway, setting up the rest of the series. It doesn’t hurt to have another book to encourage children to tell the truth.

The book has some of the crude humor that children and young teens enjoy. The sentences are short and the writer repeats statements with different wording when he feels his readers may not understand the term he uses. This should make it easier for his target audience to understand the book.

On to the not as great parts of the book. High on my list is the cliffhanger at the end. When I was in the target audience, I hated books that didn’t end properly. Being the age I was, I was never sure that I would get the next book in the series. I you are considering this book as a gift for a child, I highly recommend waiting until all of the books are available and giving the books as a set rather than giving this book alone.

The book needs pictures. That isn’t to say that the story isn’t understandable without them, but they’ve become so much a part of books of this type that the blank pages at the end of each chapter seem all that much more empty.

I would have liked to have seen the boys talk less and do more. I assume they will be spending more time in far off places during the rest of the series, since they have to find their mother and grand-mother. But you have to wonder, if a kid has the ability to visit exotic places, what is he doing sitting around the house? And why doesn’t he spend more than fifteen minutes away?
I’ll let you decide if this is good or bad. It isn’t nearly as dark as most Christian Fantasy, but the book is a little dark. From the very beginning, the house instills fear. At no point do the boys truly enjoy the house. Instead, they are fearful of it and it only grows worse as they learn more. It is not a place to escape to, but one to escape from.

Overall, the book is entertaining and is probably the best Christian Fantasy I have read recently. Though it is somewhat disappointing in places, I wouldn’t feel bad about purchasing this book for a young reader.

Less Preachy Writing

One of the common complaints about Christian novels is that they tend to be didactic or preachy. The critics are somewhat justified in making this statement, since there are plenty of examples, even among the more popular Christian authors. Someone is bound to say, “they haven’t read Christian fiction recently.” That may be true, but it is a problem that we should try to avoid.

I would say that the solution is to “show, don’t tell”, but that phrase is overused. Didactic writing happens when we try to convince people of a theme without providing the required supporting evidence. Usually, this happens with themes other than the main theme. If we feel obligated to put the plan of salvation in every book, it is likely to come across as preachy unless it is the main theme. No matter how important a theme is, if we don’t have room to handle it properly, it should be left out.

The author of one of my favorite books included some chapters that I wish she had left out and I often skip over them when I read the book. The chapters exist for one purpose and that is to tell about this little unsaved boy. The rest of the characters in the book are already saved, but the main character meets this boy and over about three chapters the main character shares the gospel with the boy and of course he accepts Christ. The problem is that these chapters get away from the main theme, which deals with obedience to God with a humble attitude. If the three chapters had supported the theme, they probably wouldn’t have seemed preachy at all, but they were more along the lines of “here’s how to be saved”, “wow that’s great, sign me up.” This causes them to come across as orphaned chapters from the rest of the book.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Writing to a Theme

Some authors don’t know the theme of their novel until after they have finished writing it. It can be helpful to know the theme as you write because it will guide you through the writing process. Scenes that don’t support or oppose the theme in some way can usually be eliminated without hurting the novel and doing so often helps. If we know the theme, early in the novel we need to state the theme.

We don’t do something as blatant as saying, “My theme is good conquers evil.” Instead, we do something offhand. We don’t even have our protagonist state the theme. In a classic hero/villain story, we wouldn’t want to have the hero tell the villain, “you can’t win because good conquers evil.” Instead we might have a friend of the hero talking about a mean person at work. “No matter how badly she treats me, I going to treat her good, because good overcomes bad.” Then in the rest of the book we will go about proving that statement, mostly through the interaction between the hero and villain, rather than the situation at the friend’s workplace.

Theme isn’t the same thing as genre. Consider the highly constrained Romance genre. We know the girl is going to get the guy, but our theme will create variations on that. If we use the good conquers evil theme of today, then the girl will get the guy only after good conquers evil. If we use the God blesses tithing theme from yesterday, then maybe the girl getting the guy is one of the things God blesses her with. If you are writing to a theme, the theme will always shape the story.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Using a Theme

I’ve talked about theme before. Yesterday, I listed many different Christian themes. We can think of those as Super-themes rather than an actual theme you will find in a novel. A theme in a novel is like a statement that we have set out to prove. In Christian fiction, we must approach it with a Christian world view, but that has more to do with the conclusion than what it does with the theme. Our theme statement can be either a statement in support of a Christian world view or the converse. Picking one of the themes from yesterday, let’s look at an example.

Tithing. There’s a topic we don’t see much in Christian novels (probably for a good reason). What kind of theme statement might we have in support of tithing? Pulling a line from many sermons on the subject, we could say, “The Lord blesses those who tithe.” The converse is something like, “There’s no reason for Christians to tithe.” Creating the theme statement is the easy part. The difficult part is how we cover the topic in a novel.

There are Christians in both camps on this subject, but to keep things simple we will assume that the Christian world view leads to the conclusion that the first statement is correct, but how do we prove it without becoming too preachy? We don’t want a situation in which a preacher stands behind the pulpit and says that tithing is good and all the people say, “Amen!” We see too much of this in Christian novels.

In many ways, it may be better to apply proof by contradiction. We take the converse statement, “There’s no reason for Christians to tithe” and that is the one we present to the reader. (I’ll talk more about how to present the theme later.) As we move through the story, we attempt to show that there is no reason to tithe, but we counter each argument with the opposing view.

“It’s not that I have anything against giving money to the church,” Joe said. “I just don’t like the idea of letting the church know how much I make by giving ten percent. I don’t think God expects Christians to tithe.”

“You could always give more and then they wouldn’t know,” John said.

“Yeah, and then they’ll bleed me dry because they think I make more money than I do.”

The example above shows a natural conflict that that exists when we present the opposing theme to the one that we are trying to prove.

But the theme runs through the whole story, so there is much more involved than just a conversation between two characters. If we really want to show that God blesses those who tithe, our plot must be such that we show that. We might start with a person who doesn’t tithe. Due to the inciting incident, this person makes the decision to tithe. Things are going well and the Lord is blessing. Then things fall apart. Maybe his wife loses her job and money gets tight. After they pay the bills, there isn’t ten percent left over. After struggling with this, they decide to tithe anyway. They reach the end of the month and they have been able to pay the bills. You could also play that out the opposite way and have the family lose their home after they quit tithing.

Monday, December 1, 2008

101 Christian Themes

Christian Literature is often defined as writing that deals with Christian Themes and incorporates a Christian World View. So what are the Christian Themes? I came up with 101 of them. There are bound to be more and there is much disagreement, even among Christians, about what the Bible teaches about many of these.

1. Salvation
2. End Times
3. Marriage
4. True Love
5. Redemption
6. Return and Forgiveness
7. Stewardship
8. Obedience
9. Faith
10. Reap What You Sow
11. Wasteful Living
12. Husband Love Wife
13. Wives Submit
14. Church and Government
15. Prayer
16. Sin
17. The New Christian
18. Temptation
19. Lust
20. Church Attendance
21. Christian Service
22. Respect of Persons
23. Racism
24. Good Over Evil
25. Church Perpetuity
26. False Religion
27. Angels
28. Suffering
29. Dating
30. Tithing
31. Bible Study
32. The Workplace
33. Spiritual Warfare
34. Abortion
35. Love Thy Neighbor
36. The Bride of Christ
37. Church Discipline
38. Discipleship
39. Church Fights
40. Prophecy
41. Worship
42. Praise
43. Raising Children
44. Dying
45. The Single Life
46. Abstinence
47. Satan and Demons
48. Respect for Parents
49. Divorce
50. Humility
51. Grace

52. Mercy
53. Doctrinal Disagreements
54. Absolute Truth
55. Rebellion
56. The Great Commission
57. Deceit
58. The Will of God
59. Friendship
60. The Crucifixion
61. Sacrifice
62. God’s Blessings
63. Responsibility
64. Greed
65. Life After Death
66. Unequally Yoked
67. Security in Christ
68. Assurance of Salvation
69. Sexual Morality
70. Love Thy Enemy
71. Patriotism
72. Hospitality
73. Encouragement
74. Caring for the Body
75. The Inner Man
76. The Church
77. Atonement
78. Freewill/Election
79. Miracles
80. Gluttony
81. The Law
82. Conduct in Church
83. Living Among the World
84. The World in the Church
85. Sodomy/Homosexuality
86. Polygamy
87. Drug/Alcohol Abuse
88. Selfishness
89. Hell/Eternal Punishment
90. Missions
91. Teaching Young Christians
92. Caring for the Sick
93. The Christian Journey
94. Modesty
95. Sharing
96. Envy
97. The Armor of God
98. A Godly Heritage
99. Signs of the Times
100. Adoption
101. Widows and Orphans

Friday, November 28, 2008

Through the Looking Glass

One of the problems with Christian Fantasy that I have seen is in how it steps through the looking glass. This is a problem that isn’t unique to Christian Fantasy, but it is a problem that Christian Fantasy authors must handle if they hope to succeed. Some have and some haven’t.

The Fantasy author must find a way to step through the looking glass with his story. If he doesn’t, the reader will apply the rules of our Universe to the universe of the story. When we write, we want to create the suspension of disbelief. That is more difficult in Fantasy when the story closely approximates our world. If the Fantasy author tells us that there are elves living among us, we are willing to suspend our disbelief for the space of the story, but suppose he tells us that the 9/11 attacks were planned by our government. We will refuse to accept that.

Creating the suspension of disbelief requires a few things we can’t prove. While we have never seen elves, we can’t really prove they don’t exist. The facts about the 9/11 attacks are widely known and provable. Christian Fantasy has an additional problem that ordinary Fantasy doesn’t have in that it must assume the Bible to be fact. When Christian Fantasy suggests something that is inconsistent with the facts in the Bible the suspension of disbelief fails.

The solution for an author who wants to tell about 9/11 in a different way is to create an alternative universe. This is very similar to the Science Fiction author’s parallel dimension. C. S. Lewis accomplished this by sending children through a wardrobe. Once on the other side, all of the facts that we once knew are no longer in evidence until we reestablish them, so if our story does something like blame 9/11 on someone else or says the Nazis won then there is no way for the reader to prove otherwise.

A couple of things seem to work well. The most obvious solution is a portal type story. Alice stepped into a rabbit whole in one story and through a looking glass in another. Encapsulating the story in a dream or a story as told by someone else will also work to move our reader from this world to another. The other thing that works is to simply dump the reader into a world that is so strange that the reader just assumes it isn’t our own. Telling the story from the point of view of an elf will do that for us.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Writing About Holidays

Happy Thanksgiving! If you are reading this on Thanksgiving Day, you ought to get something for your dedication—a free book, a hundred dollar bill, a free turkey, something. But no, I’m not giving out any of those things. All I have to offer are my thoughts on writing about holidays.

When we include a holiday in a novel, there is a tendency for it to over power the novel. If you mention Christmas, you might as well call the book a Christmas novel. If you mention Valentine’s Day, the book might as well have a pink cover. For all practical purposes, holidays don’t occur in Fantasia except when the author wants to talk about a particular holiday.

Holidays carry with them some requirements of their own. If we write about Veteran’s Day we can expect it to involve the armed forces. Ground Hog’s Day stories had better have a ground hog. Christmas is the big one. Christmas stories are about family, peace, the jolly old elf, magic and some other things. We deviate from these things to keep it interesting, but we still tie the story back to these things in some way. If we didn’t our readers would have a hard time accepting it as a Christmas story, in which case it would be better to not mention Christmas at all.

If you like writing fantasy holidays are great. There are people in the world who believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Leprechauns. Talk about the suspension of disbelief. They assure us that the reason Santa Claus doesn’t reveal himself to us is because we aren’t sincere in our belief. With a concept like that, we could make any claim at all and tell people that the complete lack of evidence is because they don’t believe. Every wish can come true in a Holiday story.

I enjoy a good Santa Claus story or a good Leprechaun story, but they present problems for the Christian worldview, especially Santa Claus stories. The typical Santa Claus story is about making dreams come true. Someone makes a wish and Santa Claus will make it come true. Santa Claus is often a type of god who has no consideration of whether a wish should come true or not. All that matters is whether the person is good or bad. It usually comes off a little corny because things don’t happen like that in real life. It would be better if after the wish comes true the person comes to realize it was a mistake, but then it wouldn’t be much of a Santa Claus story.

That’s it for now. Don’t eat too much and enjoy the game.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Handling Problem Spots

When we write stories, we sometimes come up against plot elements that don’t seem possible. The reader simply won’t believe it. What are we to do?

I came up against a situation like this in For the Love of a Devil. To maintain consistency with the biblical account of Hosea I had to find a way to put the female character in slavery, but we don’t see slavery so much in America. I did the research and yes there is a very active slave trade in the United States, but it stays hidden in the shadows. The events leading up to that just didn’t seem believable. Even though she was already in a bad situation, it didn’t seem possible that the person who did so would sell her into slavery. I stumbled upon a solution that turned out to be much simpler than I would’ve expected and it even has a name.

The plot device that I stumbled upon is called lampshade hanging or spotlighting. When one of my characters was about to tell my main character what had happen, I had her say, “You won’t believe me.” The main character then has to convince her to tell him where his wife is. By the time the character reveals she has been sold into slavery, we are expecting something odd and it doesn’t seem so unbelievable. It was either that or spend several pages explaining modern day slavery in America.

Spotlighting works. It isn’t always clear why it works, but it works. Even Shakespeare made use of it in Twelfth Night when Fabian says, “If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” In my case, I think it raises the reader’s expectations for something very strange and then when the reader looks at it he considers that it really isn’t that unbelievable. Another possible reason is that by highlighting an improbable event, the author is telling the reader, “yes, I agree with you.” The reader then doesn’t have to need to raise the argument and thus be pulled out of the story.

Some spotlighting is very obvious. Television shows often say something like, “it seems like something that would only happen on TV.” This tends to pull the audience out of the show for a brief moment, but the important thing is they keep watching. Yet obvious spotlighting that highlights the problem without creating another unbelievable situation can essentially eliminate the problem, if it is handled well. In either case, the audience will keep reading or watching, which is what we wanted in the first place.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Which Advice?

There are a couple approaches to writing a novel. Some people like to write novels by the seat of their pants and just write, while others like to develop an outline. Forgive me if I generalize a little, but it seems to me that seat of the pants novelists favor character driven stories while outliners favor plot driven stories. For our purposes, let’s define these two terms.

Character Driven Story – a story in which the author creates
interesting characters with a natural dislike for each other, throws them
together and sees what happens

Plot Driven Story – a story in which the author creates an interesting plot and
then goes and figures out what kind of characters would do such a thing

In a character driven story, the author might say he has a company owner and a union boss as characters. You can pretty much bet that the plot is going to have something about union negotiations, since that is what normally brings these people together. Or if you go at it form the other direction, if you know the plot is about union negotiations then you can probably guess that there will be a company owner and a union boss involved. If you know the union boss is going to set fire to the owner’s home, then you can guess that he is hot tempered.

Both approaches can produce good stories and often do. Interesting characters tend to produce an interesting plot. Likewise, an interesting plot tends to produce interesting characters. So far be it from me to tell you which approach to use, but whatever you do, don’t try to mix them.

Consider a character based writer who has developed an interesting character who happens to be an uneducated farmer. Now she picks up a book by an outliner that describes how to develop a plot. The writer thinks up an interesting James Bond type plot about and follows the outliner’s advice about developing the plot. She sits down to write, with her outline and her character. Now we have conflict of the wrong kind. An uneducated farmer is unlikely to find himself in a James Bond situation and wouldn’t have the knowledge to do what is required if he did. The writer is now forced to either change the uneducated farmer into a more James Bond type character or to change the plot to discover what the uneducated farmer might do if he is thrust into a James Bond situation. If she tries to keep both the character and the plot then it will only come across as corny.

I think what this tells us is that we must be selective about what we do with the advice we receive from authors, even highly successful authors. If you have outlined a plot, what character based writers tell you about developing characters isn’t always going to work. That’s not to say that we should completely ignore what they say, because we don’t develops characters or plot in a vacuum. We just need to be aware that we don’t have room to tweak our characters a great deal, since the plot defines many of their characteristics. Likewise, if the characters are predefined, we may have to ignore some of what people say about defining the plot because there are things in the characters’ natures that will prevent them from doing some things.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Show, Don't Tell - Confusion in Action

Show, don’t [just] tell. We hear this phrase a lot, but what does is mean? A more important question, does anyone agree? Brandilyn Collins says the rule means to “communicate information to your reader through a character's actions, expressions, words, or perceptions rather than communicating through author narrative.” (Rules, Rules, Rules—Show, Don’t Tell, 03/13/2008) Monica Wood declares, “showing can be thought of as scene, telling as narrative.” (Description, pg 21, 1999, Writers Digest Books) D. G. Jerz says that “Telling communicates facts; showing invites understanding.” (Show, Don’t (Just) Tell, 05/08/2000) Literary agent Rachelle Gardner says, “The point of showing is to give your reader an experience as opposed to information.” (Showing vs. Telling, 10/29/2008)

Taking these statements alone, you may not see just how different these statements are, but when we look at the examples they provide and the more detailed statements, we see that each has a significantly different view. What one holds up as an example of telling another might describe as showing. Who is right? This is where it starts to get interesting—they are all right. Brandilyn, to some degree, ties showing to close third person. This isn’t totally inconsistent with other views, since the purpose of using close third person is to pull the reader into a scene and “give the reader an experience” as Rachelle mentioned. But it’s also possible to write a scene in close third person that only communicates facts. What makes them correct isn’t that they are in agreement, but that from their point of view, their understanding of Show, Don’t Tell will produce the more noble thing we will call good writing.

Now, it is highly unlikely that any of the four or other experts who talk about show, don’t tell are going to look at good writing and call it bad because it doesn’t match some concept of show, don’t tell. What I think we’ll find is that each would offer different suggestions on how bad writing might be improved. Brandilyn seems most interested in the emotions of her protagonist, so she is likely to suggest more details concerning internal thoughts. Rachelle is more interested in external details. What does the character see, hear, touch, etc? Jerz is more likely to suggest creating a scene with action and conflict. Monica doesn’t much care whether you show with action or tell with narrative, but she wants descriptive details. Each of these may improve our writing in some way.

The rest of us also come into this with a unique point of view. We take what other people say, run it through our unique filters and develop our own view. It’s our own view that will ultimately shape our writing. So rather than seeing show, don’t tell as a confusing rule that no one knows what it means, we should find a variation on the rule that helps our writing then put it to good use.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Christian Themes

Every story has a theme. Without a theme, the story falls flat like a limp balloon. The theme of a story is a little like the hypothesis of a scientist. A scientist states a hypothesis and then through additional research will either prove or disprove his hypothesis. Likewise, a novelist will state his theme early in the book and through the events of the story he will lay out his arguments to support the theme.

The theme is something like “money can’t buy happiness” or something similar. I have tried to think of what the uniquely Christian themes are. The one that really sticks out is “Jesus saves” though it seems that authors seldom use that as a theme but try to work it into the story in other ways. I think this is the wrong way to go. A theme should be interwoven into the tapestry of the story.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What Christian Fiction Should Be

I was thinking about Christian Fantasy the other day and I asked myself what I think we should see in Christian Fantasy. As I thought about the question, I realized the answer goes back to what we should expect to see in Christian Fiction as a whole, not just Christian Fantasy. The only definition of Christian Fiction that I know of is that Christian Fiction is fiction with a Christian worldview. That leaves the genre wide open, since practically anything could be considered a Christian Worldview.

Fiction always has and always will be much more than entertaining stories. People who tell these stories intend to get a message across to the listeners, or in this case, the readers. Jesus used fictional stories to convey his message to the people who followed him. Many of the fairytales we learned as children had a hidden meaning that went far deeper than just the fun story. Isn’t Little Red Riding Hood just a scary story intended to warn children of the dangers of talking to strangers? Doesn’t Cinderella tell children that if they do what is right they will succeed?
Since fiction is intended to encourage certain types of behavior, Christian Fiction should encourage behavior that is consistent with the way the Bible instructs us to act. That brings up a question. Is Cinderella Christian Fiction? The theme of Little Red Riding Hood is a little too generic to be considered Christian, but the theme of Cinderella has a Christian feel to it. The Bible tells us that the Lord rewards righteousness. The story of Cinderella tells us the very same thing. Perhaps we could consider Cinderella an early example of Christian Fantasy or maybe our definition of Christian Fiction is a little too broad.

Perhaps we should define Christian Fiction as fiction with themes that encourage Christians to act in accordance to the word of God. The two key words here are Christians and encourage. First, Christian Fiction is aimed at a Christian audience. While I know that many authors feel that the salvation message should be obligatory in Christian novels, but Christian authors can write with the assumption that most of their readers have accepted Christ. If that is our assumption, we must then ask what message Christians need to hear through our work.

To encourage may be the more important of the two keywords. We all need heroes, people we can look to and say, “I want to be like that.” We can talk about bad behavior and the problems it causes and people will realize they are doing something wrong, but what we want to do is to give people a reason that they want to behave in the right way. In a well written story, a reader wants to slip off into the world of the story and experience the events. When the hero of the story succeeds by doing the right thing, the reader begins to feel that he can be a part of the story by doing the same thing.

Let’s bring it down to a real Christian theme. We could choose anything, but let’s choose tithing, since that is a theme you won’t see often in novels. We could go a couple of routes. We could have a story in which a character doesn’t tithe and through the course of the story sees the error of his ways and begins to tithe. On the other hand, we could have a story in which the character gives more than a tithe, but events in his life make it difficult. While he considers reducing his offering, he keeps on giving and things work out well in the end. Which character would you want to mimic?

So, to answer my question, I would like to see Christian Fiction be stories about characters who overcome adversity that threatens their Christian walk rather than moving toward a better Christian walk because their lifestyle is creating adversity. I know that is vague, but I hope you understand for now and maybe I will discuss it more later.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Deus Ex Machina

Imagine that you are watching a Greek play. As the end of the play nears, you begin to see that there is no way for one of the characters to survive. If he chooses life then he must give up all that is dear to him. If he chooses what is dear then he must die. Then from above the stage another character appears, one that we haven’t seen before. With a booming voice he removes the character from the danger he faces. You are left to think, “I didn’t see that coming.”

What just happened? This is something that we might call a plot device, if we don’t just call it bad writing. This plot device has the name deus ex machina or if you prefer god on a stick. In some Greek plays the playwrights would put their characters in situations from which they could not recover and then bring them out of it by bringing in a god of some sort, usually via something like a crane from above the stage. This became known as deus ex machina, or “god from a machine.” The ancient Greeks’ belief that their gods could step in and save the day is not that much different from the Christian belief that the Lord is actively concerned about what is happening in the lives of his people, so this plot device is an important consideration in Christian fiction.

The bad side of deus ex machina is obvious. People like protagonists to take charge of their situation. It’s very disappointing when the hero reaches a tragic end, but then someone steps in and makes us think that all the character did was worthless. The reader has invested so much in the story, only to find out that the author has the option of changing the parameters of the story at will. This is a little like breaking the fourth wall. For the benefit of the audience, the characters aren’t supposed to realize that they are being watched, so when a character declares that he knows he will survive because he has lines in the next act, the tone of the work changes. The same is true of deus ex machina.

On the brighter side, deus ex machina can be a fun plot device for the author to use. It is a very commonly used device in Santa Claus stories. Consider the plot of Miracle on 34th Street. Throughout the movie we assume that the old man needs help, but then he steps in and we discover that he was actually the one helping the other characters. You will recall that C. S. Lewis also made use of the god in the red suit to give the children in Narnia some of the things they would need for their journey. It obviously worked, since so many people have enjoyed his stories. I think it helps in that case that the magical character shows up before the children need them. Had he the children been in dire straights before they needed their gifts it would have seemed very odd for the jolly old elf to show up and give them just the right gifts. In some stories it makes a lot of sense to have help appear at just the right time. Or if the point is to say something about the deus that appears then it may be needed.

If you decide to use deus ex machina, be careful. It is difficult to pull off well. Most of the time, your readers won’t care for it, though they may let you by with it in a few endearing stories.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thoughts on Publishing Models

In business, there is a relationship between cost, schedule and quality that always exists. I don't know who originally thought of this. I certainly can't take credit for it, because I learned it from a mentor. The relationship is such that if we reduce the time to complete a project we must either throw more money at it to obtain more resources to do the same work or we must reduce the quality/scope of the project. If we want better quality, cost and schedule will take a hit and if we want to reduce cost then schedule and quality will take a hit. This relationship works fairly universally, so we can expect to see this same relationship at work within the publishing industry. One place we see it very clearly is in the differences between some of the publishing models used in the industry. Let's assume that the typical traditional publishing model in which the publisher pays the author a small advance, hopes to sell a few thousand books and has a budget of about $40,000 is like the first image on this page. Now let's consider how other publishing models differ.

The successful self-published author and the small publisher follow a model that is very similar. Cut the process to the bone and hope for the best. It is clear that by reducing or eliminating the editing of the book, the quality of the book will suffer. The first reduction comes at book selection. The self-published author doesn't spend any money on finding good talent. The small publisher may spend very little. The result is that more low quality books make it into the system. In this model, the publisher is doing less work, so it is easier to turn out a book in a shorter amount of time. It takes time for a book to make it through the various phases of the traditional publishing process, but when one or two people are making all of the decisions it requires less time. This model does have a few advantages in that it can turn out a book while the market is still hot and when book are actually selling the publisher can pull in more profits, but sales are never guaranteed.

The Bestseller model takes a very different approach. The publisher has a good idea that people will buy the book if they know about it, so the publisher throws more money at it. Thomas Nelson recently did this by giving books to bloggers who would agree to write a review. As I recall, they gave away two hundred copies of each title and I would guess that they also sent additional copies through the traditional review channels as well. I don't know what they did with schedule, but they probably reduced it from the typical timeframe and they probably tried even harder to produce a quality product. That gives us a model similar to the one shown here. You can throw more money at a bestseller because you are sure to get your money back. What you shouldn't do, however, is assume that you can somehow force a book into bestseller status by throwing money at it. Some books will never be bestsellers, no matter how much you spend on it, but very few books make it to bestseller status unless someone does throw money at it. There are a few self-published books that that could be bestsellers and yet they don't become bestsellers. It is very hard for a self-published book to make it into bestseller status because no one knows about them. Similar books produced by traditional publishers become bestsellers because the publisher is willing to spend the money required to make people aware of the book.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Picture First Blogging

You may have noticed that I have been taking a different approach to blogging recently. On my more recent blog posts you will see a corny little image, similar to the one seen here. One thing I’ve noticed is that it is easier to read a blog when the blog has images attached. Some people “borrow” stock images for their blog posts, even with the copyright watermark still attached. My recent approach is to draw the image before I write the post. We’ll see how long I keep this up, but it is working for now.

My hope is that the images will help to illustrate whatever point I am trying to make. Rather than using stock photos, I have been drawing images, often with cartoon like text to help bring the point home. While I don’t usually see stick figures in my head, I think showing a picture of what I am thinking will make it much easier for people to understand.

One of the things I have noticed is that if I start with the text I have a tendency to over write in order to describe something. By the time I’m finished, the picture is pointless. By drawing the image first I can focus on the point and reduce the text required.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Writing About Love

The other day, Cara Putman posted about Defining True Love. In her post, she had a list of definitions for love as stated by young children. She stated that she posted it because one talked about a boy who climbed into the lap of a man crying after he he lost his wife. The boys mother asked him what he said. He said, "nothing, I just helped him cry."

That reminded me of a scene in For the Love of a Devil in which I had something of that thought in mind. Sara Dawson is a student of Geoff Mywell and her story is the B story of the novel. Geoff has lost his wife and his emotions are a mess. Sara comes to talk to him at church, just before the service starts. As Sara is walking away, Geoff notices a flick of her head that reminds him of Heather. This brings him to tears. Sara looks back and sees him crying. She goes back to assure him that everything will be alright and to offer him a handkerchief. I did that because I wanted to show the love that Sara has for her teacher. I don't mean anything gross. She is, afterall, only sixteen and he is thirteen years older. No, this isn't a schoolgirl crush or anything related to romantic love. This is a kind of love that will cause her to give up one of her greatest desires to help him get his wife back. I didn't want to say, "Sara loved her teacher." What I wanted to do was to make it so obvious that no one could miss it.

The B story is were we most often see true love. In For the Love of a Devil you have the strange love story involving Geoff and Heather in the A story, but you also have a love story between Sara and Geoff. The nice thing about the love story in a B story is that even if we make the novel a romance we don't have to have a happily ever after ending to this story. Though I don't think I'm through with Sara yet, Sara will never marry Geoff. It's doubtful she'll marry Kyle, though he was part of the B story in Searching for Mom. The B story allows characters to love each other without expectations of something more. Love here doesn't have to be concerned with how attractive the person is, how much money the person has or whether the person voted for the same person. In the B story, people can love people, just because they are people.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


In her column “I Wish I’d Said That,” Maggie Chandler recently wrote about the meaning of the word Amen. The meaning of the word is along the lines of “let it be so” or “so be it.” She told how she asked her Sunday school class about its meaning and her daughter responded, “whatever.”

I could have thought at about the meaning of that word for a long time and not have come up with that answer. Along the same lines that Maggie took with what she said, we take the whatever to be a somewhat disrespectful term. It implies that a teenager is telling a parent, “I don’t agree with you. I know you won’t listen well enough to understand, but I’ll yield to you. Whatever.” But the parent is thinking, “why can’t she just accept that I know better than her?”

When we look at the Lord’s prayer in the garden, isn’t that how he ended it? Doesn’t “not my will, but thine be done” mean exactly the same thing as whatever? Jesus may have been more sincere, but the meaning’s the same. To so the question for us might be, just how sincere are we when we end our prayers with amen? Are we even as sincere as a teenager yielding to the will of her parents, even though she is certain they are wrong?

I look at my prayer life and some of the things I lay before the Lord. There is no sin in going to the Lord and saying, “Look, my life’s pretty rotten right now. Is there something you can do to fix it?” We don’t know how Jesus prayed most of the time, but when Jesus prayed before his betrayal, he prayed one of those prayers. Even though he already knew the answer, Jesus prayed, “let this cup pass from me” and then to paraphrase, said “whatever.”

So often, I look at life and work it all out. I point my head in one direction and say, “Lord, I want to go this way.” When things don’t work out like I hoped, I bow my head and say, “I need some help here. Amen.” But do I really mean amen? Am I willing to lay it all before the Lord and accept his answer, even if I don’t like it? Sometimes. Am I making my life more difficult when I’m not? Absolutely.

I would that the Lord would help me to accept his will for my life. Whatever.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Obligatory Review: Field of Blood by Eric Wilson

Field of Blood is a Christian Fantasy novel written by Eric Wilson and published by Thomas Nelson. I received a free copy through their Book Review Blogger program and quite frankly that is the reason I finished it instead of dropping it on the floor and finding something more productive to do. As a whole, it is a readable book. By that I mean that at no point did I dread turning to the next page and it didn’t put me to sleep. I can also say that at about page 375 of 400 the story picks up pace and it becomes a page turner.

Though it comes from a Christian publishing company, Field of Blood is based more on Jewish mysticism than on biblical teaching. It pays homage to Christian beliefs, but at the same time has several weaknesses. For example, the primary good guy in the book is a female with immortality. The Bible tells that the wages of sin is death and yet this woman is immortal even though she practices fornication and doesn’t know Jesus.

I have had some trouble trying to classify the plot of Field of Blood. Part of that is because the plot is so disjointed. The plot jumps back and forth from Gina to the vampires. Until you get to about page 375, Gina’s story and the vampires’ story has little to do with each other. They cross paths occasionally, but they are far removed from each other. Even so, if we use Blake Snyder’s terminology, I believe Field of Blood can be best described as Monster in the House because there is a sin that releases these Monsters into the main character’s world. The problem with this classification is one that clearly defines my main issue with this novel. The house is missing.

As Blake Snyder describes Monster in the House, the house is needed to prevent us from simply walking away from the monster we created. But that’s exactly what Wilson does with Gina. The monsters are in Romania, so he sends Gina to the State of Tennessee to keep her safe. One of the vampires does eventually find her but the only thing that happens is that the vampire hires someone to kill Gina’s baby with a bomb, which now that I think about it seems like an odd way for a vampire to kill a baby. The problem that exists when the hero and villain are so far removed from each other is that the tension falls flat. Another problem with Field of Blood is that the villains keep dying. Gina has no part in the villains dying until after page 375, but they keep dropping dead anyway. It reaches a point when you start to think that since Gina is immortal she should just wait these guys out and let them die.

What I would have liked to have seen with this novel is villains who were more evil, heroes who were more good and more direct head to head conflicts between the two. My recommendation is that if you are looking for a good vampire book, go read Bram Stoker’s Dracula again.

Show, Don't Tell

As much as novelists talk about the rule Show, Don't Tell, personally, I think it applies more to the film industry than it does with the publishing industry. That doesn't mean it doesn't have application in both places, but take a look at the scene on the left. In a movie, this an example of telling. The audience is supposed to gather from the dialogue that the boy is bitter against his father. If that works, we might as well leave out the image of the two hugging, since the boy has already told us that they are going to. But as movie goers, we don't want characters telling us through dialogue that they are bitter, or worse, having other characters tell them they are bitter. Instead, we want to see it through the actions of the character. Instead of the characters saying, "my father left when I was young and it made me bitter" we want to see the character looking at a picture of his father and scratching away the face with a pair of scissors. We want the character's wife saying, "your father called" to which the character responds, "I don't want anything to do with that man."

The novelist is at a disadvantage to the movie maker when it comes to showing. Technically, we can't show anything, so we redefine the word show to mean something other than display images to mean something like reveal through action. In a movie you can show that a crowd is large by displaying a wide shot of thousands of people. It only takes a few moments. In a novel it requires more work by the writer to show that the crowd is large. Telling is easy enough. We could say, "there were one hundred thousand people in the crowd that day," but numbers mean very little to readers. We see them and forget what we saw. We need to paint a picture with words that reveals just how large the crowd is. Are there venders moving through crowd? Are police officers milling about to keep the crowd in line? Can we see very well? Are we being bumped constantly by people trying to make their way through?

There are some things that we shouldn't show. It is easy to come up with examples of the difference between showing and telling. The question that is much harder to answer is how to determine when we should show and when we should tell. In For the Love of a Devil, I begin by showing the female character with another man, but I also tell about a previous time when. I felt it necessary for the reader to know that this wasn't the first time she pulled something like this, but the previous incident was outside of the heart of the story. The story is about how a man deals with the woman he loves leaving him, so the previous incident in which she never left didn't seem to fit.

That was a personal choice on my part. Someone else writing the same story may have made a different choice. Is one better than the other? Perhaps, but it is hard to say. As writers, we must find a balance between showing and telling. How well we are able to find that balance will have a greater impact on how well our stories are received than our skill in taking a telling sentence and converting it into a showing sentence.

I ask those of you who may wish to comment, what should be the balance between showing and telling?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Pain of Writing

Kurt Vonnegut has told writers to be sadistic and make bad stuff happen to our characters. I’ve been messing with a character who is rather wealthy, but he is a family man and loves his grandchildren very much. The plot requires him to want a particular claim that a con artist makes to be true. At first, I thought it would be sufficient for him to be distracted from his work by having a missing grandchild, but it didn’t work with the story. The man has four other grandchildren he knows much more about than the missing grandchild, so it came across as if he just wanted the complete set. I needed something better, something stronger.

When I took Vonnegut’s advice, I found the solution in killing off the grandkids. Not just one of the grandkids—all of them. Suddenly, the happiness of a man who invests so much in his grandchildren is invested in the missing grandchild. It also gives a more real quality to the character. As the primary owner of a large company, the man is something of a king and though it is good to be the king, kings tend to be very boring creatures when they are in the height of their glory. It is when they must suffer like the common man that kings get interesting and the deeper the pain they suffer the more interesting they become.

I must say that I have taken no pleasure in the death in the four grandchildren. It’s one of these funny things about writing. With the stoke of a pen, I can give a man one hundred grandchildren or give him none. It is nothing at all to say that the grandchildren never existed, such that they are swallowed up by The Nothing and not even a hole exists, but to take that same pen and say that the children are dead leaves a hole in the author’s heart. The author cries along with the man as he sits at the front of the chapel, staring at those four miniature caskets, knowing that inside are the bodies of four young children who have sat on his lap and not very many days earlier, took him by the hand and said, “I love you Grandpa.” We feel his guilt as he looks down the pew and sees his wife, his sons and daughters, all having lost someone very close to them. He should have been able to protect them, but they slipped right through his fingers. The king, with all of his power, could not hold death at bay.

Here’s a simple rule. If the author feels nothing when he writes, the reader will feel nothing. Good writing makes us want to shout from the mountaintops and wallow in the pit of despair, but it is never bland. We do not have one without the other and we must not be satisfied with what lies between.