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.

Monday, November 10, 2008

It Pays to Stand Out...Sometimes

Writers walk a fine line and those who do it well succeed. The rest of us languish in obscurity. The one thing that highly successful books have in common is that they are different from their peers. The first novel that does something interesting or different gets the glory. The rest get…nothing. Or next to nothing. We want our work to stand out, but we also have to be careful. Maybe we don’t want to stand out too much.

Put God in a dress flipping flapjacks and you have a novel that stands out. But does it stand out for the right reasons? Okay, actually that has already been tried and what I expect is that we will start to see more novels (mostly self-published) that will attempt to rethink God. Perhaps instead of putting him in a dress someone will give him the body of a cow. Isn’t that what the children of Israel did? Read the Bible, God was not amused. But enough about that.

As we write, we have to make choices. The most important choice is the story idea. Nothing makes a book stand out more than having an interesting story idea, but romance novels are still doing pretty good and they all have pretty much the same idea with different characters. You could write a novel in second person. That might make it stand out, but it might be hard to read. You’ve heard of the rules of writing. Throw them out the window and your novel might stand out, but no one will read it. Write the whole thing in Klingon. That’s sure to sell books. No, novels have to stand out while conforming. It isn’t easy to know how to do that. How often have I looked at a book and thought, “no one will buy that” only to discover it is high on the bestseller lists? On the other hand, you might see a novel with a great idea that few people read.

I saw a book the other day about a successful woman who returns home to discover that success isn’t as important as small town values. It is the least unique storyline I have seen in a long time and yet a publisher published it. It makes me wonder why I’m beating myself up trying to come of with fresh ideas instead of just grabbing an idea from a made for television movie. O well, such is the book market. Actually, I couldn’t write a book like that. I grew up in a small community and I know what small towns are really like.

But I’m rambling. Let me just reiterate, we must write something unique while staying close to the expectations of readers.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Our Seventy Years

Do you ever have the feeling that all we are ever doing is looking for a way to occupy our minds for our seventy years on this planet? We go to work each day, hopefully to a job we don’t find boring, so we afford to go home in the evening to do things that we find interesting. We do social things, such as attend church or other things, in part because that’s a whole lot more interesting than sitting at home twiddling our thumbs. When we are at home, we occupy our minds by watching television, reading books, working on hobbies or connecting with people online.

When I look at some of these Eastern religions that meditate by trying to clear their minds of all thought, I can’t help but wonder if they have a death wish. Visit a nursing home and what will you find? In many nursing homes you will find senior adults with nothing to do but to push their wheelchairs up one hall and down the other. There are many things that cause people to approach death in haste, but I am convinced that many people are hastened to their death by boredom.

If there is such a thing as hell on earth, it seems to me that it must be boredom. Hell must be a boring place. There isn’t anything good about fire and brimstone or weeping and gnashing of teeth, but I wonder if the thing that will really get people is that there is nothing to do there. There will be no television, no books, no games. I don’t think people will be doing much talking, but if they did, what would they talk about? People would say over and over, “I should have accepted Jesus. I should have accepted Jesus.” Any body that they have will be the same old body they have now, so their minds may not be any more clear in hell than that of an old man.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Writing Scathing Reviews

Just the other day, Cara Putnam asked a question about reviewing books that weren’t right for her (a euphemism used by the publishing industry to describe poorly written books). I don’t advocate writing reviews that sound like every book is the greatest thing that has ever come off the press, but I did say that I am moving in the direction of writing fewer scathing reviews and writing more complimentary reviews. I have chosen to use this blog post to explain why

One thing I have noticed since I have begun to write novels is that I am much more critical of the work of others. Jesus said, “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” If I write a scathing review then I am opening myself up for the author or fans of that author to do the same with one of my books. Now, some books deserve a scathing review, but I find that as an author I may have a mote in my eye that keeps me from seeing clearly when I write a review.

Let me give you a real world example. I didn’t know that Francine Rivers had written Redeeming Love until after I had started writing For the Love of a Devil. I have been fascinated with Hosea since we studied the prophets in Sunday night training service many years ago. I already knew where I was going with the story before I read Redeeming Love, so my own choices flavored my opinion of the decisions Francine Rivers made. Then there is the question of whether my desire to see my own book success might give me an unhealthy desire to “prove” her book inferior to mine. Considering the number of readers who love her book, even using a euphemism like it wasn’t right for me could be enough for droves of fans to attack my work.

HoseaRedeeming LoveFor the Love of a Devil
Antagonist(s)Gomer/IsraelCast of Evil People, HoseaGomer, Gomer's lovers, Gomer's family
Number of Children303
Opening ImageIsrael has sinned, go marry an awful womanGomer's childhoodGomer leaves Hosea
Fun and Games

Hosea/God persues Gomer/Israel and provides for her, but she puts her
faith in her lovers/gods

Hosea convinces a prostitute to marry him. She agrees,
but she refuses to love him.
Hosea persues Gomer who has gone to her lovers. He trys to provide for her,
but she doesn't want his help.
Lead Into Finale"Go love her," God says to Hosea before Hosea goes and
buys his wife back from the slave market.
Hosea has given up. Gomer is now running a halfway house
for prostitutes. Hosea's friend goes and finds Gomer.
One of Hosea's students encourages him to go buy back his wife, who somewhere
in the dark world of slavory. Hosea seeks out a former student who may have
ties to the dark world Gomer has entered.

Even a cursory look at the table above will tell you that there are significant differences between the three. (I’ve changed the names for consistency.) There are many other differences as well. Look at the children involved, for example. In the Bible, the children’s primary purpose is to have names that go along with Hosea’s prophecy and to call for their mother to repent. In Redeeming Love, because Gomer believes she cannot have children, this becomes an issue and is actually the reason she leaves Hosea. In For the Love of a Devil, the children have important roles to play in revealing Gomer’s self-centered nature as well as in showing the pain Hosea feels.

As you can see, I tried to follow the biblical version more closely than did Francine Rivers. Considering that, if I were to write a review of Redeeming Love and I state that I thought she should have gotten to the story more quickly, I have to wonder whether I am referring to the story that she has told or the story that I think she should have told. It could be that if I hadn’t read Hosea or hadn’t written For the Love of a Devil then I would have thought she got to the story in plenty of time.

When we write reviews, we often reveal as much about ourselves as the books we are reviewing. Reviews are only opinions, but when we state our opinions we offer suggestions on how people should evaluate our own work. Do we want them to evaluate our work that way? Will our work stand up to the same scrutiny? Perhaps we are demanding something of the author that shouldn’t be required. It is something to consider.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


One of the writing concepts that some people have a hard time grasping is the concept of a protagonist and an antagonist. Many people have the idea that the protagonist is the good guy and the antagonist is the bad guy. While this is often the case, it is not the way we should understand the concept. The protagonist is principal character, but he can be either good or bad. The story will reveal which he is. The antagonist opposes what the protagonist is trying to accomplish and can be either good or bad.

Sometimes in the development of a story it is helpful to consider various protagonists. We should ask which characters will change the most during the events of the story and who will push the story forward. I was looking at a story idea the other day in which a woman was going to show up on a doorstep and force her way into a family. I thought of her as the protagonist, but the story just wouldn’t come together the way I wanted. For the story to end with her a member of the family, she would not change from her desire to put herself into the family. By swapping the protagonist and the antagonist, the story worked much better. A particular member of the family doesn’t want her kind, so when she shows up he opposes her. He tries to push her out, but it makes things worse. In the end, he has to learn to accept her or his family will fall apart.

The protagonist isn’t the same thing as the narrator. We can see a story unfold from the eyes of anyone or several people. When the narrator is a character other than the protagonist, we won’t see all that the narrator is doing. Mostly, we will see the things he does while he is with the protagonist. Consider how Watson told about Holmes.

Related Posts:

The Omnitagonist: When the Protagonist and the Antagonist are the Same

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Why Can We Read Novels But Not Websites?

Much is said about people’s short attention spans. Someone recently asked why we are able to read novels, but we aren’t able to read websites. It made me think a little. What are the major differences between these two types of reading?

Here’s what I came up with. We can read a novel anywhere, but a website requires a computer. When reading a novel, we have a well-defined goal of getting to the end of the book. With a website, we have no starting point and no ending point, so we can stop whenever we choose. With a novel or even a non-fiction book, we are reading to learn what the author has said. With a website, we are looking for one piece of information like a needle in a haystack. Once we find it, we declare ourselves done and move on.

What other differences can you think of between the two forms of reading?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Non-fiction Is Easier Than Fiction

Fiction is harder to write than non-fiction, or it should be. When you write fiction, you have to make it up as you go. When a writer writes non-fiction, he should know his subject well enough that he doesn’t have to make anything up, he just has to figure out the best order for the information and find a way to get the point across to the reader. Let me show you what I mean.

A college professor has spent years studying fish. One day the dean comes to him and says, “I want you to write a book. It will make the college look better.” Now the professor could decide to write about the history of Egypt. “That will give me a chance to learn about Egypt.” But he won’t do that. Instead, he will go to his files, pull out his work from the past several years and he will write about fish. In all likelihood, he could write much of the book from memory, but he will use his work and the work of others to insure the accuracy of his statements.

That brings us back to the subject of platform. Our platform is what we know, what we have learned, what we have experienced. Because of what we have learned, people look to us when they want to learn more about that subject. If we don’t have a platform that will support what we are writing then we can’t expect people to buy our work. I am amazed at the number of people writing devotional books without a platform to back it up.

If we take a closer look at that, what kind of platform would work well to support a devotional book? One person that comes to my mind is Maggie Chandler. She is pretty much unknown outside the BMAA, so she is a good example. Her platform is that she is a pastor’s wife, she has worked with Lifeword, she has written a popular column for the Baptist Trumpet, and she has spoken at various women’s gatherings. If she were to publish a devotional book, she would probably be able to sell several thousand copies if she and the publisher promoted it well.

Contrast someone like Maggie Chandler with another writer. This writer has been reading through the Bible and she gets to the book of Proverbs. As she reads she notices something fascinating, so she writes it in her notebook. She reads some more and writes something else down. “This is really cool! Other people need to see this. Maybe I should write a devotional book.” So she sets off to write a devotional book. There may be nothing wrong with what she has written or it could be that what she has gleaned isn’t as impressive to people who have studied the Bible more. There is nothing about her life that would convince people that she is qualified to write a book of devotionals, so the book won’t sell.

A good platform takes time to build, but people who have a good platform will find it much easier to write about things their platform supports than will people who have no platform. It may not be trivial to write a book, but people with a platform have a wealth of knowledge from which to gather information. People without a platform will struggle to find significant material and will have trouble getting people to pay attention.