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