Friday, January 30, 2009

Till We Meet Again

A very dear friend of mine, Glenn W. Fox, went home to be with the Lord this week. Bro. Fox was my grandparents’ pastor when I first met him, which couldn’t have been very long after I was born. Bro. and Mrs. Fox were always like an extra set of grandparents to my sister and me. We often visited in their home and we would see them every month at associational meetings.

Bro. Fox always enjoyed children. I remember when I was young he would often ask, “are you First Timothy or Second Timothy?” I never knew how to answer.

Though we had no blood ties, it was from Bro. Fox that I gained an interest in parliamentary procedure and in how a meeting should be conducted. He always wanted things to be done properly and in order. I remember him standing up at an associational meeting, making a motion to amend a motion to get the wording correct and then voting against the motion. From that I realized that he was willing to let the majority rule, even when he disagreed with their decision.

I remember many times when we would go out to Camp Garwood for a work day and Bro. Fox would be there. On one occasion when I was young I remember him asking me if I knew how to operate a “Pick-em-up truck.” I didn’t know what he was talking about and I was much too young to drive. He pulled out a wheelbarrow and showed me—a pick-em-up truck. The two of us went over on the east side of the cafeteria and picked up rocks to put in his pick-em-up truck.

During the past few years, his health hasn’t been so good. For that reason, I am happy to know that he is in a much better place where he can rest from the trouble of this world. It’s with a sad heart that I see him go because he truly is one of my dearest friends, but I have no doubt that one day I will see him again, the day that I see my King face to face.


Why? It’s a simple question. I’ve been looking at my latest manuscript and have been trying to classify it. There’s love story there, but that isn’t the primary story. It isn’t so much about a dude with a problem, since the dude has, in part, created his problem. It isn’t about a monster in a house, though there are some similarities there. I have come to the conclusion that this story is about the question of why. Why would a con-artist who claims to be a Christian show up on a rich man’s doorstep and claim she has been raising his granddaughter?

The story isn’t a classic detective story, but it is a mystery. The characters know some things that they aren’t anxious to reveal to the other characters and to us, but we have to sort through the different points of view and see if we can figure out what is going on. I can’t say that I really set out to tell that type of story, but it turned out that way anyway. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Selecting An Agent (Part 2)

Once more, I’m looking at Mike Hyatt’s list of literary agents. I’m asking myself what criteria I would use to decide whether I want one of these to represent my work. There is one criterion that is etched in stone and it is related to something Mike says, “While all of them represent Christian authors, they themselves may not necessarily be Christians.” Is that acceptable? No. See II Corinthians 6:14. Thought that was only talking about Christians not marrying unbelievers? Afraid not. If an agent can’t tell about when he accepted Christ, then a Christian is better off without him.

Agents receive about 15% of the contract amount. If the agent is asking for more, the agent had better be able to show why she’s worth it. If an agent is asking for less, it might be good to ask what’s wrong with him. If the agent wants money before the publisher pays, I will very nicely tell the agent that she is out of her mind.

I’m not sure how many clients an agent should have, but it should be more than a few and less than a lot. Having few clients means the clients get more attention, but it also shows lack of experience. Having many clients shows the agent has a reputation, but some clients won’t get the attention they need.

An agent needs a good personality. I’m not sure what that mean, but I know it when I see it.

An agent needs a good reputation with publishers. What good is an agent that can’t get anyone to talk to him?

Are there other criteria for an agent? I’m sure there must be, but like I said, an unknown author can’t afford to be too picky.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Selecting An Agent (Part 1)

And now we leave our regularly scheduled program… As I write this, I’m looking at Mike Hyatt’s list of literary agents. I got here via literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s Blog. If you reference the image above, which is a simplified representation of the publishing process, you will see where I am in the overall process. I chose a different route this time. It ought to be the easier route. It isn’t.

What it comes down to is that when you take this route you are asking a publisher to take a $40,000 or more risk. Unless you happen to be a personal friend of a publisher, it isn’t easy to convince a publisher to take that kind of risk. So what we do is hire someone to promote our work.

I enter this side of the process with a story I love, but also with some apprehension. The story, which I’ve been calling Cowtown Homecoming, is about a snobbish rich man. Fort Worth businessman Fox Jacobs is king of the world around him, but as the book opens he is mourning the death of his four grandchildren. A homeless woman comes to his home with a girl she claims Fox’s daughter-in-law left in her care prior to a fatal accident that occurred twelve years earlier. Torn between a desire to separate himself from people he sees as undesirable and a fear of losing yet another grandchild, Fox takes the woman and child into his home. With the help of others, Fox investigates the events that surrounded the death of his daughter-in-law while trying to keep the admitted con-artist from ingratiating herself to his son and walking away with the family fortune.

Like every author who has invested a significant amount of time in a story, I believe I have a great story, but I approach this with apprehension because of what I know about the publishing industry. Agents aren’t very eager to take on new clients, so we expect a significant number to decline. But, let’s suppose some agent does look at Cowtown Homecoming and decides that he or she is wants to represent it. Now the ball’s back in my court and I have to decide whether I want this particular agent representing my work.

An author without a traditionally published book to his credit can’t afford to be too picky. Rejecting an agent could be the difference between seeing a book published or not, but we don’t want to be so lax in our selection criteria that we will take anyone with Literary Agent written on a business card. What should our criteria be? That will have to be a topic for another day.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Elevator Pitch

The other day, Rachelle Gardner asked for elevator pitches. Below you will find what I submitted, along with her response. What I submitted is actually a type of fill in the blank logline (developed by Jose Silerio) with the blanks filled in with my stuff. As you can see from the response, it is enough to make her think about drinking, which does not bode well for a potential agent/author relationship.

Timothy Fish:
The story is about a wealthy businessman facing retirement with no grandchildren, who is visited by a con-artist claiming she is raising a granddaughter he didn’t know he had and demanding that his son marry her; believing she only wants money, he seeks to discredit her, with the help of his son’s socialite girlfriend, but when they discover the con-artist is telling the truth, he must learn that social status isn’t important, before his son leaves the family business, to prevent the homeless con-artist from joining his family.

Rachelle Gardner:
That is one l-o-n-g sentence, dude. My eyes glazed over about 30 words in, and I began wondering what we were having for dinner and why the heck couldn't we get a decent glass of wine around here. This is way too detailed and convoluted—I can hardly make heads or tails of what's happening. The point is NOT to wow me with your intricate plot. Give me the genre; give me the exciting pieces that spark my imagination; give me an overview that makes me want to read the book. "A wealthy businessman becomes involved with a con-artist who may or may not be trying to con him..." What's at stake? Why do we care?

Let’s see if we can clean this up. Jose’s tool calls for:

Stasis=Death moment
family party with no grandchildren

flawed protagonist
snobbish rich man

Catalyst (Inciting Incident)
con-artist shows up with girl she claims is his granddaughter

Break Into Two
investigates woman’s past

B Story
son’s girlfriend

scares con-artist off

Theme Stated
social status is unimportant

All Is Lost
son leaves family business to marry con-artist

flawed antagonist
homeless con-artist

We try plugging these in again and get: On the verge of a family party without grandchildren, a snobbish rich man has a con-artist show up with a girl she claims is his granddaughter and investigates the woman’s past with the his son’s girlfriend; but when the con-artist disappears happens, he/she must learn that social status isn’t important, before his son leaves the family business, to defeat (or stop) the homeless con-artist (from marrying his son.

Is it better? Not much. The problem, I think, is that we have too much here that we don’t really care about at this point. It isn’t that these things aren’t important to the story. We want a B Story and a Midpoint and a Theme. We want all of it, but we don’t necessarily care what they are.

What if we do this: A respected rich man investigates the death of his daughter-in-law in order to discredit a homeless con-artist who shows up on his doorstep with a girl she claims is his granddaughter. Does that help? I think so. Even if that doesn’t make you want to read the book, you know what it’s about. It isn’t an elevator pitch yet, but we’re a lot closer. We can even turn it around: A homeless con-artist tries to convince a respected rich man that the girl she has raised is his granddaughter.

In the modifications above we use something along the lines of flawed protagonist does fun and games to defeat flawed antagonist because of catalyst. In a 300 page manuscript, the fun and games section occurs between pages 75 and 150. It’s all the stuff that our protagonist does to solve his problem before he realizes it ain’t gonna work.

Let’s try one more variation. The book is about a wealthy man who investigates the death of his daughter-in-law to prove that a homeless woman he thinks is trying to weasel her way into his family is lying about the girl she raised being his granddaughter. At this point, I’ll call this good enough. It isn’t perfect, but keep in mind that this is an elevator pitch. We aren’t likely to repeat our pitch word for word from one time to the next.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Craft of Writing

We talk about writing as an art and so it is, but writing also has much that seems to indicate that it is a craft. I think that is part of why slush piles are so large. There are many stores that sell various things that people like to use to decorate the walls of their homes. Usually, they are shaped like hearts with flowers and strawberries painted on them or something like that. They often have a lot of hot glue holding things together. I have a pig shaped checker board that I did when I was in high school. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you like that sort of thing, but if you buy one this week, there will be one just like it on the shelf next week to take its place. There’s nothing hard about creating this kind of stuff and many people enjoy it as a hobby, like others enjoy putting together jigsaw puzzles. That is an example of a craft. It doesn’t take any special skills to run a hot glue gun.

Compare that to what it takes to make cement bird baths. Once you have a mold, anyone can do the work, but creating a mold isn’t easy. Someone has to do the work of carving either wood or wax and then using that to create the form they will use to pour the cement into. Even if you see one you like, it isn’t easy to go home and reproduce it. You don’t see nearly as many people creating cement bird baths as you see creating pigs with flowers on their rump. It takes something special to create a bird bath.

It doesn’t take a special skill to write a book. If you can write a letter, you can write a book, so people are quick to say, “I can do that!” They don’t have to practice for ten years, like a musician does. They don’t have to learn to carve. It simply doesn’t take the same dedication to be a writer that it takes to do other arts.

There are such things as natural talent and the goodness of all art is subjective, but the need to develop the skills required helps to narrow the field. With writing, there is little to discourage anyone from putting something on paper and submitting it to someone. Whereas the bird bath artist can see before the mold is complete that the wings of the birds are too short or the jug the kid is holding isn’t round, the writer sees words on paper and will have words on paper. He compares these words to that of a favorite author and decides that they are good. In fact, they may be very much like those of another author and they will fail to stand out from the crowd. He may have perfected his craft and learned to reproduce the work of others, but he had not yet learned to produce something special.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Chat With A Character (Part 3 of 3)

“Here’s something you might be able to answer,” I said to Gene as we continued our conversation in Ellen’s café. “I have this character—“

“It isn’t me is it?” He asked.

“No,” I said. “It’s a woman, but you wouldn’t know her. You know her pastor.”

“So what about this character?” Gene moved his coffee cup to the edge of the table to make it easier for the woman with the coffee pot to fill it.

“She’s doing something she shouldn’t. She as this girl she’s taking care of. The girl is the daughter of a friend who died. This character has run into some hard times and she wants to give the girl a better life, so she goes to these rich people and claims the girl is a member of their family.”

“It sounds to me like you’ve got it all figured out.” Gene sipped his coffee.

“That isn’t the problem,” I said. “This woman has mixed emotions about what she’s doing.”

“Don’t we all? He asked. “Just as soon as I get back to my desk, I’m going to draft my resignation. It isn’t something I want to do, but I know it’s the right thing to do.”

“She has the opposite problem. She knows she needs to be honest, but she goes right on lying.”

“Why would she do that?”

“For her protection,” I said. “I’m not sure my readers will get it if a character regrets what she’s doing in one scene and then doesn’t change anything about what she’s doing.”

“That is the way people do things,” Gene said. “Don’t people decide to lose weight and then they go overeat without even thinking about it?”

“Yes, but that’s like a habit.” I sloshed my coffee around in my cup. “Fictional characters tend to be driven more by motive than what normal people are. The rest of us can get up in the morning and go through a whole day without ever thinking about why we’re doing the things we’re doing.”

“Have you thought that you just aren’t explaining her motive well enough?” He straightened the silverware next to his plate. “I know you have, or I wouldn’t have thought of that.”

“Yes, but that means even more revisions to things I thought I was finished with.”

“Speaking from personal experience,” he said, “I know that character will want you to get everything perfect before you let your readers see it.”

“Perfection isn’t possible,” I said, “But I’ll do my best.”

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Chat With A Character (Part 2 of 3)

I had taken the first sip of coffee when I saw Gene’s head rise above the stairs. It was a very good cup of coffee, if I do say so myself. You won’t find anything but the best at Ellen’s. They make their mistakes from time to time, but most of those stay in the kitchen.

“Why couldn’t you get a table downstairs instead of making me climb the stairs? These legs aren’t as strong as they used to be.” He pulled out a chair and sat down. “But don’t let that fool you. I’ve still got it where it counts.”

“I just thought we could talk more easily, up here where it’s quiet.” I took another sip of coffee. Good coffee. “You could have taken the elevator.”

“Not when I’m coming up here to talk about what you’re here to talk about,” he said. “Ellen told me why you’re here. I just haven’t figured out whether you’re here to ask my opinion, ask my permission or just to warn me. Can you tell me?”

“No, sir,” I said, “I’m not all that sure myself.”

“If you want my opinion,” he said, “I think it’s about time for me to retire and let Wayne take over.”

“That’s kind of what I’m thinking.” I picked up a spoon and stirred my coffee. It didn’t need stirring as much as I wanted to hear the clink of the spoon against the cup.

“Ellen told me that you aren’t sure that Wayne will be the one to take my place. Something about the church getting into a fight over it?”

“It’s just something I’ve been considering.”

“Well, stop!” he said. “I’ve invested a lot in that church and I don’t want you going and messing things up.”

“It makes things more interesting when there’s a fight.”

“Things don’t always have to be interesting,” he said. “Some of us like things to be boring.”

“Publishers don’t pay for boring. Publishers want something that people will read.”

“So that’s what you’re worried about. Here we are worried about how we’re going to fulfill the Great Commission and all you’re worried about is how much a publisher is going to pay you.” He took a drink of water. The ice hit the side of the glass, sounding like wind chimes.

“The two are tied together more than you think,” I said. “If people don’t read about you, then your church isn’t going to do your part to fulfill the Great Commission.”

He looked thoughtful for a moment, and then he asked, “Are the publishers in the real world the same as they are here?”

“For the most part,” I said.

“I think I can help you.” He put his glass down and looked at it for moment. “I know a man who owns a publishing company. It isn’t a small operation either. He was telling me just the other day that he’s been talking to Herbert Snow, the president of Thomas Nelson, about buying that company. If he can’t get that one, he thinks he’ll try to get Zondervan. He and I go way back. I’m sure I could call him up and he’ll publish anything you want to send him. Then you won’t have to split the church.”

“I know the same man,” I said, “and someday he’s going to send his niece to a friend of mine for some help with a novel she’s writing, but he can’t do me any good. In the real world, his company doesn’t exist and as far as I know, Michael Hyatt is the president of Thomas Nelson. I don’t know if they’ve got a Herbert Snow over there or not, but I can assure you that our mutual friend isn’t going to be buying them out.”

“Well, if it isn’t true, then why did you let me think it was?”

“It is true, here,” I said,. “though not the part about Herbert Snow being the president of Thomas Nelson. I’ll have to correct that in revisions. Who knows, maybe that’s the name I’ll give our mutual friend.”

“I did wonder why our friend didn’t have a name.”

“I want you to know that I’m all for retiring as long as the problems don’t come with it.”

“You might like to know that you’ve got a few fans who want me to keep you around.”

“You don’t mean as opposed to…” He made a motion with his finger across his throat, like that of a knife.

“No, nothing like that. I won’t be killing you off. I’ll even make you a promise. If Sara ever gets married, you’ll be healthy enough to go to the wedding.”

“That’s good.” He took another drink from his glass. “If you want an interesting story, what you ought to do is tell about Mark and his first wife.”

“I know,” I said, “but I’m not sure I can tell it like it needs to be told.”

“Who else could tell it? You’re the only one who knows the details.”

“True, but it’s such a sad story and I’ve told the most important parts already.”

“I don’t see how that could hurt anything. I has to be better than telling about a church fighting over who they want as their pastor.”

“Let me think about it,” I said.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Chat With A Character (Part 1 of 3)

I stopped by Ellen’s café the other day to have a chat with one of my characters. Ellen was happy to see me—she always is—but I stopped by at lunch time and the place was busy.

“I don’t have a lot of time to talk right now,” she said when I came through the door. She reached for a menu, but then she paused. “I don’t guess you need that. You know what’s on it.”

“Give me one anyway,” I said. I don’t know if you’ve tried this, but it’s a strange feeling to be able to walk into a restaurant and order a dish that isn’t on the menu and know that they will being it to the table, cooked to perfection. “And I didn’t come to talk to you.”

“Sometime when we aren’t so busy, I might be offended, but as you can see—“ She swept her hand toward the lunchtime crowd. “Who did you come to see?”

“Gene,” I said. “Your pastor is retiring. I wanted to talk to him before he does.”

“He isn’t here,” she said.

“He will be,” I said.

“Where do you want to sit?” she asked.

“How ‘bout that little table upstairs? You know—the one that’s off in the corner.”

She led me across the room to the stairs.

“Does he want to retire?” she asked when we reached the stairs. “I know he’s been talking about it, but talk isn’t the same as doing.”

“That’s part of why I came. I wanted to hear his thoughts on the subject.”

“We aren’t ready to see him go,” Ellen said.

“I’m not sure that I do either,” I said, “but Gene is in eighties and Wayne is sitting over there in the wings. I think Wayne has learned enough to make a good Senior Pastor now.”

“So you’re certain that Wayne would replace Gene?” She waited for me to sit down at the table before she handed me the menu.

“That’s the plan, but it’s up to your church.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.” She sat down in the chair across the table from me.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“I can just see you writing out a heated fight over who our next pastor will be. Mark thinks Wayne should be our next pastor. I think he should be our next pastor. I’ll tell you right now, I’m not going to let you split us on the issue.”

“No,” I said, “I wouldn’t dream of it, but the thought of the church begin divided did cross my mind. I just don’t have a preacher who would work as the other preacher—unless it’s Rob Snider.”

“But it’ll turn out okay won’t it?” She didn’t look very happy.

“I’m not sure. I’ve thought it through yet. Maybe Gene can help me with that.”

“We’ll talk about this again.” She stood to her feet. “I’m busy right now, but I want a chance to talk you out of doing something foolish.”

“O, yes ma’am. We’ll definitely talk again.” I turned my coffee cup over for someone to come fill it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Big Task

My second draft outline turned out to be a much bigger task than I originally anticipated. The final product will be several pages long. Each chapter has multiple scenes and each scene must be described with a few choice statements.

So far, I have found one scene that must be rewritten. It is a scene that I already knew would have to be rewritten. It's a scene that has the four grandchildren in it and that just won't work since I changed history and they died a year before the scene takes place. It also has the main character too deeply involved in business.

There are a few things I like about the approach I have chosen this time. The primary thing is that it wastes a lot of time. While I'm wasting time trying to figure out what to put in the outline about each scene, it gives me time to consider the scene and how it fits within the rest of the manuscript. Its surprising how many details you forget when you have your head down writing for several weeks. This quick pass through the manuscript is helping to bring it all back.

This particular project has turned out to be a mystery. It isn't a mystery in the usual sense, with a corpse in the library, but it is a mystery all the same. As with all mysteries, someone is lying about something and that mean the author has to keep up with what each person is saying when. I think this outlining task is helping somewhat with that.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Thoughtless Public Prayer

Today, I want to talk about prayer. In particular, I want to talk about public prayer. Now most people have a canned prayer that they pray when the preacher calls on them to pray. I don’t think they intend to memorize a prayer, but it’s like sitting in the same pew. It is just a habit. When I was a kid, we had a Sunday school superintendent who would get up and pray the same prayer every Sunday. Being the bright kid that I was, I took it upon myself to memorize this prayer and when the time was right, I prayed his prayer.

Maybe it’s because I didn’t want some kid to return the favor, but I don’t pray the same prayer each time I am asked to pray. The other night, after business meeting, I could tell by the way our pastor looked across the auditorium at me that he was about to ask me to pray. Now there are always good things to pray about in a public prayer. There are the sick, the lost, the ministries of the church and any number of other things. I wasn’t thinking about any of these. It could be that I was still thinking about how the sermon applies to my life or I could have been thinking about something I needed to give to one of our church members or it could be I was thinking about an attractive woman. I’ll let you take your pick of which one it was. It doesn’t really matter which it was. All I can say is that when I opened my mouth, the words came out all jumbled.

Why do I mention this? Is there some great truth we can learn from this? I doubt it. I just thought it was funny and someone might enjoy reading about it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

An Engineering Approach

I'm using a different approach to creating the second draft than I've used before. You may recall that the first draft is where I say we just have to get something down on paper and the second draft is where we work with large chunks of the story. In the past, I have created the outline, written the first draft and then didn't mess with the outline so much in subsequent drafts. This time, I deleted everything in the outline except for the title, and the things that remain the same for every story. Starting with a blank outline template, I am rebuilding the outline as I develop the second draft. This is a little like an engineer filling out a traceability matrix. There won't be anything in the story that isn't in the outline and nothing in the outline will be left out of the story.

What do I hope to accomplish with this approach? For all practical purposes, the outline is the story. The rest of it, the description, the dialog, etc., is just icing on the cake. If someone asked what the story is about, all I have to do is tell them what is in the outline. I don't have to summarize the story, I simply tell them the story in a much shorter form. But more importantly than that, if the the outline matches the written story, I don't have to read the whole manuscript to see if it works. If the story works in the outline form, it will work in the full length version as well. If it fails in the outline form, it won't be helped by putting it in full length form.

The first draft contains some things that the original outline couldn't anticipate. Bringing the outline up to date for the second draft gives me the opportunity to revisit the overarching plot with the benefit of a few weeks of thinking about the story and the characters behind me. The result, I hope, will be an improvement on the story.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Figuring Out How The Story Could Happen

When we write a story, we often include events that don't happen very often. These events can make things more interesting, but they can also come across as being unlikely. It can be helpful for the author to do a fault tree analysis to figure out what things he or she needs to put in the story in order to line things up to allow some important event to occur. I have included an example of this in Find_the_Story.pdf. If you would like the FreeMind file, it is available at

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Kill Your Characters

How far is too far? Writing a novel is often about throwing the worst thing we can think of at a character and watching him squirm. How far are we willing to go? We can look to the book of Job for our example. God allowed Satan to test Job in many ways, but he didn’t allow him to take his life. Satan was able to take his children and harm him physically. It revealed the character of Job, but he never did as Satan wanted and his wife encouraged—curse God and die.

We hope to test the limits of our characters, so we must ask ourselves what our characters would think is worse than death. One character might rather die than lose his children, while another might rather die then find out she is pregnant. Another might rather die than have his wife become his boss at the company where they work.

After we throw these things at our character, he must either change or die. He doesn’t want to change. He doesn’t want to accept the thing he hates, but he doesn’t want to die either. It is this struggle between two or more forms of death that makes our writing interesting.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Throw the Cat in the Water

As states go, Kansas doesn’t strike me as a very interesting place. That, I’m sure, is why Dorothy and Toto hitched a ride on an outgoing cyclone and went for a visit in the Land of Oz. The Land of Oz is a sharp contrast to Kansas. As boring as Kansas might seem, it turns out that it is more interesting to have a character in Kansas than to have him do nothing but talk on the phone, especially if he doesn’t want to be in Kansas.

I have a character that I had talking on the phone and it was about what you would expect. When I put this city slicker in the middle of Kansas farm country, suddenly, something as simple as a business meeting became an adventure.

When we get our characters outside of their comfort zones, good things happen. It’s a little like throwing a cat in a swimming pool to see what will happen. Throw a fish in a pool and no one pays much attention. It’s just a fish in a pool. Throw a cat in the water and they’ll watch to see what it does, even it they think you are being cruel. The nice thing about writing fiction is that we can be as cruel to our characters as we want and no one gets hurt. If anything, our characters are helped by our masochistic tendencies.

Monday, January 12, 2009

On The Phone

Modern technology has given us many ways we can communicate without seeing a person face to face. One example is talking on the phone. In writing, they all amount to the same thing. They create scenes in which the characters are communicating, but they aren’t doing much. Sometimes that’s okay, but we must be careful. Unless we have an omnipresent narrator, we can only follow the actions of one of the characters. This quickly degrades into a he said/she said scene. Even though he may be doing something while he talks on the phone, he is still tied to the phone and there is a limit to what he can do.

We can help these scenes by giving our narrator character something to do as he talks on the phone. He might be opening his mail, driving down the road or polishing his shoes. Nearly anything will work, except in situations where the character is consumed by the conversation. When he is so consumed, he won’t be doing mundane tasks, taking us back to a scene with pure dialogue.

It may be helpful to bring in a secondary character who has nothing to do with the phone conversation and is inconsiderate enough to cause a distraction. For example, a man might be talking on the phone at work with a woman from another state. The phone call is required due to geographical distance. As the man is deep in conversation, trying to persuade the woman to his point of view, the janitor come in and wants to vacuum the floor. This forces the man into some kind of action other than sitting his chair as he talks on the phone. If nothing else, we can tell about him lifting his feet and moving his chair out of the way, all while trying to understand the woman on the other end of the line.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Outline

When I write a book, I work with an outline. I’ve tried to work without one, but I kept getting lost and forgetting what I needed to say and what I had already said. The outline for my current work in progress is shown in the picture above. I use the FreeMind mind mapping tool. On the left I keep little details about the characters. Lizi Mills, for example, has blond hair. Donna Jacobs has black eyes. That’s a fact that I must have mentioned early in the manuscript, but I don’t recall saying that. I’ll see it in the second draft, but keeping that fact handy will help keep me from saying something about her piercing blue eyes.

On the right side I structure my outline around Blake Snyder’s beat sheet and it essentially replaces the storyboard that he recommends. My method is constantly changing and out of five manuscripts I haven’t done it exactly the same way twice. I put a word count total next to each section of the outline, rather than a page count. When working with novels, a word count is easier to work with.

I find that the outline is a living document. There simply isn’t room in an outline to tell everything that will happen in the manuscript, so there are things that happen that the outline didn’t account for. Often, that means the outline has to change. In my current work in progress, the original story I described in the outline had one of the characters boarding a train and to go back to Saint Louis. It looked good in the outline, but when I reached that point in the story I realized that the character barely had enough money to buy a train ticket, no longer had a home to return to in Saint Louis and had more of an incentive to stay where she was, though she still didn’t have a place to sleep. The outline couldn’t tell me I would run into that problem, but it is helpful in providing information about what must be changed to make it work.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

What Lies Beneath

When we write there are things hidden there, under the surface, that the reader never sees and yet these things have a great impact on what the reader sees. Among these undercurrents is the back-story. When we plunk a character down in a story he comes from somewhere. He went to school somewhere or he didn’t go to school. He was born in a hospital or somewhere else. He has ex-girlfriends or not. Many things shape the character’s life, but we don’t tell the reader about these things unless they become relevant to the story. Who cares about the character’s ex-girlfriend if he doesn’t know where she lives, but if she parks her car in front of his house every night then it just might be interesting.

Another thing hidden below the surface is what I will call the author’s message. When we write a story, we don’t just sit down with our characters and ask them to describe their day. Nor do we describe the most interesting periods of their day. Instead, we create a day for the character that moves the character through situations that fit the story we want to tell.

Our stories have order and structure. We don’t tell the story and then do the setup at the very end. We don’t spend thirty chapters on setup and then put the story in the last five. Some writers take a more structured approach than others, but there are things that every story must accomplish, in a proper or and having the right length. A writer must think about such things, but a reader need not consider it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Publishing Doll House

There are a lot of houses in the publishing industry. I glanced through my personal library and saw these names on the spines of books: Random House, Bethany House, Charisma House, Portland House and my personal favorite, The Chicken House. If that wasn’t enough, Thomas Nelson’s logo is a house and they put it on the spine of pretty much every book they publish.

The Thomas Nelson house is a strange little house--four stories and an attic, but it’s a little bigger at the top than it is the bottom. It looks a little eerie. The one you see here isn’t their logo by a 3D image based on the drawing. It still looks eerie.

With all of these houses, I started to wonder just what kind of house this thing is. I’ve decided that it’s a doll house. You know how some children will play by making up things for their dolls or “action figures” to do? I had the little Lego men when I as a kid and I made up things for them to do. Isn’t that what novelist do? The characters in our books are nothing more than the toys we might have played with when we were children. Hopefully, we are much more sophisticated than we were then, but we still send our characters off on missions or into battle or jump them over ramps in their cars.

Just as when we were kids, we often come to points in our stories that we decide we don’t like how things are working out, so we go back and mess with our characters. We make them fat when they were skinny. We change their clothes or give them a different car. We kill their parents or bring them back to life and we do it with the stroke of a pen. Just like a girl playing with a doll house, we can make changes to our characters’ lives and then change everything back to the way it was.

In time, the characters start to come to life. They reach a point when we can no longer change them so easily. When that happens, perhaps it is finally time to move them out of our little play houses and try to find a place for them in on of the doll houses we see named on the spines of books.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Favorite Posts

This is a bonas post, if you will. I'll follow the lead of others such as Michael Hyatt and post links to some of my more popular posts. I don't track statistics for the whole year, so this is based more on a random sample. The following are my most popular blog posts:

  1. How to Describe Beauty
  2. An Example Book Outline
  3. Protagonist/Antagonist
  4. "To Be" Verbs -- To Use or Not To Use
  5. A Sample Synopsis
  6. Show, Don't Tell - Confusion in Action
  7. Should Christians Support Prayer in Public Schools?
  8. How to Impress God
  9. The Faithful Sidekick

If I took the figures for the whole year, #4 would probably be at the top, but its popularity was earlier in 2008.


A few days ago, Rachelle Gardner reposted a post about encouragement. I heard of one pastor who said that he doesn’t believe church staff workers need encouragement because only those who are truly passionate about what they do should be doing what they do. I won’t go that far because there are things that get us down from time to time, but I have seen enough church workers put in long hours at a job that only the Lord will notice to know that there is some truth in what he said. Even if he were completely correct, we should encourage each other because God commands it (Hebrews 10:25).

Rachelle was talking about the need writers have for encouragement. They are looking for someone to say, “you can do it,” or something like that. I was sitting in my living room and looking at the painting you see here. If you can’t tell by the signature on the painting, I am the artist. When I painted it, I wasn’t trying to paint something that someone would purchase or hang in an art gallery. I didn’t care if anyone else liked it or not. All I wanted was a large painting to hang above my couch. If other people like it, that’s fine. If people hate it, that’s fine too because I don’t really care. I am not going to become discouraged if someone doesn’t like it. The comments of others will not prevent me from painting again.

As writers, we should take the same attitude. We should not write for the praise of others. Yes, we should enjoy it when it comes and we should learn from negative comments we receive, but we should never base our motivation on what others have to say. If we get enjoyment from writing and feel that we are accomplishing something then that should be enough. We should write the story that we wish to read and that should be sufficient. If we require the praise of others then we are doing it for the wrong reason.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Write With Action

When I see writers ask agents questions like “Is it ok to introduce a passage of showing with a passage of telling?” it makes me think that they are missing the point. While show, don’t tell can be very good advice, it is useless if people don’t understand how to apply it.

Before a foot race, there may be a lot of talk among those who are running. Hopefully it is good natured, but one runner might tell another runner, “I could run backwards and still beat you.” That is telling. It is just talk unless the runner actually runs the race backwards and wins. In that case it is showing.

Character is revealed by action. You could tell your children that you love them every day, but the truth isn’t revealed until we see whether you are the type of parent who fixes your kids’ lunches or who slaps them in the face every day when they get home from school because you know they must have done something to deserve it.

The same is true of fictional characters. Their nature is revealed through the actions they take. Do they say one thing to one person and something else to another? Do they tithe when they go to church or do they just drop a twenty in the plate so the people around them won’t think badly of them?

Now we could say something like “every week he meticulously calculated his income and wrote a check for ten percent of it” and we would still be showing, even though we don’t have a full fledged scene with him doing that very thing. On the other hand, we could say, “everyone knew he was a tither” and we are telling rather than showing. The difference? Action. When you write with action verbs you are showing. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to consider whether to expand a short sentence into a lengthy scene, but action and showing go hand in hand.

No, we can’t have action all the time. Sometimes we much bring things to a halt and describe how things are in at this moment, but we don’t want to stop for very long. We want our characters doing something, even if it is sticking a pencil over his ear, because what the character does is what reveals who is truly is.

Friday, January 2, 2009


Evaluating our own writing is always a difficult thing; we are always too critical or not critical enough. Even so, it is a necessity and when I look at my own writing, including the three novels in print and my current work in progress, I can see similarities among there differences. If you have read the three novels then you know that they are very different in their focus. Searching for Mom is about young Sara’s attempt to find a mother through an online dating service. How to Become a Bible Character shows a teenager’s desire to receive recognition for his service to the Lord, through the eyes of his youth pastor. For the Love of a Devil is Hosea’s story told in a current day setting. My work in progress is about a mother who takes her daughter to meet the girl’s father.

All of these are similar in the role the family and friends play in the outcome of the story. Any of these could have had a much darker tone then they do, especially For the Love of a Devil. What really stands out to me is that there are the types of stories I like to read when I read. That is the key. Because we write what we enjoy reading, over time people will come to expect certain things from our writing. Some people have called that branding, but there’s nothing magical about it. Unless we are trying to copy someone else, our writing is a distinctive as a fingerprint. People who have read our work can learn to pick out our work from among that of others.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year

It’s the first day of the year, so I would imagine that many people have made or are making New Year’s resolutions. As in years past, I figure there is a large number of people who have decided that this is the year that they will write that novel they keep saying they will write. Books are a status symbol. There are many people who want to have written a book.

I think people like the idea of writing a book because it is difficult enough that it seems like a big accomplishment, but there’s nothing to keep anyone from trying. With four books behind me, writing a book doesn’t seem like as much of an accomplishment as it once did, though it hasn’t gotten any easier.

Once someone writes a book, it doesn’t take long to discover that there are even more status symbols in publishing. In the publishing industry, a person with an agent has a higher status than someone who has only finished a manuscript. A person with a publishing contract has a higher status than people with no more than an agent. A book isn’t deemed good unless a publisher decides to publish the book

I don’t have advice for people who want to write a book this year. The only thing I would suggest is for writers to consider their motives. The simple truth is that writing a book isn’t all that hard and writers who are looking at their book as a status symbol will fight hard to make what they have accomplished seem more important than what others have accomplished. It also doesn’t pay very well. If your goal is to write a book this year then by all means do so, but don’t expect other people to be as impressed with your accomplishments.