Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bad Writers

Is it just me or is my writing getting more incoherent lately? Don’t answer that. Please. The most important skill an author can have is the ability to evaluate his or her own writing accurately. The great writers all have this ability. The shabby writers all think they have this ability. And the thing that keeps the rest of us up nights is wondering which camp we are in.

I encounter bad writing frequently. There’s something about it that makes me think we ought to be able to quantify it and describe it, but I’ve failed every time I’ve tried. I have, however, noticed a characteristic common to many bad writers. They are easily angered by people they feel don’t respect them as writers. But we can’t go around offending writers just to decide if they are good or not. Besides, I figure that writers learn to handle criticism as they are learning to become better writers.

Still, there are some people for whom it is safe to say they’ll never “be ready,” to use the euphemism publishing industry uses to say an author isn’t very good. Mark Twain said that if you can’t get someone to pay you to write within three years then you ought to go into sawing wood instead. These days, it’s hard to find anyone who has gotten a contract within three years. Maybe we should all be sawing wood. In any case, it’s difficult for some people to accept that they aren’t writers and never will be. There seems to be a fine line between persevering and being delusional. At some point, I think we need to realize that we don’t need writers who persevere as much as we need good writers. That may be the question that we writers should be asking ourselves. Am I persevering or am I improving? If all we’re doing is persevering then maybe it’s time to check the help wanted ads in a logging magazine.

Monday, March 30, 2009

How to Write Character Introductions

Last week, I wrote about Seth Godin’s idea that we should tell people our super power when we meet them and how that I believe that what we ought to do is introduce others and tell their super power. Today, I want to look at his idea in another way in that I want to talk about how we introduce our characters in our writing.

It may work in the comic books, but in a novel, having a character step into a scene and describe himself is down right lazy. Also, it comes across as hollow or conceited. We naturally feel a little suspicious of self descriptions.

Another method is to have the narrator introduce the character. We tend to believe the narrator. If he says our character is the smartest person in town, he is. If the narrator says a character is beautiful, she is. But this method does have its problems. It doesn’t work well with first person and close third person. Some authors have tried to get around this by having the character look into a mirror so the character can see her reflection and relay the information, but I don’t like this. It would be better for the author to change point of view long enough to describe the character and move on.

What we should hope to do is to reveal the character like we learn about a new friend. We don’t instantly know everything there is to know about someone when we first meet. Each time we spend time with a person we get to know that person better. And so it can be with our characters. We learn more and more as we see them respond to the events that take place in the novel.

There is one slight problem with that. When we meet real people, in person or online, there are hundreds of little signals they send out telling us something about them. We look at their body language. We look at their eyes. The eyes tell us a great deal about what is happening behind them, if anything. We consider where we met them and many other things. We have far fewer things in a novel to tell us about the characters we meet, so as writers we must find ways to overcome this.

We want to give the reader a chance to discover the character rather than memorize a list of facts about him. That means it is especially important in the early scenes with the character that he isn’t doing something ordinary. It is also important that we don’t show the character doing something out of character until after the reader has learned what is in character. If the character hits his wife in the first scene, we’ll believe he is abusive rather than believing that something unusual has caused him to do this thing. If we first see the character help a child, we’ll believe the character is good at heart rather than a villain.

Introducing a character requires a mix of quickly revealing important details and slowly revealing the depth of the character. We always want our characters be in the middle of things, but the character introduction is something we want to remove as far from the character as possible.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

To Whom Should We Listen?

Seth Godin says don’t listen to your critics or your fans. Instead, delight those people who share you good works with others. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Especially for authors. “What you need to do,” a critic says, “is to hang up your quill and stop writing.” We turn from that to our fans who all ask, “What are you writing? When will your next book be out?” If that’s all there is, neither is of much help. Seth suggests we turn our attention to those people who tell friends, “this is a great book! You should read it.” (Thanks, Mom.)

Many years ago, there was a king who had a brother. His bother had a wife and through some course of events, the king and his brother’s wife decided that they liked being in the same bed together. So, that’s what they did. Things may have gone well for a while, but at length a man by the name of John visited the king. “It is not lawful for thee to have they brother’s wife,” John said. The king did not want to hear this, so he threw John in to prison where he wouldn’t be able to cause trouble. Later, at the king’s birthday party, the king’s brother’s wife’s daughter danced in such a way that it pleased the king and he offered her anything, up to half his kingdom. She asked her mother, who told her to ask for John’s head on a plater. This displeased the king, but he had them bring John’s head to the girl, who gave it to her mother. At last, the king’s greatest critic was silenced. But it didn’t end there. As years passed, John’s friends took up where he left off and the king began to kill them as he had John. Fear spread quickly. But things weren’t going as well as he would have liked and he was having some trouble with a neighboring country. Then one day, the neighboring country sent ambassadors to speak with the king and keep the peace. They wanted to butter him up, so when the king sat on his throne and gave a speech, they became his biggest fans and cried out, “It is the voice of a god, and not a man!” How his heart must have swelled within him, but it didn’t last for long. God send an angel who immediately killed the king because he didn’t give glory to God.

Imagine how different this king’s life would have been if he had chosen to listen to his biggest critic, instead of silencing him. The king certainly knew how to make an idea spread, if that’s what it means to take care of your sneezers, to use Seth’s terminology, but was it the right thing to do? In the end, it resulted in the king’s pride pushing him to listen to his fans and he suffered the consequences.

There is much to be said for encouraging those who tell others about us to keep doing do, but we must handle the critics and fans in a wise way. A critic may be more than someone who opposes us, but he may be a messenger from God showing us our need for repentance, as is the case with the king above. What of the fans? Will we be lifted up with pride or will we understand that they may be buttering us up for their benefit? We might as well consider the sneezers. What if one of them happens to post on a blog something along the lines of, “In his book he speaks with the voice of God.” Will we oppose this statement, or will we stand unprotected from the hands of an angry God?

I won’t say that Seth is wrong. There is some truth in what he has said, but we must be careful. Our choice of advisers should not be determined by how much they support and enable the course of action we have already chosen. We should instead listen to those who speak words of wisdom and set our direction based on that wisdom.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thomas Nelson Reorganizes: Do we care?

Michael Hyatt CEO of Thomas Nelson has announced the reorganization of their management structure. The partial org chart he describes on his blog is shown here. Apparently, Mike wants to spend more time working with authors and developing products while reducing the amount of time he spends managing the operation of the business. Essentially, the organization divides their company into three primary areas, Core Business, Overhead and Live Events.

I won’t bother to say what I think of this structure. I’ll assume they know more about what they’re doing than I know what they’re doing. The real question is, do any of the rest of us care? From the standpoint that these are our friends and we want to see them accomplish good things, certainly we care, but does a writer care how the workers are Thomas Nelson are partitioned? For the most part, no. Even if you happen to have a book making it through Thomas Nelson’s publishing process (most of us do not), how Thomas Nelson structures its team isn’t going to make much difference. It may provide us with some indication of Thomas Nelson’s priorities, but only a little. So, do we care?

The most significant thing in Mike’s post, as far as authors are concerned, is his statement that he will focus his attention on vision and strategy, author relations and product development, and external communications. It’s no secret that Mike’s a Mac, but he seems to be taking a page from Bill Gates’ playbook more so than that of Steve Jobs. Mike is already the face of Thomas Nelson. This reorganization appears to be aimed at further cementing that position. Do we care?

If you happen to be in the Thomas Nelson family of authors, having someone out pushing the brand is a good thing. My impression is that non-fiction authors stand to benefit more than fiction authors. For authors looking for a publisher, I wouldn’t expect this move to change much for you, unless you happen to write business books. Business books appear to be Mike’s “thang,” so having him more focused on networking might improve your chances of getting publishing contract from Thomas Nelson, but don’t go out and write a business book just because Mike has decided to shake things up a bit. Fiction authors, Thomas Nelson still has plenty of room at the top, but I don’t expect this change to improve your chances of getting noticed. So, do we care?

Probably not, but its interesting to think about.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Meet My Friend, the Super Hero

A couple of weeks ago, Michael Hyatt, President & CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, tweeted about a blog post by Seth Godin titled What’s your super power? in which Seth talks about the comic book introduction of a character in which the character tells people his super power. He suggests that we should introduce ourselves with something like, "Hi, I'm Don, I tell stories that spread." His thought is that people will remember us better if they know how we can help them. I understand his point, but we’re looking at this from the wrong perspective. When you saw the first sentence of this post, did you have a tinge of envy—perhaps thinking, “I wish Michael Hyatt would post a link to my blog.” If you did, that’s natural, but that isn’t the way we should look at it.

Don’t you love it when someone you know introduces you to an acquaintance and says something good about you? “This is Ellen Dawson and she owns the best restaurant in town.” You aren’t alone. But notice what I did for Ellen Dawson, a favored character of mine. I gave her name and I told her super power. Now, lest you think I’m going to tell you that our goal should be to persuade other people to introduce us and tell our super power, the primary purpose of this post is to say that we need to turn that on its head and become the kind of people who introduce others and tell their super power.

I speak as much to myself as to anyone else. I have a long way to go, but I’ve noticed that the people I enjoy the most, the people I want to support, the people I would go out of my way to help are the people who have take the time to get to know me. It isn’t that its so important that they tell others my super power as much as it is that they show how much they care by remembering my name and super power

Let me offer two scenarios:

Allen is attending the Big Writer’s Conference(BWC). His manuscript is perfect. His pitch is perfect. He has spent long hours preparing to sell his novel. He see’s Literary Agent Helga in the hall. He walks up to her and gives his pitch for a cozy mystery. She asks a few questions and seems interested. She asks him to send her a copy. As Allen turns to walk away, excited by his success, he sees a cluster of nine other authors wanting to offer up their own manuscripts has formed.

And the other:

Bert is also attend the BWC and is just a prepared as Allen. Allen beats him to Literary Agent Helga, so Bert has to wait with the other authors that have miraculously queued up in alphabetical order. When Allen leaves, Bert steps forward and pitches Helga. She listens, but he can tell where it’s going. “It sounds interesting, but I’m mainly looking for mysteries and romances right now.” Bert feels a little let down, but then he looks at the faces of the other authors. “Then you’ll want to talk to my friend Carla here,” he says motioning to one of the authors, “or to Gail they both write romance.” He points to another. He looks out past the clusters of laughing women and sees a woman sitting alone near a window. “Joana over there is someone you need to talk to. Let me go get her.”

Now, if you were Agent Helga or one of the other authors in that cluster around her, who would you remember? Allen? Bert? Carla? Gail? Joana? Bert, of course. Even if Helga doesn’t think she could sell his book in a million years, she remember him as the guy who knows everybody. Those unknown, unpublished authors will remember him as the guy who took the time to remember their names and what they write. They will remember him as the guy who helped them overcome their nervousness about meeting a literary agent. Shy Joana will remember him as the guy who made sure her trip was a success when she was worried that she would have to tell her husband that she had waited several hundred dollars and couldn’t muster enough courage to speak to an agent. Now a pop quiz. What was Allen’s super power?

We tend to think that the people who are known by a lot of people or are friends with important people are the most important people in the world. But when we stop to consider, the most important people are the people who know and remember a lot of seemingly unimportant people. That is where our focus should be.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Prayer and the Unpublished Author

Online, I spend a lot of time with authors—primarily unpublished Christian authors. Most have a common question. Why haven’t I received a publishing contract yet? Hidden beneath that question is another. Can’t God see how important this is to me? This second question has an easy answer, but it doesn’t make the wannabe Christian writer feel any better.

I think it’s a safe assumption that nearly every Christian author has asked God to open doors for a publishing contract at some point. I God changes things when we pray, but I’ve also seen the numbers. There are a lot of people out there praying for a publishing contract who won’t get one. So what’s the problem?

The problem isn’t with God. He is more than capable of giving any and all Christian writers a publishing contract. I would like to suggest that the problem is with us. Do you recall James 4:3? Ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. From experience, I know that God often blesses us with things we want, but don’t absolutely need, but I also know that it is easy to set my heart on something and lose sight of what is best. I’ve seen some authors, for example, who see writing as their way to become independently wealthy, but God wants us to always recognize out dependence on him. I see some writers who may tell themselves that they are writing for the benefit of their families, but they write without consideration for what impact a successful writing career will have on their families.

Instead of asking for a writing contract, what we should be doing is asking the Lord for wisdom. God always wants to give us wisdom (James 1:5). What writers really need is wisdom to know whether we should continue what we are doing and the wisdom to understand why we haven’t had the success that we might desire. But be forewarned that when you pray for wisdom you may get an answer you don’t like. If ignorance is bliss, wisdom will make you miserable. When you look at your life through the eyes of wisdom, you may discover that you are spending time in front of the computer that you should be spending with your children and spouse. Through the eyes of wisdom, you may see that your writing isn’t good enough and never will be. Through the eyes of wisdom, you may see that you are spending thousands of dollars learning to write well enough to earn only a fraction of it back.

On the other hand, the eyes of wisdom may show you an avenue that you haven’t considered on you quest for publication. The eyes of wisdom may show you a story idea or a topic that you haven’t considered. The eyes of wisdom may be all you need to put the finishing touches on that manuscript to make it stand out to everyone who sees it. We don’t know what wisdom will show us until we ask. Whatever it shows us, we can be sure that it will show us something better, even if we don’t like what we see.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Our Characters as Free Moral Agents

Some people see the world as something like a big stage with us as the actors, with God as the playwright and we are acting out scenes for his pleasure, following his script, though we don’t know the script. They would have us believe that, though we may feel like we are making choices, we are just following a script. I won’t go into why, but I don’t believe this. There are plenty of biblical reasons why this concept does not hold true, but that’s a discussion for another time. The question I have is what of our characters? Do they make their own choices?

Writers are not gods, though some may think they are. We do not have the power to bring our characters to life and we certainly don’t have the ability to give them autonomy, but neither do we have the foreknowledge of God. We might begin a story by just a vague idea of where we’re headed or we might outline a story to death. Whatever we do, there are things we don’t know until we reach that point in the story. In our outline, we might have a character who we believe is going to do something mean, such as replacing the protagonist’s hairspray with spray paint. As we approach the scene, we get to know the antagonist. She goes from being a simple villain to being a person with desires and fears. Events have led her to this point. We’ve placed the spray paint in her hand and she has replaced the label. She is standing at the protagonist’s dressing room table ready to switch the two cans, but the turns and walks away, taking the spray paint with her.

Nothing is quite as frustrating to a writer as to have a character who refuses to do as she is told. That wonderful scene at the hair salon is ruined because the antagonist has reached a line she will not cross. It almost seems like our character has a mind of her own. In actual fact, the problem is that we writers realize that the character’s back-story, and the events leading to the scene will not justify the action, but why get hung up on facts? It is sometimes more helpful to think of the character as a free moral agent. It is perfectly within our right as the writer to force our character across a line she refuses to cross, but it is not helpful to our writing. We have options. We can change the back-story, but that is like creating a new character. We can change the events leading up to the scene or we can go with the flow, changing the events that follow. Either case will change our plot. The worst option we have is to force our character’s hand.

It can be fun to let our characters do their thing. By letting the story flow our characters are not so one-dimensional. When a character refuses to do what she is told, or chooses to do something unexpected, there is something there worth exploring. The stereotype is broken. We and the readers will want to know why. Who knows, we may find a path through our story that we didn’t know existed. We might find a resolution that is much better than the one we planned. It is, after all, our character’s story. Let them decide how it turns out.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Emotional Moments

Stories are about change. A character comes in one way and goes out another. He is changed by the events of the story and we hope the reader is as well. But one does not simply decide to change and one who changes only at the will of another is nothing but a robot. In a good story, characters move the story forward by making a decision and following through, whether that decision is to battle his enemy, run and hide, or just to stand still and let another have his way. Whatever decision he makes, it is important that we show the emotions a character feels as he makes his decision. Emotions are important throughout a story, but every story has seven points that must have strong emotion. If you can get your readers to laugh or cry or shout for joy in the moments, you are a long way toward having an excellent story.

When I say moments, I do mean moments. A moment may be as short as a sentence or it may be several, but it isn’t as long as a page. The longer a moment is, the less punch it has. So what are these seven moments?

The Beginning

At this point, the reader knows very little about the world of our story. We have to introduce them to it and quickly. We need strong conflict to hold the reader’s attention, but the beginning is the most ordinary part of the story. The protagonist is doing what he has always done and he isn’t motivated to change. We need the strong emotion to hook the reader, but it must be different from what drives the story in other places. Consider Fahrenheit 451, which begins “It was a pleasure to burn.” Pleasure is one of the things that motivates the protagonist to remain unchanged. It there was nothing else, he would go on burning books for eternity.

Stasis Equals Death

The next key moment is the stasis equals death moment. It occurs in the setup of the story. As the name implies, at the stasis equals death moment we know what situation the character is in and we realize that if he stays in this situation he will be miserable. In a romance, this may take the form of a young woman feeling a sense of longing for the love she does not have. In a detective novel, this may take the form of a detective longing for the respect of his colleagues. Though we may also see multiple stasis equals death moments as we see why each person might want to kill the eventual victim in the story. Whatever the case, this is a moment full of emotion as a character realizes he is in a bad situation with no way out, unless he changes.

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is the next key emotion point in the story. The name itself tells us that it involves emotions. Unlike the stasis equals death moment, which could be experienced by any character, the inciting incident is reserved for our protagonist. It is at this moment that an event occurs that influences the protagonist’s emotions in such as way that he wants to take action. It could be that a bank robber points as gun at his wife and fears for the safety of his wife. It could be that someone offers him money and he thinks about that new boat he’s been craving, but there must be some emotion that drives him.


Smack dab in the middle of a story we have the mid-point. If a novel is three hundred pages long, look for the mid-point near page one hundred fifty. The protagonist doesn’t have to make any great decisions here, something far more important happens. It is as this point that the protagonist wins (or loses). We’ve been building to this point. That poor guy who saw a robber drag his wife out of the bank with a gun to her head just got word that the police have arrested the gunman. What would any decent man do if he heard that? He would be shouting for joy, doing his happy dance or singing praise to God. Whatever he does, it is going to be emotional. He doesn’t know that in a few minutes they are going to report that they didn’t find his wife with the man. That doesn’t matter. He’s emotional and we need to show it in our writing.

All is Lost

If our protagonist is happy at the middle of the book, we can be sure that won’t last long or we wouldn’t have much of a novel. We eventually hit the all is lost moment and it’s a doozy. That bank robber wasn’t working alone. While the police were chasing him, his buddies were robbing another bank. The security cameras caught them, a man and a woman. It appears that the woman is none other than the wife of our protagonist and this time she shot the guard. How far our poor protagonist has fallen as he goes from thinking his wife has been saved to seeing her shoot someone. The loss couldn’t be greater and you can be sure our character feels something. His world has completely fallen apart and the emotions he feels from this moment will impact his decision of what to do going into the final act.

The Climax

We go from the low point in the novel and we start building and building and building. We raise the stakes and the emotions get stronger. When we hit the climax, our protagonist lets them all loose. It’s at this point that he loves the deepest, laugh the loudest or becomes the angriest. He draws on emotion that motives him to give him that last bit of strength to overcome his enemy and reach his goal. Our protagonist refused to give up. He knows his wife, while the police do not. He finds his wife locked in a room. The robbers, including a woman wearing his wife’s clothes, are counting their money as he slips into the house and frees his wife.

The End

Lastly, we have the end. There should always be emotion as a reader reaches the last page and closes the book. Happy? Sad? Whichever way, we need strong emotion. Our protagonist faced his fears as he freed his wife, but that is nothing like the joy he feels having his wife safe and the assurance that she had nothing to do with the robbery.

Obviously, there are many times when the character’s emotions will appear in the periods between these moments. These moments are only the high points. These moments give us key points from which the other emotions in the novel flow.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Submitting First Drafts

So I’m sitting around contemplating the finer points of tiddlywinks when a story idea comes to me. I don’t think much about it at the time, being much more interested in my previous activity, but later I start thinking about the story and I get all excited about the story. It doesn’t take me long to develop an outline and I go to work writing away. Chapter after chapter, I develop the story and soon I have before me a new manuscript. I go to the first page and I begin reading. “That can’t be right,” I say as I realize my protagonist’s mother is dead in chapter one and he calls her on the phone in chapter ten. Then there’s the problem that his half-sister plays a key role in chapter twenty-five, but he wouldn’t have a half-sister if his mother is still alive. Something has to change. So I set to work making revisions. Then I find more mistakes and I go back and edit. I go back again, just to correct a few things. Finally, I have before me a completed manuscript, ready for the eyes of an agent.

The paragraph above is the story of every novelist. Yes, playing tiddlywinks is a requirement if you ever hope to be a respected novelist. But that isn’t why I told that story. The other day, Rachelle Gardner had a guest blogger who talked about revisions. It seems that some so-called writers don’t want to revise their work. It made me think about how what writers do is like the novels we write. If I ask you what novelist do, you would probably say, “They write stories.” If I asked you what Where the Red Fern Grows is about, you would probably say, “It’s about a boy who buys two dogs and trains them to hunt.” But, it doesn’t stop there. The training is done by the middle of the book and the rest of the book, the climactic part, is about Billy and the dogs in a competition and about the dogs attacking a mountain lion, to protect Billy, eventually leading to the death of the dogs. Compare that to the second part half of the paragraph above. Sure, writers write stories, but where we get down to business is in the revision process. That’s when things get the most exciting.

A writer who doesn’t revise is like a story without conflict, he just isn’t worth much. While writing is what we tell people we do, revision is as big of a part of what we do as writing is. It amazes me to think that there may be people out there who think they can submit a first draft and see it published. Just what kind of a writer would do that?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review of The Race by Rick Lemons

The Race: From Pit Row to Victory Lane by Rick Lemons is about how we can achieve victory in this spiritual race that every Christian is in. Throughout the book, Rick uses analogies from NASCAR races to illustrate his points. If you are a NASCAR enthusiast, you will recognize some of the names and races he mentions, but don’t let that scare you away if you aren’t. He writes in a very approachable manner and spends much more time on, shall we say, the important stuff than the NASCAR analogies.

To give some examples, Rick compares the Word of God to the fuel a car needs for a race. Without it, we aren’t going anywhere. He compares an accountability partner to a driver’s spotter. Sure, we could race without one, but we’ll have some trouble with the blind spots. He compares prayer to talking to the Crew Chief. In each chapter, he shows us why these things are important by going to the Word of God and telling us what God has to say about it.

In the past few years, I have spent time with authors and publishing industry types. We’re all pushing our books and looking for people to review them. It’s rare that I find a book that I feel as comfortable reviewing as I do this book. And I don’t watch NASCAR very much. There have been several books that I wanted to be good, but when I read them I was disappointed. Not so with this book. This is a downright good book and I highly recommend it to anyone, but especially for those men (or women) out there who are NASCAR fans.

While the book itself is not specifically designed for this purpose, Rick has included a study guide on his website at www.pitrowtovictorylane.com that will allow readers to use it for a men’s Bible study. You may want to consider using this book in that way.

Overall, I am impressed with this book. If you are looking for a book that will give you a better understanding of what the Bible has to say about achieving victory in our Christian race, this book is an excellent resource.

My Trip to the Christian Book Expo - Part 2

Yesterday, I posted about some of the good things about my trip to the Christian Book Expo (CBE). Today, I’m going to say some things about the not so great things. Writing like Yoda, will I be. Actually, no, but it did occur to me that it might be good to lighten things up, since I’m going to be somewhat critical. Humor usually helps. I just wish I could do humor.

For a location, the CBE organizers couldn’t have picked a better place. The Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex is in the heart of the Bible belt. There are more megachurches, perhaps more churches, in the metroplex than any other city. If you can’t find people interested in Christian books here, you can’t find then anywhere. Considering that, what I saw at the convention center seems odd. There were a lot of people there, but they weren’t with the Christian Book Expo. They were on the other end of the building. Once I got away from the red coats there, the building seemed like a crypt. There were two problems. One, the venue was too large for the event. Look at the picture above. That’s just the one exhibit hall and the CBE didn’t use half the space available. Two, the organizers did a poor job of promoting the event. I found out about it because all of these publishing industry types started talking about their plans to go to Dallas. Book buyers don’t get information that way. Aside from the opportunity to meet authors, there wasn’t much that the CBE had to offer that a customer couldn’t have gotten at a local bookstore. As much as I dislike Southern Gospel Music, the CBE would have been more of a success if the organizer had scheduled Southern Gospel quartets to sing live in the exhibit hall throughout the day. Get ’em through the door and then try to sell books.

The little rubber wrist bands are for the birds. At first, I didn’t put mine on, but I had to dig it out of the bag. So, I slipped over my hand and it was almost too tight to go on. I managed to get it to my wrist and it was so tight I was afraid it would cut off the circulation in my hand. But I’m sure it fit all the little wristed women just fine.

The exhibit hall had carpet everywhere. Can someone tell me what is wrong with concrete? With the low turnout, the additional noise could have only helped.

I didn’t care much for the tall stack of books. I almost knocked one over in the Thomas Nelson booth. Then I would have been the one hiding behind the bus.

The program left much to be desired. I looked down through the schedule and none of the blurbs told me what to expect if I went to hear one of the authors talk. What I wanted to know was how I would come away changed if I attended the talk. Instead it told me what the book was about. Give me a reason to attend the talk, not a reason to buy the book. If I like the talk, I might buy the book. For that matter, I’ll probably buy the book before the talk.

I hadn’t noticed how much I dislike the covers on Christian books until I walked through the exhibit hall. It’s like Martha Stewart designs them all—with all those pastel colors. I’m sure it didn’t help that I walked through someone’s over abundant perfume and carried it all the way home.

The publishers missed an opportunity by setting their booths up like small book stores. If I could have designed the booths, I would have made them more interactive. The author signings are good, but there should have been more for people to do than to browse books. It’s a little hard for me to tell people, “You should go to the CBE. It’s like a big bookstore with a bunch of authors speaking. O, and you have to pay to get in.”

That’s enough criticism. Let’s just say that the CBE has room for improvement.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

My Trip to the Christian Book Expo

I normally only post Monday through Friday, but today I left the relative peace and calm of Cowtown and made my way over to Dallas for the Christian Book Expo (CBE). I’ll start with the good. I went primarily to meet a few people I hadn’t meet before, but I knew I didn’t want to take in all of it, so I looked through the schedule and picked a timeslot with something worth doing. I took my copy of The Tender Scar and had Richard Mabry sign it. Then I wandered around the display area for a while. I met Mike Hyatt for the first time, though I wouldn’t ask him to verify that. He was talking to someone else at the time—a white haired man with a gray beard. I didn’t recognize the man and Mike didn’t introduce him. We’ll just call him Santa Claus. And then I went to listen to Rick Lemons talk about his book The Race: From Pit Row to Victory Lane.

Let me say something about that. I hadn’t met Rick before today, though we have attended some of the same meetings. I hadn’t heard him speak, but let’s say I knew he has good roots and of all the speakers on the schedule, he was the one I expected would be worth the effort. I didn’t expect him to have a huge turn out, but then I got to the Dallas Convention Center and saw face plastered on some large signs. I thought I might be wrong. I wasn’t. There were only a handful of people in the room, but he certainly didn’t disappoint with his presentation. It was a good lesson from the word of God. How ironic that one of the best presentations, if not the best, at the CBE was heard by less then ten people.

I can’t be a judge of all that happened at the CBE, but I will say that I heard part of one woman’s presentation as I wandered through the display area. She wasn’t boring, but she wasn’t interesting either. I remember her saying something about her calling to become a writer and then I sort of tuned her out after that. Shortly after that, I heard a man reading from a book. I was thinking about how everything he said he said in a monotone. It seemed a perfect example of how authors should not present their books. Just as I was thinking that, he read a line from the book about some kid not liking to attend church because he would have to listen to a boring sermon. I laughed. I’m sure that anyone who saw me must have wondered why I was laughing while looking at a copy of Young Exhaustive Concordance. Or maybe they thought I was praying.

I hoped I would see more people I know. I saw several authors I recognized, but not having read their books or interacted with them online, I figured it was pointless to go introduce myself. There are some other people I hoped to meet that I didn’t happen to be in the right place at the right time. Either that or they saw me first and were all hiding behind the big bus parked in the exhibit area. Come to think of it, I wonder if Mike Hyatt would have been behind that bus if he hadn’t been talking to Santa Claus. I’ll contemplate that, but not today. This post is getting long. Tomorrow I’ll have something to say about the not to great stuff at the CBE.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Block the Block Quotes

Block quotes in novels are problematic. You know how it goes; you have a character who has received a letter. You want the reader to know what is in the letter and it is too long to put between quote marks, so you drop down, adjust the margins of the paragraph and include the text of the letter. Or maybe the character has written something and you think the reader needs to see it.

Now, here’s the problem. While you have thought out the content of the block quote with much care, the reader skims through it. Even with adequate introduction, readers tend to see block quotes as reference material. We will only read it in detail if we determine we need it.

We might have a tendency to think that by including the full text of a letter or some other type of writing we are showing the reader the contents. This is inaccurate. Essentially, a block quote is an info dump. Info dumps are always a problem when they are not handled well. The longer the quote, the worse it becomes.

To be of value, a block quote needs to be short and/or have sufficient entertainment value in its own right. Some novels are nothing more than letters, meaning the novel is one big block quote, but because the letters tell a story, the author is able to pull it off.

Block quotes kill the action of a story. Ask yourself what your characters are doing while your reader is reading the block quote. In most cases, the characters are just sitting there, waiting for the reader to finish. We can solve that by allowing the characters to deliver the content of the block quote. We must be careful, however. What we want is for the character to show how he is moved by the information, not just repeat it for our eyes.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Write What You Know

We’ve all heard the advice, write what you know at one time or another. I remember hearing it in an English class. Write what you know takes a lot of heat from writers. Some have said it is the worst piece of advise they have ever received. We can point to writers who wrote about things they didn’t know and yet pulled it off. Take Jurassic Park for example. It is obvious to any computer geek that the writers didn’t know enough about computers, but that didn’t keep them from writing a good movie. Still, of all the rules of writing, write what you know might ought to be the one that goes right up there at the top of the list.

It’s true that many writers have developed stories around characters who look remarkably like the writer prior to the time he chose to sit down at the keyboard and pound at the keys, but we can’t make every character look like us, act like us, have the same job as us. That would be very boring. And we don’t have time to go try our hand at every job that we might like for a character to have. It seems like write what you know is dead, until we take another look at what it means to write what you know.

Consider the original Star Wars (episode four). What could be farther from what the writer knew than Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away…? But look at what George Lucas did. He stuck our hero, Luke Skywalker, on a desert planet, it turns out he is a farmer, working with his Uncle and Aunt, who are farmers. We quickly see that these are salt of the earth people. And then the storm troopers kill them. Why? Because we know the pain of death. George Lucas knew the pain of death and that’s what he wrote. Goaded by the death of the only family he has known, we understand why Luke would leave home to join the fight to save the galaxy.

To write what you know is to write about the emotions you have experienced. So maybe you haven’t experienced the loss of a parent, but you know people who have. Maybe you haven’t experienced the loss of a child, but you have an idea of how it must feel. Maybe breaking up with a girlfriend isn’t the same as having your wife walk out on you, but it gives you an idea. We know the joy of victory and the agony of defeat. We know fear and worry. We know desire and lust. We are able to overlay our emotional experiences on any situation.

We write what we know. We don’t allow our characters to be motivated by things we don’t understand. Instead, we assume that the motivation a character has is similar to an emotion we experienced in a similar situation. A character loses his job and we don’t write about his logical plans to get a new job, instead we write about his anger at his employer, his fear of being unable to care for his family and his joy at having some time at home. Those are the things that matter. Those are the things we know. So, write what you know. It will do you good.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Getting a Yes

Give me a reason to say, yes. Anyone who has ever received a query letter has fodder to tell horror stories about just how bad a query letter can be. One author believes God guided his hand as he wrote. Another believes that if the agent or publisher says not it is because he is demon possessed. The stories go on. But then we find authors like Tosca Lee who do well with their books, but publicly accredit some bad things that have happened to Satan trying to keep the book from reaching publication. How is that different from some of the stuff we see in bad queries? It isn’t. Though I don’t wish to make light of Satan, the real difference between Tosca Lee and the unknown author who makes a similar statement in a query letter is that she provided sufficient reason for the publisher to say, yes.

The things that will make a publisher say, yes, are platform and premise with some indication that the author can deliver on the promise. Platform is obvious, since we talk about it so much. If you have a lot of people who want to hear what you have to say about a subject, it doesn’t matter what kind of weird idea you might have, there is a publisher out there who wants to publish your work. Say whatever you like in the query letter, as long as you show the publisher that you have a strong platform.

Premise is more difficult, but if you have a strong enough premise, it will be hard for a publisher to turn you down, even if you do say that you got the idea by talking to George Washington’s ghost. From what I have heard of Tosca Lee’s Demon, she wasn’t able to sell it until she amped up the premise.

Some people say that anyone can develop a good premise, but the delivery is hard. There may be some truth to that, but the fact is that not everyone has a good premise for their novel. Even many of the published novels lack a good premise. Essentially, publishers are allowing multi-published authors to slide by with weak premises, crowding bookshelves with books that keep the author’s fans happy, but don’t give browsers a reason to purchase the book. But that’s an aside.

Us nobodies can’t afford a weak premise if we want to give people a reason to say, yes. We want that editor or publisher to take a look at our story idea and say, “I wish I’d thought of that.” If you can get them to say that, you might as well get your pen ready because the contract’s on the way.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Omnitagonist

I love looking at web search keywords. Sometimes they make you think. I recently had a hit on my blog from someone in Mayagez, Puerto Rico with the search phrase when the protagonist is the antagonist. That gave me something to think about. Is it possible? If so, just what are we talking about?

My first thought was of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are essentially two completely different characters that just happen to share the same body. I also thought of Agatha Christie’s Endless Night, but decided that it also falls short of having the protagonist as the antagonist. Where we do see it is in Romans chapter seven, near the end where Paul is talking about the war between the flesh and the inward man. The chapter ends with the statement, “So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.” This is the struggle of the Christian, but how does that translate into a story that we might write in a book?

What we have is a duplicity. The protagonist, by his nature, sets out to accomplish something and must accomplish change. The antagonist, by his nature, sets out to thwart the efforts of the protagonist. If we combine the two, the omnitagonist (To coin a word, an omnitagonist is a character who is both the protagonist and the antagonist.) must both attempt to accomplish his goal and attempt to prevent himself from accomplishing that goal. The omnitagonist is fighting the man in the mirror.

We aren’t talking about a simple story with a hero and a villain. What motives a hero is the direct opposite of what motivates a villain. We can put the hero and villain face to face and they do battle. The omnitagonist is different. He fights for his goal with one motivation and fights against his goal with an unrelated motivation. Let’s look at an example:

Bob is a happily married man with a wife who loves him, a son and a daughter who are good kids most of the time and a dog whose only real vice is that he likes to bark at the moon, just outside the bedroom window. Bob, a Christian man, takes his role as the spiritual leader of his family very seriously and does what he can to provide for their spiritual wellbeing. At work, Bob sees an opportunity for a promotion. It isn’t that far out of reach, but he’ll need to put in time on Sunday if he is going to impress the boss.

The protagonist and the antagonist is very similar, so much so that we can often swap them with a simple point of view change. They both have goals and these goals are contradictory. The omnitagonist has two goals and he can’t have it both ways. Or can he? We often see stories in which the protagonist and the antagonist must come together in some form of compromise in order to achieve something great. We may also see this with the omnitagonist. The omnitagonist has several options. He may fail to accomplish either goal. He may choose one goal, making it his higher priority. He may combine the two goals. He may find a goal that is better than either goal. Whatever he does, the conflict of the omnitagonist is primarily internal as he holds a debate with himself as to which direction to go.

Monday, March 16, 2009

More on the Inciting Incident

It often surprises me that I receive as many hits as I do for an article on my website, The Inciting Incident. Oddly enough, Google only returns 105,000 hits as I write this. It makes me wonder if there might be a lot more that’s worth saying about the subject. The interest in the subject seems to exceed the amount of information available.

Definition of Inciting Incident - an event that motivates the protagonist to take action to change his current situation

Just to be clear, the inciting incident never takes place on page one of a novel. This is because page one and several of the pages that follow are taken up with defining the current situation of the protagonist for our readers. The inciting incident occurs approximately one tenth of the way into the novel, but it may move slightly one direction or the other. In Where the Red Fern Grows, the inciting incident occurs on page 18 of 249.

I sat down on an old sycamore log, and started thumbing through the leaves. On the back pages of the magazine, I came to the “For Sale” section—“Dogs for Sale”—every kind of dog. I read on and on. They had dogs I had never heard of, names I couldn’t make out. Far down in the right-hand corner, I found an ad that took my breath away. In small letters, it read: “Registered redbone coon hound pups—twenty-five dollars each.”

The advertisement was from a kennel in Kentucky. I read it over and over. By the time I had memorized the ad, I was seeing dogs, hearing dogs, and even feeling them. The magazine was forgotten. I was lost in thought. The brain of an eleven-year-old boy can dream some fantastic dreams.

How wonderful it would be if I could have two of those pups. Every boy in the country but me had a good hound or two. But fifty dollars—how could I ever get fifty dollars? I knew I couldn’t expect help from Mama and Papa.

I remembered a passage from the Bible my mother had read to us: “God helps those who help themselves.” I thought of the words. I mulled them over in my mind. I decided I’d ask God to help me. There on the banks of the Illinois River, in the cool shade of the tall white sycamores, I asked God to help me get two hound pups. It wasn’t much of a prayer, but it did come right from the heart.

Well, Billy Colman’s mother wasn’t much of a Bible scholar. That “verse” isn’t in the Bible, but Wilson Rawls has given us a very good example of an inciting incident. Up to this point, Billy has desired a dog, but has been unable to do anything about it. Then on the banks of the Illinois River, he sees an ad for dogs in a magazine and that becomes his call to action. He begins with prayer, always a good thing to do, and from that point on he moves forward with what he needs to do in order to purchase the dogs. He works hard to earn the money, but he wouldn’t have done that if he hadn’t seen the ad in the magazine.

Every story has an inciting incident, but not all inciting incidents serve their purpose as well as others. Notice the emotional nature of the passage above. The inciting incident isn’t an outward change, but an internal change. Some inciting incidents fail because they are very weak. Yes, something happens to motivate the protagonist, but the reader is left with doubt as to whether it is sufficient motivation to justify the eventual actions of the character.

Let’s look at the inciting incident in a Christian Romance. On page 48 of Lori Wick’s The Princess we find the inciting incident. (Technically, it is on page 42 of 288 , but Harvest House doesn’t number their pages correctly. ) Up to this point, the protagonist Shelby has married the prince because of some weird law that requires him to be married, but they haven’t spent more than a few moments together. She has married him out of duty and tells herself that she doesn’t expect love, but she does desire respect. On page 48, Shelby is sitting in the kitchen having breakfast when her husband walks in.

"Hello, " he spoke kindly, smiling a little in her direction.

"Good morning, " Shelby said softly, keeping her seat.

The prince finished his business with Murdock and finally turned to look at her again.

"I don’t believe we’ve met," he said conversationally, shocking Shelby into silence. The redhead stared at him until he laughed a little and glanced at Murdock and Arlanda.

"I take it I have met our guest and forgotten. "

But the two servants were staring at him in equal shock, and a cold feeling swept down his spine. The face he turned back to Shelby was not at all friendly. That lady stood to her feet before speaking.

"I’m Shelby, " she said breathlessly. "I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. "

The red in Nikolai’s face could only be matched by Shelby’s, which was nearly purple with mortification.

If you keep track of those types of things, yes, the writer head hops between Shelby, Nikolai and some unknown narrator, but this is one of the best scenes in the book and is a good example of an inciting incident. Being a romance, we already know that their next step is to get to know each other on their way to falling in love, but the inciting incident gives them a reason to do that. Both were content living out their lives married, but not knowing each other until they experienced an emotion they didn’t like. The emotion is embarrassment. Duty aside, who wants to admit to people that she is married to someone she doesn’t know?

Look at the inciting incident. If the character isn’t motivated by emotion, then the inciting incident needs work. We aren’t looking for a logical response, so it doesn’t even have to make logical sense, but the reader needs to understand that the character’s emotions are moving him forward. It does help if the reader recognizes the emotional response as one she would have in the same situation, but it is not an absolute requirement. In the Where the Red Fern Grows example, we may not have the same desire for a dog, but we can understand that someone might have that desire. Our goal with an inciting incident is to give the reader a reason to cheer the protagonist on in doing what she is doing to accomplish her goals.

Blake Snyder describes the inciting incident as the first place where something happens. Ironically, in The Princess, it seems like there’s lots of stuff happening before the inciting incident. Shelby goes from being single to being a married princess. That seems pretty significant, but all of that is just part of what it is to be Shelby. It is a natural progression for her to agree to marry the prince. It is only after the embarrassing moment at breakfast that Shelby realizes that she is going to have to take action to change her situation. For the first time we see her do something that steps away from the Shelby we see at the beginning of the book.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Dirty Secret of "Christian" Publishing

But seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. – Matthew 6:33

The other day Rachelle Gardner blogged about preparing for success in publishing. The point of the post was that once an author signs a contract with a publisher there will be demands placed on the author’s time. Near the middle of her post she writes:

Do you participate in several church or social activities (Bible study, weekly golf date, book club, whatever)? Understand you may need to curtail them for a season... or permanently.

First, let me say that anyone who chooses to write is not going to be able to do that without changing one’s schedule. If nothing else, an author will end up watching less television or reading fewer books. That goes with the territory. The problem I see here is the recommendation that a Christian author remove herself from church activities, including Bible study, “for a season…or permanently.”

We could say that this is a matter of priorities. If it is, I will say that no publisher--I don’t care if it is Abingdon or B & H, Thomas Nelson or Zondervan-- out there that can hold a candle to South Park Baptist Church. Even if were able to touch millions through my writing, that would be secondary to the efforts of the local New Testament church in which the Lord has placed me. Jesus could have established a publishing house, but he established a church and told them to share the gospel with those around them. Publishing is a wonderful thing, but only if it enhances the work of the local church. But it is more than priorities.

You’ve heard the advice, write what you know. That is more than advice. That is definition of what a writer does. If a writer doesn’t have experiences to draw from, he has nothing to write. There must be a balance. A writer must write, but he must also find time to spend with people. If he doesn’t, he will lose his ability to relay those social interactions to his readers. That golf game with his buddies may be as much a part of his writing as the time he spends typing his novel.

When we look at church activities, it is similar to other activities, but it is more. Many Christians have gotten the notion church attendance and Christian service are the same thing. A Christian might rise on Sunday morning and say, “I’m going to church to serve the Lord.” She goes to midweek Bible study and says, “I’m going to church to serve the Lord.” If Bible study is Christian service then there is no harm in trading one type of Christian service for another. Isn’t writing a Christian book a form of Christian service? Then there is no harm in replacing time spent at church with time spent working on the book. Or is there? We all know that Hebrews 10:25 tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, but why?

Let us hold fast to the profession of our faith without wavering (for He is faithful who promised), and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as ye see the Day approaching. – Hebrews 10:23-25

Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works. Why are churches to assemble? Because by doing so the members of the church help each other to hold fast in their faith, to love and to do good works. Church attendance is not the good works the writer of Hebrews is talking about. Churches are like a power source from which we recharge our batteries so that we can go out into the world and do the work that God has called us to. Good churches keep us on track and doctrinally sound. As Christian writers, we are putting words out there in an attempt to tell people something about God. If there is anyone who needs what church attendance and Bible study provides, don’t Christian writers need it more than anyone? Instead of putting aside church attendance, Bible study and church social activities when we get that big contract and struggle to find the time to meet our deadline, we need more than ever to immerse ourselves in the Word and surround ourselves with other believers, so that the stress of the situation doesn’t give Satan the opportunity to use our words as a weapon for his own purposes or to discourage us to the point we are unable to serve the Lord.

If the demands of Christian publishing are such that they pull Christian authors away from their churches, then this truly is a dirty secret. The end result can only be that Christian publishers will be plagued with authors whose writing is hollow, theologically inaccurate and harmful to weak Christians.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Universal Outline

Last time I showed you a very simple outline for Searching for Mom:

  1. Act 1: Beginning – Sara Wants a Mother

  2. Act 2A: Middle A – Sara Looks for a Mother and Finds a Suitable Woman

  3. Act 2B: Middle B –Woman Does not Want to Become involved with Sara’s Father.

  4. Act 3: End – Sara Brings Mother and Father Together

This is a very high level outline, but you may be like many people who say, “I could never use an outline. It is too restrictive.” You’re really going to think that when I show you this next outline, partially based on Blake Snyder’s work:

  1. Act 1: Beginning

    1. Setup (includes an opening image and theme statement)

    2. Inciting Incident

    3. Debate

  2. Act 2A: Middle A

    1. B Story

    2. Fun and Games

  3. Act 2B: Middle B

    1. Bad Guys Close In

    2. All Is Lost Moment

    3. Dark Night of the Soul

  4. Act 3: End

    1. Finale

    2. Final Image

Now I’m sure you’re saying, “You expect me to use that outline? Where’s the creativity in that?” No, I don’t expect you to use it, if you don’t want to, but here’s the thing. All good stories follow this outline, or something pretty close to it. Now you’re probably thinking that I’m telling you that unless you follow this outline your story isn’t very good. Actually, what I am saying is that as we look back over time, the stories of the great storytellers follow this pattern. In most cases, I don’t think they intended it to be that way. Many may have just opened their mouths and began telling a story, but the ones that have stood the test of time fall into this pattern. This pattern is the most natural way to tell a story.

Consider that if you wanted to tell us about an experience you have had, you would begin by telling us about the situation before it happened. (I was driving on the freeway.) Then you would mention what changed the status quo. (The car in front of me came to a stop.) You would mention why this is a problem. (I saw his tail lights approaching.) You would mention what you decided to do. (I slammed on the breaks and came to a stop.) You would mention why this wasn’t enough. (I saw the car behind me rushing up on me.) You would mention the really bad thing. (The car slammed into me.) You would talk about why this is upsetting. (I was sure he must have dented my bumper.) Lastly, you would bring the story to resolution. (The car is totaled. I had to get a rental car. I hope the insurance company will be quick with a settlement.) You wouldn’t develop an outline to tell you how best to tell this story, but it would come out just this way. Sure, you might leave out one or two of these points, but the natural flow would be for you to follow this pattern, a pattern that matches the outline above.

Let’s say you are a seat of the pants author and you have written a story that people seem to like. Go back and see if your story fits in the outline I gave above. It very likely will. If it doesn’t, the most likely problem is that you aren’t finding the correct pieces or your story isn’t as good as you think it is.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Simple Book Outline

My first attempt at writing a novel didn’t have an outline. I had several scenes in my head that I wrote with the idea that I would fill in the gaps later. The story was a fantasy about two friends, one of which had an innate ability to work magic and decided to put the people to work building a huge tower from which he intended to rule the world, or something like that. I reached 60,000 words before my hard drive crashed. I’m sure I still have bits and pieces of the story somewhere. I could put it back together again, but I think it best if I don’t.

I began Searching for Mom in the same way, but I quickly realized that I was wasting too much time writing stuff that I didn’t need to write. I developed the most basic of outlines. It began like this:

  1. Beginning – Sara Wants a Mother

  2. Middle – Sara Looks for a Mother

  3. End – Sara Brings Mother and Father Together

After looking around, I happened to find someone who made the suggestion, “push to the middle.” I don’t recall where I saw that advice, but the idea was that by pushing to the middle we can avoid the sag that commonly occurs. As you can see in the outline above, in a three act story, the middle appears to be a long section in which little progress is taking place. Sara is just looking and looking and looking, but she doesn’t find a mother until the third act. We solve this by splitting the second act in two. Call it Act 2A and Act 2B or Middle A and Middle B. I will explain later why this is till a three act story instead of a four act story (i.e. Acts 1, 2, 3 & 4).

  1. Act 1: Beginning – Sara Wants a Mother

  2. Act 2A: Middle A – Sara Looks for a Mother and Finds a Suitable Woman

  3. Act 2B: Middle B –Woman Does not Want to Become involved with Sara’s Father.

  4. Act 3: End – Sara Brings Mother and Father Together

Notice that something happens in the middle of the book. Sara succeeds in her quest. At least it seems like she has, but we soon realize that things aren’t quite like she hoped. We’ve pushed hard to get to this point and it hasn’t been a futile effort, but we need Act 2B to be a downer so Sara has a reason to reevaluate her position and to push even harder to reach her goal or fail in trying.

With that settled, let’s look at why this is still a three act story instead of a four act story. We can think of the three acts as three worlds. Act 1 is the world as is. In this case, Sara has a father who loves her, but she longs for a mother. The other kids have mothers and it pains her that she doesn’t. We move into Act 2 and we have a world that is very different from that of Act 1. Sara is no longer the victim of her circumstances. She has a plan that she will follow through and she will find the ideal mother. She remains in this world in both Act 2A and Act 2B. She still has the mother she has found, but the new world becomes inhospitable. There are bad guys in this world who want to separate her from her new mother. That brings us to Act 3. In this act we have yet another world. In this world Sara hopes to merge the first two worlds into something better, but it is at the risk of creating something worse. A simple story in three acts.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Review: In the Footsteps of Paul

I received “In the Footsteps of Paul” by Ken Duncan through Thomas Nelson’s Book Review Bloggers program. With this book I was glad that Thomas Nelson only requires a two hundred word review. The book is mostly a picture book with verses from the Bible, statements from other author and the occasional comment by the author mixed in. I am finding it difficult to know what to say. With many of the pictures, Ken Duncan reveals himself to be a talented photographer with an eye for beauty, but I also had the sense that I had seen these pictures before. As I flipped through the book, I kept noticing how similar many of the pictures were to some of the pictures I’ve seen in Bible dictionaries and Bible encyclopedias. So the pictures are a kind of mix between photos of the areas Paul visited and religious stuff. I don’t care much for religious stuff.

The Bible quotes appear to be direct quotes, though I didn’t verify each one. The authors with quotes in the book are respected individuals. As for the rest of the text, this is not a scholarly work, but rather a travel journal containing the author’s opinions. This is made most clear on page 117. Speaking of the vow mentioned in Acts 18, the writer says, “perhaps the fulfillment of the vow at Cenchrea partly explains his apparent eagerness to get to Jerusalem, so that he could offer sacrifices.” I don’t know who the editor was at Thomas Nelson, but he let one slip through. The veil was torn in two when Jesus died. Hebrews 10 tells us that Jesus, our High Priest, sat down after he completed his sacrifice. The need for sacrifice ended at Calvary. Making it an incorrect guess on the part of the author that Paul might have been headed toward Jerusalem for that purpose.

Then there’s the thing that makes me glad I didn’t purchase the book. On the back cover, on the barcode sticker are three words, “Printed in China.” Let me understand this. The Chinese are persecuting Christians, but we turn around and pay them to print Christian books? Where is the logic in that?

Choosing a Genre

Some time ago, I saw a news report about an artist who painted nothing but pictures of Alan Greenspan. I don’t know if she’s still doing it or not, but it highlights what artists are supposed to do. A painter may pick a subject and paint several variations on that theme. Even if the painter doesn’t paint the same person over and over, she will stick with the same style. She won’t follow the impressionist style one day and then do water color the next. Art lovers have the expectation that if they see a painting by an artist and fall in love with it, they may not be able to acquire that particular painting, but they may be able to purchase another similar painting that they like as well or better.

Writers are expected to settle into a style also. Now those of us who write rare books can pretty much write what we please, but when you have a fan base, they expect you to give them more of what they enjoyed the last time. We tend to think of it in terms of genre, but it is more than that. Consider two authors, Mary Higgins Clark and Brandilyn Collins. Aside from the fact that Brandilyn Collins writes Christian books and Mary Higgins Clark doesn’t, they write in the same genre, the genre of suspense, but their styles are very different. In her better novels, Mary Higgins Clark has this no holds barred way of dropping the reader into the suspense on page one. She doesn’t wait for the inciting incident. Brandilyn Collins has what she calls Seatbelt Suspense, in which she gives the reader a chance to get all buckled in and safe. But their readers expect his. If Mary Higgins Clark were to ease into the suspense, she would probably get bad reviews. On the other hand, if Brandilyn Collins were to cut the seatbelt, she would probably give some of her fans nightmares.

One of the interesting things is that both Mary Higgins Clark and Brandilyn Collins attempted to write in a different style before settling into suspense. Success has a way of helping to make decisions, but how is an author supposed to decide which style to use? Mary Higgins Clark and Bradilyn Collins chose suspense, but couldn’t they have just as easily chosen romance or military stories or fantasy? Every beginning writer asks the question, “What do I want to be known for?” Mary Higgins Clark seems content to be known for hard core suspense. Brandilyn Collins seems to want to be known for safe suspense and has a registered trade mark to that affect. But how do nobodies like us decide where we want our writing to go?

In some ways, it may be easier to decide where we don’t want our writing to go. I don’t see myself writing romance, or apocalypse books. I don’t see myself writing military thrillers or books about demons, vampires or werewolves. I would love to write satire, but people have this idea that satire must be funny and I’m not funny. Besides, publishers don’t like novels that actually say something these days. I like a good love story, but every good book has a love story. I don’t see myself writing westerns. See, I’ve already eliminated several genres.

Let’s assume for a moment that we can write in any genre, in any style and do it well. Let’s suppose that we could write a romance one week, suspense the next and a fantasy the next. All genre’s have their pros and cons, but which one is the best one? If you could imagine the absolutely best story you could ever tell, which genre would it be? What style would you use? What story would you write if you want to make people look at your work and say, “Wow?”

Here’s another question that might help. If you could rewrite the Cinderella story in any genre, which genre would you choose? Would you choose suspense and begin your story with the fear that Cinderella has of her family? Would you choose romance and focus on bringing the couple together? Would you turn the prince into a vampire? Would you have soldiers battle their way through the wilderness to get Cinderella to the ball? By the time you’ve made it your own; you will have a story that fits where you might want to focus your efforts.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Author's Platform

One of the biggest concerns for non-fiction authors is platform. Publishers demand that authors have a platform, but most authors not only don’t have a platform, they don’t know what one is and they don’t know how to get one. In simplest terms, an author’s platform is the author’s foundation. Figuratively, the author stands on his platform, much like a speaker would a soap box or a podium, and proclaims his message to the world. As with speakers, authors prefer to have a true podium over a soap box, but we must earn that right.

Many things in life are complete in three parts. The author’s platform is no different. The three things that go into a platform are expertise, recognition and subject interest. The strength of the platform depends on an author having adequate portions of all three.

Expertise comes from many different things. A Bible scholar, for example, may have gained his expertise by attending a seminary or by years of Bible study on his own, but one thing is certain, he didn’t gain his expertise by deciding to read the book of Psalms and discovering things that he didn’t know were there. Also, expertise in one area does not equate to expertise in all areas. We may find an expert Bible scholar who has no expertise in raising children. He may have a strong platform when it comes to theology, but a very weak platform from which to talk about raising children.

Recognition comes into play because being a great expert on a subject is meaningless if people do not recognize that you are a great expert. Suppose there is a historian who has studied everything there is to know about the assassination of Lincoln. No one knows more about this subject than this historian, but aside from a few papers he has written, few people have heard of him. On the other hand, there is a historian who has a broader knowledge of history and is a consultant for a news organization. Even though the first historian has greater expertise, it is likely that people will consult with the consultant because she has greater recognition for her expertise in history. Thus, she has a stronger platform.

Subject Interest may be the saving grace for the Lincoln assassination expert. There is enough interest in the subject that people may want more information than the news consultant would be able to give. This would strengthen the platform of the Lincoln assassination expert. Each of us is the foremost expert in something—in ourselves if nothing else. But our expertise and the recognition of it is only useful if there is sufficient subject interest. I am an expert in all there is to know about Timothy Fish. People recognize that I am the expert, but only a few people are truly interested in learning about Timothy Fish, so my platform on the subject remains small.

Building a platform requires strengthening all three aspects. We can strengthen expertise through study or by experience. We strengthen recognition by making people aware of our expertise. This may be through public speaking, advertising, publishing papers or through the Internet. We don’t always have control over subject interest. No one had interest in Chelsey Sullenberger until he landed a plane in the Hudson River. That’s a little random, but now, anyone who is a recognized authority on Chelsey Sullenberger has a strong platform. We don’t want to go around creating disasters to strengthen our platform, but we can promote our subject. People may not realize how interesting a subject is until someone tells them why they should be interested.

Some people confuse fans with platform. There is a link, but if you will notice, celebrities have a platform because fans are interested in the celebrity and the celebrity is a recognized authority on the celebrity. While that may translate into the celebrity being about to promote other things, their platform quickly falls apart if they have not done their research and become an expert in whatever it is they are promoting. When they show their ignorance of a subject, people are just as likely to laugh at them and ignore whatever they have to say.

You may be thinking to yourself, “I’m not a recognized subject matter expert on anything that people find interesting. But I still want to be a writer. I still have stuff I want to say.” That’s fine, but don’t expect anyone to want to publish it or read it. Some people will tell you that writing is primarily about keeping your butt in your chair. I disagree. You want to write non-fiction? Go out and learn something that most people don’t know, but would like to learn. Then come back and write it down in a interesting way, so the rest of us can learn it with less effort than it took you.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A New Idea

Where do story ideas come from? They come from other stories, either fact or fiction. We may see something on the news and it triggers a thought for a story or we may have read the work of other authors and decide to write something similar. But while that is the beginning point of a story, we should allow the story to take shape until it is substantially different, and hopefully better, than the story from which we began.

Let’s look at the typical romance novel. The plot is simple. Boy meets girl, boy and girl don’t get along, boy and girl separate, boy and girl realize how much they need each other and try to get back together do they can live happily ever after. It’s a story that’s been told thousands of times, so we might wonder if it is worth telling again. As is, no, it isn’t. So let’s mess with it a little. What if the boy is the owner of the company where the girl works and he is going lay her off? That adds interest, but it’s been done many times. What if instead, the man wants to expand his factory and to do that he has to find a way to kick the girl’s grandmother out of her house? It’s still not unique, but it’s a little better. Since it is romance and readers are more interested in character differences than plot changes, we’ll make the man a widower with a daughter the woman teaches in her fifth grade class. We might as well make the kid an unruly child. And so, we have taken a frequently used plot and turned it into our own.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Using Symbols in Writing

On a television show that I was watching they showed the outside of a radio station. On the street outside, a truck drove past pulling a tractor on a flatbed trailer. It wasn’t a large tractor, just about the size you might want for one forty acre field. Later in the show another tractor appears. This time, a man is driving the tractor down the street. Once more it is a small open cab tractor. The two tractors have no purpose in the plot, but they serve as an important symbol.

Symbols are important in writing. The appearance of a tractor tells us that we are in a rural area. A fence may represent a barrier that keeps those inside in or those outside out. Death may represent the hopelessness of a situation. The symbols we use serve to say something quickly without the need for many words. In part, they are what it means to show, not just tell.

In a recent manuscript, I have a scene in which two of the main characters are on a train. One character is mentally counting her money. The other, a young girl, is resting beneath a blanket with holes in it. The train, the worry about money and the hole riddled blanket are all symbols that tell us something about the two characters. Later, when they show up at their destination and see houses that look like castles we see a symbol that tells us something about the people living in the neighborhood. From these images alone, you are able to discern much about the story.

Symbols are like small pictures that we can use to show a reader less tangible concepts. I have a character whose father comes to her wedding wearing a shirt that says, “If I look lost, just point me to the beer.” The shirt tells us that the man is a drunk. We don’t have to spend a lot of time showing him getting drunk and we don’t want to. The character is of no importance, other than to show where one of the primary characters has come from.

Some symbols need to be repeated. In For the Love of a Devil, one of the characters has a scar on her chin. Nearly every time I show her, I have her rub that scar. It would be easy to forget the scar if we don’t mention it, but because we see it every time we see her it gives her character depth that would be much more flat otherwise.

The nice thing about symbols is that they often find their way into our stories without us thinking about it. We close our eyes; imagine a scene and they pop into our heads. In one manuscript I have a scene in which a man and his lawyers are riding through the Kansas countryside in a limo. Occasionally, they have to slow down for farm equipment. The contrast between the limo and the farm equipment shows us the contrast between the man and the person he is going to visit, but I spend a lot of time thinking about that as I wrote the story. These symbols just appeared.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Everything on Television Must Be True

An episode of the television show Bones reminded me of the power and danger of fiction. The A story was of little importance. The B story, however, was about a homosexual relationship between one of the main characters and her friend from college. The show’s writers pretended to show both sides of the issue by showing people who saw nothing wrong with it and showing those who do, but the homage they paid to those who see it as wrong dealt more with tradition than it did with facts. The picture they painted of the two women involved was one of apparently healthy feelings the two still have for each other. But the real kicker was when the major character said, “I am not promiscuous,” after having broken up with her boyfriend while looking for another sexual partner. This is before the scene of her kissing her lesbian girlfriend.

The danger that this episode of Bones shows us is that fiction writers can make claims without providing accurate evidence to support those claims. The homosexual relationship portrayed on Bones is a far cry from a real life homosexual relationship. Most homosexuals have many partners, not one person that she still has feelings for. The reason we should be opposed to homosexuality isn’t because that is how we were taught and while it should be sufficient for us to know that God hate homosexuality, we should also oppose it because it leads to hurtful, broken relationships. The life of a homosexual is more like that of a character on a soap opera than the life portrayed by Bones. But how are people to know that Bones is lying to them if all they know about homosexuality is what the writers of the show tell them?

In some ways, what Fox did with Bones is not that much different from what all fiction writers do. We create an imaginary situation with unreal conditions and speculate about what characters would do with those parameters. In this case, one of the parameters is that homosexuality is a healthy lifestyle. The problem is in how close to real life the creator make the show appear, making it difficult for people to see what is fact and what is fantasy. Even as fiction writers, I believe we have a responsibility to prove our thesis with facts rather than how we would like the world to be, but as the writers of Bones have shown us, the fiction writer is not limited to facts in proving his claims.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Unsuspecting Bridegroom

A popular plot in both science fiction and historical fiction is that of the forced marriage. It is similar to the Sabine women plot, but there is an added twist in that one or both of the couple doesn’t have a choice, while the Sabine women were given the option of returning home. In historical fiction, the plot device typically centers on the cultural taboos of the day. The woman ends up pregnant and convinces some poor sap to marry her so the child won’t be born out of wedlock. In science fiction, the plot typically centers on the cultural differences between two planets. A visitor to a planet enjoys the local nightlife until some attractive woman offers him some kind of gift, like food or something else. Wanting to make a good impression, he accepts the gift, only to discover later that by doing so he has married the woman.

Both science fiction and historical fiction tend to be surreal. Everyone assumes that the law of the land doesn’t prevent these strange things from happening, but if we set the story in contemporary America, we begin to question whether someone would be so ignorant and whether there might be laws to protect the stupid. It is difficult to put it in a contemporary setting, though I won’t say impossible, without violating the suspension of disbelief.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Meaning of the Cinderella Story

The story of Cinderella is one of the most loved stories of all time. It has been retold many times. It has made millions of young girls say, “I want to be a princess when I grow up.” Many people have asked if this is the message we want to send to children. Others aren’t sure what kind of message the story is sending to children.

When we consider the story, the first thought is that we don’t want to tell children that they can solve problems with magic. But if we peel back the layers of the story and look at what it promotes, the story isn’t really about magic. The magic in the story is just a convenient way to make the story understandable to children. It is much easier to say that the magic stops working after mid-night than it is to develop a non-magical reason why she must flee without giving anyone her name.

Looking at the true theme of the story, the real message of the story is that justice will prevail, even when it appears the unrighteous are prospering from their evil deeds. The theme is a Christian theme. God has said that the wicked will not always prosper. Cinderella is representative of those who obey God’s law. The stepmother and stepsisters represent people who try to prosper through evil deeds. The Fairy Godmother is similar to how the Bible portrays some of the angels, in that she comes onto the scene, does something miraculous to put things right, but steps back out of the way. The prince is only the reward and is similar to the reward God has promised to those who put their faith in Jesus. Some versions of the Cinderella story have the stepsisters cutting off their toes and heels to get their feet to fit into the glass slipper. In this we see the punishment God has promised for the wicked.

Though the theme is Christian, let’s not assume that the story is Christian. All truth is God’s truth, so when a story speaks truth, we are going to see similarities to the word of God. I believe we can use stories like Cinderella to teach truth, but they should never replace going to the Bible so we can tell people “thus sayeth the Lord.”