Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Priorities of Life

As things go in this online community, the death of Michael Jackson led to Michael Hyatt writing a post about that, with a link back to a post about Creating a Life Plan. I used to have a life plan, but I got off of it when I didn’t get married by the time I was twenty-four. That used to bother me—a lot. Now, ten years later, I don’t even remember that I’m not married most of the time. I find it much easier to say, “Whatever you will, Lord.” It isn’t that I have a problem with people making a life plan, but I would have missed out on some really good things if I had stuck to my plans.

Mike also suggests identifying key accounts, ordered by priority. I’ll show you my list and then we’ll talk about it:

  1. God

  2. Family, Church and Friends

  3. Self

  4. Ministry

  5. Finances

  6. Career

  7. Hobbies (including writing)

God must come first. If he doesn’t, I’m in sad shape. For the second item, I included all three because I have a real hard time keeping my family, my church and my friends separate. They all seem like family to me. I stuck them above self because I would rather my own health suffer than to see these people hurting. I would give them the shirt off my back. Fortunately, most of them feel the same about me, or I would be going shirtless. Ministry goes below me and that lines up with what the Bible says when it tells us not to be weary in well doing. A lot of my income flows out into ministry and when it is necessary I don’t have a problem with reducing my savings significantly for the sake of ministry, so finances come below it, though I believe that attitude has actually helped my finances instead of hurting it. I don’t do anything halfheartedly and I pour myself into my career as well. I enjoy my career, most of the time, but I see it primarily as an enabler that gives me the freedom to do the more important things and some of the less important things as well. Lastly, there are my hobbies and I have several, not the least of which is my writing. Of course, writing is also a major part of my ministry, which I mentioned above.

I can see that my list is much different than Mike’s. So, what about yours? How is yours different?

Three Actors and No More

Tritagonist—there’s a term you don’t hear much. In a Greek play, the tritagonist was the third (and least) important character. In novels, we aren’t limited in how many people we can use in a scene, so we might not think as much about the deuteragonist and the tritagonist. These characters could be anyone. When the deuteragonist is the antagonist, the tritagonist may be the sidekick to the protagonist. Or, if the tritagonist might be the antagonist or someone else.

The reason we might want to think in terms of protagonist, deuteragonist and tritagonist is that it is difficult to keep tack of more than three characters at a time. Consider the work of Agatha Christie. At times, she would have several characters in a room, such as when a murder was committed or when the killer was revealed, but during the investigative process, she often used a three character setup, one investigator talking to a couple or two investigators talking to one suspect.

Even when a scene involves four or more people, it is helpful to focus the primary conflict to three people. Imagine a classroom full of people. The teacher is talking and a young man raises his hand, “Are you saying…” The teacher responds and a young woman raises her hand, “But what about…” The teacher amends her response and now the young man has something to say again. We could throw more people into the mix, but it only leads to confusion as we try to keep up with the different points of view.

But then you consider Twelve Angry Men and it sort of blows what I’m saying out of the water. It is certainly possible to have several people actively involved in the conversation, though even with it, there are small sections where two or three are primary and the others say nothing, but the conversation moves to a different topic and a new group emerges as the primaries. In the key parts of the play, it is often two key players hashing it out, though those players change throughout the play. In a novel, it might be helpful to use a similar approach, rather than thinking we must have all of our characters talking.

Monday, June 29, 2009

False Prophecies Don't Exist

All prophecies are true, or so we would be led to believe from reading or watching fiction. Apparently, this is one of the rules. Publishers expect prophecies to come true. Now, I don’t think they would have a problem if the story is about what happens if people have been expecting a prophecy to come true, but then it doesn’t. That could be an interesting story. I suspect that the real problem is when the protagonist chooses to ignore the prophecy and it doesn’t come true.

In real life, not all prophecies come true. We know that, so it shouldn’t be a big deal if a fictional prophecy doesn’t come true. But if it isn’t a big deal, then what impact does it have on the plot? An unfulfilled prophecy that the protagonist has ignored and no one is going to get upset over when it is proven incorrect is a non-event. Things are much more interesting when the prophecy comes true. Our protagonist may still ignore it, but we keep seeing these signs that the prophesied fate is coming. A true prophecy gives us foreshadowing and tension as the protagonist struggles against the inevitable. So, while we know that not all prophecies are true, false prophecies don’t add anything to the story.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What is the Most Important Decision?

What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of your organization? asks Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee1. Every leader ends up making decisions that impact the whole organization. If you happen to be the President, your decision might mean the death of thousands. I, fortunately, have never been faced with such momentous decisions. In my opinion, the most important decision I have ever made involves whether I should make an executive decision about something or take it before the group. How you address that issue is fundamental to your view of leadership.

The basic question is do you see your role as a leader as being the primary decision maker or as one who enables others to be the decision makers? Do you have enough confidence in your people’s abilities to allow them to make the decisions or do you believe there things that are too important to risk it? Is it the leader’s role to make the big decisions and leave the details to the workers, or is it the leader’s role to provide the group with the information they need to make the big decisions and to do what it takes to keep them from being weighted down with minor decisions.

But Jesus called them to Him and said unto them, “Ye know that they that are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you shall be your minister, and whosoever of you would be the chiefest shall be servant of all.” – Mark 10:42-43

My basic view of leadership is that the group as a whole is more qualified to make decision than I am as an individual. It may be that I am the most qualified individual, but when we consider the collective abilities of the group, I cannot compare. As a leader, it then becomes my responsibility to ensure that the group has the information it needs to assess the situation can make a decision. When a group has all of the information and they have leaders who instruct them in what is right and good, the group is more likely to make the right decision than a leader acting alone. When the group is a group of Christian, acting under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, then they are even more likely to do the right thing.

I can think of two reasons why a leader would refuse to allow the group to make the decision. One is when the group is not aware of all the facts. There are some situations in which making everyone aware of the facts could be dangerous (as in the case of national security) or could be improper (such is the case with some family situations). In the case of homes, the children may not be mature enough to understand the facts and thus the parents must make the decisions.

The other reason a leader might refuse to allow a group to make a decision is because he is lifted up with pride. Because of his position, he sees himself as being more qualified to make decisions or may be he is afraid that if he allow the group to make the decisions people will place someone else in his position.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Platform vs. Marketing

I had intended to post about the differences between platform and marketing on this blog, but the article grew too long (1,200+ words). When posts grow too long, I move them to my website, which has a design better suited for long articles. It is also better for people who want to print the article and read it offline. Follow the link below if you would like to read the article:

The Game of Platform Development

Why Monks Are Always Wise

Yesterday, I talked about how writers turn to non-christian religions or non-mainstream denominations, such as the Amish, as a voice of reason in their novels. I don’t think writers are making a conscientious effort to support false religion, though this is what happens when medicine men and Buddhist monks are shown as great men of wisdom. Rather, these people provide a convenient means of filling a role that appears in many stories.

You’ve heard of the protagonist and the antagonist. There is another -agonist, the deuteragonist. As the name implies, the deuteragonist is the second most important character. At times, he may be the antagonist, but we often see a deuteragonist who is the sidekick or the voice of reason. The protagonist is facing a problem and doesn’t know how to handle it. It is often the role of the deuteragonist to offer suggestions, give warnings and advice that the protagonist needs in order to find a solution to the problem.

The mystery of some of these false religions gives authors a way to provide wisdom or unique tools that the protagonist needs to complete his task. A child is missing, so the fictional police bring in a psychic—not because psychics are all that great at finding children, but because the author has run out of clues to use and needs someone to give his protagonist something that will move the story forward. It does the same thing as an anonymous phone call, but is more interesting and doesn’t leave the dangling thread of wondering who the anonymous caller is.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

When Fiction is Pure Fiction

Fiction, at times, is nothing but pure fiction. There is a rule in fiction that all prophecies are true. The prophecy can come in any form, whether written on a stone or the vision of a drug addict. However it comes, it will come true, though the hero may find a loophole of some kind. I’m sure there must be exceptions, but some authors who have tried using unfulfilled prophecies have reported having trouble getting their work published. It is hard to say whether this is truly due to the belief that the prophecy should be fulfilled or whether the story just wasn’t that interesting without it being fulfilled. That may be worth exploring at another time.

Another purely fictional thing we notice about fiction is that the leader of religions outside the mainstream are true in every respect. I watched Annie the other day, in which there is this Indian dude who has the ability to levitate things. No normal American would be able to do that, but because this guy is an easterner and believes in magic, it somehow makes it possible. We often see stories in which a character consults an old Native American, who speaks to his spirit guides and receives some great wisdom like, “the wind does not always blow from the west.” After which, the protagonist goes off and discovers some profound meaning in the old man’s words. But if a peer had said the same thing, the words would have been dismissed.

Along that same line, Amish fiction is popular right now. When the Amish are covered in fiction, they are often portrayed as being a little wiser than the rest of us, understanding that the simple life is somehow better than having all of the modern conveniences. All the old timers I know would tell you that’s a bunch of hogwash, but such is fiction.

Tomorrow, I plan to talk about some reasons these things are in fictional stories.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Worst Thing

Prevailing wisdom seems to be that an author should find the worst thing that could happen to a character and throw that at him or her. James Scott Bell suggests asking this on page 42 of Plot & Structure. The idea behind this is to make your characters squirm and see how they get out of the mess. Prevailing wisdom isn’t always right.

What I don’t like about this approach is that it produces very dark fiction and nothing else. I have a character who owns a restaurant. It would be a terrible thing if I burned that thing to the ground. She would survive, but it would be bad. But would it be the worst thing? What if she were raped before the arsonist burned it to the ground, with her family trapped inside? That would reveal her character, but the story would be extremely dark, not to mention the fact that I don’t want to do that to her.

Instead of asking what the worst thing that can happen to a character is, why don’t we first define the antagonist and ask what is the antagonist willing to do that is the most likely to put an end to the protagonist’s plans? If we’re talking about two soccer Mom’s the antagonist may be willing to hit the other mother in the nose to keep her from yelling at her son, but she is likely to stop short of strangling her with her purse strap. She would certainly be willing to get the other woman’s son banned from the games, which would be a terrible thing for our protagonist, but she wouldn’t be willing to kidnap him and lock him in the basement.

We don’t have to consider the antagonist first, but the point is that it might be helpful to consider the limitations of the world we wish to create. Not only that, but some of the worst things we can throw at a character may send us off on a rabbit chase that it has nothing to do with the story. Being mean to our characters can be helpful, but it should never harm the story.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Where Should We Begin a Story?

Every story must begin somewhere, but how are we to decide where we should begin? To say to begin at the beginning is not enough.

The beginning is that point in the protagonist’s life at which the change that takes place during the story is most needed and yet he is not motivated to change. The original Star Wars (episode IV) begins at a point when the rebels are on the verge of defeat. This is made obvious by the small rebel ship what is out gunned and swallowed by the much larger ship. What they need is a hero. Down on the planet, our protagonist is living out the life of a farmer. He longs for something more, but he will keep doing what he is doing.

What if the story began sooner, say when he first arrived on that planet? We would have been bored. What about even sooner. There are three movies set before this time, so there was plenty going on, but Luke was the protagonist in none of those. Those are the story of other people.

What if the story began later, when Luke discovers his aunt and uncle dead? We wouldn’t understand why Luke willingly followed the old man. It is necessary to establish the need for change before change begins to take place.

The beginning is influenced by our choice of protagonist and the change he must experience. The change a man needs may be very different than what his wife needs, so if we were to choose her as the protagonist, we might being in a very different place. Or even if we use the same protagonist and deal with a change in his relationship with his boss instead of with his parents, the beginning will be different.

So, where do we begin? We begin at a place that illustrates the problem that needs fixing, without explaining the details of how we ended up with this problem in the first place.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Vision Out of Context

Proverbs 29:18 could be the verse of the Bible that is taken out of contest more than any other. This is especially true of Christian businessmen. Consider the reference Mike Hyatt made to it in 6 Steps to More Courage. What he says about it is fairly typical of how businessmen reference it or how some pastors reference it. We want our people to understand the importance of having a vision and following through, so we quote this great Bible verse that seems to say just that. “Where there is no vision, the people parish.” If you want to survive, you have to have vision and the courage to follow through, right? Yes, to a point, but in the words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

First, most people leave off the second half of Proverbs 29:18. The whole verse says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” When you read a verse like this, you need to realize that the first half and the second half are matched pairs. In this case, they are direct opposites. The second half helps us to understand what the first half means and vice versa.

Vision here isn’t as pedestrian as the results a leader believes his organization should achieve. Vision is used to translate the same word that is used to refer to the visions of the prophets. We would not be wrong in restating the verse as “Where there is no Word from the Lord, the people parish.” The second half of the verse then makes more sense. The Law is a Word from the Lord.

Proverbs 29:18 only applies to vision as we frequently apply it when a leader has fallen on his face before the Lord and earnestly desired a Word from the Lord, showing him how he should go. If the vision isn’t from the Lord, then we having a vision and the courage to follow may be worse than having no vision at all. But when the Lord has given us direction, courage isn’t just courage it is faith.

The leaders we need in businesses, the leaders we need in churches, are men and women who refuse to move forward until they have a Word from the Lord—a vision—but when they receive it, they move forward in faith, knowing that the Lord will do just as he promised. We don’t need need men who can create great visions, but men who receive great visions. We need faithful men who keep the Law of the Lord.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

I Found a New Toy

I found a new toy for blogging. I was looking for another piece of software when I saw Windows Live Writer. This tool is designed for editing blog posts offline and then posting them to your blog. I have only tried it with Blogger, so I don’t know how well it works with other blogs, but I’m impressed. I believe it was Michael Hyatt who recommended BlogJet. I tried it and I wasn’t impressed enough to stop writing my posts in Word and then copying the text to my blog. The main problem I had with BlogJet was that 90% of the time it wouldn’t post to the blog and I had to copy the text anyway. So far, Windows Live Writer hasn’t failed on me and I have posted to my blog several times.

Windows Liver Writer also has some features that BlogJet didn’t seem to have. It pulls the template from the blog so that you can see approximately what the text will look like when you post. It handles multiple blogs. It is extensible. Is there a feature you would like to have that just isn’t there? You can write a plug-in that will provide it, or maybe there is one already out there that someone else has already written. For example, there is a plug-in that will automatically send a Tweet to Twitter when you make a plug post, though I haven’t yet figured out how that works. You can have it count words as you type, by setting one of the options. So, I know I’ve passed the 250 word mark.

But the feature I really like is the feature that created those two links in the first paragraph. The Auto Linking feature allows you to define terms that it will automatically encapsulate in anchor tags. This means that you don’t have to remember to link key phrases, such as my website or protagonist, to other pages. You have to do the work of selecting the terms and setting the link, but once you do that, you will automatically get links going to other blog posts or web pages, helping to push your web traffic up. Now I can just type the names of any of my books—Church Website Design, Searching for Mom, How to Become a Bible Character, or For the Love of a Devil—and I get automatic links to the Amazon.com product page.

Windows Live Writer is a Microsoft product and right now it is a free download. If you blog, this is one tool that is worth looking at.

Everything I Know About Leadership

On Friday, June 19, 2009, Mike Hyatt post 20 Questions to Ask Other Leaders. These questions were asked of him by Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee. I looked through these questions an I thought, It might be good to answer these myself, just to know how I as a leader would answer them. I don’t know that I will answer all of them for your benefit here, but that first question is one that I feel needs to be answered today, Father’s Day. Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe some one who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?

Everything I know about leadership I learned from my Dad. Everything. I’ve read books on leadership. I have spent time with many leaders. I have been in various positions of leadership. Taking all of that into account, I still look back at my successes in leadership and think I learned that from Dad. Or I look at my failures in leadership and I think I should have paid better attention to Dad.

If you measure a pastor by the size of his church, Dad isn’t much of a pastor. But one of the things I learned from Dad is that you stay where God puts you. When your church is growing, you stay. When your church is shrinking, despite your best efforts, you stay. When a church member is upset with you, you stay. You stay and stay and stay, until the Lord sends you somewhere else.

People follow Dad. I noticed this early in life. Whenever there was a group trying to accomplish something, it seemed like Dad was almost always the leader. We attended association meetings with other churches and other pastors would often turn to him to lead. He has been president of the BMA of Missouri, he has been president of the local school board and as served in many other positions of leadership. I don’t think he sought any of those positions. He wouldn’t have been on the school board if some of the members hadn’t come to him, asking him to fill a vacancy.

I learned that leadership isn’t something to brag about. I’ve heard men respected as leaders by thousands call Dad “rock solid and steady.” But I’ve never heard him brag about his friendship with these men. He spent many years working in fire protection at a large paper products plant. I didn’t know until I went to work out there that he was the Fire Chief.

More than once he told me that if you come up with an idea and people don’t like it, don’t get upset about it. Wait a few months. Someone else will suggest doing what you suggested and think he came up with it. There’s a lot to learn from that. First, a leader shouldn’t care if he doesn’t get the credit. Almost nothing has to happen right now. Never tell people what to do; teach them what is right and empower them to make the right decisions. Great leaders are examples in humility. The people with the most by-in are the people who make the decisions; let the church make the decisions and they’ll joyfully do things that you wouldn’t have considered asking them to do.

Dad taught me that great leaders serve the people and not the other way around. That one’s in the Bible, but he still taught it to me. If you ever chair a committee, you’ll understand that one a lot better. The chairman gets one vote like everyone else, but it is his job to make sure the members of the committee have what they need to make informed decisions, to keep the discussion on track, to report back to the body on their decision and to take the heat if someone doesn’t like it. That last one isn’t always easy, but it goes that way sometimes.

Great leaders are faithful men. He taught me that one by the life he has lived.

There are a great many other things I have learned about leadership from Dad. Maybe I’ll tell you a few more some day, but for now, this will have to be enough.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Half-man in Romances

When have we seen the half-man in romance novels? I used to read more romance novels than I do now. They generally don’t hold my attention, but I was trying to think if I have ever seen any. I’m sure there must be a few, but I don’t recall seeing them among the books I have read.

A half-man in a romance novel would likely be a woman. She would likely be the man’s old girlfriend. “Yeah, I dated him for a while,” she would say. “I thought we were going to get married and then that rich blond came along. You know were that left me.” The problem with half-men in romance novels is that they make the male character look more like a real guy. That’s not good if the women reading these things are looking for a character to get all hot and bothered over.

Another thing I’ve noticed about romances, in particular Christian Historicals, many of the secondary characters are characters from the series. If in book one, the character fell in love and got married, the character won’t work well as a half-man. The half-man must give a testimony of failure, not of living happily ever after.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Death Knells: All or Nothing

As we reach the last quarter of our novel, the Death Knells are ringing in our ears. We have no hope of success. We are out of options and the half-man has testified to the strength of our opponent. What are we to do? “Never give up! Never surrender!” cries Tim Allen’s character from Galaxy Quest. “It’s a good day to die!” cry the Klingons from Star Trek. When all is lost, protagonists don’t sit down and wait for the inevitable. They are cut from a different cloth than half-men. No, protagonists fight to the end with the idea that I’m going to die with my boots on.

It is typical for sci-fi writers to send their protagonists on suicide missions. They will either save the day or die trying. Can we do the same with other types of stories? The answer is yes. Suppose a man is very good friends with a woman. They are just friends, or so they tell each other, but when she decides to marry another man, the first man tries to talk her out of it. This upsets her and we reach the point where we realize that she is going to marry the other guy. If our protagonist does nothing, his dream of marrying his friend is dead. If he professes his love for her, she will either leave the man she is going to marry for him, or it will bring the friendship to an end, which would be the worst kind of death.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Death Knell Personified: The Half-Man

Yesterday, I mentioned what some people call the half-man. A half-man could be a literal half-man, either missing limbs or in sci-fi he could be part man and part machine. But he doesn’t have to be. His purpose is to be a death knell. Often, the half-man is fighting the same fight as our protagonist and has already faced the enemy. Unfortunately, the half-man failed, getting away with his life, but with the knowledge that he didn’t accomplish what he had hoped. Take a look at the video below. This is one of the most emotionally charged scenes in the movie version of The Neverending Story

“They look like big, good, strong hands don’t they?” Rock Biter says and they certainly do. So, if Rock Biter is powerless to defend his friends against the Nothing, what makes us think that Atreyu has any hope of defeating it? We don’t. That’s the whole point. Atreyu is down for the count. He has lost everything and he might as well sit down next to Rock Biter and wait for the Nothing to come. Rock Biter serves as a half-man to bring that point home. The death knells are no longer off in the distance. They are right upon us. The end seems very near.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

All is Lost: Another Death Knell

Once we have established what needs to be changed and the protagonist takes action toward that change, the death knells fall silent for a while. Throughout the second quarter of a book, there is almost no chance of death for the protagonist. It is during this time that he is successfully making change toward what he must become. We reach the middle of the book and he has succeeded. Things are going good, but we can’t leave it like this. That would be boring. We’ve got 45,000 more words to write. So, we listen closely and off in the distance we hear them. The death knells have returned.

After crossing the mid-point, the antagonist regroups and begins pulling the protagonist back to what he was before. We’ve already established that what he was before will lead to death, so through out the third quarter of the book the death knells grow louder and louder. The protagonist fights it, but he is losing ground. We reach a point where he looks death in the face. He isn’t dead yet, but we have the sense that it is only a matter of time. All options have been tried and they have all failed. There is nothing left to do. Not only that, he may encounter a half-man who gives him testimony of his own encounter with the antagonist (more on that tomorrow).

This is a good point for someone or something else to die. It isn’t time for the protagonist to die yet. The story must go on for many more pages. The protagonist reaches the point where he realizes that he has lost the battle and not only that, his dog died, or his marigold died or his favorite TV show got kicked off the air. Putting a death here will help confirm that the protagonist is powerless to do more.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The First Death Knell: Change Must Happen

In a good novel, the death knells come early. The first place we should hear them are in the first chapter. In The Pilgrim’s Progress we hear them on page one. “…I am certainly informed that this our city will be burned with fire from Heaven; in which fearful overthrow, both myself, with thee my wife, and you my sweet babes, shall miserably come to ruin, except (the which yet I see not) some way of escape can be found…” This statement is like the death knells ringing for Christian’s death and that of his family.

Stories are about change. This being the case, we begin each story with something that needs to change. But just any change is not sufficient for a novel. We could begin with a husband and wife needing to change the wall paper in a bathroom. I might make an entertaining chapter, but it isn’t big enough to carry the whole novel. The need for change must be such that the reader sees it and believes that if change doesn’t happen then death will come. We see a very obvious death in The Pilgrim’s Progress, but what about other books—books without physical death on the table?

Ella Enchanted begins “That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me. She meant to bestow a gift.” Listen. Do you hear the death knells. Yes, it’s early, but as we keep reading we discover the nature of this gift/curse—the gift of obedience. Ella struggles with this gift, because while she always obeys, she doesn’t want to obey. At times, this obedience puts her in danger. It doesn’t take us long to realize that this gift will kill her psychologically if not physically, unless something changes.

The death knells come in the form of ice and parsnips in The Owlstone Crown, which was one of my favorite books as a kid. Timothy and Verity Tibbs have lost their parents. The people they are staying with are forcing them to work, in the cold, digging parsnips out of the frozen ground. Their life is a slow lingering death, unless something changes.

We don’t always have to put death knells on the first page. We can use a good hook and a little action to bridge the gap, but we need death knells somewhere early in the book. By doing so, we show the reader what is at stake if change doesn’t happen or if it doesn’t happen in the right way.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Death Knells of Storytelling

A death knell is the toll of a bell announcing death or some omen that tells us that death is coming. The bright light from a nuclear explosion, for example, is a death knell because though the light will not kill, the shock wave and the radio active fallout that follow most certainly will.

Death plays a significant role in storytelling. There are many views concerning death, but there is no disagreement on one thing. With death comes an end to our ability to accomplish our current goals. So in storytelling, when a character dies, the goals of the character are no longer attainable. That impacts our stories in many ways. In computer games, which is one form of storytelling, the threat of death (or the dreaded game over) drives the player to play longer and harder.

In novels, death comes in many forms, but it serves the same purpose. The toll of the death knell drives the reader to keep reading. In the classic love triangle, the death knell may come in the form of a wedding engagement, with the wedding being the death. Once the other two are married, the third in the triangle is dead to her own goal of marriage. I used this plot device in Searching for Mom, though it was really a modified love triangle.

It may sound dark or morbid, but I believe every great story is a story about the struggle against death. It could be death to a way of life. It could be death to a dream or ideals. It could be physical death. The point is that we must operate without the safety net. The consequences for a character failing must be the end of his chances of success. We must not leave the door open for him to try another day. If he succeeds, he succeeds with great glory, but if he fails, he forfeits the game, the prize, or even his own life.

The reader must hear the death knells. If he can’t, maybe the writer is still working with a safety net. Look at a story. Does it ever reach a point of no return? If so, is it significant enough that the reader will care? If it doesn’t, the story is missing a key ingredient. The story is missing death.

This is too large a subject to cover with one post. Look for related posts in the future.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Male Fiction: A Call to Action

In a recent article, Jason Cruise talks about the church’s message for men. He tells of a preacher giving sermon designed to inspire men to become more actively involved and then ruining it by creating a visual of men wearing a wedding dress. I haven’t noticed the problem he describes in the church of which I am a member, but I’ve heard enough about this problem to believe it exists. Some people believe we have a similar situation in Christian fiction. How can you possibly expect men to read Christian fiction if there’s nothing but historicals and romances?

There is a difference in the novels that men enjoy and those enjoyed by women. The Guardian reported in 2006 that women favor the emotional, while men favor novels about social dislocation and solitary struggle. No surprise there. I don’t, however, agree with Charlotte Higgins’ assertion that “the novel that means most to men is about indifference, alienation and lack of emotional responses. That which means most to women is about deeply held feelings, a struggle to overcome circumstances and passion.” The stories men enjoy are just as much about deeply held feelings, are just as much about overcoming circumstances and are just as passionate as the stories enjoyed by women. The difference is in the way these things are expressed.

In the movie version of The Neverending Story, there is a scene in which we see Rock Biter talking to Atreyu. This giant stone monster, the epitome of strength, is looking at his hands. “They look like big, good, strong hands, don’t they?” For all his size and strength, he couldn’t save his friends, the little man with his racing snail, the nighthawk and the stupid bat. The Nothing pulled them right out of his hands. And now he is waiting for the Nothing to take him too. There’s a lot of passion, here and the feelings run very deep, but it isn’t the same as what you will find in a story aimed at women. This is a love scene, but it isn’t the kind of love scene you’ll find in a romance.

Many of the stories that men enjoy involve a call to action. Success in these stories will only come if someone stands up and takes action. The most bitter failure is when you aren’t strong enough or fast enough. The solitary struggle is often a part of these stories because that is what reveals the strength of the hero.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Me, me, me, It's all about me...or is it?

Some people have the idea that publishers see the first person point of view (POV) as a bad thing. Literary agent Chip MacGregor says that he doesn’t believe this is the case, but he does go on to say why authors—particularly new authors—struggle with it:

Many first-person novels from beginning writers suffer from an overuse of the "I-verb" syndrome ("I started... I walked... I ate... I moved... I handed... I answered..."). That endless parade of I-verbs creates a really dull novel. First-person fiction can be great, but in my view it's harder to master than third person.Chip MacGregor’s Blog

What is an author to do? Conversationally, we use first person all the time. “I went to the store and I bought milk, bread and jelly beans. I ate the jelly beans on the way home.” Three uses of the word I in two sentences. You can imagine that a reader will tire of seeing this if a whole novel is written this way. We could rewrite this as, “I went to the store and bought milk, bread and jelly beans. The jelly beans didn’t make it home.” Now we’re down to a single I, but we also introduced a passive sentence, “The jelly beans didn’t make it home.” Why not? The reader will want to know. We already know that I ate them, but it could have just as easily have been that they fell out of the bag on the way to the car. That “I” is lurking and we have to add it sometime.

I chose to write How to Become a Bible Character in first person. I’m not going to tell you that you should use it as a master course on how to write in first person. If I were to do so, someone would read the book looking for I’s and every one would stand out. Even now, I’m rather self-conscious of all the I’s in this post. What I will say is that by turning the focus of the story outward, the narrator referred to himself much less he might have otherwise.

The narrator of How to Become a Bible Character is Wayne Hiller and he is right in the middle of the action, but if you’ve read the story, you may have noticed that this story isn’t about Wayne. He is a part of the story, but the story is about Neal and the church where Wayne is the associate pastor. Neal aspires to greatness, but he has a problem because his attempts at achieving his goal are failing, but our narrator is amazed at the things that are happening. The result is that while Wayne uses I a lot in talking about what he does throughout the day, much of the story is about other people, so he doesn’t talk so much about himself.

Whether it was because she was in an unusual situation, because she was pregnant or for some other reason I don’t know, but after Tina moved into Bumble Bee’s house she seemed so much more manageable. I’ll not go so far as to say that she was nice, but she tolerated us. That was a drastic change from her previous attitude in which she acted in such a way that I thought she must have had the Devil as a bedfellow. (page 214)

By turning the narrator’s attention outward, away from what he is doing and his inner feelings, toward other people, we avoid the overuse of the word I. And yes, there may be some who would argue that this removes some of the intimacy with the character, since we don’t read about his feelings. To that, I would say that when a character shows us what he sees, we don’t need him to tell us as much about what he is feeling because we are going to feel the same thing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Stir Up the Imagination

Memories of what happens in a person’s imagination can be every bit as real as the memories of real life events. This is one of the advantages telling has over showing. Here, I don’t use these terms in the sense of show, don’t just tell, but I use them to distinguish between two types of storytelling. Some stories are told by actors on a stage or screen. They show us the story. Some stories are told through nothing but words. A speaker stands in front of a crowd or a novelist puts words on paper and tells us the story.

In this sense, the initial memories are of the experience of seeing the story unfold in showing. We have memories of going to a movie with friends and seeing the story on a large screen. We are drawn into the story and we jump at the right moments and cry at the right moments and laugh at the right moments, but there is still a barrier. We are outsiders, observing the story unfold before us.

When the storyteller tells us the story, we don’t have the images or the actors in front of us to show us what is happening. We listen to his words and the images form in our mind. We read the novelist’s words on paper and the images form in our mind. The words he uses are soon forgotten, but we remember those images, perhaps even better than the images we see in a movie. The story unfolds in our imagination, so there is no barrier between the listener and the story. We are no longer watching the story through a window, but we are in the room with the characters.

Both forms of storytelling have their place, but those who tell a story have a greater opportunity to stir up thoughts in the imagination and inspire people. A well told story, that causes the listener to visualize the story in his mind, will stay with him much longer than one in which he only remembers what he saw.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Book of Setup: Don't Plan the Series

You’re sitting there watching a television show and things are getting exciting. The villain has put a bomb in the protagonist’s car. His wife has gotten in and driven away, not know that the big red numbers are ticking down, 1:06…1:05…1:04…. The protagonist has to do something soon. You look up at the clock. There isn’t enough time left in the show for the protagonist to defeat the bad guy. You hope it won’t, but you know it’s coming, “To be continued.”

Don’t you just hate those words? Especially when the show is the season finale. Cliff Hangers are supposed to keep people interested, but most of us forget from week to week what the show was able and when we reach the end of the season, we aren’t going to remember the show until the beginning of the next season. Books suffer the same problem. It can be months before the next book in the series comes out.

I don’t think authors should plan to write a series. It does their readers a disservice. I read a book some time ago that was the first book in a series. The author wrote well, there is no denying that, but throughout the book I had this impression that the whole thing was setup. I reached the end and found the equivalent of “to be continued.” When an author is planning for a series, there is the danger that he will stretch the plot out over the series. Every plot begins with the setup part of the story, in which we learn what the character is doing now and the problems he faces. In a planned series, the whole setup gets stretched out over the first book and nothing happens. It isn’t until the second book when anything fun happens, but by that time the reader has lost interest.

Friday, June 5, 2009


Annabelle has been writing for a long as she can remember. From the moment she could hold a pen she was always scribbling something. Aunt Edna said she would be a writer and it was Edna who soothed her when she began to receive rejection letters from all of her favorite literary agents. “Persevere,” she said. “Persevere.”

Persevere. Writers hear that word often. If you want to be published, you have to persevere, we are told. It sounds a lot like faith. If you want to be published, you have to have faith. We could also say, if you want to be published you have to believe. It turns out that, as writers use them, persevere, have faith and believe mean the same thing, but they don’t necessarily mean the same to each writer and they don’t necessarily mean what they should.

Laura sees Billy with a fishing pole, casting his line into a swimming pool. “Whatcha doin’?” she asks. “I’m fishing,” he says. She peers into the water, seeing no fish. “You won’t catch anything.” He gives her a funny look. “Yes, I will. You’ve got to believe.” Many people confuse faith, and thus perseverance, with wishful thinking.

But what if we change the scene? Laura sees Billy with a fishing pole, walking down the street. “Whatcha doin’?” she asks. “Going fishing,” he says. “Cody says the fish are bitin’ in the pond.” Laura turns and runs toward her house. As she goes she yells, “let me get my pole and I’ll go with you!” At last, we see an example of faith.

We may wish we can catch a fish in a swimming pool, but it ain’t gonna happen. If a trustworthy friend tells us the fish are biting and we believe we’ll catch fish, it’ll happen. But, if we don’t believe, leaving the fishing pole at home, we won’t catch fish.

Walk into a room full of aspiring writers and ask, “How many of you believe you will be published someday?” Most will raise their hands. Then go around the room and ask each one, “Who told you that you’ll be published?” Few will name a creditable person. Most will name someone like Aunt Edna or no one at all. Anytime we believe something and without a strong basis for that belief it’s only wishful thinking.

A little wishful thinking doesn’t hurt anyone, as long as we don’t let it get out of hand. We need something more. We need true faith. Not faith that our wishes will come true, but faith that promises made will be kept. Far too often we have faith that something will happen when the person making the promise (usually us) has limited ability to fulfill the promise or when the person in whom we put our trust hasn’t promised to do what we trust him to do.

If we are to persevere, we need to make sure that we aren’t putting our faith in our ability to wait out our critics, but are moving toward gaining a promise (a blessing) from those who will be able to bring our work to print. This is especially true of the One who has never failed in a promise. Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20, 21)

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What Would Jesus Do in an Unhappy Marriage?

It breaks my heart when I see some of the queries people use to reach my blog or website. The other day, someone found my blog using the query wwjd unhappy marriage. I know nothing of the person who typed this query, but in my mind I see a young mother sitting at the computer with a baby in her lap. Her husband is at work now, but last night he said something that upset her. She fired something back at him and he just laughed. So, today, she’s sitting there with her baby sucking on a bottle and she types wwjd unhappy marriage into a search engine. I hurt for her. Or maybe it’s a him. Either way, I feel for this person and I wonder if he found a good answer. I’m not sure that my blog provided the best answer, but shouldn’t a Christian author be able to answer the question, what would Jesus do in an unhappy marriage?

If we look at what Jesus said, we see in Matthew 19:6 that he said concerning a husband and wife, “Therefore they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Then in verse 9 he says, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery; and whoso marrieth her who is put away doth commit adultery.” It is hard for some people to accept, but if an unhappy marriage is the only problem, Jesus would be against divorce. Find a way to love each other and work through the problems.

Of course, you could be thinking, Jesus was single when he said that. What would he do if he were married? For that answer, we go to the Old Testament. The Book of Hosea contains the story upon which I based For the Love of a Devil. Hosea, through his own marriage, paints a picture of God’s “marriage” to Israel. This marriage is as far from a happy marriage as you can get, but it is the most beautiful love story in the Bible. God sends Hosea to marry a woman that he knows is trouble. Hosea finds Gomer and she seems content to stay with him for a while. She has three kids, but it isn’t real clear how many were Hosea’s. In any case, Hosea named them all, as if they were his own. Gomer left Hosea to be with other men. She thought they could give her more than Hosea could, but Hosea kept his eye on her and looked after her. It appears that Hosea may have given some of these men money and other things so they could take care of Gomer. But he withdrew his support for a while, so that the men left her. Perhaps for someone younger and prettier, and with more money. Without their support, Gomer fell into slavery. And then the Bible tells us that God told Hosea, to go love her. Hosea goes to the slave market. He buys his wife back. That is what Jesus would do and has done in an unhappy marriage.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Where Was God When Flight 447 Went Down?

Authorities have reported that Air France Flight 447 has crashed in the ocean with 228 on board. Certainly, our hearts and prayers go out for the families of these people, especially since officials do not expect to find survivors

In nearly every disaster, there is someone who was almost killed, but wasn’t. Within the AP article I saw the story of Bernardo Ciriaco who arrived at the airport in a panic because he didn’t know which of the two flights to Paris his brother, Gustavo, was on. A couple hours later, he received a call from Gustavo, telling him that he had arrived safely, but he would have been bumped to Flight 447 if he hadn’t complained.

Anyone who has flown realizes that getting moved from one flight to another is just a normal part of doing business for the airlines. There was no way for the people on either flight to know that moving to the other would either save their lives or put them in danger. So, Bernardo may be saying that God protected his brother, but then we hear studies like that of retired professor Vasdir Ester who has reported that her 40-year-old daughter Adriana Francisca Van Sluings was on Flight 447. Today, she might be wondering, where God was and why he didn’t protect her daughter.

Why would one be saved, but not the other? We don’t have the answer to that. The simple truth is that death comes for all of us. None of us know when that day will come. The people who boarded Flight 447 didn’t expect that they would never reach their destination. Likewise, any of us could get in our cars to go to the grocery store and never make it home. It is a fact of life, but how are we to live with it? God is in control. He knows who lives and who dies. He able to protect us, but he doesn’t always protect people from death.

At church on Sunday, Buddy Johnson reminded us that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). If you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, you can be sure that the Lord doesn’t take your death lightly. For that matter, he doesn’t take the death of those who have rejected him lightly either. It isn’t his will for any to die and go to hell. He knew the fate of the 228 souls on board Flight 447 before it went down. While the families will greave for a while, the saints on board that flight are much better off. If we knew what they are now experiencing, we wouldn’t be asking why God didn’t spare them, but why he waited so long to take them home. The others had a different fate. While God doesn’t take pleasure in their death, their deaths serve as a reminder to us that this world is temporary. Except people repent and turn to God, they too will perish. Even if God were to intervene and prevent every death from here on out, the world will eventually come to an end and we will all face judgment. Without death, we could quickly forget and the world would be unprepared. It greaves us when so many people die so suddenly, but it is not without its purpose.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


When I was a kid, we used to go to these meetings. At some of these meetings someone would ask people to tell about the time when they were saved—give a testimony. “I was in a cotton patch when I felt the Lord dealing with me,” one person might say. “Before I was saved, I played guitar in a bar, but when the Lord saved me, he saved my guitar too,” I remember another man saying. “The church was in revival services all week and I was under conviction. On that last day, I was afraid I wouldn’t live through the day. I was out in the watermelon patch and I told the Lord that if he’d let me live I’d give my heart to him that night,” another testimony goes. There were many more. Some of them were truly fascinating and all I could think about is that if someone asked me to give my testimony it would sound so unimportant compared to the others.

I was eight years old when I accepted Christ. I wasn’t in a cotton patch, in the cow pasture or even at church. I had my own room, a tiny space that had been Dad’s “study.” Though, I remember him doing most of his studying sitting next to the wood stove in the kitchen. My room was in the front of the house, far away from the other bedrooms. I couldn’t hear anyone breathing, or snoring or making any movement at all. I would lie there in bed wondering, are they still here? Has the Lord already come back? Will I be all alone in the morning? Then I would begin to yell, “Mom! Mom!” I would keep yelling until someone came, “What do you want?” Relief would flood over me. “Can I have a glass of water?” Whichever one came would leave and it seemed like a long time before my parent returned with a glass of water. They would sit on my bed and for a short time I would have the assurance that I wasn’t left to fend for myself in this vast world. Then one night I lay in bed, as I had many times before, fearful that I would wake the next morning and the house would be empty. “Dad! Dad!” He must have been so tired of me yelling, but at last I saw him at my door. “How can I be saved?” If that surprised him, I don’t know, but I remember him reminding me that when Paul and Silas were in prison, the jailor came in and asked, “What must I do to be saved?” and Paul said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and though shalt be saved.” Then Dad asked me if I wanted to pray and ask Jesus to save me. I rolled over on my stomach and prayed, right there in that little room. “Did he save you?” Dad asked when I turned back over. “Yes,” I said, at last feeling at peace.

Mine is hardly significant compared to some I have heard, but the testimony or testimonial is perhaps the most influential story that we can tell. Look how often it is used in advertising. Look at the back of many books. “This is the greatest book since sliced bread.” “This book will change the way you think about [insert subject here].” But why is it so powerful?

Give, and it shall be given unto you. Believe that? It’s in the Bible. It’s written in red, but do you really believe it? I could spend all day trying to give you all the logical reasons why you should believe this statement, but you won’t believe it any more than you do at this moment. But what if I told you about how a few months ago I made a $500 donation to Lifeword Broadcast Ministries? I gave, not expecting anything in return. A few weeks later, my boss called me into his office. He handed me a certificate, recognizing me for some work I had done earlier. “There’ll be an extra $500 in your paycheck.” (true story) It’s much easier for people to disagree with something that comes across as rhetoric, but what are you going to do with a testimony? Call the person a liar?

A testimony is a story that a person tells about a personal experience. No, they aren’t always truthful, and the event may be an anomaly, but we tend to believe testimonies when the tellers include details that are verifiable. When the teller believes he is telling the truth, it is had to dispute him.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Writing The Status Quo

Every novel begins with the status quo. It sounds boring, doesn’t it? It had better not be or we’ll lose our readers. Actually, the status quo is just what your protagonist’s life is like before he reaches the crisis of the inciting incident. If your protagonist happens to be James Bond, the status quo might include blowing things up and kissing a few girls.

In many romances, the status quo shows a woman who has it all together, running her own business, doing well for herself, certainly not in need of a man. Or does she? She goes home to her cat and cooks a microwave dinner. There are these little hints that her life isn’t what she would like for it to be or needs it to be. This part of the novel is where we define the problems that must be solved. She is coping, but for how much longer?

There’s no way around it, the status quo is not good enough. Something has to change or we won’t have a story, but for argument, let’s suppose nothing changes. The status quo keeps going. Though it will eventually kill our protagonist, she keeps doing what she is doing. Things happen and she keeps responding the same way. An attractive man comes into town, but he isn’t her man. He doesn’t offer to help her and she doesn’t ask. He leaves town and she doesn’t care. She just keeps on kicking her cat off the bed in the morning, going to her store, taking care of customers and returning home to feed the cat. It’s the status quo.

Throw in an inciting incident and things change. That new man in town walks into her store. He says something about looking for a place to stay and amid the fast flutter of her heart she offers him the apartment above her store. Things have just changed. But change is unimportant without the status quo to show us why we need it.