Monday, August 31, 2009

Finagle's Law in Writing

Finagle’s Law states that anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment. This is a great thing for fiction writers to consider. A great way to make a story interesting is to throw a problem at a character at the worst possible moment.

What could possibly go wrong?

What can go wrong should be contingent on our plot. There are plenty of things that can go wrong that fail to advance the plot. I think I’ve used this example before, but we could have one of the characters die. In a romance, that would be a problem if the dead character is the guy the girl is to fall in love with. My point is that we want bad stuff to happen, but we need to be selective.

When is the worst possible moment?

Going back to the dead guy, we could have him break up with his girlfriend and then drop dead. That would be convenient, but not very interesting. A better approach would be for him be down on one knee proposing, when he is shot in the back or maybe he is driving his girlfriend somewhere when he dies behind the wheel. It should also be on a curvy road with an eighteen wheeler coming from the other direction. Now things are a little more interesting.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Common Mistake

The 20 questions for leaders that Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee asked Mike Hyatt seem to get harder as we go along. Today's question is What is one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?

This one hurts, because I see myself making the same mistake. That mistake is a leader being so focused on becoming a great leader that he fails to lead. All the leadership books in the world won't do you a bit of good if you do nothing but read leadership books. Let me bring it down to a real world example.

Writers are leaders, are they not? Whether we are writing a non-fiction book, a novel or a only a blog, we write hoping that our words will influence people. And the words of many writers do. Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin is said to have started the Civil War. At the very least, it helped it along a little. So, every writer has the potential to be a leader through the words he writes. It stands to reason then that we want those words to be as well crafted as possible. We writers want to know about the writing craft and we want to know how to get our words out there for the world to read. That knowledge can only make us better leaders. Like moths to a flame, we all congregate around the websites of literary agents, editors and best selling authors. There are hundreds of us, all swarming around a few websites. We spend thousands of dollars on conferences, editors and books. And we're happy to do it because if we know how to write better, how to craft a query letter and our manuscripts are the very best they can be then we can only be better leaders, but we've forgotten the most important thing. We've forgotten to lead.

Leaders need to be more focused on the work at hand than they are on learning to persuade people to do what they tell them to do. People are much more willing to follow someone who has a heart for the work and leads by example.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Town

There will be no guest blogger today. Instead, I would like to tell you a little about the town that has served as the setting for my novels. It isn’t a huge town, having about 60,000 residents or so. It rests peacefully along the Mississippi river. It is a tourist town attracting many people to the revitalized downtown, where Ellen’s café sits among a number of old store buildings. Most have been restored to their former glory. There is a University in this town, though it, like the town, shall remain nameless.

Next to Ellen’s café is a hotel. It is the newest building on Main Street. The original building burned and the hotel was built in its place. At six stories, it towers over the other buildings on the street and guests on the upper floors can watch the barges float past on the river.

Down at the river, there is a paddlewheel boat that tourists can ride during the day. On weekends there is a mystery cruise during the evening. Someone dies on every cruise and the passenger who figures out whodunit first will win a prize.

Politicians visit this town often, knowing that the residents are eager to support their party. It has seen its share of politician go on to great things. There is money in this town, though most of the residents are ordinary middleclass workers. Just outside the city limits, the farmland begins. They raise crops or cattle where they can, but the rest is covered with trees.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

When a Tuba Will Do

The 1960’s television show, The Wild Wild West had three ground rules for every episode. There had to be a gorgeous woman. There had to be a strong adversary. There had to be something bizarre. A gorgeous woman does us little good in a book, since the reader decides what the cast looks like and the bizarre may force us over into speculative fiction when we don’t want to go, but there’s something to be said for these ground rules.

Someone Needs Saving

While in The Wild Wild West it isn’t always clear why the gorgeous woman is always working such strange men, she serves an important role in the story. In a story, it is easier to save the world than it is to save the girl. There always needs to be something at stake for an individual if we want to bring the story home. Remember The Dollmaker? It told the story of the Detroit factory workers, but it told it through the eyes of a woman whose husband worked at the factory. No loss is ever as great as the loss of an individual. By placing someone to be saved in the story, we highlight the danger.

A Strong Adversary

Some people love complicated characters, but great stories come from characters who are more black and white. Many great stories leave no doubt in the reader’s mind who is good and who is bad. Dickens created some very interesting characters in Oliver Twist and yet there is no doubt about where they stand. If they are good, they are very good. If they are bad, they are very bad. They also present a good challenge. Bill Sikes kills his own girlfriend because she did something he didn’t like.

The strength of the adversary reveals the strength of the hero. If we want our hero to appear strong, we have to throw a big challenge at him so he can defeat it. If we protect our hero, he will be weak and boring.

Something Unusual

We may not want to venture into the bizarre, but we want to show readers things they haven’t seen before. In a whodunit, why kill the victim with a knife when a tuba will do? We want the reader to be asking, how does that work?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The MacGuffin

We all want it, but we can't all have it. The MacGuffin is a term that Hitchcock used to refer to a physical element in stories that drives the plot forward. According to him, in a crook story it is usually the necklace and in a spy story it is usually the papers. If you watch television during the eighties then you know that the MacGuffin was often the disk. On those shows it seems like everyone was storing their most valuable secrets on 3.5" floppy disks. Whoever could find the disk first is the person who could use it for personal gain. The villain could use it to blackmail someone or the detective could use it to save the girl.


The great thing about a MacGuffin is that there is only one. It doesn’t really matter what it is, but everyone wants it and only one person can have it. This puts the characters at odds with each other, creating the conflict that makes the story interesting. Unlike the non-physical plot elements, such as the role in a play, there is no room for compromise among the characters. Either a person has the MacGuffin or he doesn’t. If the MacGuffin is a painting, then one person might want it to hang on his wall at home. Another person might want it for a museum, so that everyone may enjoy it. And yet another person might want to destroy it because it reveals his crime. If we do nothing but let these three characters search for the MacGuffin,  they will encounter each other and be at odds with each other throughout the plot.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Reading Writer

Novelists are cursed. Where the average reader can approach a book with the willing suspension of disbelief, novelists tend to pick books apart. This is why we pick up a bestselling novel and ask why a publisher would publish that trash when they won’t even look at ours. It is also why we can hand a manuscript to a family member than they believe it’s great, but hand the same manuscript to an agent and she’s already made up her mind to reject it before she reads the first paragraph. Children are much more willing to suspend disbelief while the suspension of disbelief is more difficult for adults and even more so for novelists and agents. Children have no problem reading a somewhat poorly written book and calling it good, while an adult may read a book by a multi-published author and question the sanity of the publisher.


The suspension of disbelief is largely a matter of respect. People complain because children don’t respect their elders, but children respect adults more than you might think. Hand a child a book about flying pigs and they are willing to suspend disbelief. An adult has written it in a book, so it must be okay to accept it as true for the space of the story. For adults, the willingness to suspend disbelief hinges on how much respect the adult has for the author. If we little respect for the author, we may quickly find fault with a book. If we respect the author, we may over look some issues, believing the author will entertain us. As authors, we may try to answer the question of whether the author is a better writer than we are. We want to find fault, so that we can assure ourselves that we are better.

Agents don’t respect unpublished authors. We see this in how they treat potential clients. Many agents treat these people as children. I know of one agent who actually addresses the people who frequent her blog, hoping for representation, as “kiddos.” I don’t mention that because I wish to make the argument that agents should respect potential clients more, but rather to highlight the challenge that authors face. To get people to suspend disbelief, we have to persuade them that we are worthy of their respect. If we want to enjoy a book, we must find a reason to respect the author. If we can do that, we can turn off our internal editor and actually enjoy the book.


The suspension of disbelief also requires consistency. Some space movies, such as Star Wars, show explosions and include a sound effect. Being knowledgeable people, we know that there is so little matter in space that we shouldn’t hear the explosion, but out of respect for the artistic license of the creator, we willingly suspend disbelief and enjoy the show. But what if after a few explosions one of them was silent? Now it is a mistake. Or maybe it is written into the script and the fact that we wouldn’t hear an explosion in space is an important plot point. That would make the other explosions a mistake. It’s ironic that the explosion that acts as we would expect in real life would be considered a mistake. But in the imagined universe of our story, that is the case. That mistake also reduces the respect we might have had for the creator.

To allow the willing suspension of disbelief a story must stay consistent with the rules of the story. Often, the rules match up with the rules of our world, but then we might throw in some things that don’t, such as flying pigs. If pigs can fly in chapter one, then they had better be able to fly in chapter ten, unless we have a good explanation of why that has changed.

Writers who read are bound to find some inconsistencies in the work of other people and it may be more difficult for us to respect people we see as equals. When we are reading the work of others, it would be good to turn off that internal editor. It’s okay for there to be mistakes. Maybe the author didn’t do it like we think she should have, but that’s okay. Let it slide and look for the story. Maybe the author had a bad day or was looking for filler, but look for what the author is trying to tell us.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Church as a Character

You’ve probably heard that location can be a character, but more frequently, we may find that an organization is a character. Christian authors often mention a church in their books. In many of these books, the church is more like McDonalds than it is a church. A man and a woman attend a church – his church, her church or some church they attend on vacation. The pastor preaches some great sermon, the woman takes notes and the man and woman discuss how great the sermon was on the way home. The whole point of the sequence is to “show” that they attend church. Does that sound anything like the church you attended on Sunday? I hope not.

On Sunday, I pulled into the parking lot and got out of my truck. I saw some friends across the parking lot talking to some other friends. I reached the front door and another friend of mine opened the front door. He made a comment about something, that was something of a private joke. Another man—a man whom I have visited in his home—handed me a bulletin and shook my hand. I saw many people engaged in conversation, all of whom I know, as I made my way to class.

Several years ago, I attended a church one Sunday when I was away from home. This was a very large church. We pulled into the large parking lot and then looked around for what looked to be the entrance to the building. We sort of followed everyone else. I felt a little out of place, carrying a Bible. No one greeted us at the door or recognized that we were visitors. We found a place to sit near the center of the building. It was a very nice building with a tall wall of windows behind the pulpit and choir. We could see the greenery out on the hills. The choir sang well. Then the preacher got up. He read a verse from the Bible, told us why his sermons are short and then proceeded to teach a lesson that would have been just as fitting in a psychology class as it was in a church. He made no reference to the scripture after he read it.

Two churches and two very different experiences. Though I have been a member of only two, I have visited many different churches and am cognizant of many more. I have never found two churches that are alike. Some are more similar than others, but there are no McDonalds churches. You can’t go to two different churches and get the same thing, even in this age when churches are attempting to do multi-site services and everything else.

The people make the difference. That is what a church is after all. A church is a group of people who assemble together to worship the Lord. Depending on what people happen to be in that group, a church can be very different. The pastor only has a small amount of influence over that. In a novel, if we want to represent a church accurately as a character, we have to reveal how the members of the church act. We can’t leave them as a blank sea of faces, as many novels do. To do that is to make the church nothing more than a hollow building.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Faith: The Biggest Challenge

What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today? is the question I'm answering today from the 20 questions for leaders that Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee asked Mike Hyatt.

That's a tough one. I look at some of the challenges and I can't help but think that things haven't changed in thousands of years. There's never enough resources. There are always people who don't get along very well. Then there are those people who get along too well. Just when you think you've gotten the resource problem licked, something changes and you don't know which direction you should be going anymore. It's just the same old stuff, repackaged. So, is one of these the greatest challenge? Is there something bigger? If I could name one thing that is the greatest challenge facing leaders, it is a lack of faith. Did you know there isn't a problem out there that a leader couldn't handle if he would just turn it over to God?

Have you ever seen someone develop a plan and then ask the Lord to bless the plan and make it work? Have you ever seen someone stand up in front of people and say, "If we pray about about this and have faith, I know it will work?" Is that true faith, or is it wishful thinking? Too often, leaders develop their plans, go full force ahead and when they reach a brick wall they throw up their hands and say, "Here God, make my plan work." The faith that God requires isn't the faith that he will make our plans work when they fail, though he does that sometimes. God wants the faith that believes he will do what he says he will do. Too often, leaders rush forward before waiting for a word from the Lord.

On the heels of the success of battle of Jericho, Joshua sent only three thousand men up to Ai, thinking they could take it. The people of Ai killed thirty-six and sent the rest running. Joshua must have been shocked. Hadn't the Lord told them to take the land? Didn't he want Ai destroyed like the rest? There are several reasons why Joshua failed. One reason is that the people of Ai outnumbered them four to one, but God has used smaller armies to defeat greater armies. Another reason, is that there was sin in the camp, but that wouldn't have been a problem if Joshua had known about it and gotten rid of it. The root of the problem is that Joshua assumed that the Lord would bless his plan, without first asking the Lord.

True faith is waiting for the Lord to give tell us what he wants us to do, how he wants us to process and his promise of success before we move forward. If we don't have that, we don't have faith, just wishful thinking.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Brianna Skyler: Interview of Timothy Fish

Editor’s Note: Today I decided to turn my blog over to Brianna Skyler and she turned the tables on me. I fear I may be losing all control of the creative process with these posts.

Brianna Skyler:
Timothy, since you told me I could write about anything, I thought I would interview you, if you don’t mind.

Timothy Fish:
That wasn’t what I had in mind. I was hoping the readers would get to know you better.

Brianna Skyler:
In a way, they will be getting to know me better, since this is what I do in my day job.

Timothy Fish:
I thought they might be able to see a side of you they hadn’t seen before.

Brianna Skyler:
Oh, come on, this will be fun.

Timothy Fish:
For you, maybe.

Brianna Skyler:
I should have thought to bring a cameraman with me. O well, first question: Why novels? What do you hope to accomplish by writing a novel?

Timothy Fish:
Mostly, I think I want people to be entertained. Of course every novel has a theme and I want people to “get it,” but there’s just something special about a good story.

Brianna Skyler:
What’s the first novel you wrote?

Timothy Fish:
Searching for Mom is the first one I completed, but there were others I started on before that. I fancied myself a fantasy writer for a while and made it 60,000 words into a novel about two friends. One was destined to be this great hero and the other was off building a tower with designs on ruling the world.

Brianna Skyler:
Why didn’t you finish it?

Timothy Fish:
It was terrible. That and my hard drive crashed. I had a backup for part of it, but it wasn’t worth piecing it back together.

Brianna Skyler:
You aren’t a full-time writer. Tell us about your day job.

Timothy Fish:
I’m a Software Engineer. I get various responses when I tell people that. Some people know exactly what I’m talking about. Some people don’t really know but they are afraid to ask. Some people make it very clear that they are clueless.

Brianna Skyler:
What do you tell people who don’t know what a Software Engineer does?

Timothy Fish:
I think I like the answer my mother gives people best. She says, “You know how when the computer comes up it has a blank screen?” When they say they do she says, “He tells it what to put on the blank screen.” That is essentially what we do.

Brianna Skyler:
I understand that computers operate on ones and zeros, so how do you make sense of that?

Timothy Fish:
Well, that’s true, at the hardware level, but we rarely work at that level. Even Electrical Engineers do most of their work at a higher level. Instead, we work with programming languages. About the lowest level we will ever work at is Assembly language, but most of the time we can work with higher level languages that are more like English. Of course it isn’t really like English. It is more like the logic statements you might see in a proof of some kind. We type commands into a text editor and use software that figures out how to convert the text into the ones and zeros the computer uses.

Brianna Skyler:
That’s all there is to it?

Timothy Fish:
Not exactly. That’s what it takes to program the computer, but Software Engineering encompasses everything from developing requirements, to designing the software, to programming, to testing.

Brianna Skyler:
How many programming languages are there?

Timothy Fish:
I don’t know. There are a lot. I personally have used about forty different languages at some point in my career.

Brianna Skyler:
Why so many?

Timothy Fish:
Some languages are designed for specific purpose. There are some general purpose languages that can do just about anything, but they aren’t as easy to use for some of the tasks that the other languages were designed for.

Brianna Skyler:
Can you give us an example?

Timothy Fish:
Well, I’ve done quite a bit of work with discrete event simulation. A general purpose language like C++ or Java has the flexibility for doing that, but there are languages out there that have the stuff we would have to develop in C++ or Java already available to the programmer—things like the event queue and the clock.

Brianna Skyler:
I’m not real sure what that means, but I’ll take your word for it. How has your job impacted your writing?

Timothy Fish:
Obviously, Church Website Design is closely related to my career, so much so that I felt it necessary to get permission from my employer before I wrote the book.

Brianna Skyler:
What about with the novels?

Timothy Fish:
There really hasn’t been that much influence from my work. If anything, I’ve tried to avoid writing about my work in my novels. I think my church experience has influenced them more than my work. The most work has done is made it difficult to find time to write.

Brianna Skyler:
Do you ever see yourself giving up your day job so you’ll have time to write?

Timothy Fish:
I won’t say never, but it would take a major publishing contract for me to consider that. There are some aspects to my job that aren’t what I would like, but for someone like me, I have a dream job. Writing is fun and it is a nice outlet, but I don’t see myself not programming. Even if I were writing full-time, I would be doing programming projects on the side.

Brianna Skyler:
What kind of projects do you have in the works?

Timothy Fish:
Programming or writing?

Brianna Skyler:
Writing. We’ve bored everyone enough talking about your job.

Timothy Fish:
Right now, I’m working on a story about Kim and Martin.

Brianna Skyler:
Are you sure you want to do that?

Timothy Fish:
It seemed like a good idea when I started, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s too obvious. I’ve got a thread running through it about Kelly. That’s turning out interesting, but the main plot needs work. I’m not sure that I started far enough from the end. Either that or their children aren’t as believable as villains as they need to be.

Brianna Skyler:
Can you salvage it?

Timothy Fish:
I don’t know. I like the story, so I’m going to try, but there’s something about it that just isn’t right.

Brianna Skyler:
What happens if you can’t?

Timothy Fish:
Oh, I think I can. I just don’t know how yet.

Brianna Skyler:
I hope you do. And thanks for letting me interview you.

Timothy Fish:
My pleasure. Thanks for being here. I hope you’ll come again sometime and the readers will get to hear more about you and less about me.

Editor’s Note: Feel free to ask any questions you have for Brianna in the comment section. Brianna made her debut appearance in How to Become a Bible Character as a minor character. I expect her to have a more significant role in a future novel.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Book Blurbs?

My characters have been so cooperative as guest bloggers that I thought I would ask them to write blurbs for my books. Yes, I jest, but it occurs to me that a blurb written by one of my characters is bound to be as useful as some of the blurbs I’ve read. Blurbs written by people I don’t know might help to influence me, but there really is no reason why it should, since I don’t know how my likes and dislikes compare to those of the blurber. If I do recognize the name and I end up disagreeing with that person, then I tend to avoid books written by that person as well. I suspect that many blurb writers hope that having their name on the back of other author’s books will help them sell books as well, so they have an incentive to recommend a book, even if they wouldn’t actually buy it. So the words of my characters aren’t really that much less believable and if they choose their words well, it might give potential readers better insight into the nature of the book.

Here are the blurbs some of my characters wrote:

Brianna Skyler, a news anchor says:
It has been a long time since I’ve read anything as hard hitting as For the Love of a Devil.

Kelly writes:
I’m happy to say that one of those grains of sand in How to Become a Bible Character is mine.

Beatrice Bubble says:
For the Love of a Devil is a love story at its very finest.

Kyle Brown writes:
I would give Searching for Mom three thumbs up if I had that many.

Neal stated:
I couldn’t put it down.

Wayne Hiller says,
I’m going to read this again.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What's a Hero?

Heroes. We need a few, but what are they? Many people equate the hero with the protagonist, but many protagonists are poor excuses for heroes. On the other hand, some people will raise the hero to the level of a superhero. For our purposes, let’s define a hero as someone worthy of admiration, since that definition will encompass heros who are brave and heroes of other types as well. If our protagonist is worthy of admiration, then he is a hero or heroine. If not then he is an antihero or a villain. But let’s look at heroes.

We need to draw a distinction between a hero and a superhero. A superhero is a special case of the hero. The superhero is almost always a misunderstood person. Because of his special abilities, he must be of extremely high moral character. If he were not, he would use his powers for evil and become a villain. Everyone wants to be the superhero’s friend, but they are afraid of him. He is able to do things that they can’t, so they feel the need for some kind of protection from him. Usually, that protection comes in the form of distance. This causes the superhero to spend much of his life alone. He has a few personal friends and some of those may know who he really is, but he has to be careful and keep his identity secret. He usually isn’t in any direct danger, but if his enemies can discover who his friends are then they can make his life very difficult. So, it is best to keep his identity secret and to have a small number of close friends.

The typical hero is much more ordinary. Unlike the superhero who has some natural ability that gives him power, the hero has a natural inability that he must overcome. It is through overcoming this inability that he is able to show his bravery and his worthiness of admiration. In the end, he will save the day, but he must do it against the odds.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Is it a Thriller, Suspense or Mystery?

When I think of the various genres, some of them sort of run together. Romance, Women’s Fiction and Historical Fiction tend to run together. Science Fiction and Fantasy tend to run together, so much so that they are often referred to as Speculative Fiction. Then there are Thrillers, Suspense and Mystery. What is it that distinguishes a thriller from a suspense novel from a mystery?

Keep in mind that each of these can have elements of the other. A thriller may have mystery and a mystery may have suspense. For that matter, they may contain romance. So to the answer the question, we should look at the book as a whole. We should consider the most dominant elements of the book.

The most dominant element of a thriller is action. An example of a thriller might be that we begin with a car chase on page one. Our protagonist cop is chasing a cop killer through the streets with many other cars. The chase comes to a deadly end for the cop killer, but before he dies he tells them about a bomb. Now our protagonist is off looking for the bomb, which they don’t find, but they do find evidence that might identify the cop killer’s boss. In a thriller, one event leads to another and the time clock is extremely important. There is too much work for one man to accomplish and yet he must in order to save the day.

In suspense the reader tends to know more about what is happening than the characters. We introduce a bomb, but instead of creating a mad rush to defuse the bomb, we don’t bother to tell the protagonist about it. Then we send him or his family into the room where the bomb is about to explode.

A mystery predominantly asks the question why? The bomb exploded yesterday, killing someone. Now the reader must figure out why it exploded before our protagonist reveals the answer at the end of the book. The protagonist may face danger, but there’s no particular reason why he must. Neither is action a requirement. We can have our protagonist wheelchair bound or confined in some other way as he solves the mystery. In Twelve Angry Men, for example, they are locked away in the jury room.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Handling Death In Fiction

Death happens to all of us. Most people know people who have died. I didn’t know him personally, only having read his books and his blog, but just the other day I opened my feed reader and where I would have expected to see a blog post from Blake Snyder I saw a notice saying that he had passed away. He was in his early fifties. This experience made me think about how we handle the deaths of our characters. When we write, some characters die. If we are writing a murder mystery, that is pretty much a requirement. With other books, the story may not tell us about anyone dying, but death is in the back story and future story of every character. Death is a part of every story. The decision we must make is how to handle it.

Ignoring Death

There are a number of different ways to handle death in a story. One thing we can do is simply ignore it, as if death doesn’t happen. In many stories, death is not an important part of the story. Though the characters have lost friends and loved one, we don’t talk about this. This is similar to what happens in real life. After our loved ones have been gone for a while, we don’t talk about their deaths as much as we once did. They are gone. Life moves on. Many novels never mention death and they don’t need to.

A Chosen Victim

Some stories require a victim. Someone has died and the detective must discover why. What villain has cut this life short? In this case, the death itself isn’t all that important. It provides us with a puzzle we must solve and nothing more. The reader rarely has much emotional attachment to these chosen victims. Some writers will try to imply that the protagonist has some emotional attachment, as the victim may be his wife, girlfriend or daughter, but the reader has no emotional involvement with the dead character. With these deaths, we need not spend a lot of time considering the emotions surrounding death.

Red Shirt Death

It takes a lot of work to develop a good character, so we don’t like to kill off good characters on a whim. Red Shirts, however, are expendable. They are also very good at dying. The purpose of killing a red shirt is to show just how bad the villain is. If the villain tells the protagonist that he is going to kill him, we don’t know whether to believe him or not. He could be bluffing. But if the villain shoots a red shirt for not telling him what he wants to hear and he then turns to the protagonist who is also not giving him the information he wants to hear, we fear for the protagonist.

Death Equals Justice

When the villain dies in the end, it is usually a case of justice. Good always wins over evil. After the villain has killed enough people, the only solution is to kill him off in the end. When this happens, the reader is often cheering for his death. Whether we show the death of only give the promise of a death sentence for his crimes, a story isn’t satisfying if the villain doesn’t get what he deserves.

Death Comes Slowly

I once heard a story about a man who was asked to take care of his friend’s cat. The friend called from vacation and asked about the cat. “It died,” the man said. His friend said, “You shouldn’t have just told me it died like that. You could have told me it was up on the roof and you couldn’t get it down. Then tomorrow you could tell me that it had fallen and was injured. Then the next day you could tell me it died. You ought to creep upon something like this.” The next day, the vacationing friend called again to see how things were going. The man answered, “About your aunt, she climbed up on the roof.”

Some death comes slowly. We give the reader plenty of warning, so that when it happens it isn’t a shock. Some books are about people sitting around waiting for someone to die. When the dead finally happens, it may be sad, but it is expected.

Full On Death

In real life, death often comes as a shock. When I was working on my Masters, I received an e-mail from the college dean stating that one of my professors had died. I went back to work after a three day weekend one time and someone asked me if I had heard about one of my co-workers dying. I arrived at work one time to learn that my boss had died. Death is shocking, but how do we encase this shock in our books?

As we look at the shocking kind of death, what we realize is that the thing that makes it different from the other ways of handling death that I mentioned above is that it changes the story. In the case of my co-worker, he was responsible for giving us direction of how his organization needed the project we were working on to go. I was expecting to show up at work, have him provide us with guidance and then we would go off and do work. Instead, I showed up at work and he was dead. It was a sudden change in direction and there was nothing we could do prevent it.

Applying this to a story, suppose we have a character who is very active in the story. The reader has some idea of where the story is going and all indications are that the character is a major part of it. There is not solution without the character. He is making plans with our protagonist. Perhaps they are making wedding plans. We turn the page and he is dead. To make it the most shocking, we don’t give any warning, such as a villain who is threatening to kill him. We might completely disconnect the death from the story. He just dies. What as once a love story comes to an abrupt halt and now it is about the protagonist dealing with death.

Suppose you have written a romance novel. It follows the typical romance pattern, with two people not getting along until they reach the point where they realize how much they need each other, after which they make up and promise to love each other forever. Now, pick a page a random and in the middle of the page write the words, “He died.” It might be something like the following:

She felt his big beefy arms around her. They were hard, like the muscles of the horses she loved to ride when she was a kid, though his arms weren’t as hairy. At least she didn’t think so. She couldn’t be sure, since he always wore a long sleeved shirt. She supposed that was because of his job. It didn’t matter. He made her feel safe. She wanted stay in these arms forever, protected from [insert “He died.” here] the world that sought to destroy her, the world that would ruin her business and never stop to apologize. These arms would protect her. If her business folded, she wouldn’t care, as long as she could stay right here.

She felt his lips against hers. They tasted a little like the cherry pie she had served him for dessert. She could imagine a lifetime of those kisses.

With the insertion, this passage becomes:

She felt his big beefy arms around her. They were hard, like the muscles of the horses she loved to ride when she was a kid, though his arms weren’t as hairy. At least she didn’t think so. She couldn’t be sure, since he always wore a long sleeved shirt. She supposed that was because of his job. It didn’t matter. He made her feel safe. She wanted stay in these arms forever, protected from…

“Something’s wrong,” he said.

She felt his arms go limp. She tried to catch him as he fell to the floor, but he weighed too much for her, dragging her with him. And he was gone. His big heart beat no more. His eyes stared at nothing. She could only call for an ambulance and cry, knowing it was too late. Her protector was gone for good.

This is only a short scene, but imagine how it would shock your reader if she were to be reading a story like this and the man suddenly died in the middle of a love scene. The whole story would change from that point on. Whatever the reader thought was going to happen isn’t going to happen now. After spending so much time getting so excited about the man in the story, he just dies. When it comes to death, that is about as real as we can get in a story.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Greatest Characteristic

The characteristics of leaders the topic of the day when answering one more question from the 20 questions for leaders that Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee asked Mike Hyatt. What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?

Humility. The leader who is too proud to bow his knees and cry out to God is not fit to lead. The leader who does not see those he leads as being more important than himself is not fit to lead. If anyone had reason to boast, Paul did. He had seen heaven, but the Lord gave him a thorn in the flesh. Without it, Paul wouldn't have been fit for much.

The thing that destroys most leaders is pride and it is one of the hardest things for a leader to fight. One can watch people take action at his command and it is easy to imagine that he is somehow more special than those he leads. Then the day comes when he leads them in a way he shouldn't lead. Maybe they follow. Maybe they don't, but his little empire comes crashing down and he realizes too late that his isn't anything special after all. But the humble leader doesn't have that problem. He realizes he is weak and surrounds himself with people who are better than he is, because the group is more important than the individual.

Friday, August 14, 2009

When Does a Writer Become an Author?

What is the difference between a writer and an author? In a recent comment to Rachelle Gardner’s blog, one person implied that it is pretentious to call one’s self an author until one has a publishing contract. Comments like that leave me feeling a little uneasy because it makes published authors to be snobs. I have four books in print. No one will say that I am not the author of those books, so that makes me an author. That doesn’t, however, make me better than the lowly writer who has no books in print. Either there is no difference between a writer and an author or we need a better way of drawing the distinction.

I suggest we go back to the beginnings of the word. The word author comes from the word autor (“father”). An author is the father of a work. An author is the person who began or originated the work. You will recall the use of the word in Hebrews 12:2, which describes Jesus as the “author and finisher of our faith.” As we frequently use the term author, an author is a writer, but a writer isn’t always an author. For a writer to be an author, the work must have originated with the writer.

A ghost writer may have written a number of full length books, but that doesn’t make him an author. The idea for the book began with someone else and the writer only wrote the book. I would go as far as to say that a writer who converts a screenplay into a novel has no right to claim to be the author of the work. He is doing the work of a writer, but not the work of an author. That work was done by the person who wrote the screenplay.

The author is a person who originates the work and has authority to say what goes into the work. The writer is the person who pens the work.

Wayne Hiller: An Interview With a Pastor

Editor’s Note: Today, I’m talking to Wayne Hiller. You may recall his book, How to Become a Bible Character. If you don’t, I hope you’ll purchase your copy today. For the interview, I met Wayne at Ellen’s Café, during the afternoon, when it wasn’t too busy. We sat at one of the tables next to the large windows at the front of the building. We could see the shoppers and tourists walking past on the sidewalk outside. Ellen brought us blackberry cobbler fresh from the oven with ice cream. I offered to pay, but she wouldn’t hear of it. This is the more interesting parts of our conversation:

Timothy Fish:
Brother Hiller, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I’m hoping my readers will remember you. Some of my fans said they liked you.
Wayne Hiller:
I’m glad to do what I can, but I’m not all that concerned about what people think of me. There are too many other things that are important to be concerned with that.
Timothy Fish:
Now, my readers will likely remember you from How to Become a Bible Character. In my world, I wrote that book, but here, your name graces the cover. Tell us a little about the book and what motivated you to tell this story.
Wayne Hiller:
Sure. The book is about Neal Watts. I felt the need to write it because it was quite a learning experience for me. At the time, Neal was popular among the other teenagers. He was a good kid and he had this way about him that you just knew that if he set his mind on something, it was going to happen. But then he set his mind on becoming a Bible character. He had a plan to do it and wanted my help.
Timothy Fish:
But he wasn’t successful.
Wayne Hiller:
Of course not, but when I saw what the rest of the church was doing while he was trying, that gave me a completely different perspective concerning my role at First Baptist.
Timothy Fish:
How do you see your role differently?
Wayne Hiller:
When I came here, I had the idea that I would have to spend a lot of time persuading people to do the right thing. That may be what works with some churches, but here, it seems like my role is to point people in the right direction and then to get out of their way so they can go to work.
Timothy Fish:
That’s probably enough about the story. We don’t want to give people so much information they won’t read the book. Let’s talk about the writing experience. How difficult was it for you to write that book?
Wayne Hiller:
For me, not difficult at all. All I had to do was sit down and write what I remembered. I’ll admit that I’m not sure I got all of the conversations verbatim, but no one has complained about me putting words in his mouth.
Timothy Fish:
Not even Tina’s parents? It seems like the would be the first to complain if anyone did.
Wayne Hiller:
Well, I did hear that they had consulted a lawyer about it, but what I said was too close to the truth to make it worth their while.
Timothy Fish:
What about Kim? She didn’t have a problem with what you said about her?
Wayne Hiller:
No, Kim’s really good natured. I think she understands that I made more fun of myself than I did of her.
Timothy Fish:
Yeah, I’ve been working with her recently. I’ve been writing a story about her family.
Wayne Hiller:
I’m ashamed to say this, but I don’t know her family. They’re on our prayer list, but I haven’t met them.
Timothy Fish:
You will—her ex-husband anyway.
Wayne Hiller:
How can you be so sure about something that hasn’t happened yet?
Timothy Fish:
Time is a little funny when we move between worlds like this.
Wayne Hiller:
So I’ve gathered. Can you tell me more about what’s going to happen when I meet this guy? I hear that he’s a real jerk.
Timothy Fish:
Did Kim tell you that? And you know I can’t tell you the future.
Wayne Hiller:
O well, it never hurts to ask. No, Kim didn’t tell me that. But after the way he treated her, I would think she would.
Timothy Fish:
Back to your writing. Do you think you’ll write any more books?
Wayne Hiller:
Not anytime soon. I don’t have time, with all that’s going on and all. If another story like the one I wrote comes along, I’m sure I’ll make time for it, but until then I don’t think so.
Timothy Fish:
Do you have any advice for those would be authors out there?
Wayne Hiller:
Write what you know. When I was writing my book, it just flowed off my fingers. Can you tell me more about that book you’re working on? Who else is involved?
Timothy Fish:
Kelly plays an important role. You know, she has some of the same problems as Kim.
Wayne Hiller:
Yeah, I know. I suppose that if Kelly is in it then Cora is going to be right there beside her.
Timothy Fish:
To some extent, yes, but it seems like Sara is going to spend more time with her than Cora.
Wayne Hiller:
Sara? Are you sure?
Timothy Fish:
The manuscript is still young, but so far, that’s the way it looks.
Wayne Hiller:
I would have never thought anyone would spend more time with Kelly than Cora, until Kelly found a guy and got married. I don’t guess that is going to happen is it?
Timothy Fish:
Well, Kelly has her eye on someone, but don’t expect anything real soon.
Wayne Hiller:
What about Sara?
Timothy Fish:
All I can tell you about that is that someone has his eye on her and I don’t think she would be very upset if he would show some interest.
Wayne Hiller:
It’s Ben, isn’t it? I know you too well. You love the irony of her beating him up and then ending up marrying him.
Timothy Fish:
Uh…you don’t think it would be weird for her to be attracted to someone she can beat up?
Wayne Hiller:
Ben’s no wimp. Besides, how many guys about her age can she not beat up?
Timothy Fish:
What about Neal? You’re the one who told us she had a crush on him.
Wayne Hiller:
Had is the operative word there. They’re good friends, but that’s about it. With him going to school out of state, I don’t expect any budding romance between them. No, it’s either Ben or Kyle and I pretty sure it has to be Ben.
Timothy Fish:
What if I told you that Kelly is going to be interested in the same guy?
Wayne Hiller:
That would just seal the deal. Ben and Kelly have a lot in common.
Timothy Fish:
Keep in mind that there may be some people coming into town that you don’t know about.
Wayne Hiller:
That’s true. I’ve probably been listening too much to Tiffany talk about who she thinks ought to pair up.
Timothy Fish:
Thanks for meeting with me today and maybe next time I see you I can tell you more.
Wayne Hiller:
I’ll be looking forward to it.

Editor’s Note: Feel free to ask any questions you have for Pastor Hiller in the comment section. His book is How to Become a Bible Character.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Speaker Attributes

There is a difference of opinion about Speaker Attributes. Some authors, such Brandilyn Collins make a point of avoiding speaker attributes. These authors will often replace a speaker attribute with an action beat. For example, The Martian said, “Take me to your leader.” would become The Martian pointed with his three fingered hand. “Take me to your leader.” On the other hand, some authors would say that this line would be better written as The Martian pointed with his three fingered hand as he said, “Take me to your leader.”

The problem that people have with speaker attributes is that in some exchanges they can be tiresome:

“Give it to me,” he said.

“No,” she said.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because,” she said.

A page full of that and the reader will quickly grow tired. For that matter, the author will grow tired of writing the word said. Let’s take that same exchange and rewrite it so those speaker attributes aren’t so tedious:

Bob and April were walking to class one spring day. Bob had his mind on other things, the birds singing in the trees, the cool breeze blowing across campus and how nice April looked in the dress she wore. He couldn’t tell her that, but he couldn’t help his thoughts. He was deep in his thoughts when he stubbed his toe on a section of raised concrete and dropped the book he had in his hand. While he hopped around on one foot, April picked up the book and pulled out a note he had hidden inside. Her name was visible at the top.

“Give it to me,” he said, forgetting the pain and reaching for the note. Things would not be good if she read that note. He had written it during his last class, calling for her to dump her boyfriend and hook up with him instead, but it was just wishful thinking and he had never intended for her to see it.

“No,” she said, taking a few steps away from him. She held the note behind her, so that he couldn’t reach it.

“Why not?” he asked. He tried to reach around her and then he tried to grab her arm, but she was too quick for him.

“Because,” she said. Out of his reach, she unfolded the note and began to read.

Notice that in this version, the more space we have between the speaker attributes the less tiresome they are. Also notice that the dialog is exactly the same as before. Personally, there are some things I don’t like about attempting to replace the speaker attributes with action beats. That isn’t to say that I don’t use that at times, but when I read I like seeing speaker attributes, within reason. At times, we don’t need anything to tell us who is speaking. The conversation switches back and forth between two characters and their words make it clear. We can use various techniques, but the important thing to remember is that speaker attributes involve verbs and we shouldn’t use the same verb too often. It isn’t that we need to avoid speaker attributes, but we need to put some space between them. After we use one, we need some more verbs before we use one again. If we do that, then speaker attributes will add to our story rather than taking away from it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How Dark Should Christian Fiction Go?

How dark is too dark in Christian fiction? Before we can answer that question, we need some idea of what dark fiction is.

What is Dark Fiction?

Dark is devoid of light. It also refers to evil, or something that is dismal or gloomy. All of these are somewhat related, so when we talk about dark fiction we are talking about stories that deal primarily with evil and/or are without hope. Suppose our story is about a drug dealer who eventually kills a pastor who has been standing against the drug dealer while sleeping with the drug dealer’s wife. With two evil men as our protagonist and antagonist, there is a strong possibility that the story will turn out dark. To insure that the story is dark, we could focus our attention on the shadier parts of the story, showing the drug dealer carrying out his business with the children in the area, showing the pastor sneaking around with the drug dealer’s wife. The more emphasis we place on the evil, the darker the story becomes.

Some people describe dark fiction as being disturbing in nature. Instead of leaving the reader with a warm fuzzy feeling because all is right with the world, dark fiction leaves the reader with the notion that something is still wrong. In our example above, if the drug dealer is killed in a shootout with the police when they go to arrest him for the pastor’s killing and his wife is left without any means of support, that may be very true to life and it may be the closest we can get to the good guys winning, but it won’t leave us feeling great about the ending.

Dark Christian Fiction

Christian Fiction is supposed to promote biblical principles. This doesn’t mean that Christian Fiction can’t be dark fiction. In fact, much of the Christian Fiction I have seen recently is rather dark in nature. This isn’t to say that it is as dark as it could be, but there are some very dark subjects out there. Novels dealing with the end time are dark, since there isn’t much hope for the world at that point. Stories dealing with demons are dark. Suspense novels are typically dark, as they deal with someone who is about to kill the main character.

From a publishing standpoint, I don’t know how dark Christian publishers will allow Christian Fiction to go, but there are many dark fiction novels mixed in with the light and airy romance, historical and chic-lit novels. I am more concerned with how dark I as a writer am willing to go with a story.

How Dark Should Christian Fiction Go?

Christian Fiction can range from very dark to very light and still promote biblical principles. Every character and every action could be evil or we could have a cast of born again believers. We don’t want every character to be perfect and never do anything wrong, but neither do we want every character to be pure evil and never do anything right. So there must be a limit to how dark we want to go.

If we are going to write dark Christian fiction, we need at least one character who will serve as the moral center of our story. He doesn’t have to be a good guy. In fact, he could be a legalistic hypocrite who is quick to point out the sins of others while committing those sins himself. He could even make fun of Christians for their beliefs, but his primary purpose is to provide a conduit through which we can pass the reader the truth of the situation, showing what the characters are doing and telling them what God thinks about it.

Sex scenes are a problem. If the story is dark, the characters may have sex, but how can we promote biblical principles while describing sexually arousing scenes? On that front, I figure that if a scene doesn’t go into more sexually arousing detail than the Song of Solomon, then it hasn’t gone too far. Although, the Song of Solomon doesn’t go nearly as far as what some people seem to think it does, and the Song of Solomon isn’t dark, which has its own impact on reducing the sexually arousing nature of its content.

More than that, one of the problems I have with dark fiction right now is that I personally don’t want to be so deeply immersed in a dark world. In Philippians 4:8, we are encouraged to meditate on those things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely and of good report. At best, dark fiction may be true, but it falls short of the other things. Its lack of hope tends to beat us down rather than building us up. We need hope.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Darkening the Story

Yesterday, we looked at safety net characters and said that they lighten a story. It then stands to reason that to darken a story we need a glass ceiling character. This is a character that has the ability to thwart our protagonist’s attempts with impunity. Just as the safety net character is able to aid the protagonist without fear of the antagonist, the glass ceiling character is able to aid the antagonist and nothing the protagonist might like to do will harm this character in any way.

This is more than just an antagonist with the upper hand. We all know of scenes in which the protagonist begs the villain not to shoot someone, maybe even reveals a secret to prevent it and then the villain shoots the person anyway. That too darkens the story, but the villain will eventually get his due. A true glass ceiling character is more like these secret organizations that are supposed to be above the law. Our protagonist arrests someone and that person is out of jail in short order because the organization has some judge in their pocket. Go after the judge and he will be protected by someone higher up.

Of course, all such organizations are defeated eventually, since good must always triumph over evil, but it may require several novels before the hero is able bring them down. Their existence in the meantime, darkens the story, giving the impression that evil is in control.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Uplifting Safety Nets

Last week I mentioned a character who has too much going for him to be a protagonist. Then Ellen came and talked to us. She also has too much going for her to be an affective protagonist. But these characters can serve as safety nets. I’ve used Ellen and her family that way in the past. I had a character who needed a house, so Ellen and her husband went out and bought a house, which they then allowed this character to stay in rent free. Without her successful restaurant, that wouldn’t have been possible. Some people will cry foul, suggesting that it would be better to leave the protagonist without a safety net, but that isn’t the way it works in real life. As much as I hate the thought of losing my job and not being able to pay my bills, I know that in time of need there are people I could go to for help, such as my church or my family.

Putting these safety net characters into a story changes it in a very specific way. They help raise a story out of the darkness. Think about the Cinderella story. If we were to tell the story without the fairy godmother, the story would be much darker. After being abandoned by her father with a wicked step-mother, Cinderella attends the ball and tries to gain the prince’s attention, but has no success because she is covered in ashes. Or what about Little Red Riding Hood without the woodman to open up the wolf and let grandma out?

Stories become dark when it appears that evil is allowed to go unhindered. Having a character who is able to keep evil in check, even though evil may cause our protagonist trouble, brightens the story. These characters change the plain of existence for the story. Unchecked, evil might be able to destroy the world and our protagonist is facing that battle. But we could throw in a character that will prevent the destruction of the world, but not necessarily the death of the protagonist. Just by doing that, we have a story that isn’t quite as dark, but the protagonist faces the same problems on a personal level. In many children’s stories, the authors remove death from the table all together, so the story is uplifting rather than dark. Safety net characters are one way to do this.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fresh Meat

Another couple of questions from the 20 questions for leaders that Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee asked Mike Hyatt. Today they deal with new employees and hiring. How do you help a new employee understand the culture of your organization?

I wish I had a profound answer to this one. I don't. Some time ago, I had a man take offense to something I did. He questioned whether I had violated Robert's Rules of Order. I suppose, if you want to take it down to the letter of the law, yes, I did, but I have grown accustomed in our organization for people to be more interested in working together in harmony than worrying about some of the finer details of Robert's Rules of Order. Had that culture been communicated to this person when he came onboard, the issue might not have come up and it would have saved us both a lot of heartache. But how do you communicate something that requires experience to learn? Write a story? Create a video? That's all I can think of, but I've tried neither. Isn't that what Nathan did when the Lord wanted David to see the problems of the culture he had created with his sin? Not the video, obviously, but the story.

When faced with two equally-qualified candidates, how do you determine whom to hire?

Prayer. Especially in a church setting. And I usually hope that one of them will remove his name from consideration. I had a boss once who hated telling someone that we couldn't hire him, so we brought people in one at a time and the first person who met all of the qualifications got the job. As a lead on one of the projects, I was more concerned with finding someone I could work with. One applicant was highly qualified, educationally, but his English was so poor that I couldn't understand a word he said.

But in a church setting, we have that wonderful promise that it is God who sets workers in the church 1. If God is setting workers in the church then we should be letting him set. It seems like the rule rather than the exception that we pray about who should fill a position and we come up with a few names, but one by one they decline for one reason or another. Then the only person we have left isn't one of the two equally qualified best candidates, they are both gone, but someone we didn't really consider. Qualified, yes, but certainly not best, or so we think. We put this person to the task, maybe as a temporary solution and he amazes us by doing things we didn't realize he could do.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Ellen Dawson: About My Café

Editor’s Note: I stopped by the Main Street Cafe and Pastry Shop the other day. It was as busy as ever, but Ellen graciously agreed to a guest appearance on my blog.

I’m not much of a writer, but Timothy asked me to talk about my business and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to talk about one of the great passions in my life. I own the Main Street Café and Pastry Shop. A lot of people have asked me why I don’t just change the name to Ellen’s Café, since that’s what everyone calls it anyway. I suppose that would make sense, but you’ve got to realize that it isn’t my café. It is, obviously, since I own the place, but my grandparents started the place. There are days that I can still see them there, either in the kitchen or out talking to the customers.

It has changed a lot over the years. It started out as just a coffee shop, if I remember correctly. It was small enough that my grandparents could run it by themselves. They lived upstairs and the shop took up part of the bottom floor. It took them several years, but they managed to build a business. The layout, with the pastry shop up near the front door and the café where it is hasn’t changed much since when I was born. Mom tells me that I learned to walk by clutching the table clothes and walking around the tables. I don’t remember that, but I remember coming over here and how good it always smelled. When I was young I would play on the stairs leading to the second floor. I had my dolls that I would set out on the steps. And I could watch the customers from there.

When I got older, I wasn’t content to just watch. I got involved in everything. Anytime I was over there, I was doing something to help. I don’t know how much help I was at first. One of them would put me to work refilling salt shakers and then I graduated to clearing tables. They taught me to cook. After high school, I went to a school that trains chefs and I suppose it was worth my time, but I don’t think they taught me half as much as my grandparents did. I was the official pastry chef for a while. The downtown revitalization effort was just beginning to take shape back then. My grandparents didn’t get to see much benefit from it, but now we have several times the customers that they had. They had to give it up and I took over. I bought the place, but someone the other family members weren’t happy about it at the time.

It seems like I do more paperwork than real work these days. I still cook some and I love to get out front and talk to the customers. We have several chefs now and we remodeled the upstairs to allow for more seating. Even with that, there are some nights when we don’t have enough room. So, if you come eat with us, you might want to call ahead. The lunch crowd is quite as bad, unless it’s on a Friday.

I’m hoping that when I get old enough to retire that the café will stay in the family. Of course it isn’t really a café anymore. My grandparents started moving it away from that and I finished the transition. If you’re ever in town, come look us up. We’ll find you a table or you might want something from the pastry shop. I’m usually around there somewhere, even if you don’t see me out front. I’d love to meet you.

Editor's Note: Like Sara, Ellen has been with us from the beginning. She first appears in Searching for Mom and appears throughout the series. She assures me that she will be following the comments, so feel free to ask her any questions you might have.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

My Alter Ego

Some authors include alter egos in their books. We have to slip into the heads of all of our characters, but even while doing that, we stay distant from most of our characters. There are things about our characters that we can’t fully understand. A man writing about a woman or a woman about man creates one obvious situation in which a full connection between author and character cannot be achieved. To reach such a connection would be just wrong. Even so, we can achieve some very good stories while remaining somewhat distant from the characters. Then there are those characters that just mesh.

In my WIP, there is a character who is that way for me. In many ways, he isn’t like me at all and yet when I think about the story I imagine that if I could slip into that world for a while that he is the character I would want to be. He has a minor role in this story and doesn’t even have a name yet. He’s one of these big picture kind of guys who may not know everything that’s going on, but he has a better understanding of the whole situation than most. He works for a small but increasingly successful film studio and is the grandson of one of the two owners. He will eventually inherit his grandfather’s half of the business, but for now he is paying his dues learning the business and focusing on individual projects.

The problem with a character like this is that life is too good for him to make a very interesting character. Then when I slip into his skin, I’m not going to want to write him in such a way that problems force him to change. He is on the path to success and I don’t want to ruin that for him (for me). A character like this has to stay off to the side of the story. We can slip him into one of the subplots and even give him a lead role in a subplot, but he can’t very well fill the role of the protagonist. The best protagonists experience change or must fight hard to prevent change. In the case of my alter ego, his life is good and the only question is how he will use that to help other people.

In some ways, this guy is like Ellen Dawson, whom will be guest blogging here tomorrow. In the last couple of novels, she hasn’t had many problems and I don’t expect she will from here on out. But she wouldn’t make a good protagonist. She works better as a sounding board and a safety net. We need characters like that. Next week, I talk about what they do for our stories.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Blake Snyder Passes Away

We learned yesterday that Blake Snyder passed away due to a heart attack. Blake was a well known screenwriter, but his claim to fame wasn't as much for the movies he wrote as it was for his Save the Cat books. These books dealt primarily with the categories of plots that all stories fall into and the basic outline for each of these plots. The writing community has lost a good friend.

Helpful Information?

Sometimes I run across information that seems like it ought to be helpful, if I could just figure out what to do with it. Below is a list of names and yes, I am aware that there are a few repeats:

  • Lauren Barnholdt

  • Jan Karon

  • Rachel Hauck

  • Leisha Kelly

  • Kathleen Popa

  • Herb Heiman

  • Jay Asher

  • Jim Stovall

  • Wally Lamb

  • John Grisham

  • Sarah Dessen

  • Karen Kingsbury

  • Karen Kingsbury

  • Melody Carlson

  • Melody Carlson

  • Melody Carlson

  • Melody Carlson

  • Beverly Lewis

  • Melody Carlson

  • Philippa Gregory

  • Karen Kingsbury

So, what can I do with this list? First, I probably ought to explain where it came from. These are the authors of books that customers who bought Searching for Mom also bought on My name should also be in that list, but I didn’t expect it would be very helpful to know that people who bought my book also bought my other books. But knowing that my book made some kind of connection with readers of these authors—mostly Melody Carlson and Karen Kingsbury, apparently—seems like it could be helpful information. I just don’t know what to do with it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I’m Offended

In today’s culture, to be offended often means that someone feels emotional discomfort because of something someone said or did. It used to be that to offend meant that someone had actually done something more grave than “stepping on someone’s toes,” but such is our world. The simple truth is that we have no control over what will cause people emotional discomfort. Take our political system, for example. If I were to get up and talk about how great trickle down economics is, most of the Republicans in the room would think it was a great speech, but the Democrats would be “offended.”

So here’s the problem. If we remove the right to offend people, we remove the right to free speech. As people define it today, the Constitution of the United States guarantees a right to offend people. If we have any hope of defending our right to free speech then we must also defend the right of others to offend us. Yes, I said to offend us.

Just because someone doesn’t agree with us doesn’t mean that we have a right to silence him. Some people are “offended” when they see a cross on government property. What a thing to be offended by. It is nothing but two sticks fastened together and it isn’t hurting anyone. We Christians don’t like, people making such a big deal about this, but we need to keep in mind that while it is wrong for people to make such an issue out of a cross being on government property, it would be just as wrong for us to be “offended” at some Muslim symbol or the images of evolution showing up on government property. We have a right to believe as we think is right. We have a right to speak concerning those beliefs. But we must be careful that we do not take that to mean that we have a right not to be offended, because we don’t. The freedom of speech is a right to offend and to defend that freedom is to defend the right for others to offend us.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Zero Spam

Zero has a nice sound to it, doesn't it? This is especially true when it comes to e-mail. Michael Hyatt is a big fan of a zero inbox. So am I, but that isn’t the zero I’m talking about today. For several days now, I’ve been enjoying zero spam. By this I mean that I open up my inbox and there is nothing there but e-mail that I want to be there. Considering that my inbox represents five e-mail addresses, all of which I readily give out over the Internet, this is no small task, but it is do able.

Spam is a numbers game. Spammers make money by sending out billions of copies of an e-mail, knowing that only a few will produce results, but if they can get a few thousand to respond then it makes it all worth while. They prey on the weak and greedy. Apparently, the people who respond to spam are interested in cheap Viagra, foreign lotteries and widows who want to give them millions of dollars, or we wouldn’t see so many of these things. It is a waste of spammers’ resources for them to include me in their mailing lists, since I delete it all and worse, I black list them.

A few weeks ago, the people who have been spamming me must have updated their systems or something because I began getting a ton of spam. Prior to that, it wasn’t so bad that I cared to do more than just delete it and go on, but the number spam in my inbox got to the point it was unmanageable, I decided that I needed to be more diligent about filtering it out. One way to do this is to do what I used to do, which is to create a folder in Microsoft Outlook called Unknown E-mail or something similar and create a rule that dumps everything that comes in into that folder except for those from people from a list of e-mail addresses that you choose. This is a quick and easy method and you need only scan the Unknown E-mail folder every few days to see if you have received a non-spam e-mail from someone who isn’t on the list. Each time you do, simply add that person to the list and you won’t miss that person again. This works well for most people, since we seldom receive e-mail from people we don’t know, but it isn’t such a good idea for writers, since they hope to receive fan mail from people they haven’t met yet.

My solution has been that each time I receive a spam message, I look at the e-mail address to verify that it hasn’t been sent as if from an e-mail address of a friend and I add the sender to the Blocked Senders List. The immediate effect of this is that the next time I receive an e-mail from that e-mail address (which may or may not be an e-mail address owned by the spammer), it goes to the Junk E-mail folder. This keeps it out of my inbox, but it doesn’t reduce the time required to download e-mail, since I am still receiving spam, I just don’t see it. To solve that problem, I periodically export the Blocked Senders List to a text file and I add the addresses to the blocked e-mail addresses on the server. Since I manage e-mail accounts for other people as well, the effect of this is that if you spam me, you will be black listed not only for my e-mail accounts, but for the e-mail accounts of several other people.

Black listing e-mail addresses doesn’t completely solve the problem. For the remaining spam, I create rules that search for specific key phrases. For example, if you are selling Viagra, you probably don’t have a chance of getting in my inbox. If the to and from e-mail addresses are the same, the e-mail will not make it into my inbox.

Spam only works because people are greedy. If everyone would strive to get their spam to zero and would refuse to respond to spammers then spammers wouldn’t make enough money to pay their expenses.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

What Happens If Justin D. Gawronski Wins?

As you have probably heard, Justin D. Gawronski claims that when removed illegal copies of a book he was reading, it messed up his notes so much that it forced him to redo his homework. Rather than ranting for an hour and then settling down to redo his homework, like you or I would have probably done, Justin D. Gawronski has decided to sue I'm no legal expert, so I don't know all of the issue involved here, but I ask myself what it would mean to me as a writer if Justin D. Gawronski were to win this case.

Did do the Right Thing?

Some people have argued that was wrong for deleting the book, which had been made available without the permission of the copyright holder. They argue that this situation was handled differently than it would have been for a print book. Most likely, with a print book, the copyright holder would have notified of the situation and would have removed it from availability immediately. All of the illegally printed copies in their warehouses would have been destroyed and they would have come to some agreement (either in court or out of court)with the copyright holder about how much they owed them for damages. It is unlikely that the copyright holder would require to recall the printed books, but what if there is some reason why the copyright holder doesn’t want those books in print? Just because it doesn’t normally happen this way doesn’t mean that the copyright holder doesn’t have the right to require to contact the people who purchased the book from them and inform them that if they do not return the book they will be a party to a crime and may be facing a court case. The reason it doesn’t happen is because the opposition most copyright holders have to allowing just anyone to print their books has more to do with money than anything else. If the copyright violator is willing to pay, then it usually isn’t worth it to go after the end customer.

In the case of’s Kindle, there is nothing to stop from remedying the situation by removing the illegal copies. Whatever damages are caused by those copies being out there would be mitigated. As copyright holders, we should not be forced to allow an illegal version of our work to remain in existence if someone has the ability to eliminate it. So, did the right thing.

What Else Might Be Considered Wrong?

If we turn this around and look at it not as a dispute about a book that happens to be stored in an electronic device, but look at it as how we might handle data stored in an electronic device, the case could have far reaching effects. Irrespective of the fact that the source material was illegal, Justin D. Gawronski’s complaint appears to be that removed data to which he had linked his notes and by removing that data they caused him damage due to his links no longer being valid. I use the word link here because I want to point out that bloggers and webmasters place material on the web every day that other people link to. Much of it is made available free of charge, but it makes little difference whether it is free or they charge for it, people are linking to it in blog posts and on websites regularly. It would seem that this case is therefore related.

Suppose you find a website with a lot of useful information. In a blog post, you reference this website through links. You schedule this blog post to appear on your blog two weeks later. Two weeks pass and you get several comments, “I tried to links and it told me it couldn’t find the information.” You investigate and discover that the website structure is different than it was before. The links don’t work. You can fix some of them, but others are to information that is no longer on the website. You spend time correcting your post, so the webmaster of that other site has caused you damages.

I would argue that if Justin D. Gawronski were to win this case then in the example above, you would have the right to sue the webmaster of that website for damages he caused you. But what if that webmaster were you? What if you received an article from a friend, telling you that you could place it on your blog, but after it appears, someone contacts you and informs you that your friend has copied material she had no right to copy. You inform the copyright holder that you will remove the material immediately, but then you have the problem that everyone who has linked to your blog will have a broken link. If Justin D. Gawronski were to win this case, you could be open to a lawsuit if you were to place anything on your blog or website (legal or illegal) and then remove it without first verifying that it would not cause anyone who linked to it damages. Even if that link were only a reference in a homework assignment. In the interest of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, we don’t want Justin D. Gawronski to win this case.

Core Values

Today’s question from the 20 questions for leaders that Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee asked Mike Hyatt deals with communication. How do you or other leaders in your organization communicate the “core values”?

They are being taught from the pulpit. They are being taught from the Sunday school classrooms. They are being taught by the Awana workers. And I hope that parents are teaching them in the home.

That was short, so let’s look at another question. How do you encourage others in your organization to communicate the “core values”?

When you place these questions in the context of a church, some of them seem almost too obvious. Is not one of the core values to communicate the core values? As we communicate the core values we are also encouraging their communication.

Do you set aside specific times to cast vision to your employees and other leaders?

No, not usually.

How do you ensure the your organization and its activities are aligned with your “core values”?

If the core values are being communicated well and everyone involved is seriously asking what their ministry is doing to either spread the gospel or to teach others what Jesus taught, then it usually isn't a problem. There are occassions, however, when someone has his or her pet ministry that isn't really accomplishing anything. There's always that question of whether it is worth making an issue over or whether it is better to just wait until the person dies and let the ministry die with her. Then there's always the possiblity of getting that person so involved in something else that the unuseful ministry dies anyway. I don't know that there is always a good answer.