Friday, October 30, 2009

The Three Protagonists

Editor’s Note: It’s always a good thing to keep your protagonists happy, so I invited all three of the protagonists from the books I have in print to have dinner with me. During the meal, they consented to answer a few questions.

Timothy Fish:
Each of you have had the experience of being the protagonist in one of my novels, tell us something about your experience.
Maybe one of the others should answer first. I fell like the odd guy out. I thought you’d made a mistake when you sent me that e-mail inviting me down here because I was one of your protagonists. I figured you meant to send it to Brother Wayne.
I don’t know how to answer either. I was twelve at the time and I don’t think I even knew what a protagonist was. If someone hadn’t told me that I was in that book, I wouldn’t have thought anything about it.
Yeah, it’s not like we realized we were protagonists at the time. I’ve read what you’ve written and I’ll have to say that you wrote it just like it happened, but at the time and even now, it seemed like we were just living out our lives like normal. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for the other two.
I feel the same way. I was in all three books and things didn’t seem that much different in any of them. There’s a lot of stuff I did that you didn’t write down. I don’t think it’s fair to ask us what’s like to be a protagonist when we aren’t. To you maybe, but to us...
Timothy Fish:
I see you’re point and I withdraw the question. But I would like ask what you think about people reading your stories. Does it bother you?
How many people are we talking about? Thousands of people? Millions?
Timothy Fish:
Not nearly so many.
That’s kind of rotten. What’s wrong with these people?
I don’t mind it so much, but I think I come across like an idiot. I’m sure that when people read the book they’re wondering why I would do what I did. But I like to think its a good story and I’d much rather be a little embarrassed than to think that people don’t care at all.
Timothy Fish:
What about you Geoff?
It’s tough. That was a really hard time for my family and me. I’m not embarrassed for myself, but it shows Heather at her worst. I think that’s harder on me than what it would be if you’d shown my bad side.
Timothy Fish:
Would you say it was worth going through what you went through?
For me, there’s no question. Before all this happened, I dreaded going home in the evenings. I could never make her happy.
If that’s what it took to get me what I have now, yeah, it was worth it. But don’t forget, I almost died. That wasn’t fun.
Timothy Fish:
You don’t know just how close you came.
On one hand, I don’t feel like it was worth it, but when I look at what happened…Wow!  I just wish I could have been there to see it.
Wait. Would you seriously have killed me off?
Give the man a break, Sara. You know he wouldn’t have done that. You’re special. You’re in every book so far.
But he said…
Timothy Fish:
Maybe we’d better move this conversation offline. We may pick this up again on some other Fiction Friday.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

On Guest Bloggers

Okay, here’s the thing. If you blog, having a guest blogger is a good thing for a number of reasons.
  • It gives you a break.
  • It attracts readers from the other person’s blog.
  • It gives the appearance of an endorsement of your blog.
  • It helps you develop a friendship with your guests.

With so many reasons why we would want to have guest bloggers, you might find it odd that I don’t like guest bloggers. That may be too strong of a statement. It isn’t like I’m going to go short-sheet their beds or something, but I’m not a big fan of guest blogging, in general.

I see a number of problems with guest blogging. The first has to do with my personal experience with guest bloggers on other blogs. I follow a number of blogs and some of them have guest bloggers. When I see that a guest blogger has written the post, I tend to ignore or skim the post, even when the guest blogger has a blog that I follow. On top of that, guest posts tend to be longer than they really need to be. It’s as if the guest blogger has a lot to say to the blog readers and he knows he isn’t going to get a second chance to address them. Some may consider it a good thing, but guest bloggers usually talk about some other subject than what the regular blogger normally addresses. As a blog reader, I don’t visit a blog to hear from other people. I visit a blog because I want to know what that particular blogger has to say. If I wanted to hear from the other person, I would visit the other person’s blog.

So how do we resolve this? Guest blogging is good, but guest blogging is bad. Guest blogging attracts visitors, but guest blogging drives visitors away. I would like to suggest that the solution is for bloggers to more tightly control guest posts. Rather than posting whatever the guest submits, edit liberally. If the post is unrelated to the theme of the blog, don’t post it. If you interview someone, don’t ask the same old questions that everyone asks, such as What’s your book about? How did you find time to write it? What did you mean on page 215? and What are you writing now? Instead, focus your questions in such a way that the interviewee’s answers follow the theme of the blog. If an answer doesn’t fit, delete it. And never post anything without providing your own comments. If you agree with the guest, provide additional evidence that supports his claims. If you disagree with the guest, provide arguments for the other side of the issue.

I’m reminded a few television shows I’ve seen in which one of the stars was injured or unable to work for some other reason, such as having a baby or something like that. The because of the shooting schedule they bring in a guest star to fill in. No matter how well the guest fills his role, the fans of the show are disappointed because the regular guy isn’t there. But when a guest shows up with the regular guy still there, the guest adds to the show. The guest should never preempt the star. It is no different in blogging. By all means, bring in a few guest bloggers, but never let them preempt you. You’re the one your readers want to hear from.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Plugging Along

November is National Novel Writing Month. It's also, National Buy Timothy Fish's Books Month, but that gets far less attention than NaNoWriMo. As you can see, November is upon us, which means that thousands of authors will be trying to generate a novel before the end of the month. This will be the tenth year for NaNoWriMo. I will not be participating. That doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t. Many people have “write a novel” written somewhere on their bucket list. If NaNoWriMo lets you cross that one off, go for it.

One of the things people who've never completed a novel ask is how authors do it. As someone who has completed several books, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s not as hard as it looks. A lot of people resort to tricks and many of them are just that. Some people force themselves to write a minimum number of words per day. Want to write a book in a year? Write 220 words per day and by this time next year you’ll have an 80,000 word novel written. Want to write a novel in a month? 2,700 words per day will bring you to your goal.


I don’t rely on word count quotas. If I had more time to write, I could put out 5,000 to 10,000 words per day with ease, but my experience has shown me that there is much more to writing than just cranking out words. I write when I’m ready to write. There are days I don’t write at all and other were I do little else. That works for me.

The thing that sets the author with a completed manuscript apart from others is patience. Some people say it’s about keeping your butt in the chair. I don’t completely agree, because some of my best ideas have come to me when I was off doing something else, but a writer must be patient. I’ve heard of people cranking out a novel (50,000 words) in three days and I might like to try that sometime, but good writing takes time. You won’t finish the work if you become impatient and take off in some other direction. I know a guy who is so impatient that when he sees work that will take more than a few minutes to figure out, he breaks down because he doesn’t know how to handle it. I don’t expect he will ever be able to finish a novel. But if you want to write a novel, keep your eyes on the prize and keep on plugging. You’ll get there eventually.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Are Traditional Publishers in Trouble?

Fiction is different from non-fiction. A non-fiction book that can provide an answer to solve a problem faced by readers will practically sell itself. Take the For Dummies books for example. While they may not be the books of choice for a college textbook, they’re designed to provide answers about how to do very specific things. The topic each book covers is on the front and many people who need answers related to that topic purchase the book.

What makes fiction different is that most readers aren’t looking for the book. Imagine that, with non-fiction, the reader is wondering around confused, looking for some solution. When we stick a book out there and wave a flag to say, “the solution’s over here.” The reader then makes a beeline for the book. Compare that to the fiction reader, who isn’t confused. He’s just looking for a good story, but rather than one flag waving author to serve as a beacon of hope, there are thousands. All else being equal, the reader need only pick up the first book he comes to and he has what he needs, but we know that all things aren’t equal. Readers have their favorite authors and though there may be a great many authors who write just as well, the reader will still make a beeline for his favorite author.

When looking at authors who were previously unknown to the reader, the discriminating factor that causes a reader to pick up a novel and make a purchase has more to do with the fact that the book is in front of him than anything else. Sure, he’ll make his decision based on whether he thinks he’ll enjoy the story and how well it is written, but he isn’t going to search through thousands of similar books to find the best example of the type of novel he wants. At some point, any will do. So, when we consider the self-published book versus the traditionally published book, though we may talk about how well one is written versus the other, the main factor that makes them different is that the traditional publisher is better equipped to place their books in front of the reader. Many readers are surprised to learn that self-published books are sometimes sold in bookstores. If you have a personal library of moderate size, I suspect you will find several self-published books within it, but mostly traditionally published books.

I believe we will continue to see things work this way, even as self-publishing becomes cheaper and as more tools become available to enable self-publishers to create high quality products. Stores that sell books need books to fill their shelves. They don’t want to spend the time required to evaluate ever little self-publisher out there or even the small publishers. Their natural tendency will be to continue to turn to the larger traditional publishers because they know that they can get a wide variety of books in one place. Even with electronic distribution, though Kindle and other devices, the large traditional publisher will fair better because at the end of every book they put out they can offer suggestions for similar books by their other authors. They will continue to find ways to put their products in front of readers, so while most books will be self-published, as we move forward, most profitable books will be produced by traditional publishers.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Cutting Room

Literary agent Terry Burns talks about learning from movies, saying that, once a writer is “done” with a book, he should go back and work on pacing and flow, much like a director goes to the cutting room and weaves together a movie from the various scenes he’s shot. That analogy breaks down at some point, but Terry is right; many manuscripts would be helped if the author would take the time to do that.

In my way of thinking, what Terry is describing is what I call the second draft. For me, the first draft is just getting something down on paper; we want to get to that 50,000 to 100,000 words as quickly as possible. The third draft is primarily about detailed sentence structure. The fourth draft is about correcting mistakes in spelling, punctuation, word usage, etc. The fifth draft is optional and may not be performed by the author, but it is the typesetting draft that will go to the printer. That leaves the second draft, which I see as the draft in which we add and remove large segments of words, as well as move them around. Hopefully, we won’t have to move chapters around, since we took care of that with our outline, but we’ll be messing with other stuff.

The second draft is essential. During the development of the first draft we had an unclear understanding of the overall flow and pacing. The outline should have helped, but the first draft is so laborious that we can’t hope to progress at the same speed as the reader. Once we have something on paper, we can read through the work at full speed and have some idea of what the reader will be thinking as he reads the finished product. If it seems like it is taking a long time to get through a particular passage, the reader will think the same. We should cut the passage or pick up the pace. With all of the stopping and restarting we had to do during the weeks we were creating the first draft, there’s no way we could know how the story flows, so don’t waste your time worrying about it. But in the second draft, that’s all we worry about.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Davis Shoat Interview

Editor’s Note: I don’t often get to talk to famous people, but just the other day, I was able to sit down with award winning actor Davis Shoat. What you might not know about Davis is that when he was in college, Ellen’s café was a regular hangout for him. Of course, her grandparents were still running it back then. That wasn’t where I talked to him. Instead, I managed to grab a little of his time between takes on his latest movie. It’ll be another blockbuster, I’m sure.

Timothy Fish:
Mr. Shoat, thanks for agreeing to talk to me.

Davis Shoat:
Call me Davis; all my enemies do.

Timothy Fish:
Thanks, I’ll do that.

Davis Shoat:
That was supposed to be funny.

Timothy Fish:
I’m sure I’ll laugh later, but they said you don’t have much time—five minutes, I think.

Davis Shoat:
I’m sure we’ve got more than that. The director just says things like that so the actors won’t wander off. They don’t like tracking everybody down when their ready to start shooting again.

Timothy Fish:
I’ll try not to take too much of your time anyway. A couple of months ago, you were back in Missouri. How about telling us what you were up to.

Davis Shoat:
Oh, I went back to there to promote a movie and to give my old school some support.

Timothy Fish:
So, how did that go?

Davis Shoat:
I thought it went pretty well, but there’s a few people who’ll tell you it was a disaster.

Timothy Fish:
You did something a little different; you put on a one act play.

Davis Shoat:
Yeah, I thought it would be fun to get the students involved. I didn’t realize it would be so much trouble. The University was all for it, but we had to convince the studio and then we had to get the lawyers involved. Then the studio got real picky about which students they would let in it. The girl they wanted decided she didn’t want to do it, so I flew out there and we talked to her. We had her talked into it and then it blew up in our face.

Timothy Fish:
But you were able to pull it off.

Davis Shoat:
Yeah, but not with the girl we had hoped to us. We ending up using this girl that the studio had vetoed from the start.

Timothy Fish:
But you gave her high praise when it was over.

Davis Shoat:
She deserved it. She’s a born actor if I ever saw one, but I’d hate to have to work with her on a regular basis.

Timothy Fish:
Why’s that?

Davis Shoat:
She a stuck up snob and she insists on getting her way. She’ll learn when she gets into the business, but I’ve seen actors fired for less. If she gets on a movie set, she’ll spend all day in her trailer and nobody will get any work done.

Timothy Fish:
I can see where that would be a problem.

Davis Shoat:
Sure, it’s a problem. When you consider the money it takes to pay all these people each minute, any delay is costly.

Timothy Fish:
You never do that then?

Davis Shoat:
I won’t say never, but I pick my battles carefully. Sometimes, the only way you can get a director to listen is by wasting money. They’ll do anything they like until they get a producer breathing down their necks.

Timothy Fish:
You aren’t afraid you’ll get fired. I know its different with a big star like you, but…

Davis Shoat:
That’s why I pick my battles carefully. I’m not above getting fired. I was working on a film a while back and my co-star got fired in the middle of shooting. She had a million dollar contract and they just wrote her out of the script.

Timothy Fish:
Well, thanks again, Davis. It looks like they’re about ready for you. I’ll let you get back to work.

Davis Shoat:
Glad to be able to help. Maybe we can talk again sometime, when I’m not working on a movie. Give me a call and we’ll set something up.

Timothy Fish:
I’ll do that.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Purpose of Stories

Why do we tell stories? In the old days, people used stories to pass knowledge from one generation to the next. Some of these stories were true; some were not. People would sit down and listen as the old-timers would spin their yarns. The younger generations would remember these stories and they would repeat them to their children and grandchildren. We tell stories because we remember stories.

We don’t have as many storytellers these days. Instead of telling our stories, we write them in a book, hoping that someone will read it. When they do, they remember our stories. But the question we must ask ourselves is whether our stories are worth remembering. Often, we tell stories for entertainment value alone. That’s okay, but where is the true value if there isn’t something to learn form the story. A story is a powerful tool for relaying information and assisting with memory. At the end of the day, if a story doesn’t do that then it is wasted.

The theme is very important in a story. I don’t mean the point. The theme permeates a story, influencing every action, but too many authors set out to make a point rather than to build a story around a theme. When we base a story around a theme, we present many sides to the issue. The protagonist may be initially opposed to our claim, then he may move that direction, only to face opposition. That’s what stories are about. But when we try to make a point, we put our claim out there and we avoid any suggestion that there may be a valid reason to oppose the idea. We tell stories to teach truth, but we should never use them to make a point.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

For Whom Do We Write?

For whom do we write? Some people will say that we write for God. I don’t want to disagree with that, since everything we do should be for him, but that in itself helps us little in determining how we should write. There is nothing we can write that God doesn’t understand and there is nothing we can write that can approach his ability.

Others will say that we write for ourselves. We are not to write for others, they say, for it will cause us to change what we say to please them and we will be unable to please everyone. The solution, it would seem, is to write for ourselves, to stay true to what we believe we should write. If others like it, great, but if not, then that is too bad.

While we should remain true to who we are as writers, we should never lose sight of the ultimate goal. We are trying to communicate truth to the reader. Imagine that you aren’t writing for some faceless person who happens to have picked up your book in a bookstore or has ordered it from Instead, imagine that you are writing a book for your child, your own flesh and blood. Now, imagine that you are writing a book that the President of the United States will read. How different those two books ought to be. While there is overlap, the truth that your child needs to read is far different than what the President needs to read. But, if we write for ourselves, as some would have us do, we would write the same book in either case.

Now, most likely, we aren’t writing for our children or for the President. We are in fact writing for that faceless book buyer. As much as possible, we need to give him a face. We need to consider what he needs to read, what he will enjoy reading, how much education he has and what words we can use when communicating with him. Maybe it isn’t a him at all. Maybe it is a her. Whatever face this person has, we need to write for that person, so that we can communicate well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Problem to Solve

Yesterday, we looked at picking a protagonist and my claim was that the protagonist should be the character whose story it is, the character changed the most by the story. We must either choose that protagonist or change the story to fit the protagonist. I mentioned the problem that must be solved. Whether we are changing the story or selecting the protagonist for the story, we must consider the problem that must be solved. It is that problem that drives the change that occurs and thus the selection of a protagonist.

Usually, the problem is several problems and if we were to look at only the beginning and ending of a story, we would see a character with a problem at the beginning and a character that has solved the problem through change at the end. But not just any problem will do and that’s why we make mistakes in choosing a protagonist. All characters face problems, but if the problem a character faces at the beginning of a story isn’t basic enough, then our protagonist will never be able to hold an audience.

Consider two characters. As we begin our story, Dr. Jennifer Stanton has a problem. Ten patients have come into her office complaining of symptoms for which she has no explanation. She must find an answer and soon. Another character, Wilma Johns, also has a problem. She is raising her granddaughter because the child’s mother won’t. One day, the girl comes home from school feeling sick. Wilma takes her to see the doctor, but the doctor doesn’t know what to do and it is getting worse. If these two characters are part of the same story, whose story is it? Dr. Stanton has a problem, but the stakes aren’t that high. With Wilma, the problem isn’t as big—one child versus ten patients—but it’s personal. Her problem is much more basic. She wants to protect a loved one while the doctor wants only to help patients she may see once a year or so. This is Wilma’s story. She will change the most, so she should be the protagonist.

That says nothing of the point of view character. We can still tell the story as it unfolds for Jennifer Stanton. The difference is that we won’t talk so much about the nine other patients, but we will focus our attention on the girl and her grandmother. Jennifer will observe what Wilma does and will report back to us in her own words. If what we want is for Jennifer to be the protagonist, we must change the story and raise the stakes for her. Make one of the patients Jennifer’s son and it becomes her story. We may be interested in Wilma’s struggle also, but Jennifer’s struggle is personal as she tries to save her son’s life.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Picking a Protagonist

Whose story is it anyway? One of the easiest mistakes a writer can make is to pick the wrong protagonist and it is also one of the hardest to correct. After several chapters of following the exploits of one character, we discover that he isn’t as interesting as we thought he would be. There is little choice but to rewrite major sections of the manuscript. Or it could be that we have a protagonist forced upon us because the story appears in a series. How we came to make the mistake is immaterial, but one way to avoid this mistake is to ask whose story it is.

Consider the Cinderella story. Whose story is it? It could have been that of the prince in search of a bride or it could have been the story of the the fairy, helping her goddaughter. It could have been the story of the step-mother, but it isn’t. This is Cinderella’s story.

Or consider the story of the twelve dancing princesses. There are plenty of characters we could have followed, but we follow the soldier who must discover their secret. Or consider the story of Dracula. Why do we follow Jonathan Harker rather Van Helsing? Simply put, it isn’t Van Helsing’s story. It could have been, but it isn’t.

The thing that defines whose story it is more than anything else is who changes the most during the events of the story. In Cinderella, it is she who changes the most. She goes from sitting in ashes to being a princess. The other characters change very little, if at all, so it makes sense that she would be the protagonist. In The Twelve Dancing Princesses, it is he who changes the most. In Dracula,  it is Jonathan Harker who experiences the most change. If we can identify who will change the most in a story, then it is easy to determine the best protagonist.

But, if we find ourselves in a situation where we have the protagonist forced upon us, the solution may not be to change the protagonist but to change the story. Suppose we are to tell the story of one of Cinderella’s step-sisters. We could tell the Cinderella story from their point of view, but that would only be a change in narration. To tell the step-sister’s story, we would have to find some event where she is the one who changes the most. Instead of telling of how Cinderella married the prince, what if we tell the story of how her step-sister falls in love with a captain in the king's guard. Now, she must experience genuine change to get what she wants. We could make Cinderella the narrator of this story, but she can no longer be the protagonist. She isn’t the person with the problem that must be solved.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Female Christian P.I.

Editor’s Note: Several days ago, Rachelle Gardner tweeted that she’s looking for complete manuscripts suitable for Christian fiction having a female P.I. I don’t have one and by the time I could create one, I’m sure she will have moved on to something else, but I couldn’t help but wonder what my version of such a story might look like. For today’s post, here are the first three pages.

It wasn’t a big storm—some dark clouds, a little rain and one lightning strike. That one lightning bolt killed my father. He was sitting in his office, working at the computer, when it happened. That left me to clean up the mess.

I asked my mother to help, but she washed her hands of my father after the divorce. I never understood why. Mom raised me. Dad raised my brother. The girl with Mom and the boy with Dad, I suppose, but it should have been the other way. I wanted to be like Dad and my brother—well, I don’t even know what happened to my bother. He got married and moved off somewhere. He’ll show up someday.

Other than the burned out computer, his office looked normal when I opened the door. I hadn’t seen him for several weeks, but it looked exactly like I remembered it. He always had papers covering his desk. He had a file cabinet, but he had filled it up a long time ago and rather than purchase another, he stacked folders on a table that sat off against one wall. There were stacks and stacks of folders as well as piles of papers without folders. I could never understand his system, but he always knew how to find the information he needed. A client would call. Dad would walk over to the table, pull a folder from the middle of a stack and got back to the phone to talk about the case. To me, it looked like a jumbled mess and it pained me as I realized I would have sort through this mess. I stood there in the center of the room, looking at it. It wasn’t just the stuff on the desk and on the table, but there was stuff under the table and on the floor near the desk and folders on the chairs. I don’t know how long I just stood there.

I heard the front door open. I looked out where the receptionist’s desk sat and saw a man a few years older than me. I guessed him to be twenty-eight or twenty-nine. He wore khakis and a polo shirt with a brass name tag, like he worked at one of the stores in the area. He ignored the empty receptionist’s desk can came through the door to Dad’s office. Dad had never had a receptionist. The desk was just a feature of the office suite when Dad rented it.

“Are you the owner?” the man asked.

“No,” I said, “This is my Dad’s office.”

“I know,” the man said. “I knew your Dad pretty well. He was one of my customers. I own that computer repair shop down there.” He pointed and as he did, he walked toward the window.

I walked over to the window and looked to were he pointed. On the other side of the parking lot I could see a business nestled between an Italian restaurant and a bicycle store. The sign read “Bill’s Computer Sales and Repair.”

“Are you Bill?” I asked.

“That’s me,” he said. “I’m really sorry about your Dad. I know he was looking forward to you coming to work with him.”

“I never told him I was going to,” I said.

“I must have been mistaken. I thought you might be taking over the business.” Bill said. He looked out the window for a moment and then turned around. “I was the one who called the paramedics. I’ve never seen lightning strike the side of a building like that. I guess when it’s our time it’s just our time.”

I sat down in Dad’s chair and looked at his computer. The plastic around the monitor was black and melted. “Can you fix this?”

Bill looked at it. “The monitor’s shot, but I won’t know about the rest of it until I open it up. I can take it back to the shop and we’ll see what we can do, if that’s what you want. I’ll give you a reasonable price.”

He headed off in the direction of the elevator, so he could get a cart from his store. He must have met someone getting off the elevator, because he hadn’t been gone long when one of Dad’s clients came into the office. She was the kind of woman you knew had money. It wasn’t just the way she dressed, but the way she carried herself.

“I’m here to pick up those pictures he promised me.”

How was I supposed to find anything? I didn’t even know for sure that she had been his client.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Story Big? Story Small?

It began upon the following occasion: It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present Majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the Emperor, his father, published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. - from Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

Much like the dispute between the Lilliputians and the Blefuscuians there is a religious dispute among novel enthusiasts. Over in reader land, we find people who believe a good story is the most important thing. Over in agent land, we find people who believe writing is the most important thing. In reader land, people pick up a book, read the back cover and if the story looks interesting they buy the book. In agent land, people read the first few paragraphs and if the writing holds their attention, they ask to see more.

As authors, we are often caught up in the middle. As much as we would like to produce great writing and a great story, it doesn’t always work that way. Gulliver’s Travels, for example, isn’t particularly easy to understand. It contains sentences that run on for miles. We may contribute part of that to the writing style of the time, but when you consider that it has never been out of print and is still popular, that doesn’t even matter. Gulliver’s Travels is competing with books written in modern English and is still outselling most of them. So, if there was ever any doubt that the strength of the story trumps writing, there you have it.

But here’s the problem. Agents see themselves as gate keepers. Imagine that you are approaching the castle because inside you know there is a beautiful princess who is bored with the books she has in the royal library. What she wants is a great story. Outside, the guards don’t mind hearing a great story once in a while, but they aren’t going to let you pass unless you are eloquent. Most of the time, they won’t even let you say enough for them to know if the story is good until they first determine if you can write well. That’s fine, if it can be said that great writers produce great stories, but most people get so focused on producing great writing that they forget to tell a great story.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

WestBow Press

As I’m sure you’ve heard, Thomas Nelson has launched a subsidy publisher, WestBow Press. I don’t have enough information to do a complete analysis of this new kid on the block and compare it to the subsidy publishers that came before it. WestBow Press is similar to other companies that sit between true self-publishing companies like Lightning Source and BookSurge and traditional publishers. The way these companies work it that the author provides some amount of money and the company provides workers and services. The author takes on all or most of the risk in publishing the book, or the publisher charges high prices for the book so that the profits on the few successful books will make up for the losses on the rest. There is a broad spectrum across which subsidy publishers are distributed when we consider every company between BookSurge and PublishAmerica. Some place more risk on the author, some less. I don’t have enough information to know where WestBow Press fits on this spectrum.

Most of these companies offer add-on features to the basic package. Typically, these are things like postcards, bookmarks, etc. that the author can hand out. WestBow Press is no exception. My opinion in the past has been that most of this stuff is just window dressing that won’t actually help the self-published author where she needs it most. On the high end of WestBow Press’ subsidy publishing packages, they have what they call Video Plus+. It provides everything that the Online Platform package does plus a Book Trailer, but in parenthesis it says, “No Voice Over.” Apparently, the additional $2,500 isn’t enough to pay for voice actors and someone to write the script. That’s understandable, but a Book Trailer without a voice over is pretty useless, in my opinion.

But it doesn’t stop there. WestBow Press has three additional “specialty publishing packages.” If you are satisfied with what $999 to $6,499 will get you, you can pay $10,000, $14,000 or $20,000 (less a dollar on each) to get even more. Basically, what it gets you is more “free” books, feature advertising in the WestBow Press catalog and line editing of 30,000 words (1/3 of a novel). I’m just going to call this their Vanity Press Packages. It’s still short of what you would get if you had a traditional publishing contract with Thomas Nelson, but its getting close to what I would call a true Vanity Press setup.

“Love” the windshield flyer creation feature. I can just see me going out and putting flyers on people’s windshields. Maybe I’ll head out to Nashville and stick a bunch of flyers on the cars in the Thomas Nelson parking lot.

Until I see otherwise, it seems to me that WestBow Press is just another subsidy company, but with a vanity press feature. Like all the rest, it is missing the one thing that the self-publishing side of the publishing industry needs more than anything else. If self-publishing is the wave of the future, it needs good quality editing. Line editing of 30,000 words is a start, but that’s about all it is. Even if we’re talking about a non-fiction book that is no more than 30,000 words long, line editing isn’t going to significantly improve most self-published books. They need more—much more.

The Genre Problem

Genre’s are a big problem, in my opinion. For authors, there’s the problem of determining which genre their work fits in, but that isn’t the problem I’m talking about. Genre’s are supposed to make it easier for readers to find the kind of books they enjoy. It’s a noble goal, but as I glanced at a book review posted on a blog the other day I saw the words “World War II fiction.” My eyes glazed over and I clicked away, thinking that I wasn’t interested, but as I did I realized that I didn’t know if I would enjoy the book or not. Mention World War II and I get images of slaughtered Jews, green shirted soldiers and Sherman tanks in my head. I see fiery red explosions in a night sky, thanks to the movies I’m sure. I see red armbands with swastikas. And at the moment, I’m not looking to read about that stuff. The same is true of Westerns. I see cowboys on horses. I see bandits holding up a stagecoach. I’m not sure that I want to read about that either.

But here’s the thing. I’ve enjoyed some World War II stories. I’ve enjoyed some Westerns. However, having enjoyed some doesn’t mean I’m going to pick up the next thing that comes along in that genre. In fact, as I said before, my eyes glaze over at the mention of them. The name of the genre tells us nothing. Even with genres like Mystery, Suspense and Thriller, which are more helpful, we don’t really know what the book is about until we pick it up.

To further demonstrate the problem, let’s consider two books. Both are World War II novels, so they would be on the same shelf in the bookstore. The first is about a British spy who falls in love with a German intelligence officer. The second is about a Jewish man who is trying to free his family from a concentration camp. They fall into the same genre, but they are two very different stories. Now, let’s move back in time a bit and go out west to the American frontier. Here we have another story. This one is about a man whose family has been kidnapped by Indian and he is trying to rescue them. Of the three stories, which two are the more similar? The first two or the second two? The second two, of course, but in a bookstore you will find these two books in different aisles, while the first two may be sitting right next to each other.

Readers don’t really make their book buying choices based on genre. They want to know what they can expect as they read the book. The genre doesn’t always tell us that. Even within the Romance genre, which is the strictest of all, there is great variation in what the book is about.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Outlining In Practice

Yesterday, I showed you an “outline” that I did in FreeMind. It showed beginning, middle and end, each dividing into chapters which were in turn divided into beginning, middle and end. Let me be clear, that isn’t they way I outline. Yes, every book should have a beginning, middle and end and an episodic chapter should too, but I find those terms don’t help much when outlining. Usually, when I outline in FreeMind, I use a variation on the late Blake Snyder’s outline, which is influenced by the work of Syd Field. Yeah, I know they are both screenwriting gurus, but a story is a story. My take on this outline is shown below:

Being a screenwriter, Blake Snyder was big on the storyboard. I don’t work with a storyboard the way he suggested. I tried, but over time, my practice had gotten to the point that I use FreeMind for that purpose, making it “the board.” When I sit down to outline a story, I open up FreeMind and I begin plugging stuff in. I don’t work in a sequential fashion. I may not know the opening image at first. I may not know the Catalyst (inciting incident). But I might know what goes in the fun and games section. I may not know the theme yet or it may be what I started with. But whatever I know, I plug it in.

So, lets step through this. We’ve talked about my sci-fi story. It involves a transport ship loaded with stasis pods. Originally, I thought it should begin with an explosion on the ship, but after consideration, I not so sure of that. So, I’ll mull over the Opening Image a while longer. But we know there’s an explosion on the ship and it goes in the Setup. We know that because the explosion occurs before the inciting incident. We put our mouse over the Setup line and press Insert. We then type a Dickens-like statement, “In which, an explosion brings a halt to The Traveler’s journey across the galaxy.” That also gives me a name for the ship. I think I will call it The Traveler. We hit enter a couple of times and type, “In which, five passengers and crew are forced to abandon The Traveler.” This is also in our Setup because the inciting incident is going to cause the shipmates to consider violating the non-interference rule. At the Break into Two, that’s exactly what they decide to do, so that tells us something about our Fun and Games section. The chapters there will be instances where they use their technology to help the people in the area. The first being, “In which, the shipmates help to find a missing child.” Our B Story is also known, in that it involves the princess and the traitor. They will, of course, fall in love and live happily ever after by the end of the story, but that isn’t the main theme of our story. We don’t know our Midpoint yet, but we do know the Bad Guys have to Close In. That requires a villain. The government usually makes a convenient villain in these types of stories (think E.T.). But it might make it interesting if one of the five is the villain. Or maybe someone left on the ship in orbit. We need a chapter like, “In which, a child finds a piece of alien technology.”

I won’t belabor this farther. We could develop the whole outline that way and in the space of a few hours we could have a high level view of our story. If we want to take the time, we could also develop similar outlines for each chapter, but they shouldn’t take us as long. The point of outlining isn’t to do it so well that someone else could write the story for you, but to give you a method that allows you to see problems with the story before you waste too much time typing. Thus far, our outline looks something like the following:

You may have noticed that on the left side I have categories for characters and locations. I use these to keep up with names, hair color, age, and town of birth or whatever. If I write more than one story with the same character, I just copy these attributes to the new story and keep on adding. As before, I add that information as I know it. I have ideas concerning the characters now, so I might add some information, but other information I won’t ad until I realize I need it. I tend to pick characters who go well with the plot rather than try to develop a plot that matches the characters.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Eposodic Chapters

I’ve talked before about the theory of a book. One of the things that fall into the category of the theory is how we handle chapters. I’ve read some novels that have a chapter break about every two pages. I’ve read some novels that break about every seven to ten pages or more. I’ve read novels where they are all the same size and others where it varies greatly. I’ve even read one novel that had no chapters, but was broken into three parts, each of which was long enough to have been a book in its own right. There’s no right or wrong way to do chapter breaks, though I would prefer not to read another book that has no chapter breaks.

But instead of looking at where to insert a chapter break, let’s consider the structure of the chapter. Here again, there is no right or wrong answer. Some books are written as letters between two people. Others are entirely flashback. Many are written as if we are currently in the action. We do what works for the story, but one theory for the structure of chapters is what we can call episodic chapters. An episodic chapter is one which is a story complete in itself. An example of a book written this way is Oliver Twist. Pick any chapter and you will see that it has all of the elements we look for when we outline a story. Take chapter twenty-four, for example. You could read this chapter outside of the context of the rest of the book and have what amounts to a short story. If you didn’t know there were other chapters, you might not miss them.

The reason Charles Dickens wrote episodic chapters is because his work was published in magazines. A reader could read the story in the magazine and he wouldn’t be left feeling so bad about missing a previous edition or disappointed because he would have to wait to finish the story. Television is usually done this way, for the same reason. I have considered writing a story and putting it on a blog. Such an application would be another example of when episodic chapters are ideal. A blog reader may happen upon one post and read it, but he many not want to invest enough time to read the complete work or remember to come back later to read it.

If we were to outline an episodic novel, we would first start with the high level arc. Read the chapter headings from Oliver Twist and you will see the outline Charles Dickens used. They plug nicely into the outline I’ve used before. Chapters 1-5 are setup. Chapters 6 and 7 are debate. Chapters 9-13 are fun and games. Chapters 14-19 are bad guys close in. 20 and 21 are the dark night of the soul. Chapter 22 though 28 is the finale. We can then take each chapter and break it down in the same way. The novel has its protagonist, but that protagonist may or may not be the protagonist of the individual chapter.

Anne of Green Gables is another example of an episodic novel and incidentally, it too has chapter headings giving the outline of the book. When we write this way, each chapter must fit within the outline of the book. We can’t just throw a chapter in there because we would like the characters to experience some set of events. You can get by with that in television, but it should never be done in a novel. The whole of the chapter must move our overall novel plot forward, while the events of the chapter must move the chapter plot forward

Some time ago, I mentioned a sci-fi story I was contemplating. The overall story is something like this: a spaceship encounters trouble and five passengers, the captain’s son, a princess, a military officer, an engineer and an accused traitor are forced to abandon ship and land on current day Earth. They must survive while not influencing the development of technology. As they interact with the people of the community where they landed, they are placed in situations where they must choose between using the superior technology available to them or see people suffer or even die. As they look for the means to repair their ship, the princess finds herself drawn to the traitor…blah, blah, blah.

That’s the overall arc, but if we were to look at an individual episodic chapter, we would find that it is about the engineer and the captain’s son going into the village to get something they need (doesn’t really matter what). While they are there, they learn that a small child is missing and the town is mounting a search effort. This puts the five extraterrestrials at risk of discovery, so after some discussion, they use their technology to help find the girl and return her to her parents. Stand alone, the chapter is just a short story about extraterrestrials helping to find a missing girl. In the context of the larger story, it is about the decision risk influencing the development of Earth through the use of technology. What we wouldn’t want to do is to just throw this episode in there to demonstrate the alien technology.

Friday, October 9, 2009

An Interview With a Fellow Author

Editor’s Note: This week I’m interviewing a another character who doesn’t exist yet. In this character may never see the light of day. She is the protagonist in a story that I’ve tentatively titled Timothy Fish’s Science Fiction Christian Historical Romance Novel, for obvious reasons. We’ll call her Ann for now, but that may change. I sat down with Ann at Ellen’s Café and this is what we talked about.

Timothy Fish:
Okay, Ann, while we’re waiting for our order, tell us about what you’ve been doing to get published.
Just what I’ve been doing recently or…
Timothy Fish:
No, let’s go back to before. Tell us about the family business.
Oh, you mean that most of the family works in the publishing industry? I can do that. My father was a literary agent before he died and my brother followed in his footsteps. There’s a couple of editors in the family and of course you know Melinda, she’s had several bestselling books. And I’ve got a cousin who’s the president of a major Christian publishing company.
Timothy Fish:
So, you must have had it made when you finished your book. I don’t guess you had to write query letters and all of that.
You might think that, but that’s not the way it worked. Would you believe my brother rejected my manuscript? My own brother! Actually, it was his fiancée, but I found out he didn’t like it either. Do you think that’s right? He’s my brother. He isn’t supposed to do things like that.
Timothy Fish:
Do the two of you not get along very well?
We get along great, usually. But that didn’t keep him from saying my writing is terrible.
Timothy Fish:
Did he really say that?
No, not in so many words, but I could tell what he was thinking.
Timothy Fish:
So, what did you do?
I showed it to Harold.
Timothy Fish:
You mean Harold Snowden, the president of the publishing company. But he didn’t like it either.
No, but he asked me to go see him at his office. I thought he wanted to talk about publishing it or at least tell me how I could improve it, but all he did was give me some business cards with the names of some editors on them.
Timothy Fish:
As I understand it, he did more than that. Didn’t he offer to pay their fee?
Yeah, but that wasn’t what I wanted. When Melinda wrote her first book, she didn’t have as much trouble.
Timothy Fish:
That bothers you.
You bet it bothers me. The whole family looks at Melinda as this great author and when I say I want to be an author, they just smile politely and tell me it’ll make a nice hobby.
Timothy Fish:
I’ve read her work and it’s pretty good.
Don’t you start too.
Timothy Fish:
Okay, moving on, you had a nice stack of business cards and then what happened?
Well, I picked for. Or I should say that one picked me. There was this golden business card that Harold showed me, but he didn’t intend to give me. I was sure I saw him put it away with the others, but when I got home, there it was. I didn’t really look for an editor at first, I just stuck those cards away, but that golden business card kept showing up in the oddest places. It would be on my table or on the counter or on my pillow at night and each time I would put it back with the others. Somehow, it didn’t want to stay there.
Timothy Fish:
You talk about it like it was a live.
It seemed that way.
Timothy Fish:
But then you went to check out the business shown on the front.
Yeah, it had an address for a storefront in an old strip mall. About the only other thing there was an Asian restaurant and a church. The rest of the strip mall was taken up by this company. The doors and windows were covered with shades, except for one door below a sign that said “We bring your novels to life.”
Timothy Fish:
After your experience with the card, were you afraid to go inside?
Not really. There were all kinds of cars parked out front. I walked in the front door and they had this waiting room and it was filled with other authors. There was this old man behind a counter who looked like Rip Van Winkle, the rest were customers. They were waiting for them to do the change over from Fantasy to Science Fiction.
Timothy Fish:
After that, the waiting room cleared out didn’t it? The writers went to work on their novels and it was just you and the old man? Someone showed you around. What did you see?
A lady dressed in a uniform took me down this hall with 1970’s style wood paneling. At the end of the hall, we stepped through a door at the end. As soon as we did, we were on this huge space station orbiting Earth. It startled me so much that I stumbled and if she hadn’t caught me I would have…well, I don’t know what would have happened.
Timothy Fish:
Okay, it looks like our food is here and that’s about all we have time for. Thanks for the interview.
My pleasure. I’d love to do it again sometime.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Who is the Protagonist?

Figuring out who the protagonist of a story is seems like an easy task. We know that the protagonist is the lead character in a story. We know that the protagonist isn’t the antagonist (usually). When we think in terms of the 7 Basic Plots (man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. God, etc.), it seems pretty simple. Man is the protagonist and whoever happens to be on the right is the antagonist. With many stories, that is exactly the case, but we find some stories where it isn’t so clearly defined. On another blog, someone mentioned Forrest Gump as an example of a non-proactive protagonist. I’ve read very little of Forrest Gump, but I know enough about it to know that Forrest stumbles into one thing after the other. I also know that while it is told from his point of view and follows his life, it is actually a satire about the stupidity of other people. Forrest is an observer in this story and others move the plot forward.

Another person mentioned having two protagonists. I assume she meant two protagonists acting separately. We might question if that is possible.

So, what do we really mean by a protagonist? The term comes from Greek plays. Greek plays were performed by three actors and they were called the protagonist, the deuteragonist and the tritagonist. We might as well call them the first actor, the second actor and the third actor. If you’re a producer and want to know which actor gets paid the most, that might be useful, but in terms of understanding a book, we need more than that. There are things our characters can do that can’t be done on stage.

For our purposes, instead of saying that the protagonist is the lead actor or the actor with the most lines, I think it makes more sense to say that the protagonist is the character who is the most proactive in moving the plot forward. On stage and screen, the actor with the most lines is usually the most important character, but in a book, the narrator may have the most lines, or the sidekick may have the most lines and they may have little impact on how the plot moves forward. To say that the narrator is the protagonist because we see him the most would be about like calling the cameraman on a film the protagonist because he films every shot.

By defining a protagonist as the most proactive character, it is clear that Forrest Gump is not the protagonist of that story. The world around him, which is far more proactive then he, is in fact the protagonist, so rather than a man vs. the world story, it is instead a world vs. man story, if we are to keep the protagonist on the left hand side.

That still leaves a question of what to do with the possibility of two or more protagonists. Every novel should have subplots. These subplots can cause difficulty when we’re trying to determine who is the protagonist, but the lead characters of the subplots are not the protagonist of the book. If you know the most proactive character in the main plot, then you know who the protagonist is. If you aren’t sure, it is probably because you aren’t sure which plot is the main plot and which are subplots. In this situation, one way to determine who the protagonist is is to ask who would take the lead if we were to bring all of the subplots together and merge them into one.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Is There a Cinderella Story in the Bible?

Someone came to this blog the other day looking for the answer to the question Is there a Cinderella story in the Bible? The answer to that is yes and no. It depends on exactly what aspects of the Cinderella story you are referring to. No, you won’t find a maiden with a fairy godmother who transforms her into a princess, but yes, there are some stories that have similarities to the Cinderella story.

Consider the life of Joseph. His father loved Joseph, but his step-brothers hated him. They hated him so much that they threw him in a pit and would have killed him had not he older brother suggested they sell him instead. He was taken to Egypt and sold as a slave and eventually ended up in prison. But he had the gift of prophesy and he foretold of a great famine. The king was so convinced by Joseph that he put him in charge of preparing the land for a long period with few crops, making him a rule of the land. Joseph’s brothers came when they needed food and bowed before him.

Or consider Ruth. After her husband died, she went with her mother-in-law to her mother-in-law’s home land. Being poor, she gathered grain the reapers left in the fields of a wealthy farmer. He fell for Ruth and told the reapers to leave more behind for her than they normally would have. There’s even a shoe involved in this story.

The story of Esther is that of a maiden who marries a king.

David has a Cinderella-like story. Of his brothers, he was considered the most unlikely person to become king, but upon the direction of God, Samuel anointed him to be the king who would replace Saul.

And what about every gentile who has ever been saved by the grace of God? We were no better than dogs, but we have been made kings and priests. So, is there a Cinderella story in the Bible? Absolutely.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Christian Sci-Fi's Misunderstanding of Time in Heaven

Time, there never seems to be enough of it, true, but what if there were no time at all? If you’ve read Christian Science Fiction, you may have noticed a few books that talk about time in heaven, or rather the lack of time in heaven. I’ve also heard some preachers who have latched onto this idea. The best I can tell, this concept is the result of combining Einstein’s theory of relativity with a very literal interpretation of the phrase “there should be time no longer” from Revelation 10:6. As some Christian Sci-Fi authors portray this concept, in heaven, the forth dimension of time-space will no longer exist. We’ll just be floating around in some kind of eternal bliss or something like that.

Now, I can’t tell you exactly what heaven is like, but I don’t think the Bible supports this concept. First, in context, Revelation 10:6 is talking about something else. When John penned the words, he wouldn’t have been thinking of Einstein’s theory of relativity. If we consider the passage with the verses around it, it appears that the angel is swearing that time is up, not that time no longer exists. For anyone who hasn’t accepted Christ by this time, there is no longer a possibility of redemption. The time of the final judgment has come. Verse 7 tells us that in those days the “mystery of God should be finished.”

But, just because Revelation 10:6 doesn’t support the claim doesn’t mean that we can completely rule out the concept. The sun will be gone. We’ll have one eternal day. Those things could be explained by the disappearance of time. We must consider whether we have any indication that time will still exist. In fact, we do. Revelation 8:1 tells us that there will be silence in heaven for the space of half an hour. We can’t have silence for a length of time if there is no time, but perhaps this is before time is eliminated.

That itself presents a problem for the concept. Before and after are concepts that require time. If heaven ever had time, but will later exist without time, then heaven must co-exist with itself as a place with time and a place without time, creating a paradox. Worse, we must co-exist with ourselves. We would then currently be both here on time bound earth and the timeless heaven. That too is a paradox, but God is a God of paradoxes, so that alone may not be sufficient proof.

Music and distance provide some proof. Distance has no relevance if there is no time, yet the Holy City has dimensions specified in the Bible. Music will be in heaven as we sing praises to the Lamb, but what is music without tempo? For music to exist, we must have time.

The Tree of Life, provides proof also. Revelation 22:2 tells us of a Tree of Life that grows on either side of the great river. It has twelve kinds of fruit and will have a different fruit each month. That wouldn’t be possible if time doesn’t exist. I don’t know if we’ll have need of time clocks in heaven, but can’t you just imagine sitting on the banks of river and someone asks, “What time is it?” and you look up and say, “Well, the apples are almost gone and the peaches are getting ripe.”

Monday, October 5, 2009


It’s a healthy thing to have a few eccentricities—especially for an author. It helps to keep up the illusion that there is something strange and mysterious about this breed of people who would spend weeks writing with no guarantee that anyone will read what they write. A couple of mine deal with signing books.

When I sign a book, I don’t put some special message there, such as, “To my dear friend, George.” If you ask me to sign a book, all you’re going to get is my name scrawled across the story title page. But it’s not without reason. One reason is that it helps the resale value. You might think that having a book signed by the author influence people to keep the book in their library, but go down to Half Priced Books, look at the autographed books and see how often someone else’s name appears on the same page as the author’s signature. If people are going to sell their autographed books anyway, we might as well sign it in a way that gives them a higher value. The other thing is that I have this fear of misspelling someone’s name, so I keep it simple. I think I can handle my own name.

I also don’t do autographed book plates. These are stickers bearing the author’s signature that can be applied to the book. Some authors will send them out to people who request them on their websites. I’ve seen some of those in Half Priced Books too. I think a autographed book ought to be special. If my signature is on a book, I want it to mean that someone came to me and requested that I sign it. If it doesn’t, I might as well have my signature printed on the title page of every book they print.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Fiction Friday

Editor’s Note: In my WIP, some of the characters are trying to put on a play based on a scene from a movie. What the movie is about has nothing to do with the story, so I didn’t bother writing a script for them to use, but I keep wishing I knew what he movie was about. Almost anything would do. Since I started a story here, last week, I thought I might as well us it. Today, I offer you a continuation of that story.

The bloodhound sniffed around Shirley’s car. With his nose to the ground, he moved hurriedly across the drive, pulling the sheriff’s deputy along behind and came to the front door. The deputy said something to the dog and the dog turned back. He sniffed around the yard and came to the flowerbed. He sniffed around there and looked confused. The deputy directed him in another direction.

Chandra watched all of this from the front window. She went back to the couch and sat down next to her mother. She felt the breeze from the oscillating fan cross her face.

The sheriff, Denver Snider, came up the steps and opened the storm door. He was young for a sheriff, but the voters had put him in the place of his former boss in the last election. He pulled the door to, until it made a click. Then he looked at the two women seated on the couch.

“Miss Holden,” Denver said. “I’d like to take your statement, if I could. In the kitchen?”

“Miss Holden?” Chandra laughed. “Have you forgotten my name already? You didn’t have a problem remembering it when you were copying my homework in high school.”

Denver’s face turned red. Chandra knew it would. It wasn’t proper for a sheriff to have cheated on his homework in high school. At least, that’s what Denver thought.

“I need your statement, Miss Holden.” Denver sounded stern, cold and official.

“Only if you ask properly.”

“I’m not saying please,” Denver said, “if that’s what you’re waiting for.”

“No, silly! My name—call me by my name,” Chandra said. “You’ve forgotten, haven’t you?”

“I have not!” Denver’s face grew redder. It had been the cause of ridicule by Chandra and some of the others in high school. Kids could be so cruel.

“Then what is it?”

“It’s…” Denver looked very flustered, as if he wouldn’t have recalled his own name if she had asked. He took a deep breath and the red faded a little.

“It’s?” Chandra prompted him.

“It’s Chandra,” he said at last. “Chandra, would you please come back to the kitchen so I can take your statement?”

“See, that wasn’t so hard,” Chandra said, getting up from the couch. “I’d be delighted to give you my statement. And I thought you weren’t going to say please.”

“Chandra.” Denver sounded even more stern than he had when he had called her Miss Holden.

The dishes were left over from breakfast. Chandra swept them off the table and dropped them in the sink. Her mother had only taken a couple of bites of the toast, the eggs were scattered across the plate and she hadn’t touched the bacon at all. Chandra had tried to get her to eat more, but nothing she said helped. She’d try again later, but the clock was already approaching the eleven o’clock hour. She thought about asking if the bloodhound would like the scraps, but she’d already done enough to get Denver upset with her. He always had been a little too stiff for his own good. She pulled out a chair and sat down.

“When was the last time you saw your sister?” Denver sat in the chair opposite Chandra. He put his notepad on the table and pulled a pen out of his pocket.

“The night before last,” Chandra said. “I came over here and we had supper together.”

Denver nodded his head and wrote something in his notepad.

“Who else was here?”

“No one,” Chandra said. “It was just the three of us, Mom, Shirley and me.”

“Uh huh.” Denver scratched something else in his notepad. “Do you always come over here when Shirley is here?”

“No, of course not.”

“So, why this time? Was there some special reason why you came? Maybe there was something you needed to talk about? Something she wanted to tell you? Something you wanted to tell her?”

“No, I just came over to eat supper,” Chandra said. “Do you have to have a special reason to visit your parents?”

“What did you guys talk about while you were here?”

“Hey, wait! You didn’t answer my question.”

“I’m the one asking the questions,” Denver said. “What you talk about?”

“I won’t tell you till you answer my question.”

Denver stared at her for a moment, then scratched in his pad, then looked back at her. “It’s going to be difficult to find your sister if you don’t cooperate.”

“You aren’t going to find her sitting here talking to me. Now why aren’t you out there looking?”

“We are looking, but I need to know what happened that night. What did you talk about?”

“You haven’t answered my question.”

Denver sighed. He looked at his pad. “No,” he finally said. “No, I don’t have to have special reason to visit my parents.”

“See? That wasn’t so hard.”

“Now what did you talk about?”

“How should I know? I don’t remember every conversation I have. I’m sure it wasn’t important.”

“Just tell me something you talked about. One thing, if that’s all you remember.”

“I don’t know,” Chandra said, trying to remember sitting at the table that night. “Perfume? We had this argument about perfume. Shirley had this new perfume she liked. I said it smelled terrible.”

“So, you argued.”

“Yes—I mean, no—I mean, yeah, but not like you’re thinking.”

“How am I thinking?”

“You’re thinking I might have done something to her.”

“Why would I be thinking that? All siblings have disagreements.”

“Yeah, that’s right, but I can tell you think it might be more. You ought to be out looking for her and you’re trying to pin it on me.”

“Interesting,” Denver said and wrote something in his notepad. Chandra wondered if he had written, “guilty, guilty, guilty.”

More on Yesterday's Thought

This isn't the post I intended for today. I may get to that one yet, but in a similar train of thought to my original post yesterday, I was talking to a co-worker from India yesterday and he was telling me about his struggles with communication. He said that in his language he speaks very precisely. He chooses the word that means exactly what he means, but in English he is force to use simple terms that are less precise, making him feel that he appears dumb.

He gave as an example, the word thanks. In English, thanks can be used when speaking to anyone from the lowest bum to God himself. We would use it to show our appreciation for anything from a person holding the elevator for us to giving us a house. Apparently, his language works differently. There are different words they use that may apply to one situation but not another. I don't have all the details and I don't intend to turn this post into a lesson on his language.

As I listened to him, myself struggling to understand his broken English, I began to consider why he considers English to be less precise, but I told him that English handles precision differently. Yes, thanks can apply to many situations, but we often apply precision by applying modifying terms. If someone does something pedestrian and we want to show that we recognize their contribution, we might say, "thanks." If we appreciate something a lot, we might say, "thank you very much." If someone does something or gives us something that we consider to be of great value to us, we might say, "Thank you. I can't tell you how much this means to me."

The way we say it can imply meaning as well. Saying "Thanks!" means something far different than saying "thanks" with an icy tone in our voice. One means, I appreciate that, while the other means, I could have done without you saying that. In fact, the tone with which we say word in spoken English is so important that the came phrases in written English can lose their meaning or lead someone to believe someone is saying one thing when he means another. As writers, we are somewhat handicapped because of that. Even so, English provides the capability to express what we mean very precisely, if we know how to use it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Amazon Settle "1984" Lawsuit

The news of the day is that has settled the lawsuit concerning deleting copies of an illegal copy of "1984" from Kindle. [1] You may recall that my big concern over this issue was the possibility that it would open the door for the courts to prevent bloggers and other electronic content creators from deleting material they place on publicly accessible computers. Had the courts ruled in Justin Gawronski's favor, I still think it would have opened the door for people who link to our websites to sue us if we break the links they have on their websites.

This settlement isn't great for authors and content owners, but it's livable. Essentially, if puts your stuff on Kindle and you didn't want it there, they aren't just going to delete it upon your request. Instead, you will have to get a court order. That will likely require a lawyer and some fees, but if your lawyer knows what he is doing, he can probably convince to pay that. The good thing is that the courts won't be setting a precedence whereby we cannot delete our own content when it impacts someone else.

With the settlement being only $150,000, it looks to me that is just saying, "go away and leave us alone, we have better things to do." I suspect that most, if not all of that money will go for attorney's fees, so Justin Gawronski is unlikely to see any money. For a company like, that's probably burning through that much money every fifteen minutes or so, it's hardly worth mentioning. But blogging is still safe and Justin Gawronski has enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame, which may have been what he hoped to accomplish in the first place.

Don't Not Break the Rules

A few years ago, I was talking to this guy at work and I said something like, “It’s not uncommon to…” The guy stopped me and said, “So, you mean it’s common?” Somewhat flustered to have my thought pattern interrupted, I said “Yeah” and tried to continue what I was saying. After considering the conversation, I came to the conclusion that no, I didn’t mean that it’s common. I meant that it wasn’t uncommon.

You see the problem here. Not uncommon is a double negative. Your high school English teacher probably marked double negatives with red ink, telling you that you shouldn’t use them because they can cause confusion. But there’s a lot of space between common and uncommon. What if something is near the middle? It isn’t common, but it isn’t really uncommon either. The double negative solves the problem of stating this very succinctly.

Consider also the tautology. You’ve heard such phrases as “free gift” or “unsolved mystery.” If we did what we ought, we wouldn’t use redundant terms, but they tend to add emphasis. We talk about the free gift of salvation, for example. It isn’t that we don’t think that people realize that a gift is free, but we want to emphasize that salvation is free. Of course a mystery is unsolved, but we want to emphasize that we are still trying to solve the mystery.

The non sequitur, the oxymoron—they too have a purpose in both the spoken language and the written language. Don’t take this as permission to ignore these things, but to blindly rule out these things because they may cause confusion is to remove some of the beauty of the English language. It’s not wrong to make the reader pause and give careful consideration of the weight of your words. What is wrong is to follow the rules so well that your writing reads like a technical manual. So, don't not break the rules.