Monday, November 30, 2009

The How of Theme

I’ve talked about theme before on this blog, but as I look back, it was a year ago when I talked about it. To summarize what I said then, every story has a theme. The theme is what the story is about. The theme is like the statement you wish to prove through your story. For example, our theme could be that marriages would be happier if couples would forgive each other. I said that we should delete anything that doesn’t support the theme. I said that writing to a theme helps eliminate the problem of preachy writing. I also listed 101 Christian Themes. I stand behind what I said last year and I encourage you to go back and read it if you haven’t already, but I want to add to what I said by talking about the how of writing to a theme.

Know Thy Theme

To begin with, you may not know what your theme is. Sometimes we begin with the theme, but there are many ways to begin a story. We can begin with some characters, throw them in a situation and see how they handle it. In that case, we probably don’t know the theme. We may not know the theme if we begin with the story. We might know we have a story about a detective solving a murder mystery, but we might not know the theme until we have written a significant portion of the story. But one will. One always does because every story has a theme. Look for that theme and write to it. If you don’t, the story will be so cluttered with other stuff that no one knows what it happening.

Illustrate Thy Theme Through the Primary Plot

Using the theme from above, happy marriage come from forgiveness, the first thing we will notice about a story with this theme is that the primary plot is focused on illustrating this theme. We might have discovered we were writing a story with this theme after we began our story with an argument between a husband and wife. One of the problems the protagonist has is that he is unwilling to forgive his wife. She says some mean thing and he doesn’t do the right thing by letting it slid. Instead, he stores it away and uses it as ammunition for the next time they argue. Later in the story, as we are illustrating the result of change, we show how she responds when he treats her with respect and forgives her for words she used in the heat of a moment. As we near the endgame of the story, we address the question of how to handle a situation when she has done the unforgivable. Perhaps she reveals that she had an affair. Will our protagonist continue to respond in forgiveness or will he revert to the previous way of doing things? He can go either way, but to support our theme, if he responds in forgiveness then he will be rewarded with a happy marriage, but if he reverts then it will end tragically.

Discuss Thy Theme With Secondary Plots

Once we know the theme, we can look at the secondary plots and either write them to the theme or revamp them. The secondary plots aren’t just a place to tell some of the other stuff that is going on in our protagonist’s life. The best use of a secondary plot is to provide a safe place to debate the theme. This is why the love story usually happens in the B-plot. By love story, I don’t mean romance, but rather a story involving any two characters that love each other. For our example theme, the secondary plot could be about the wife going off and doing something with her sister. Now, they could go shopping and get into an argument about a sweater. That would give us a plot, but it wouldn’t add value to our story. Instead, we want the sisters to go off shopping and talk about possibility of the wife leaving the marriage. It is safe because the sister will love the wife no matter what she decides. It gives us a respite from the main plot. It allows us to discuss the various possibilities. Does she leave? Does she stay? Does she tell him about the affair? Does she not?

Pick Thy Half-man For Thy Theme

A half-man is a character that has confronted the beast of the story and failed. He faced the dragon to rescue the princess, but now his face is scarred from burns. We don’t just pick any half-man. In keeping with our theme, we must pick a half-man who tried to learn how to forgive his wife, but now he is divorced because he failed. He must warn our protagonist of the danger.

I think you’re seeing the theme here. We use the theme to provide consistency throughout the story. There is much variation in the plot, but the theme must stay constant.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Black Friday Interview

Editor’s Note: This being the day after Thanksgiving and Black Friday, I decided that today would be a good day to sit down with the three protagonists again. We’re sitting in Ellen’s café. It is all decked out in Christmas colors, there are strings of light and greenery that they don’t normally have and next to the staircase there is a tall Christmas tree. Shoppers are coming in carrying packages and the noise level is quite high, but we’ll see how we do.

Timothy Fish:
I want to thank you guys for talking to me again—especially you Sara. I can see how busy you are.

I’m glad to get a break. I’ve been here since before five o’clock this morning.

And you were here yesterday too, weren’t you?

Yeah, but not all day. We had Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s house.

Timothy Fish:
Which one?

Ellen’s mother. Yeah, I wasn’t very clear, was I? That’s the problem with having three grandmothers.

Timothy Fish:
Neal, I suppose you’re home visiting your parents. You’re still in college, how is that going?

It’s going okay.

Timothy Fish:
You’ve got another year before you graduate, right?

Yeah, it looks like it.

Timothy Fish:
Are you planning on going on a mission trip again this summer?

No, I’m trying to work something else out, but I’d rather not talk about it at the moment. You and I can talk about it offline, if you want.

Timothy Fish:
That’s fine. What I really wanted to talk to you guys about, since it is Thanksgiving week are the things you are thankful for.

I’ll tell you what I’m thankful for. I think yesterday was the best Thanksgiving my family has had in a long time. Mom even got along with Heather this year. Life’s a lot better than it used to be.

I’m thankful to have a mother. And I can assure you I know what it’s like to be without one.

Well, if you’re going to be that way, I guess I’m thankful that there are only three of us. There are only four seats at this table. I’m sure I’d be the first one to get dropped it there were another.

Timothy Fish:
We might just have to find another way of doing this, but I’m not dropping anyone. But, for your information, there will be a fourth pretty soon.

Anyone we know?

Timothy Fish:
You might—Martin Zale?

Yeah, I know him. I had his daughters in school. Valerie is in my class now. It’ll make an excellent story.

Timothy Fish:
I hope everyone else agrees with you.

How long before it’s done?

Yeah, do we get to read it first?

Timothy Fish:
It’ll be a few more days, but yeah, I’ll let you guys read it now if you like.

Will it tell me who I’m going to marry?

Timothy Fish:
No, I’m afraid not, but you’re in it.

Does she beat anyone up?

Timothy Fish:
No, not this time. About the worst thing she does is to park in a no parking zone.

We’d better call the police on that one.

Am I in it a lot or just a little?

Timothy Fish:
Mostly as it deals with your friendship with Kelly.

One of these days, I want you to write about me having a boyfriend.

Timothy Fish:
Everyone wants to put their two-cents in about what I should write.

Don’t pay attention to everyone else. It’s my life, you ought to listen to me.

Timothy Fish:
We’ll see. But that’s all we have time for. I’m sure you’ll talk to me about this later.

Count on it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Turkey Day

Today is Thanksgiving, so in celebration of that event I thought I’d talk about a common misconception. Many people believe that turkeys can’t fly, but if you’ve ever seen one out in the wild then you know that is clearly not true. As the video below shows, turkeys are quite adept at flight.

Okay, so they have the grace of a duck, but they can certainly fly. But you may have noticed that these turkeys are leaner than the farm raised birds we feast on each Thanksgiving. I’m sure there’s some analogy to writing in there somewhere, but I’m not even going to try. I hope you have a wonderful time with family and friends as we celebrate surviving another year.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Fear often accompanies change, so it should be no surprise that many people fear some of the changes in the publishing industry. Self-publishing appears to be the wave of the future. In fact, more books were self-published last year than were published through traditional publication. Big publishers are moving to provide self-publishing avenues. Many people fear that the market will now be flooded with self-published books. Some people are afraid that books won’t have to go through the vetting process and readers will have to sort through a bunch of junk that looks like a slush pile. Some people talk about how there will be fewer big successes in publishing. All of this fear comes from not knowing what the future holds.

A lot of people’s worries are because they don’t really understand where this change is coming from. The current changes we are seeing are driving completely by technology, but people don’t understand the technology, what the technology can do and what it can’t. The current changes are driving by improvements in print on demand (POD) and book reader technology. POD technology takes a PDF file that has been formatted to look like a book, prints the book on a high speed laser printer and binds it in a cover. The initial investment is so low that anyone can create a book this way and have it available for sale. Book reader technology is similar, but no physical book it generated. People are looking at these technologies and realizing that they can bypass the traditional publisher all together. This makes it seem like the traditional publisher is on the way out the door.

But traditional publishing isn’t just about providing books to the reader. Traditional publishing is about making money by providing books to the reader. Current technology makes it possible make books available for a very small investment on the part of the author, but having a book that’s available to readers and getting readers to actually purchase the book are two different things. That is the traditional publisher’s strength. Their claim is that they know how to get a book into the hands of readers and that seems to be the case. When we look at all the books that were published last year, how many of the successful books were self-published? Not many. Even with the changes in technology, publishers will remain successful if they continue to seek out the books with great potential and put in the work to make them better.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Self-Published Fiction Wanted

Okay guys and gals, I’m looking for self-published novels, specifically from WestBow Press, CrossBooks Publishing and (I’m sure I’ll regret this) from Harlequin Horizons (or DellArte Press or whatever they call themselves). Authors with a book published through one of these imprints or if you are in the process of publishing a book with one of these imprints, please attempt to persuade me to read you book by leaving comments to this post. If I select your book, I may be writing comments about it on this blog in the near future. Also, tell me which publishing package you chose and why.

NOTE 1: You may want to peruse this blog and consider what kind of books I am likely to like and what will offend me. Failure to do so may result in a flaming review.

NOTE 2: This offer stays open until…well, until I decide to close it.

Why It's Hard to Make Money at the Arts

Pick one of the arts, it doesn’t matter which one, and you’ll find that it’s hard to make money at it. O, you’ll find a few people who do well, but the vast majority struggle at it. Writing is a form of art and most novelists struggle to make money at it. Painting is an art and most painters struggle to make money at it. But ironically, a skilled house painter can make a steady living without too much trouble. How do we reconcile this disparity? And why is it that it’s easier to make money with non-fiction than it is with fiction?

This won’t be popular with some people, but part of the problem is that anyone who wants to do it can do it. It takes no special skill to complete a painting and call it art. Other people may look at it and say that call it ugly, but they can’t say you didn’t complete the painting. Contrast that to a house painter. If he finishes his work and he has paint on the glass windows and the old paint is still showing through the new, we can say he didn’t complete the work. It takes a special skill to reach completion. There are many people, who can paint a house, but it is far more labor intensive to reach completion, so many people are unwilling to put in the effort and are much more willing to pay someone else to do the work. Now, suppose we look at another way of getting the same job done, but in this case we consider someone designing metal siding. Rather than actually painting the house, this person is calculating how much paint should go on the metal. Far fewer people have the knowledge and experience needed to complete this task and those who have it get paid more for it. In the simplest of terms, the more people who are able to accomplish something, the less they get paid.

Looking at books, anyone can write a novel, but not everyone can write a book about how to program a computer. If you are the expert on a subject, the artsy part of writing goes out the window. Because you are the expert, you can complete a task that most other people can’t. With a novel, it is much more subjective. There is no difference between a well written novel and a poorly written novel; they are both complete. With thousands of completed novels competing for readers’ attention, the supply outweighs the demand and it becomes a popularity contest.

Millions of people have the ability and the willingness to tell a story through writing. If we hope to have people pay us for the effort, we have to have something more than the ability to write a story. We may need some of that magic fairly dust we hear about. Maybe we should all take up house painting.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Worst Draft

We assume that our work will be scrutinized. Why would we write if we didn’t think people would read it and why would we do revisions if we thought people could discern the story from our ramblings in the first draft?  No, as we write, we assume that someone will come back later and question why we wrote something.


Of the four writer’s drafts, the third draft falls under the most scrutiny from readers. This is the draft in which we are primarily concerned with sentence and paragraph structure. Just the other day, I saw an article about Dan Brown's 20 Worst Sentences. I’m sure you’ve probably seen it. It mentions sentences like, “Only those with a keen eye would notice his 14-karat gold bishop's ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier appliqué.” (The Da Vinci Code, Chapter 5) And this one from chapter four: “Five months ago, the kaleidoscope of power had been shaken, and Aringarosa was still reeling from the blow.” While I laughed about how a ridiculously obvious ring can only be seen by a keen eye and how Aringarosa appears to have been hit by the kaleidoscope, I couldn’t help but see the danger of me making similar mistakes. That second one is so common among writers that it has a name. It is called a mixed metaphor. We don’t set out to create bad sentences like this, they just happen. Our only hope is that we’ll catch them and correct them before the reader sees them.


I doubt my writing will ever get the attention that of Dan Brown gets, but I still don’t like the idea of people finding a lot of mistakes like that in my writing. To avoid that, we have to be highly critical of our work as we develop the third draft. We must be many times more critical of our own work than our readers will be. If there is any question about whether a sentence sounds right or not, we should reword it and make it better.

You may be thinking that if Dan Brown can get away with what he does, then there’s hope for the rest of us. Frankly, I don’t know why Dan Brown has sold as many books as he has, but I'm pretty sure it isn’t because of the quality of writing. Just because one writer can get away with bad writing doesn’t mean that we all can. If for no other reason than pride, let’s go do what it appears Dan Brown did not. Let’s go perfect our third draft.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A World Without Thomas Nelson

First, let me say that I’ve got nothing against Thomas Nelson. I have several of their books in my library and if they were to offer me a publishing contract, I would certainly consider it, but recently there has been some discussion about big name publishers like Thomas Nelson and Harlequin venturing off into the self-publishing business because that appears to be the wave of the future. The question came up about what the world would be like if we didn’t have publishers like Thomas Nelson and all authors self-published. It’s a very good question, so as of today, I’m announcing that Thomas Nelson is closed. I’m locking the doors and all of its employees have been laid off, permanently. All of you authors who have manuscripts ready to submit—don’t bother. The age of self-publishing has begun.

In this new age of self-publishing, everybody gets published. No more rejection letters and you can do it for as little as $0. No, that’s not a misprint. You may have to get some software you don’t currently have, but other than that, if you submit a print ready pdf to the right company, you can have your book available on for absolutely nothing.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that everyone else can get their book on for absolutely nothing. Your book is going to be buried in a stack of millions of books. To move it toward the top and to greater readership, you are going to need some stuff. You need a well written book. An editor can help you with that. You need someone to help you promote your book and get it into bookstores. You need some respectability. You need exclusivity. Before Thomas Nelson closed its doors, that's part of what they could have provided you, but not now. So how do we get those things in this new age?

Enter the new writers’ association. This isn’t a writers’ association like you’ve seen before, large organizations that hold conferences, teach people how to write and provide a means for writers to connect with publishers and agents. This writers’ association is much smaller and the dues are much higher. It is a much more exclusive group. Instead of having members that write in many different genres, the members of this association all write in the same genre. To get into this association, you have to submit a completed book and maybe more than one. If the other members don’t like you or your writing, you don’t get in. But once you are in, the association will help you with editing your book, bringing your books to print and you’ll be able to put the association’s logo on your book. That’s important because the association is going to use that logo in advertising as it promotes the books of its members to readers and buyers for bookstores. With the proper seal of approval, readers will know that when they read your book it will be good because the association you are in only produces good books. But the dues are high. Expect to pay forty percent of the retail price to the association for the expenses of the association.

Of course, you can join many associations, but you want to be a member of the best. The best associations sell more books and readers recognize them as the quality organizations that they are. But the membership of these associations doesn’t have time to look for new members all the time. They are busy writing books and selling books, they don’t know who you are and they don’t care. So they have a membership committee, but the committee members don’t have time either. If you want in one of these associations, you need someone to recommend you. It could be a member of the association, or maybe you just need an agent who will recommend you to the membership committee. If the agent is well respected, they will likely appreciate the help.

The association is going to need some workers. It could be that the authors will be willing to edit each other’s work. That would work for some associations, but the more highly respected associations will have editors on staff. They may have typesetters on staff, so the authors don’t have to do that work. There will probably be someone to do promotion. Instead of a membership committee, it might have someone on staff to do that work. Where are we going to get all these people? Since I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the hiring process, let’s just call up all those people we laid off at Thomas Nelson and ask them to come work for our association. And while we’re at it, Mike Hyatt is an author, so let’s ask him if he wants to join and vote him in as the president of our association. We’ll need a place for our workers to do their jobs. Since we closed Thomas Nelson and shut the doors, there’s a vacant building in Nashville that would be perfect for our needs. All we have to do is take down the Thomas Nelson sign and put up our own. Welcome to the brave new world of self-publishing.

Friday, November 20, 2009

From Author to Writer

How often have we heard someone say, "I'm a writer and I hope to one day be an author?" The implication is that we are all writers, but we don’t become authors until we are good enough or we get that publishing contract or whatever. My claim is that anyone who has ever written something that comes from his own creative thought is an author. The author is the originator of the literary work. So maybe we have it backwards. Instead of being so focused on becoming an author, our goal ought to be to become a writer.

I don’t mean to say that we must become a writer in the sense that we aren’t currently writers. If we write, we are writers, but we should focus on becoming better writers. We can’t become better authors. Either we are an author or we are not. Either we initiated the creative work or we did not. There is no in between. There is no better. But we have a lot of room to become better writers. I authored my first book in kindergarten by dictating it to a sixth grader. For your reading enjoyment, here is the text in it’s entirety:

Jungle Animals

by Timothy Fish

Once upon a time there was lions in the jungle. And they ate something up. It was meat and it had bones in it. It was a fish. They was hungry. They went back to where they was at. Then they hid behind a tree.When a person came they ate him up, because they were mean.

They looked for looked for more meat to eat and they found a monkey. They ate him up and felt more hungry. They they hid behind a tree.

This man come along and thought a stump was one of them and he hit at it. They jumped out and ate him up. The more they eat, the more they get hungry because it tastes so good.

A man's trying to shoot at them, but they come behind him and eat one of his legs off and it makes him fall down.

They ate the rest of him, counting the eyeballs and even his tongue.

Someone else came along and tried to shoot them. But they came real fast behind him and ate his back and his head and even his gun.

They're pretty smart right now.

They get scared of the stump because it looks like a bear. They think it's going to eat them up, and they get so scared they die.

A man comes along and thinks they're alive and shoots at them. They're not dead--they're just playing possum and they eat him up.

Now they go to sleep.

Okay, so its about what you would expect from a six year old, but that's my point. I was just as much an author then as I am now, but I am a better writer. So, as we journey on our quest, the author should seek to become a writer, rather than the writer seeking to become an author.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Strange Words

On Facebook the other day, I saw a conversation the made me think. You may have seen it too, but an author who is in the process of revising a book based on an editor's suggestions asked the question of whether it would be better to say "came barreling out of nowhere" or "barreled out of nowhere." The author had originally written "came barreling out of nowhere," but the editor had flagged it and suggested that he write "barreled out of nowhere" on the grounds that barreled is a stronger verb. I think the author finally decided to go along with the editor, but I’m going to make the argument that the author should have suggested the editor go take a hike.

The first reason we should favor came barreling over barreled in this case is that we would never say “barreled out of nowhere” in everyday speech. I’ll get to why we wouldn’t say that in a moment, but for now, if normal people wouldn’t say something then our characters probably wouldn’t say it and our narrator wouldn’t say it. Strong verbs aside, it is our responsibility as authors to understand what our characters would and would not say. If the editor tries to make them say something something they would never say, then it’s time to put our foot down and say no.

So why don’t we say, “barreled out of nowhere” in everyday speech? When we talk, telling our friends stories, we tell it from our point of view. Imagine you’re standing in your front yard, next to the road. You’re tending the flowerbeds or something. You look up and a black car is coming straight at you. It came barreling out of nowhere. A lot of importance rests on that word came. From your point of view, it is coming, so when you tell your friends about it later, you imagine the scene in your head and that car is still coming toward you. It is natural for us. But if we were to say that something barreled out, the point of view is on the object doing the barreling. As we imagine the scene, we are watching a car traveling along the road at a high rate of speed. We are no longer the observe by the side of the road, but we are flying along with the car. It would not make sense for us to say that it “barreled out of nowhere.” Since our point of view has been flying along with the car as it barreled along the road, we know were it has been. Wherever that may have been, from our point of view, it wasn’t nowhere.

Things like this are part of the reason why some of us dread the thought of working with an editor. We want to work with an editor because we make mistakes, but as authors we spend time observing people and the words they use. So maybe they don’t use as strong of a verb as they could, but there are reasons why people use one phrase and not another. When an editor tells us that we should put strange words in the mouths of our characters, we have every right to tell the editor to go take a hike and yes, I mean to tell the editor to go take a hike and I don’t mean to tell the editor to hike.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

More Bandwagon Jumping

First Thomas Nelson and now Harlequin. A short time ago, Thomas Nelson announced that they are venturing into the self-publishing market. Now, Harlequin has announced that they will do the same. What’s the difference? Thomas Nelson will be putting out Christian books and Harlequin will be putting out Romance books. To tell you the truth, this whole thing is confusing me. In both cases the companies are duplicating services that are already available from other companies. The only real advantage I can see with publishing a book through the self-publishing wing of Thomas Nelson or Harlequin over publishing the book through Amazon’s CreateSpace (which will soon encompass BookSurge) is that Thomas Nelson can focus their marketing efforts toward a Christian market and Harlequin can focus there efforts toward romance readers. I imagine that Harlequin is better equipped for that than Thomas Nelson, but we still have to wonder how willing they are going to be to push books that they rejected for traditional publication when they are having enough trouble pushing the others.

And here’s my confusion about Harlequin’s self-publishing. If you submit your manuscript to Harlequin and they accept it, you’ll get an editor, but your book will be printed on the same old newsprint paper they’ve been using for year. If they reject your manuscript and you pay for the self-publishing, you won’t get much editing, but because of the technology required to do POD, your physical book will be printed on high quality paper that exceeds that of their traditionally published books. I’m not sure that’s a good business decision.

But then, I’m not sure I like this to begin with. If this were the movie industry, this would be about like a movie studio selling camcorders. There’s money to be made, but most of the people who will purchase the product are about like the grandmother who just wants a DVD with her grandkids on it. There won’t be many success stories. If publishers are going to get involved with this thing, I would like to see them focus more on the amateur publisher rather than the self-publishing author. It think we would see more success stories if they did.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Informal Speech

Here's a tip. Have a passage that sounds corny because it is so formal? Reduce the the severity by informalizing the speech of the characters or the narrator. For example, as soon as you start quoting Bible verses, the writing begins to come across much too formal and it may sound corny. Who are these characters who know the Bible by heart? We have a couple of choices. We can cut out the verses or we can find another way to reduce the corniness. Rather than have the characters sound like English majors, give them dialog that offsets the Bible verses with unlearned speech. Throw the words ain’t and y’all and nah in there a few places. Let me show you what I mean.

Version I

“Don’t ever be sorry about praying. God does some pretty amazing things because of the prayers of his saints.”

“Yes, but doesn’t the Holy Spirit stop drawing people if they reject him too long?”

“Yes,” Wayne said, “But I can’t help but think that God hasn’t given up if you’re still praying. He’s a lot more patient than any of us are. I see guys come down the aisle that I can’t help but wonder if God wouldn’t have already given up on them if it weren’t for a wife or a mother or daughter who’s still praying. You remember what James said about the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man.”

“Yes, I remember.” Kim pointed at a paperweight on her desk with James 5:16 written on it. “But is that talking about praying for lost people?”

“No, not specifically,” Wayne said, “But the same God who hears our prayers saves sinners. And don’t forget that Paul prayed that Israel would be saved. Not all of them have been, but God hasn’t forgotten them.”

Version II

“Ain't no reason to be sorry about praying. God does some pretty amazing things because of the prayers of his saints.”

“Yes, but doesn’t the Holy Spirit stop drawing people if they reject him too long?”

“I see it that way,” Wayne said, “But I don't think God's given up if you’re still praying. He’s a lot more patient than any of us are. I see guys come down the aisle that I can’t help but wonder if God wouldn’t have already given up on them if it weren’t for a wife or a mother or daughter who’s still praying. You remember what James said about the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man.”

“Yeah, I remember.” Kim pointed at a paperweight on her desk with James 5:16 written on it. “But is that talking about praying for lost people?”

“Nah,” Wayne said, “But the same God who hears our prayers saves sinners. And don’t forget that Paul prayed that Israel would be saved. Not all of them have been, but God hasn’t forgotten them.”

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Purpose of the Editor

Quick! What's the purpose of an editor? There are many different functions involved in the making of a book. You have the author, the agent, the printer and many others, including the editor. Actually, there may be several editors, but for our purposes, let’s lump them all into one category. We think we know what this guy does. He edits the book, right? No, this isn’t a trick question; that’s what he does. Well, unless he’s an acquisitions editor, in which case he may not actually edit the book, but that’s a different issue. The editor we want to consider today is the guy who edits the book.

On another blog I saw a comment from an author saying, in essence, that it is the job of the writer to craft a story, but it isn’t really the job of the writer to revise the story. That, the commenter, claimed is the job of the editor, who is supposed to take whatever the author puts out there and turn it into a bestseller. That got me thinking. That is how we think of editors, at times. The writer puts something out there and the editor is supposed to correct the mistakes and make it presentable, but the story itself, that is the writer’s. But if that’s the case, why does the writer get paid more for the story than the editor? If that’s all I have to do as a writer, I could hand in some story, say the Cinderella story, and tell the editor to flesh it out and make me look good. Not just anyone can pull a story out of a book and reuse it. No, that requires an author. “But we don’t reuse stories,” you might say. Yes, we do. We do it all the time. So, if all the author does is provides a story and the editor makes it look good, what keeps the editor from providing his own story, editing it himself and sending it off to the printer?

If experience has taught us anything, it has taught us that an editor is a good thing. But it isn’t the editor’s job to write the book. The question we must resolve is that of what the division of labor should be, so that it makes sense that the author gets his name on the front of the book. By that, I mean that when a customer picks up a book in the store, the most significant differences between it and the one next to it are determined by the author, not the editor.

The Editor’s Job

I have a background in software engineering. In the software industry, the counterpart to the editor is the code reviewer. A programmer finishes a section of code and before that code goes into the final product, it is reviewed by between one and six other people. At their desks or in a meeting, these reviewers look for potential problems with the code, such as logic errors or things the code is doing that might differ from the defined requirements and even malicious code. After they have looked at it, they will either sign off on it as having passed the review or they will identify issues that need to be fixed. The programmer will then go back, fix the issue and let the reviewers verify that he had resolved the problem and has not introduced new problems.

Applying that same concept to the publishing industry, the author shows up with a manuscript that the author has done his due diligence to make perfect. That’s very important to note. A programmer doesn’t pass his code to a reviewer to correct his mistakes. A programmer passes his code to the reviewer when he believes the code is complete. Likewise, an author should never hand an editor a manuscript he thinks the editor can improve. As far as the author is concerned, the manuscript is perfect, as is. Now it becomes the job of the editor to show otherwise.

So the editor has this “perfect” manuscript in hand. We’ve all heard horror stories of how some editor saw this as his opportunity to show that he knows how to write better than the author and decided to rewrite the whole thing to his liking. We’ve also heard of situations in which the author turned in a horrible manuscript and had no intention of correcting it. But those are extremes. Let’s assume the author wants to do his job well and the editor wants to do his job well. What then should the editor be looking for as he attempts to edit the manuscript?

One thing the editor should be looking for are deviations from the publisher’s guidelines. All publishers have written or unwritten guidelines about what they will and will not publish. It may be things like word count, foul language, sentence length or how soon the main characters must appear in the story. The author should know these guidelines and write accordingly, so this “perfect” manuscript shouldn’t have any problems, but it is the editor’s responsibility to check.

Another thing the editor should be looking for is structural problems, such as sagging middles, poor timing on jokes, general corniness, loose ends, etc. These are things the author has trouble discovering because he is so close to the story. The author knows the backstory so well that he might think its funny when Aunt Bertha says, “helicopter,” but to the rest of us, it isn’t funny at all because we’ve been left out of the inside joke. The editor is in a position to determine whether the book itself has established enough knowledge of the character to make it funny. But along these lines, the editor shouldn’t apply “the rules.” The question the editor should be asking is does it work in this situation or not. If it works, who cares that it violates the rules. If it doesn’t work, it ought to be fixed, whether it goes by the rules or not.

Other things the editor should look for include sentence structure that doesn’t flow well, word useage errors and spelling errors. We try to avoid these problems and we correct them as we move through the various drafts of our novels, but our fingers don’t always do what our brains tell them or our eyes don’t always see the words we are reading. Mistakes happen and it’s the editor’s job to point them out.

Correcting the Mistakes

The editor should never, never, never correct the author’s mistakes—with one exception. The one exception is when the author has been given adequate opportunity to provide a manuscript that meets the publisher’s expectations and either refuses or is unable to resolve the issues. It is the editor’s job to identify issues and the author’s job to resolve those issues. The editor may make suggestions on how to fix a problem, but the author should make the decision to accept or reject that suggestion.

To understand why the editor shouldn’t be correcting the author’s mistakes, looking at novels, consider that no one has the expertise that the author has. Yeah, with non-fiction, the editor may be able to get by with correcting more, but no one understands a fictional story like the author does. Maybe the editor sees some dialog that he thinks would sound better written another way, but author comes back and says that they character would never say that because those were the last words he heard his father say before he died. How is the editor supposed to know that? He isn’t and that’s the whole point. The author knows the story, knows the backstory and has some idea of what’s going to happen in the next book. Nine times out of ten, the editor might be right, but there are those times that the correction he would make would mess things up. Leave it to the experts to fix the problems.

Not on My Watch

The author gets his “perfect” manuscript back and it is covered with suggestions for changes. He feels sick in the pit of his stomach. He was hoping the editor would send it back with a comment like, “Loved the story. Didn’t find many problems.” Instead, it looks like the editor is trying to ruin him. “You just thought you could write. Here’s proof that you can’t.”

Take a deep breath and let it out. Repeat until you calm down. It’s not the end of the world. Assuming the editor knows what he’s doing, most of the suggestions will be good suggestions. But the question for us authors is when should we draw the line and refuse to make a suggested change? We it’s easy enough to click the accept all changes button in MS Word, but that probably isn’t a good idea. As authors, it is our responsibility to protect the integrity of the story and to stay true to the characters. If the editor has a suggestion that changes the underlying story and theme, we should be hesitant to make that change. If the editor has a suggestion that would cause the character to do something that we know he wouldn’t do, then we must refuse to make that change. We must also refuse to make changes that would change our style of writing. If you don’t use semicolons, but the editor decides you need them, reject those changes. Whatever your writing style, it should be consistent from book to book. An editor may not be aware of your writing style in a previous book, so his suggestions may not match. But most importantly, be aware of those things that you know better than the editor and don’t allow his suggestions to move you away from those things.


At the end of the day, the job of the editor is to help the author find mistakes, but the editor isn’t the expert. The author knows the subject matter best and is the best qualified to write the book and to make the changes. It is never the editor’s job to take the author’s shoddy work and mold it into something excellent, but rather it is the editor’s job to shine a spotlight on the imperfections in an author’s brilliant work.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thoughts About a Shouting Match

This weekend, Chip MacGregor decided to take on Ted Dekker. For me to say anything at all is about like trying to speak when two giants are shouting at each other. In Christian publishing, Chip is widely recognized as a literary agent and Ted is a best selling author. Me, I’m a nobody. Before I get started, let me just say that you can read the two components of this argument at and I don’t want to be accused of putting words in people’s mouths.

Both of these guys make some good points, but I somewhat disagree with both or I wouldn’t bother writing about it. Ted’s point seems to be that the Love Inspired Guidelines are much like what the Pharasees were doing, in that it attempts to define a law by which a book can be classified as righteous. Chip’s claim is that Ted is arrogant and fails to realize that the readers of Love Inspired books want these guidelines because they want to read clean books. The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in the middle.


When we look at the Love Inspired Guidelines, I’ve got to admit, I find them quite restrictive and they aren’t just about producing clean books. As I say that, I must be careful because that implies that I can judge the intent of those who created the Love Inspired Guidelines. I cannot. Unless they tell us their intentions, only God knows, but consider some of the words and phrases they chose to leave out of their books. A Love Inspired author can’t refer to a religious official as Father or use the word Priest. Of course, there is a biblical reason for leaving out Father, since Jesus said to “call no man Father upon the earth” (Matthew 23:9). But to leave out the word Priest discourages writers from having extensively Catholic books. Oddly enough, the word Nun is okay and I suppose the word Bishop is okay. Can’t use the word Whore. Oops. I guess For the Love of a Devil won’t be making it on the Love Inspired list. For that matter, the title would get me. Devil is one of those words that can’t be used. So, to some extent, I do have to agree with Ted.


Now, Chip’s claim is that the readers of Love Inspired books want the writers to follow these guidelines because they want clean books. If that’s what they want, then that’s what we should give them. Yeah, I agree. I may not agree completely with the guidelines Love Inspired provides, but if I were to write for them I would scrutinize my work carefully to make sure I didn’t include the rejected words. I wouldn’t be that hard. My books are clean, but I venture over into some subjects where it is appropriate to use a few of these words. A lot of these words are Bible words. When you talk about biblical themes, you run into situations where you need some of these words. My characters don’t go around using them as bywords or swear words (Swear is another rejected word), but it is ridiculous to try to talk about the sin described by some of these words and pussyfoot around it by not using the word. But Love Inspired books don’t cover those themes and that’s part of Chip’s point. Love Inspired books are written for readers who want to read about a man and a woman falling in love. They’re a lot more rose petals and morning dew than the stuff Ted Dekker writes. Chip says that if that’s what readers want, then that what readers should get.

I somewhat disagree with Chip because just because readers want books written a certain way doesn’t mean they should always get what they want. Most of the time, it really doesn’t hurt anything, but there’s a line somewhere at which writers must take a stand on moral principles and say, “I’m giving you something other than what you asked for because I believe you need to hear it.” Publishing is about making money; writing is about communication. As writers, we want to persuade people to our point of view. If we can do that through a medium in which the words we can use it limited, then by all means, we should, but if the limitations prevent us from getting our message across, the message must take priority.

But I also disagree with Ted. Ted frames his argument by asking what Jesus would do. While I think it is helpful to consider what Jesus would do, we must realize that what Jesus would do isn’t always what we should do. Also, what he did in the past may not be what he would do in the present. Ted compares the Love Inspired Guidelines to the rules the Pharisees followed. He mentions that Jesus called them a bunch of vipers because they followed the rules, but their hearts were in the wrong place. That was scandalous in that day. Ted’s claim is that if Jesus were writing today, he would be just as scandalous as then and he would use some of these words. Would he? I’m not so sure.


We might ask ourselves whether the message Jesus has for this generation is the same as it was for that generation. In some ways, yes. The message is still that all have sinned and God wants them to be saved, but when we consider the best way to present that message, I’m not so sure. That generation was sinning behind a veil of righteousness. Our generation is sinning openly and calling it righteousness. Granted, we find Christians who put on their Sunday best and pretend to be better than they are when they spent the night before with someone other than their wife. We may need to talk about that in fiction, but if our goal is to be scandalous in this society, we aren’t going to do it by acting they they do. You want to be scandalous? Live a righteous life. Write in such a way that people never accuse you of being a hypocrite.  No, I don’t think that means you have to follow the Love Inspired Guidelines to the letter of the law, but shock people with genuine goodness that makes people see that what they are doing is wrong. That’s what Jesus did and would do today. He didn’t just tell the Pharisees they were living in sin, he proved that his righteousness exceeded theirs.

Ted also talks about Love, saying that there is ugliness in the face of love and we should write about it. Yeah, I agree, but Love Inspired books aren’t about love; they are about romance. Romance is about courting. Yeah, there could be love involved, but the primary focus is about a man and a woman who don’t think they need each other coming to the point where they see their need for each other and have a desire to spend their lives together. We can afford to put a few butterflies and daisies in a story like that. But if you want a love story, go read For the Love of a Devil. It is about love for the unlovable. 

Then Ted talks about what got Jesus killed, saying that the disparity of his approach with that of the Pharisees is part of what got him killed. Can we honestly say that the Pharisees would have been concerned about an ordinary carpenter hanging out with a bunch of sinners? No, but first we must realize that what got Jesus killed is that he turned his face toward the cross and said that was where he was going. As for the Pharisees’ part in it, I think they were more concerned because the publicans and sinners Jesus was hanging out with were becoming more righteous than they were. So maybe they forgot to wash their hands before supper, but contrast what Zacchaeus did by restoring what he had taken wrongly fourfold and giving half his goods to the poor with the Pharisees' practice of promising their money to God so they wouldn’t have to use it to take care of their mothers.


So, here’s where I stand. I think it’s okay to use many of the words rejected by the Love Inspired Guidelines, if they are used in the right context. I have to agree with Ted that we may be preventing ourselves from saying what needs to be said if we reject too many words. I also agree with Chip in that it’s okay to write books that cater to the desires of readers. But more important than anything those two men have said, our primary goal must be to present the message that God has for readers in a way that causes them to take notice. Throwing a few curse words in so that our characters are more “real” isn’t going to help anything. Instead, we need to write about real topics. A writer should point out sin and call it wrong; a writer should point out righteousness and call it good and he should do it in such a way that when people read his work they say, “he has been with Jesus.”

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Adventures in Novel Writing

Welcome to Adventures in Novel Writing. Yesterday, I finished my third draft. For the fourth draft, I like to print it out and read through the pages looking for mistakes, as well as getting a feel for how the readers will see the finished work. Rather than correcting as I go, as I have done in the previous drafts, I work with pencil in hand and only correct the pages I’ve marked after I reach the end. With it printed  single sided, double spaced, the manuscript is pretty thick. So I set to work to print it out, knowing that it would take a while.


Twenty pages into the document, I ran into a snag. My printer died with a nasty error. “Wrong Cartridge,” it said, but it hardly matters what the error, my printer couldn’t fix it—not in short order, perhaps not at all. I began to consider my options. I have another printer, but it is designed for portability, not for printing large documents. Twenty sheets of paper is about the limit of its paper feeding ability and the ink cartridges are similarly small, so I decided I’d rather not use it. I began to look at printers, thinking I might go to the story and pick up one I liked, but I quickly saw a couple of problems with that. First, the printers that caught my eye aren’t the kind of printers most stores keep in stock. Even if I ordered one, it would be a few days before it got here. Secondly, what was I going to do with the 35 lb. paperweight sitting next to my computer. If it worked, I could sell it and get a little money from it, but with it not working, I’m not sure where I can dump it. It could be that all it needs is a new print head—expensive, yes, but much less than the printers I was looking at. So, I decided I’d try to fix it, but that didn’t solve my problem. How was I going to print 334 pages of my manuscript?

I turned to Kinkos, or Fed-Ex Office, as they are called now. I uploaded my manuscript and for about $50, they would print it and put it in a binder. That’s probably about twice what I would have paid if I had printed the thing at home, but considering I don’t currently have the capability to print it at home, it seemed like the best option. They were supposed to have it done by 10 this morning, but when I arrived at the store a little after 10, they hadn’t even started. They scurried around and found my order. For some reason, it had been placed on hold. I stood there and waited for several minutes as they printed it on their big machine. It didn’t bother me that much. I wasn’t in a hurry to be somewhere anyway, but when they were almost done, the manager or the owner or whatever he is came over to me and told me that he wasn’t going to charge me for it. I told him he didn’t have to do that, but he insisted and I wasn’t about to refuse a second time. So, I walked out of the store with my manuscript bound in a three inch binder and it didn’t cost me one red cent.


Please come back again when we have another episode of Adventures in Novel Writing.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Bible and Storytelling

Editor's Note: This week has been busy, so I've asked one of my characters, Pastor Wayne Hiller, to write today's article. So, while I rest, please enjoy this post.

The Ten Stories in the Bible

Before we get into what I have to say, let me just say that you ought not to believe him when he says he’s resting. Timothy and I have discussed this topic extensively and even as I type these words, I feel as though he is right here with me. Perhaps that’s because he’s looking over my shoulder. But on to our topic.

I want to talk about the ten stories you will find in the Bible. I hope that you’ve read the Bible at some point in your life. With that assumption, I know that you’re aware that there are more than ten stories in the Bible. If all you do is read Hebrews 11, you’ll find more than ten stories mentioned, but if you consider the stories that we tell, we can classify them in about ten different stories. I’ll use the labels the late Blake Snyder gave them because they are so descriptive, but others have classified them differently and have called them different things. Blake Snyder called these stories, Monster in the House, Golden Fleece, Out of the Bottle, Dude with a Problem, Rites of Passage, Buddy Love, Whydunit, Fool Triumphant, Institutionalized and Superhero. All stories fall into one of these categories, with no exceptions, and we find more than one example of each of these in the Bible. Let’s look at an example of each.

The Monster in the House stories is about a character facing a monster he can’t get away from because of a sin he or someone else committed. Jonah and the whale is a prime example of this story. The monster is the great fish God prepared. The house is the boat his is owe. The sin is that Jonah refused to do what God commanded.

A Golden Fleece story is about a quest to find or accomplish something. We can look to the story of Abraham or of Moses to find an example of this story. They both made a quest to for the promised land.

Out of the Bottle is about a wish that comes true, but the character learns a lesson because it doesn’t happen like he hoped. We go to the account of how Saul sought the help of a witch from Endor for this example. Saul asks for Samuel to be brought back and much to the witch’s surprise, Samuel shows up, but Samuel isn’t happy and tells Saul that the kingdom will be taken from him.

When an ordinary person has a problem through no fault of his own, the story is likely a Dude with a Problem story. A Bible example of this story is Gideon and the battle he fault. We can also look at Daniel and the lion’s den.

Rites of Passage are about a character headed in the wrong direction experiencing things that change his life and turn him in the right direction. When Joseph went to Egypt, he experienced a rite of passage. He wasn’t liked by his brothers or many other people, for that matter, but he got some valuable experience and he became the prime minister of Egypt.

Almost any love story can be classified as Buddy Love. Of course we would include such stories like that of Ruth and Boaz, but we would also include the story of David and Jonathan.

You might not expect to find a Whydunit in the Bible, but take a look at Joshua’s second battle in the promised land. They had just defeated Jericho, a great walled city, but when they went up at against the little village of AI, they ended up turning their tails and running. You might ask why and if you read the rest of the story, you’ll find out.

The Fool Triumphant story has an example in that of David and Goliath. Everyone thought David a fool to face Goliath, from the king to his brothers to Goliath himself, but as is the case in these stories, David knew something they didn’t and he came away victorious.

The good of the many outweighs the good of the one, or so is the claim of the Institutionalized story. By coming together and sacrificing for the goals of the group, we can accomplish great things. Need an example from the Bible? Look at the Book of Acts. The early churches worked together, often at great sacrifice and we have all benefited from it today.

Lastly, we see the Superhero story. The superhero has some special power that makes him better than everyone else, but he is opposed by others. Often he faces a villain, but he is also an outcast among the people he tries to help. The are plenty of examples in the Bible, but none greater than that of Jesus himself. He came into the world to save it, but the world rejected him.

Keep looking and you’ll find many other examples of the ten stories in the Bible. Read the Gospel of Luke and you’ll find how Jesus used these stories in his own storytelling. What better way to learn to tell stories than to look at how the master storyteller did it?

Editor’s Note: Wayne is the narrator from How to Become a Bible Character and is a recurring character as he is on staff at the church in each book after that.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

You Might Want to Know

When we write, we often insert information that isn’t important. Some people call this backstory, but this information doesn’t have to deal with backstory at all. It could be description of the current scene or it could be foreshadowing as well, but we stick it in, thinking the reader needs this information to understand why a character will do what he is doing or think what he is thinking. Most of the time, this excessive information takes away from the story and should be deleted.

Imagine that your story is a ticking clock. With each action word, the clock ticks forward, carrying the reader along with it. But suppose you don’t use an action word. Consider this example:

Tom brought his Camry to a halt. Opened the door and ran around to the front of the car to see how badly the man was injured. The man was in his late fifties and carried a cane. The cane was on the ground. “Are you alright?” Tom asked.

Notice how the description of the man brings the ticking clock to a standstill. In this case, that may be important information, but often we use information that isn’t that important. We’re afraid that the reader won’t get it if we leave it out, but the reader doesn’t want to see it. Whenever we find the clock has stopped, we should consider the words we have chosen. If there is any way to get rid of the dead section, we should yank it out and either reword it or not say what we have said.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Flashback Revisited

We've looked at the topic of flashbacks before and we compare them to the topic of backstory, saying that these are two very different things. Now, it can be noted that flashback is one way of revealing backstory, but not all flashback is backstory. The important distinction we made before was that flashback is a means of telling a story out of chronological sequence, while backstory, is from a story that precedes our current story.

In For the Love of a Devil,there is a scene in which the protagonist recalls an early encounter with his wife (pg 166). She was not his wife at the time, but rather it occurs when they are both in high school. She isn’t well liked by some of the other students, due to the rumors going around about her and her family, but Geoff makes a small effort to show kindness to her. We ask ourselves, is this backstory or flashback. Certainly, there is an element of backstory to it, since this could be part of the story of how Geoff and Heather fell in love and got married, which is an event outside of our current story, but this is also a flashback. It is also part of our current story because this story is about a man with an unwavering love for this woman. Through this scene from high school, we  see that the story spans far more than just the two year period within which the primary action of the novel is bounded.

Why use flashback at all? If I had wanted, I could have written For the Love of a Devil in such a way that the story flowed in chronological order. But were would I have started? I would have begun with that scene from high school, where Geoff and Heather really met for the first time. Then I would have moved to a scene in which Heather showed Geoff the escape tunnel leading our of her grandmother’s basement to the neighbor’s back yard. There might be some other scenes I would have to throw in before I could begin our story with Geoff not really wanting to go home, for fear of what Heather will say and do. As a reader, you would be wondering how we got from Geoff being such a great guy in Heather’s eyes to being something she abuses, but that isn’t what the story is about. Even though the reader needs to know the things we reveal through flashback, revealing these things before it is time will mess up the story.

We’ve talked about the outline and sequence of a story before. Every well written story follows the same high level outline. We begin with the protagonist in a bad situation, one which he will die if he doesn’t change. The protagonist does something proactive to move us into the second act in which he is a fish out of water. He is doing things differently, but true change hasn’t taken place. Then in the third act, he commits to the change and will live or die based on the success of that change. We can actually provide more detail to the general outline than that, but keeping in mind that all stories follow the general outline, the flashbacks we include must also fit within that outline. There are points in our story where the character is debating whether to change or not and what changes he should make. Flashbacks tend to show up here because the character is thinking back to the ways things used to be and considering how they can be. They may show up in other places as well, but when they do they should match the specifics of that part of the outline. For example, there is a section in which the antagonists begin to succeed. While they may have been plotting and scheming in a section where the the protagonist is making gains, we don’t want to show it in chronological order because it takes away from the protagonist’s successes. Instead, we want to throw in a flashback that reveals that while we thought he was doing well, the antagonists were actually doing something behind the scenes.

Flashbacks, when used well, can improve our stories and keep the story in line with the ideal outline.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Corny With a Capital C

Some people say that Christian fiction is much better than it used to be. I suppose that might be true, if you’re comparing the current state of affairs to the prairie romances of the past, but when I think of Christian fiction of the past, I think of titles like Pilgram’s Progress, Not My Will and In His Steps. The fact is that most of the current Christian fiction doesn’t measure up to the quality of writing we find in Pilgram’s Progress and Not My Will.

One of the big problems I’ve seen in contemporary Christian writing is what I will call corny writing. We see it often and I fear we all have a tendency to do it. I’m not excluding myself from this by any means. It usually shows up in the form of Christianese that should have more significant meaning than what it does. To provide an example, I’m going to pick on For Whom the Wedding Bells Toll by Nancy Mehl. In part, I’m choosing this book as an example because it is on of the winners at the most recent ACFW conference in the category of Mystery. Based on that, we should assume that this book is representative of the best that contemporary Christian fiction has to offer. Moreover, since the award came from a Christian writers’ organization, we should assume that this book is representative of what Christian writers believe is good writing. With that in mind, lets look at what we find.

Throughout the book, we find several references to prayer. This person prayed; that person prayed; you get the idea. On page 165, we find an example. The protagonist has taken some food out to a dog that has been sleeping in a shed. After that, the narrator tells us that the dog has become a symbol to her that God can do the impossible. She then says:

I went upstairs and collapsed on my bed. As I lay there, staring up at the ceiling, I realized that a lot of people were in the same condition as the abandoned collie…. As I fell asleep, I prayed for the collie and for all the people in the world who had never felt the kind of love that God has for anyone who will simply accept it.

Keep in mind that this is only a quote from a much larger work. It doesn’t seem quite as corny as I look at it as a separate paragraph, but in the context of the book, it seems extremely corny. The book is about finding out who killed the wedding planner, but then we have these flare prayers that keep popping up that have nothing to do with the theme. And the prayer doesn’t seem to have much power. I think what strikes me as particularly corny in this example is that prayers for an abandoned collie are given the same importance as prayers for the salvation of the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I think prayer is an important topic to cover in Christian fiction. The problem is that we risk creating corny fiction when we don't focus that prayer on the theme of the book and we insert it at every turn without clear results. I think this is an example of the author trying to use this dog to make a point in the story, rather than keeping the focus on the theme. If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I’m not a fan of authors making points in novels.

Corny writing happens, but we should try to avoid it. If we’re going to throw Christianese into our writing, we should elevate it to the level of the theme. At the very least, we should write in such a way that it is clear that the characters believe in the power of things like prayer and aren’t just doing it as a religious obligation. Don’t just have throw in a prayer who can, but when the characters pray, spend several paragraphs on it. If prayer is important, then surely it is important enough to have the characters discuss it. If it isn’t, then mention it once and only once. That should be enough to show us that the character prays. But we must find a way to avoid this corny writing that exists in Christian fiction.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Telegraphing: I See Where You’re Going

This article is going to tell you when you should and shouldn't use telegraphing. I hope I didn't spoil it for you.

Years ago, travel was long and difficult. You didn’t just head off to someone’s house at someone’s house. You might get there and the guy wouldn’t be home. It might not be so bad for you, but your horse might not like you all that much, since she’d have to carry you all the way back. And telephones were scarce, so you couldn’t just call up your friend and discuss when you would show up. Instead, you’d send a short message by telegraph, “Arriving April 17 by rail.” It’s just enough to tell your friend you’re coming.

What Telegraphing Is

Telegraphing in writing is very similar. Instead of sending a message saying, “I’m coming,” we’re telling the reader what to expect. This goes beyond foreshadowing, although they are closely related and what one person calls telegraphing another might call foreshadowing. If we look at the extremes, foreshadowing is only an indication of what might happen, while telegraphing is a clear statement of what will happen.  If we have a scene in which two children are playing with a gun, that is foreshadowing. We have an idea where this is headed. Someone’s going to get hurt or killed. But, if we were to write, “I know what it is to experience guilt because of the death of a sibling. When I was eight and my brother was five, I found the key to my father’s gun cabinet,” and then we went into the scene with two children playing with a gun, that is telegraphing. The reader not only has an indication of what might happen, he knows what is going to happen. We came right out and told him.

Arguments Against Its Use

The biggest argument against telegraphing is that it kills the suspense and removes the element of surprise. Its a good argument. If we’re writing suspense and we say something along the lines of “There’s this guy hiding in the bushes and he’s thinking about killing someone, but he won’t because a policeman will show up in about twenty seconds,”  there’s no suspense at all

Even if we aren’t aiming for suspense, if we put wording in our writing that causes a reader to say later, “Yeah, I saw that one coming,” we won’t hold the reader for long. In fact, the reader is likely to become frustrated. If we hold him for the rest of the book, we’ll be lucky and we probably won’t be able to sell him another book.

Arguments For Its Use

Almost every literary device that we’re told we shouldn’t use has a legitimate use, if you look hard enough. You don’t have to look far to find a few for telegraphing. The first argument for its use is that it is how we naturally tell stories. If you wreck your car. You aren’t likely to go home and say, “I was driving down the street and I saw these flowers on the side of the road. I pulled over to the side and got out to pick some. I didn’t have anything else to put them in, so I combined the groceries from one bag with another….” Whoever you’re talking to will likely excuse himself, so he doesn’t have to listen to a long drawn out story. Instead, you would say, “I wrecked the car.” After that, you would provide the details of how it happened. The listening now understands why what you are saying is important and he will listen.  When writing, telegraphing does the same thing. The reader needs to know where we’re headed so he understands the importance of the words. In that way, telegraphing is somewhat like the hook.

Though it can kill suspense, telegraphing can also be a means by which we build suspense. Above, I told you about two children playing with a gun. In one instance, I told you that one of them would die. That may seem to kill suspense, but if the reader know that a character is going to die, he becomes leery of turning the page and rounding the corner. He knows it’s going to happen, but he doesn’t know when or to whom. He turns the page gingerly, hoping death doesn’t jump out at him.

Telegraphing can add surprise. Going back to the two boys with the gun, the surprise is gone. We know what will happen and we’re just waiting for it. The gun goes off and lying on the floor dead, is the older sister, not the younger brother. The twist has greater punch when we use telegraphing. The reader knows what to expect and is waiting for it, but when it happens, he realizes it wasn’t as cut and dried as he thought it was.


By all means, use telegraphing, but use it well. Don’t just tell us what to expect and then give it to us. Give us reasons to read the details and combine telegraphing with a good twist to heighten the level of surprise.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Visitor

Characters are supposed to stay in those nice little boxes we create for them. At the very least, they ought to stay in their books. They aren’t supposed to be able to escape Fantasia, but somehow one did. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. If there was ever a character of mine who could do such a thing, it would be Sara.

Last week, I sat down with a couple of other protagonists and we had a discussion, but Sara wasn’t very happy when I left, but I pushed that aside. That is, until Sara showed up in my office to talk to me.

”We’ve got to talk,” she said.

I pushed back my chair and looked at her. It isn’t often that a figment of my imagination shows up like that.

”Talk away,” I said.

”I want to know about you trying to kill me off.”

I didn’t try to kill you off,” I said. “Not exactly.”

”But you said…”

”Let me explain,” I said. “I didn’t know you very well when I was considering that. I was still looking at the story as a love story between Ellen and Mark. I figured that if they both lost you that it would draw them closer together.”

”But I would’ve been dead.”

”True, but like I said, I didn’t know you. There was another girl who ended up dead. I don’t know much about her at all other than she was in the accident. How do you think she likes getting killed off.”

”That’s different.”

”Perhaps,” I said, “But I want you to understand that it doesn’t come easy for me to make those decisions. I don’t like killing off minor characters and it’s even harder with major characters.”

When Sara left, I think she was a little more at peace. We’re friends again. That’s good, since she and I have a long way to go together.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Flashback or Backstory? What's the Difference?

A question came up the other day about Flashback and Backstory. Backstory, as you know, is considered a bad thing to include in a story—or at least in the opening pages—and yet many writers use flashbacks.  If you look at Where the Red Fern Grows, which is always a great example to use when talking about how to write a novel, the vast majority of the book is flashback. We, obviously, can’t be talking about the same thing with these two terms, but where do we draw the line and what’s the difference.

A Couple of Definitions

Before we talk about the differences, we need a couple of definitions. Some people define backstory as narrative interjected into a story that tells what happened before the current action. That definition makes it sound an awful lot like flashback. That isn’t very helpful for our purposes. I prefer the Merriam-Webster definitions:

a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot (as of a film)
interruption of chronological sequence (as in a film or literary work) by interjection of events of earlier occurrence; also : an instance of flashback

What They Are

Look at those definitions carefully. Backstory is another story that tells about things that happened before the current story. Flashback is an interruption in the chronological sequence. Unlike backstory, flashback is part of our current story. To say that any narrative telling of events before the current action is backstory is to assume that a story must be in the correct chronological order. Such is not the case.  Both have already occurred, but one is from another story and the other is part of our current story. What that means for us is that if we find ourselves reaching back into events that have nothing to do with our current story then it is backstory. But if what we are writing is still part of the current story but it happened previously then it is flashback. In terms of what we should and should not do, we should stick to one story and not try to tell more than one story at the same time.

An Example

Clear as mud? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Let’s look at a couple of examples. The first is of backstory:

When I woke on Saturday morning, I was starving and the refrigerator was bare. I hopped in the car and drove to the store. I had just gotten inside when I saw her, the lady of my dreams.

I started shopping at this store ten years ago. I had just moved to town and I didn't know where anything was, so I drove around town until I found a grocery store. I went in and liked it, so I've been shopping here ever since.

The lady smiled at me and quickly moved her cart out of the way, when I said hello. It was a sad sort of smile and I wondered what could possibly be behind that expression. We broke eye contact and we went on about our business.

The second is of flashback:

When I woke on Saturday morning, I was starving and the refrigerator was bare. I hopped in the car and drove to the store. I had just gotten inside when I saw her, the lady of my dreams.

The first time I saw her, it was also at this store. I was looking for coffee and she was looking for creamer, when I slammed my cart into hers. I apologized, of course, but I sometimes wonder if she'll ever thing of me as someone other than the guy who can't push a cart.

The lady smiled at me and quickly moved her cart out of the way, when I said hello. It was a sad sort of smile and I wondered what could possibly be behind that expression. We broke eye contact and we went on about our business.

Notice the difference in what the second paragraph does to this segment of a story. In the first example, we jump completely out of the story into a story that we could easily delete without doing any harm to the story. But in the second, the middle paragraph gives us more insight into this budding relationship between two characters. When even understand why she moved her cart out of the way.


Keep in mind that we have to scale the example up when talking about a novel. Instead of a paragraph of backstory or flashback, written in narrative form, we could be talking about chapters of backstory or flashback, written in extensive dialogue. But the principles are the same. Backstory tends to pull us out of a story into another and usually can as well as should be deleted. Flashback stays within the current story and is a way of telling the story out of chronological order. Because it is part of the story and an important piece of the story, it adds value to the story, giving us a better understanding of why the characters are doing what they are doing.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Real World Examples

I'm a software engineer by trade and in my studies I learned about a programming language called Prolog. Unlike most programming languages, which are written as a sequence of events, with Prolog you define a goal and let the computer figure out how to accomplish it. It’s a fascinating approach to programming, but most of the examples looks something like this:

dog(spot). dog(rex). cat(tom). cat(sheba).

animal(X) :- dog(X).

animal(X) :- cat(X).

?- animal(Y).

spot ;

rex ;

tom ;

sheba ;


I won't ask you to try to make sense of that, unless you really want to. Essentially, given a list of named dogs and cats, and a definition that specifies that dogs and cats are animals, the computer will return the names of all animals. I’m sure I find that more impressive than you do, but even I have to wonder what is so great about being able to get the complete list of animals in this way. It demonstrates the language, but it doesn’t really tell us why we would want to use the language.

The other day, I happened to see a real world example. In the real world example, given a list of airline flights, the program could find all of the connecting flights required to get a traveler from one location to another. That’s not extremely difficult a programmer to accomplish without Prolog, but I could see how it would be easier with Prolog and that made me consider how I could put it to use. But most true real world examples are too large and too complicated to cover in detail.

What does that have to do with writing? you might ask. Often, we see rules about things we should or shouldn’t do when we write. The person talking about it probably has a specific example in mind, but they don’t give us a real example. Instead, they scale it down to a writing sample that is at best a few paragraphs long. We are then asked to make some assumptions about what the rest of the text looks like, or would look like if it were complete. But the rules don’t scale well. We handle many things differently when we write a novel than how we do things when writing a short story. Something that would be considered an info dump in a novel may be perfect for a two paragraph story. Show, don’t just tell, they say for novels, but if the story is a page long, you’d better tell, not show, if you want to fit the whole thing in. This produces a problem because people look at the examples and what they glean from the example may not equate to the real problem. People think they understand the problem and the solution, but when they try to apply it to a larger work, they mess it up because what they learned from the example isn’t really what they should have learned. Until we provide real world examples of writing, many people will continue to learn, but they will learn the wrong way.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The B-Story

How important is the B-story to a novel? Depending on who you talk to, it may not be very important at all. If you’re getting your writing advice from literary agents and editors, you might not hear much about it at all. Most of what they talk about is the stuff they use to make their determination about whether they are interested in the book or not. Given that many will reject a manuscript based on the first few pages, the B-story occurs far too deep in a novel to become a major factor in the decision. If it’s terrible, yeah, an agent might reject the manuscript because of it, but the agent is already leaning one way or the other by the time he sees the B-story. Even if the agent requests a synopsis, the B-story doesn’t come into play because we say very little about the B-story in a synopsis. It doesn’t seem important at all.


But wait. Let’s not rule it out completely. In fact, if we consider some of the stories we’ve read, the B-story is hugely important. Take The Lord of the Rings for example. The A-story is about a hobbit, aided by friends, carrying a dangerous ring across dangerous lands to be destroyed. It’s a quest, pure and simple. But what would that story be without Frodo’s faithful companion, Samwise Gamgee? He is the heart of the B-story and without him the story would be very different. Or consider The Wizard of Oz. It is also a quest story, but rather than destroying something, Dorothy only wants to find The Wizard so she can go home. But can you imagine that story without the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion? Or what about The Neverending Story without the luck dragon?

I think you get my point. The B-story is a hugely important part of the overall book. We may not encounter these characters until deep into the story, but they may be the most memorable part of the story. If the A-story is the body of our book, the B-story is the heart. So, if you’re writing a book, don’t skimp on the B-story or you’ll kill the story.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Close Third and Backstory

One of the theories on how to handle a narrator is to write in what we call close third person. The idea behind this approach is to write so that the reader is so close to the action that it is as if he is the one experiencing the action. The reader sees through the character’s eyes and has access to his thoughts. It’s a good theory, but it presents a real problem when we begin to consider backstory.

All characters have a backstory, but we try to avoid telling the readers, unless it becomes part of the story. When the backstory is part of the story, it is called a flashback. When it isn’t—well, it just isn’t a very good thing to do. But here’s the problem. For a reader to truly experience the story as the principal character experiences it, the reader needs to know the backstory. If the reader doesn’t know the backstory then we have a Quantum Leap situation in which the reader is jumping into the body of someone else with no idea what has happened to the person before the jump.

There’s a couple of ways to solve this problem. One is to forget about this close third person concept and tell the story from a removed position. Instead of the reader being in the character’s head, we can put he narrator in the character’s head and leave it at that. That’s the approach that most books take, but it doesn’t put the reader as close to the character as some people think the reader should be.

The other approach is to provide enough backstory that the reader understands the character and is able to predict the character’s actions before they occur. This is the worst idea of the two, but if you want to stay true to the idea of putting the reader in the story, it’s what you’re stuck with. So, maybe there isn’t a perfect answer, whatever we come up with, but rather a tradeoff in what we decide to do.