Friday, April 30, 2010

It Changed Me, But How?

Season 3, episode 9 of Alfred Hitchcock Presents is about a man who is about to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit. As his last request he asks for a typewriter (this is 1957 remember) and he types a letter to the editor. He was with a woman at the time of the murder. It seems he wants to get back at the district attorney because and perhaps this woman. To show that the district attorney is an idiot, this convict tells of three murders that he did commit but for which other people were blamed. He seals the letter up and sends it off. Ten minutes before execution time, the warden comes in with the chaplain and tells him that the woman has come forward to admit that she lied in court. He will be a free man. But no, he has sent out his letter and it is in the hands of a prison worker who will read it before it is sent out.

I talked the other day about change. The best stories show change in the protagonist, but they also cause us to change. As I considered this story, I knew it had changed me, but how and why? As a reader or a viewer, it is enough for us to know that we have been moved by the story. We may sit there and consider it for a while, but we don’t have to consider it any more deeply. As writers, we would like to understand these stories and how they change us.

There are few similarities between the main character and me. He was a ladies’ man, a con-artist and an adulterer. His lifestyle put him exactly where we would expect, but there was something I could learn from him. To sum up what we learn from that story, it is dangerous to reveal secrets when we think they don’t matter anymore. He could have been a free man if he just hadn’t given up so soon.

When you consider that lesson, it doesn’t seem that impressive. When you get down to it, it isn’t the lesson so much as the way it is presented. If we want to change our readers, we must present our tales in such a way that it causes the reader to think. We may be tempted to think that the small lessons aren’t important. After all, why would we care about a lesson about revealing secrets when there are big things like abortion and adultery and sins galore? The big lessons have their place, but it’s often the small lessons that are the most effective in making us better persons.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


Chip MacGregor says that he is looking for a book that will change him. That’s good, because I believe most good writers write with the intent that their books will change people. Books can change people in many ways, from giving people joy for a few hours to encouraging people to look at something in a way that they haven’t looked at it before. We tend to focus our attention on the entertainment value of a novel, but the thing that makes a novel memorable is in the way it changes us. Take Bridge to Terabithia for example. If it were just a story about two children creating an imaginary kingdom, it would be forgettable. As hard as it is to read, the thing that makes it memorable is that one of the children dies and the other has to deal with that.

Killing off a primary character isn’t the only way we can change people with a story and unless you are Nick Sparks, you probably don’t want to do it in every book. But what we do want to do is consider how people will see the world after they read the book that is different than how they saw it before they read it. In the case of Bridge to Terabithia, the novel deals with a topic that most people don’t have to deal with, a child handling the death of a close friend.

With many novels, we are changed by the novel, but we don’t really think about the change. We just know that we’ve been affected by what we’ve read. I suspect that is why there are so many mediocre stories out there. We do a little brainstorming and come up with an entertaining story. It creates a world that we enjoy visiting and characters we enjoy spending time with, but aside from that it is just a story like any other.

Creating life changing books isn’t as simple as picking a theme and building a story around it. Some themes work better than others. Uncle Tom’s Cabin worked by appealing to the emotions of people who had begun to realize that the slaves deserved to be treated better. Uncle Tom was presented as a good slave. People cheered for him, but he died because of cruel treatment. For a novel to change people, it has to not only take a stand on an issue, but it must appeal to the emotions in such a way that people are incited to change.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reaching the Sinner

This is the tale of two search phrases. When I wrote Church Website Design, I chose a title that reflected the content of the book. My goal was to match the target audience of the book with a name that they are likely to use in searching for books about a topic that interests them. This is what publishers try to do with every non-fiction book title. It creates a win-win situation because I’m more likely to sell books and the potential readers are more likely to find a book that solves a problem they have.

Now consider the second book, Searching for Mom. In that case, I chose a title that I hoped would convey the premise in that Sara uses the Internet to search for a mother. What I did not anticipate is that this is also a popular search phrase for a certain segment of Internet users. I felt I had done my due diligence by running it through Google and seeing what results I got. I went several pages deep and saw nothing to convince me that I shouldn’t use that title. It wasn’t until I started tracking that title with Google Alerts that I began to wonder about the people who are likely to be finding this title through Internet searches. On several occasions I have seen results from people who have typed in things like Searching for Mom making love to Son. I never even considered that it might be part of a pornographic search phrase.

These two phrases provide very different results. Even though searching for mom is probably typed in more frequently than church website design, fewer of the people who type it in will notice my book, much less purchase it. At best, my book is hidden deep within the search results of those people who type in searching for mom, but even if they happen to see results pointing to my book, they are not going to be interested because they are blinded by their lust for images of things that ought not to be. I still like the title of Searching for Mom, but if we expect our titles to find readers, we need to pick titles that fall within the interests of the people who are using that particular search phrase.

Some people have the idea that Christian fiction would accomplish more if we tried to write edgier stuff so that it would attract sinners and then we would be able to reach them for Christ. It sounds good when they say it, but if we were doing that, we would be doing something similar to what I inadvertently did with Searching for Mom by creating books that fall within their search phrase, but I haven’t seen many porn seekers buying my books.

In looking at how we can use our books to reach the lost, I think people are looking at the lost in the wrong way. We don’t have to write a book that participates in sin to get it in front of a sinner. Go to any place of employment and you will find many people who appear to be pretty good people. They aren’t drunk, they treat women with respect, they may talk about what they do with the wife and kids. But that’s just what they do at work. On the weekend, you may not see them without a beer in their hand, they may beat the wife and they may have a girlfriend on the side. And maybe they know those things are wrong and they don’t want to do them, but they can’t seem to figure out a way to get away from it. In any case, the person they pretend to be is likely the person that goes out and buys books. We don’t have to write books that appeal to the evil person inside, just the good person this person wants people to believe he is. If we can connect with that person, then we can write about subjects that will influence the evil person.

If you doubt that, consider how many of the televangists operate. They aren’t trying to reach the devout Christians, but the people who are weak. They stand up there and talk about how forgiving God is. Then they talk about how much their ministry needs money. Then they tell people about the great blessings they will receive if they give to their ministry. What you don’t hear is “you are a sinner on your way to hell.” They present a message that makes people feel better about themselves, then they encourage these people to think they can feel even better if they give money.

I won’t suggest we do what televangists do, but I will suggest we turn that around. Let’s tell people how good the stuff they are doing is, then lets tell them that isn’t good enough because “all of our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” Let’s appeal to their good side and then tell them how God wants them to be better.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It All Happened Last Week

Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Baptist Missionary Association of America (BMA) in Fort Smith, Arkansas. If you don’t know anything about the BMA, it is an association of churches that sends missionaries to many different nations around the world, broadcasts the gospel through radio broadcasts, publishes Sunday school material, facilitates conferences and a number of other things, but this post is about none of that. This post is about what happened outside of the meeting.

My parents are members of another BMA church and have attended the annual meeting for as long as I can remember. We usually end up running around together during the week of the meeting. This time, as they were crossing southern Missouri on the way to the meeting, a turkey flew up in front of them and struck their windshield while they were traveling at 65 or 70 miles per hour. Now a wild turkey isn’t as big as the kind of turkey you might eat for Thanksgiving dinner, but he’s still a big bird. This particular bird broke their windshield and left a ten inch circular dent in it up near the left top corner. They were able to see well enough to drive, but it would need to be fixed before they headed home. This didn’t seem like a particularly bad problem, since I would be there with my truck and they could leave their vehicle at the glass shop and ride with me to the meeting.

Neither my parents nor I had eaten when we arrived in Fort Smith, so we left their vehicle at the hotel and drove a few blocks over to IHOP. We had finished eating and the waitress had just brought me another glass of tea. We had plenty of time and we had already registered for the meeting, so I figured I could sit there sipping my tea for some time.

But then a woman approached our table. “Are you guys driving that black pickup out there?”

I was hoping I could say no, even before I knew why she wanted to know, but Mom indicated that we were.

“I backed into it.” Her words were clear, but I still wanted it not to be true. This was not the relaxing time I had hoped for. I was going to have to get up and see what she had done to my new truck with less than three thousand miles on it. “Yours doesn’t look as bad as mine.”

At first, I didn’t think it was that bad. The front bumper was damaged, but it looked like I could drive it. We traded insurance information and she went on her way. We got in the truck to drive back to the hotel. I turned the wheel and hear the wheel rubbing. So, I parked it and spent the next part of the afternoon messing with the insurance company. We discussed whether we should call for a rental car and eventually Dad walked the mile back to the hotel to pick up their own damaged vehicle.

That evening, following the first session of the meeting, we went out and got in their vehicle. As we watched, a church van parked in the space in front of us (we being backed into our space) began to back up. As we watched, the driver backed up until he bumped into us. Not being able to go farther, he kept trying to push on the accelerator. When that didn’t work, he pulled forward and back out again, until he hit their vehicle again. Dad honking the horn didn’t seem to make him aware that we were back there. The driver pulled away, I suppose without being aware that he had done anything wrong.

The next morning things looked better. We went to the airport and I rented a car. After that, we dropped of my parent’s vehicle at the glass shop. I called a tow truck and got him to drop off my truck at a body shop so they could pull the bumper out enough that I could drive it. We went to eat lunch and before we finished eating I received a call saying my truck was ready. So, Dad and I went back to the body shop, after which we dropped the rental car off at the airport, and then we went back to the meeting. I had to be there are 1:30 for the Baptist Music Fellowship meeting and then there was a session of the main meeting after that. During that session, Dad received a call saying their vehicle was ready, so we went back to the glass shop and picked it up.

Things went well for the rest of the meeting, other than me being a little more worried than I should have been about how I was going to get the truck fixed. Then on Thursday morning we headed for Tulsa to see my grandparents and my aunt. I hadn’t bought gas as I had intended, so my parents went ahead and I stopped at the gas station. Sometime between the time they went through and went I did, someone dumped a load of sheet metal on I540. I hit one sheet. It made an awful racket on the way under the truck. It’s a wonder that I didn’t hit more. It was all over the road. But I made it out of town, glad to say goodbye to the beautiful city of Fort Smith, Arkansas.

But our troubles weren’t quite over. When I arrived at my aunt’s house, I found that my parents were still sitting in their vehicle. I assumed they had just arrived and I wasn’t the four minutes behind them that I thought, but when I approached them I discovered that Dad was unable to unfasten his seatbelt. They had gone through an exact change only toll booth in Oklahoma and while they were searching for exact change they had dropped a dime in the seatbelt buckle. Dad managed to loosen the belt enough that he could crawl out of it, but we had to unbolt the belt and fish around with a pocket knife for some time before we could free the dime from the buckle.

In our years of traveling to the national BMA meeting, I don’t think we’ve ever had so much trouble. Although, in Biloxi—a place we enjoyed before the gambling establishment ruined it—our hotel room caught on fire one year and our friends had trouble with their steering wheel or ignition or something and there was a guy who was peeking in hotel room windows. Picture three young preachers chasing a guy around the beach outside the hotel on that one.

There’s no real point to any of this. My truck goes in the shop today and I hope it won’t take them long to put it all back in proper order, as good as new. It’s more of a hassle than anything else. I suppose you can try to draw a connection to writing, if you like, but I figure it’s just normal adventures in life.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Author Intrusion

Author intrusion is when the author inserts something into the text that the point of view (POV) character wouldn’t know. For example, we might have a POV character who is a young child, but the author might mentions something about the election that year. It is something the author, who knows everything, would know about, but the child probably wouldn’t. Generally, this is considered bad form, unless you are using an omniscient POV, which is also considered to be bad form these days.

But the fact is that these things slip into our writing. We sometimes see author intrusion in books published by well known authors and as well as the manuscripts produced by wannabes. While the publishing industry usually highlights author intrusion, I can’t help but wonder if the frequency of it might tell us something. What I think it might tell us is that author intrusion doesn’t bother most people.

As writers, we’re conditioned to think that author intrusion is bad. It gives us one more thing we can point to and say that so-and-so isn’t as good at writing as we are. But the typical reader will read right over it and not think anything about it. It may be that part of the reason for this difference is because so many authors have the idea that the protagonist must be the narrator. I haven’t seen anything that proves that limiting ourselves in that way creates a better story. Some very good stories have been written that way, but that doesn’t mean we can’t write a good story in which the narrator is an unseen character or a lesser character. The Sherlock Holmes stories are written with a narrator other than the protagonist.

There’s also the question of when the story is being written. We write in past tense for a reason. Just as we would if we were relaying a true story, the narrator is writing this story after the events have happened. It is conceivable to think that the narrator knows much more now than he did at the time he experienced the events. It shouldn’t seem odd at all for me to say, “I was pulling into an intersection and a Toyota struck the side of my truck. The woman tried to stop, but her brakes wouldn’t work.” In real life conversation, that is a very natural statement, but in fiction it would be called author intrusion. But in real life conversation, you know I’m not currently sitting in my truck watching the events unfold. You also know that I’ve probably done a lot of other things since then, such as spoken to the woman in the car, spoken to the police and called my insurance company. You know that I knew why the woman didn’t stop before I began the story. So why then is it considered bad form in fiction?

For me, I’ve relegated author intrusion to that list of things that I figure I need to be aware of because someone is sure to rake me over the coals for it, even though I don’t necessarily agree that it should be an issue. So, I suppose if you’re trying to create conference style writing, don’t do author intrusion, but if you don’t care if you please the conference goers, if it works do it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Last Change (I Hope)

When I said I was struggling with my latest work in progress, I wasn’t kidding. I decided I needed to change the story one more time, so I went downtown to talk to Sara. It was supper time and Ellen’s café was noise, so I asked Sara to walk down the street with me. We left the restaurant and walked north along Main Street, going past the other restaurants and shops. There were several other people out for an evening stroll. I nodded at an elderly couple and thought I would wait till we got past them before I brought up the reason I needed to talk to Sara.

She had already guessed. “You’re changing the plot again, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” I said as the white hair woman hobbled past me. “I got to thinking that having you help Kelly while you’re caterer isn’t that big of a change. And I’ve been giving the beginning some more thought. I got to thinking that the thing that would just kill you at the beginning is if you were on the outside of the movie production looking in with little means of finding out what is going on. So, I thought I’d begin with you looking out the window of Ellen’s café because something happened on the set outside, but you can’t tell what it was. You think it might not have been planned, but you aren’t sure. To make it worse, you aren’t even going to be the caterer for the movie. I’m considering whether that is because Ellen didn’t get the contract, she didn’t want the contract or it is because she wants you to do something that she feels is more important.”

“But we’re the best caterer in town. It wouldn’t make sense that we wouldn’t get the contract!”

“Perhaps not, but I’m going to keep you off the movie set.”

“That’s no fun.”


“You just love tormenting me.”

“That’s only the beginning,” I said. “David is going to approach you about nosing around a little, because he thinks Ada is in danger. So maybe we still need Ellen to have that contract, so you’ll have an excuse to be on the set, but you’ll have to persuade you mother to let you do that.”

“Isn’t that back to where we started?”

“No, because it’s what happens after that that is important. You find Xander trying to hide some cameras in Ada’s trailer. He won’t say who hired him, but there’s a danger that he’ll discover that Kelly is Ada. So, you Kelly and Cora decide that the thing to do is what while Kelly is disguised as Ada you will be disguised as Kelly.”

“Do you think I can pull that off? I’m not an actor like Kelly.”

“All you have to do is look the part.”

“There’s no way it can be that simple.”

“And that’s why I think it’ll make a good story,” I said. “While you’re being Kelly, you’re going to meet Kelly’s father and her step-mother. You’re going to run into someone who knew her in college. You’re going to have to take care of Kelly’s drunk mother. She’s going to start a fight with you and hit you.”

“There’s no way I’m going to let her hit me like she does Kelly!”

“No, you’ll lay her out cold after she hits you.”

“You bet I will!” Sara said, “But no one has to know about it? Right? I’ve already got a reputation for that sort of thing. Could that be why I don’t have a boyfriend?”

“There’s at least one guy who sees you in a completely different light.”

“You don’t count; you’re the author.”

“I was talking about someone else. You’ll be pleased when you find out who it is.”

“Can’t you tell me now?”

“It’ll have to wait,” I said.

When we parted ways, she was still trying to guess who it was. I didn’t tell her, but most of the guys she named think she is very attractive.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Cost of Writing a Novel

We looked at what it costs for a publisher to publish a book, which turns out to be about $50,000, but what does it cost for the author to publish a book? Let’s not make this a comparison between traditional publishing and self-publishing. Let’s instead focus our attention on publishing via the traditional route. Going this route, the saying is that money should always flow toward the author and what I would like to look at is how much money should be flowing toward the author.

Let’s say it takes the author four weeks to write the book and the author makes a wage of 22.5 dollars an hour. I realize that many people take longer than that, but Agatha Christie said a month was plenty of time to write a book and we don’t want to get greedy. That puts the labor cost of writing the novel at $3,600. You’re going to need an agent and we are told that to get an agent you will need to attend some conferences. Let’s send you off to a conference like ACFW. By the time you account for conference fees, air fare and a hotel rooms, that will run you about $2,000. We’ll assume you get an agent the first time you attend, though that is unlikely. It may help if you have someone edit your manuscript for you. Let’s say that is $1,000. A blog is supposedly a good thing to have if you are trying to build a reader base. We’ll assume you spend 2.5 hours a week on your blog, so the labor for one year is $2,925. The publisher is going to expect you to spend some time marketing. We’ll commit ourselves to five hours per week for 15 weeks, bringing the cost to $1,688. And for those 15 weeks, we’ll say we’re spending $5 per week on fuel to run back and forth to book clubs, book signings, etc. That’s an additional $75. That brings the grand total to $11, 288. Let’s just round that up to $12,000.

That $12,000 is your number. It doesn’t seem so far out of reach when we look at some of the advances publishers hand out. But when we consider that each and every novel that is written needs to make that much money to keep us out of the hole it doesn’t seem so small. Forget the advance. If the publisher doesn’t pay you at least $12,000 in royalties over the life of the book, you are donating time.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Karen opened the door of her crimson red Honda Civic GX NGV sedan and being careful not to damage her fingernails, freshly painted red with gold sparkles beneath two layers of a clear coat, she turned the key and brought the engine to life.

Okay, enough of that. When you read a book, do you ever get the idea that an author is reading the description from a spec sheet as she writes? For lack of a better term, let’s call it description overkill. It happens when an author wants too much control of the scene. The result is that the book reads more like an engineering drawing than a story.

It’s an easy mistake to make. We want the reader to see exactly the same seen as we see as we write. This is usually because what we see gives us some special feeling that we want the reader to have. But when you get down to it, it probably doesn’t matter if Karen drives a red Honda Civic or a blue Chevy Malibu. The reader isn’t going to remember, unless that detail is relevant to the story.

Let’s suppose that the kind of car she drives is actually relevant. Maybe she’s dating the son of a Chevy dealer. Until we know that she is dating the son of a Chevy dealer and her car is a matter of contention, it does no good for us to provide so much detail. We need enough information to give us a view of the world, but not so much that we have to spend time memorizing the details.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Can Someone Please Tell Me Where I Am?

When I was reading a book the other day, I came to a chapter that began something like this:

“Your hair looks different today,” Matt said.
“No, it’s the same as it’s been for a long time,” lead said.
“Maybe it’s something else,” he said. “So how’s that trouble you were telling me about the other day?”
Lead and Matt spend several paragraphs discussing the main problem of the book.

I’ve changed the character names and the dialog to protect the author and shorten the passage, but it was essentially what I wrote above. But before I go any farther, let me ask you a question. What is missing? It may be difficult for you to answer, since you don’t have the benefit of having read the rest of the book, but go ahead and make a guess. You don’t have to tell me if you are wrong.

Having read the book, I had already met these characters. The lead I met on page one and Matt I met in a later chapter. But Matt is not a main character. I had forgotten about this guy, so when he is reintroduced into the story with only a name, I had the feeling that these two characters are just talking to each other out in the ether.

The thing that is missing from the scene above is a sense of place. Had we remembered that this guy is the lead’s psychiatrist, we might have assumed that the scene takes place in his office, but there’s nothing that says a psychiatrist has to stay in his office. So, even if the reader remembers the characters, it is helpful to provide a sense of place. It doesn’t have to be done on the first line of a scene, but it needs to be done soon.

Watch television and you’ll see that they frequently provide a sense of place through point of view (POV) shifts. (Yes, I know that’s against the rules in novel writing, but it’s worth our consideration anyway.) These point of view shifts happen so quickly that most of the time you don’t even notice. They work like this: We reach the end of one scene in one location or the end of an commercial break and the image on the screen changes to a building or the ocean or the exterior of a plane. It may be a video clip showing people walking or it may be a still image. It doesn’t matter because we’ll probably see it for less than a second to a couple of seconds. The next shot is usually a wide shot of a room the principle characters are in. It may be of an office, or a bedroom. The dialog may have already started at this point, but we aren’t through shifting POV yet. The camera moves in to focus on the primary characters in this scene. Then as they talk, the camera will move to a close up of the individual who is speaking. If they are doing something—hanging wallpaper or whatever—the camera will move back out to show what the characters are doing. When this scene ends, we jump to the exterior of another building and repeat the process.

The main reason I mentioned the television method is because I wanted to point out that the folks in television recognize the need for a sense of place. The equivalent to this method in novel writing is when an author puts location headings at the beginning of a chapter. They might say something like, “November 8, 2:00 PM, War Room.” We assume that the reader is actually reading these tags and can drop right into what is happening. But not all readers pay much attention to these tags. For that matter, in television, there is also the risk that the viewer was off getting a cup of coffee and missed the two second exterior shot. That isn’t so bad in television, since people can usually tell from the set dressing where it is, but we don’t want novel readers turn back to find the tag when he figures out that he doesn’t know where he is.

Keep in mind that I struggle with assuming that the reader knows where we are as much or more than anyone, but when I write a scene, I try to pull in elements that remind the reader where we are. To do that, I imagine myself in that location and I look around to see what is there. If the characters are there, they won’t just be sitting there talking. They will be interacting with the scene, but what will they be doing? If you’ve read my Fiction Friday posts, you may have noticed that I will usually begin by saying where I met the character I’m talking to. This is a little like the exterior shot. I went down to Ellen’s café to talk to Sara. If you’ve read my books, you know that Ellen’s café is an expensive fine dining restaurant, with a pastry shop out front, that also has something of a family restaurant atmosphere. But I don’t need to remind you of that every time. I’m just trying to remind you. It is sufficient to begin with an image of a café. Then I will move inside.

Sara was busy with a customer when I walked in. Carla seated me at one of the tables next to the big windows.

At this point, I’m still reminding you about Ellen’s café. The fact that Carla seated me, tells you that this probably isn’t a greasy spoon.

This is also like a wide interior shot, so we’ll move closer.

Sara came over and sat down across the table from me.

Now we’ve tightened our camera to a single table in a large room.

“What’s going on?” She crossed her arms and leaned her weight on the table. “I didn’t think I’d see you for a while.”

This tightens our camera even more. If we began here, we wouldn’t know where this table is. One way to help the reader with this is to provide details within the right shot that remind him.

I opened one of the sweetener packets with “Main Street Café and Pastry Shop” printed on the side and poured it in my empty cup.

“Do you want more coffee?” Sara asked. “I’ll go get a pot.”

“No, that’s alright. It looks like Carla’s bringing a pot around.”

“So why are you here?” Sara asked.

That brief interlude in the topic of conversation expands the camera for a moment, reminding us that there are other people around doing other things and that we are sitting in Ellen’s café. We can then tighten the camera again and go on with the details of why I visited on that particular day.

The details are important and if we do it right, we can give our readers a sense of place without the wider shots. In some cases, that’s exactly what we want to do because we don’t want to risk the reader seeing something that reveals what we aren’t ready to reveal. Consider the following:

Ann opened her eyes, but she could see nothing, only black. She looked into it, thinking she should be able to see something, but her eyes couldn’t focus. She felt the hard surface beneath her pressing against her spine. It hurt, like she had lain there for hours. Her left shoulder bumped against something hard and flat. She moved the other way and felt the same thing. She lifted her hands, still bound by rope and felt rough wood above her. She extended her toes, thinking she could find the end of her enclosure. Her legs felt them stop, but she couldn’t feel what they touched. She couldn’t tell if she was wearing shoes or barefoot. The rope had cut off the circulation, she told herself, but then a sense of panic overwhelmed her as she began to wonder if her captors had cut off her feet.

Here we can’t use a wide shot because there is nothing but the interior of a small wooden box. We don’t know if this box is in a vehicle, or underground or out in the open, but it still gives us a sense of place.

I don’t have all the answers by any means, but I do know that we need to be careful about assuming that our reader knows where we are. We must provide a sense of place or our reader won’t be able to form an imagine in his head and he won’t care what the characters are saying to each other. Having written this, I much now go off and see how many times I’ve made this mistake in my manuscript.

Monday, April 19, 2010


We’ve talked about the inciting incident before and you know that I say the inciting incident doesn’t happen on page one. But some people have this thing about saying that it does. So, I think what we need is another name for that thing that does happen on page one. When talking about beginnings, James Scott Bell mentioned that we begin with a “disturbance to the lead’s ordinary world.” Borrowing from his terminology, I would like to suggest that we simply call it the initial disturbance.

The inciting incident is that thing that incites the lead to make a change in order to solve a problem that we’ve mentioned in the first act. The initial disturbance doesn’t incite change, it is just an irritation. In Cinderella, the inciting incident happens when she is prevented from attending the ball, but the initial disturbance is that her mother died. She doesn’t change who she is because her mother died, but after she is prevented from attending the ball she makes the transformation from a commoner to a refined lady.

Unlike the inciting incident, the initial disturbance isn’t a structural element of the plot. There are many disturbances that exist throughout a story. The initial disturbance just happens to be the first one. While the inciting incident is the last straw, the initial disturbance is one of many straws.

Another term we use for the initial disturbance is the hook. That term implies that we’re trying to grab the reader’s attention, but it doesn’t make it obvious that the way to do that is to present a problem. Disturbance brings to mind ripples on a still lake or storm clouds on the horizon. It’s that first indication of what is to come. It’s that first indication that change needs to take place.

Friday, April 16, 2010

More Changes

The saga continues, I’m afraid. Another week has passed and I find it necessary to discuss the plot of my work in progress with my protagonist, Sara. She was with a customer when I arrived, but I told Carla why I was there and she seated me at a table in the back corner, poured me a cup of coffee and promised to tell Sara to come talk to me. I amused myself by looking at some old pictures of Ellen’s grandparents that were hanging on the wall back there. It was interesting to see how different the place looked when they first opened it.

“What’s up?” Sara asked, arriving at the table as my coffee cup reached the halfway point. Let’s call it half empty—I’m in that kind of mood.

“Sit down,” I said. “We need to talk about the story.”

“Again? What are you planning to do to me now?” She sat across the table from me and rested her crossed arms on it.

“This thing about you guys losing the contract just doesn’t seem to be working as well as I think it should. I could having story where you’re concerned that some of your people will lose their jobs, but I don’t think it’s significant enough to drive the action. When you think about it, we’re only talking about jobs for two or three—five at the most—people.”

“But they’re friends of mine. You don’t think I would try to save their jobs?”

“I’m sure you would, but if you fail it isn’t that great of cost. I’m thinking that I want to focus more on the relationships in Kelly’s family.”

“How so?” Sara asked. “I thought you said that I was the protagonist.”

“I think you can still be the protagonist, but what I need you to do is help her straighten out the mess. That is what best friends are good for, isn’t it?”

“Just what kind of mess are we talking about?” Sara asked. “I realize that you’ll make sure I forget before you write the book, but I’d still like to know.”

“I still don’t have all the details,” I said, “but I’ll tell you what I’ve got. You already know about Kelly’s relationship with her mother. Kelly cares for her mother, but her mother is abusive to her. Her mother hates the movie industry because an actor took Kelly’s father away from her, but Kelly wants to be an actor. What you don’t know is that Kelly created a secret identity, Ada, so her mother wouldn’t find out that she is acting. Kelly wants to find her father and blames her step-mother from keeping him from her. But Kelly’s father doesn’t want anything to do with his daughter. He never wanted children and would just as soon forget that he ever had any. But that is a point of disagreement between him and Kelly’s step-mother. She is unable to have children and ever since she found out that her husband had a daughter, she has thought of Kelly as her own. Then there is David. Kelly is interested in him, but he is showing interest in Ada. Kelly isn’t sure how to deal with that. On top of that, Jill is David’s grandfather is the head of the studio and owns most of the stock, but Kelly’s father is his business partner. They don’t agree, however, because Kelly’s father believes David’s grandfather obtained control through unprincipled means.”

“Okay, I get it. Everyone is fighting with someone,” Sara said, “But what’s the story? All you have is a cast of characters. You can’t just throw them in a room and have them fight it out, no matter how interesting they might be.”

“No, not all at one time anyway. But I’m thinking that we’ll go along the same lines as before. Someone is trying to scare Kelly away from doing the movie and she wants your help in finding out who it is.”

“And why would I be able to find out anything?”

“Because you’re the caterer. You can be at every shooting location and you can talk to anyone.”

“I’ll buy that,” she said.

We’ll have to see if I do to. It means changing the story once again. Amber and Beth are likely to go away, so I’ll lose even more words this time. But there are a few characters here that might work well locked in a small room together.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Non-fiction Topics in Fiction

I’ll blame this on Chip MacGregor. I’m sure several people have said it before him, but someone mentioned that Chip MacGregor said that we sell fiction by talking about non-fiction themes. This works in whatever method you use to communicate, whether it is speaking at book clubs, on the radio or through a blog. Since most of the people who read this blog also have blogs, let’s focus our attention on blogging, looking at why and how it works.

Why It Works

By far, the book that has been the easiest for me to sell has been Church Website Design. The main reason for that is that when my target audience goes online to find the information they need they find my book. The title is one of the search phrases they might use when looking for a book on the subject. Essentially, I positioned the book in such a way that my target audience is looking for it, instead of me looking for them. We want to do something similar with fiction.

With fiction, our target audience seems much more scattered. With non-fiction, people seem to congregate. A book on writing, for example, is easy to sell just by showing up at a few writers’ conferences and putting it in front of people. If you have a book on church growth, you might take it to some pastors’ conferences. If you are trying to sell it online, you might mention it on a few websites that the target audience visits and you would talk about the subject on your blog, so that the search engines will take people to your site when they are looking for related information. But with fiction, even two sisters may disagree about whether a book is good or not. I’ve had people on the other side of globe enjoy my novels. My audience is very scattered. So what we’re looking for is something that links these people. The story itself won’t provide the link. For a well known author, the author may be the link, but most of us are looking for another link and that link is the non-fiction theme. When people search for information related to that them and find us talking about it, they will also see a novel with the same theme and they may have enough interest to read the novel.

We are more likely to read a novel if it includes things we are interested in. Residents of a small city mentioned in a book, for example, are more likely to read the book than are people who know nothing of the city.

How It Works

On our blog, we may be tempted to just type “Buy my book,” over and over, but it won’t help much. To attract readers within the target audience, we instead talk about the theme of a book. That means that you have to know what the theme of your book is. Every book has a theme. If you don’t know what yours is, you just haven’t found it yet.

The easiest way to look at how this works is to look at an example. My latest novel is titled And Thy House. The title is taken from Acts 16:31, which you will recall is part of the account of when Paul and Silas were in jail. The jailer rushed in after the earthquake, the prisoners told him not to kill himself because they were all there and he asked, “what must I do to be saved?” To that they answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and though shalt be saved, and thy house.” But the book isn’t about Paul and Silas or the jailer. From the title, we can assume that the theme has something to do with salvation, but it isn’t just salvation. This book deals with the subject of a father trying to win his family to the Lord after having taught them to reject the Lord.

As a blogger hoping to attract people who may be interested in this book, writing about writing is probably not the best choice. It would be better for me to write an article about families in which the wife is a Christian, but the husband is not or about families where the parents are saved, but the children are not. If we look at the B-plot, we also find a situation in which the child is saved, but the parent is not. My goal should be to draw in people who are searching for the answer to the question What can you do when you know your children are going to hell? or How can I win my lost family members to the Lord? In keeping with the intent of the book, I would want to address the issue of parents who come to the Lord later in life, when their children not as easily persuaded by the beliefs of their parents. Is there hope then?

I once heard of a family in which the parents had two children when they were young and two children later in life. The parents came to know the Lord after the first two had moved out. The older children were lost, but the younger children also accepted Christ. That story trigger the thought pattern that initiated And Thy House. If I could attract the attention of families in a similar situation, then I am also more likely to attract the attention of people who feel a special connection to a story of this type. But what is my admonition to people in this situation? Don’t give up. It may seem like the loved one is most assuredly will end up in hell, but as long as they draw breath, there is a chance that they will repent.

Potential Problems

There’s always the chance that the topic is too close to home for some people. If people are suffering through a similar situation, they may not want to read a novel about people who are also suffering. People who have suffered through a nasty divorce, for example, may not want to open a book about someone who is going through something similar.

Another problem is that while we may find people looking for a topic related to the theme, they may not want to read about it in novel form. But as always, we are trying to make the people who are most likely to be interested in our book aware of it rather than trying to get everyone to buy it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Thoughts on Christian Fantasy

I’ll admit it, fantasy is one of my favorite genres. Send me off on horseback with a magic sword in my hand to fight some evil sorcerer. But one of the problems with fantasy and perhaps one of the reasons I’ve never completed a novel in this genre is that so much of it is based around pagan religion. This can really be an issue when we start talking about Christian fantasy.

For the most part, the magic in fantasy isn’t real magic. Real magic involves religious practices in which a person prays to the dead or to spirits in order to enlist their help. Sadly, this practice exists in some Christian denominations. There’s often some set of magic words that are spoken in fantasy, but it isn’t made obvious that the magician is calling on some spirit to help him. In fact, if the words are in English, there usually isn’t a name mentioned at all and the rule seems to be that as long as it rhymes it will work as a magic spell. In pagan magic, the belief seems to be that as long as the person knows the name of the spirit then the spirit can be commanded. But in fantasy, magic is often portrayed as some substance that exists within a person, giving the person some abilities he must learn to control. It is portrayed more like a talent or gift than a prayer.

I figure that if a wizard has some kind of invisible battery that stores his magic power, it is pretty harmless, but fantasy pulls other things from pagan religions as well. There is often a depiction of the afterlife. That should probably be a greater concern for those interested in Christian fantasy than where magic comes from. At Netflix’s recommendation, I watched The Legend of the Seeker series. In the first season, there is some indication that the good people go to the underworld and wait for their loved ones, giving us a pleasant picture. In the second season, several people are sent to the underworld, both good and bad, but they end up in the same place. The Keeper has the ability to reward those he likes and he only likes those that kill people, so it isn’t clear that the good people are not tortured, since the evil are rewarded.

What I like about fantasy, as a writer, is that it allows us to explore concepts that we can’t explore in the real world. And maybe we want to explore a world in which no one makes it past the final judgment at the end of life. Maybe we want to know what would convince people to keep fighting the good fight in that situation, so it’s hard to say that Christian fantasy must always portray Heaven and Hell in the Biblical fashion, but we must be careful that we don’t encourage people to view the world in the wrong way. If we portray God as a being who is in a battle with Satan, trying to prevent Satan from carrying off souls to be with him, and don’t show him as a righteous judge who will send the unrepentant sinner to hell, we risk making him appear to be Satan’s equal.

When we consider that, I wonder if the thing that gives Satan pleasure is when God is forced to send someone to Hell. Satan reads the Bible and he knows that it says that God is just, God is righteous and God doesn’t want anyone to go to Hell. Satan is powerless to battle God in a head to head fight. Satan wins by using the attributes of God against him. He knows that it hurts God to punish people, so it makes his day when he can go to God and say, “If you are just, if you are righteous, you have no choice but to send this person to hell for rejecting you.” But there are times when Satan stands before God, ready to accuse someone and God says something along the lines of “have you considered my servant Job?”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

We Write, Is It Good or Bad?

Publishers try to dispel the myth that they books are successful because of the money they put into marketing by asking the question: If publishers had the power to make a book a bestseller, don’t you think they would do that with every book? While their point is valid, it is hardly so simple. It really comes down to one of those chicken or the egg questions. Is a book popular because the publisher convinces people they should buy it or does the publisher choose to invest in the book because they have the vision to see that people will like the book?

To think that the only reason that latest book we’ve written isn’t selling like hotcakes is because a publisher hasn’t given it a chance is naïve. But it is just as naïve to think that publishers have some special vision that allows them to find the books that will sell well and the money they throw at some books is not the primary reason for their success. Just because we can’t throw money at all books and make them bestsellers doesn’t mean that we can’t throw money as some books and make them more successful than they really ought to be, given the quality of the story.

While driving around town the other day, I noticed a sign next to the side of the road. It was on a wooden stake it and advertised a barbershop in the area. These types of signs are actually illegal, but people go around at night, when they don’t think they’ll get caught and hammer these things in the ground. They may advertise anything from lawn mowing services to tax preparation services to barbershops. While the worst thing that might happen if you were to visit this “Great Barbershop behind Black-Eyed Pea” is that you would get a terrible hair cut, we somehow question the creditability of the business. Had the owner paid for a billboard rather than hammering a stake in the ground, our opinion of the business would be improved, even though we know nothing other than what the owner has told us. It is somewhat like that with books also.

But there is another side. Near where I work, there is an Asian buffet. The exterior of their building isn’t that much to look at. For that matter, the interior isn’t either. As far as I know, they don’t advertise. Their location isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. You probably wouldn’t see them unless you happened to be patronizing one of the more visible eating places in the same parking lot. They have a very simple sign. But every time I’ve been in there they have been busy. They’re the type of business that you would expect to find on one of those signs next to the road, but people have taken the risk and have been glad they did.

At the end of the day, there are books that will never receive the blessing of a major publisher and there are those that will. There are books that are worth publishing and there are those that aren’t. These are not equal sets. Major publishers publish books that should be published and books that shouldn’t be published. They also overlook books that should be published. As authors, we aren’t concerned with that at a high level but at the level of one book or the few books that we will write. There’s really no way of knowing where our books fall. We hope they are good books that other people will recognize as such, but even if we have many people who read our work we will question if they will someday wake up and realize that they have been duped. Or if our work isn’t recognized as good, we will question whether it is because it really isn’t good or whether people just don’t see it for what it is. All we can do is to do the best we can and not let the praise of others concern us. If we are saying what we intend to say with our writing, that is all that matters.

Monday, April 12, 2010


We all struggle with beginnings. Some people get better at it, but then you pick up a book by a bestselling author and the beginning just doesn’t grab you for some reason. So, we talk about hooks and throwing the reader into the middle of the action, but we also talk about setup and getting the reader to like the character. Sometimes, I think it would do us good to just practice writing beginnings. Don’t write another novel until we’ve written one hundred beginnings or something like that.

How do we do all of that? How do we begin with action and still give the reader the proper setup? When we read discussions of how to begin, it is easy to get the idea that we should put the inciting incident on page one, so that something happens on page one that causes the protagonist to decide to do something. I’m going to give you a rule that we must never break. There are many writing rules out there that are just firm suggestions, but here is one that you should never break: Never put the inciting incident on page one. Think of your story as a tent with several poles holding up the top. The inciting incident is one of those poles, but every tent needs ropes that are anchored to the ground to hold the poles erect. Thing of our beginning as that anchor. If we begin with the inciting incident the tent will fall down or there won’t be enough support in the middle, giving us a sagging middle.

To solve that problem, here’s a rule that is more of a very firm suggestion: Kill the protagonist in page one. We can’t literally kill the protagonist or will have a really short story and it might take a few pages to do the deed, but consider how Frances Hodgson Burnett begins A Little Princess. We begin with Sara and her father in cab on their way to Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. Sara is dying because she will be separated from her father. She has already lost her mother. It’s a slow death, but she is dying. Or consider how The Neverending Story begins. Our young protagonist is running from his tormentors and hides in a book shop. He too is dying.

As I consider this, I see improvements I could make to my beginnings as well, but the action that we want to throw our protagonist into is the action that demonstrates what is killing the protagonist. I showed you a first chapter several days ago. If I follow my own advice, that beginning will have to be changed. While I like that we begin with a man who isn’t what he seems—going with the theme—this beginning doesn’t throw us into the problem that is killing Sara. With the way I’ve revamped the story, one of the main problems is how they are going to keep paying their employees after losing the catering contract for the movie, but that comes later. At the beginning, we need to see that Sara hurts for these employees and sees the jobs Ellen’s café provides as means of helping them. So, instead of beginning with the problems of the movie production, we could instead have Amber come in looking for work and Sara is forced to turn her away. There are other problems to introduce as well, such as Sara’s lack of a boyfriend. We don’t need to spend a lot of time on that, but it plays into the story, so we need to mention it.

Basically, what we’re looking for is to introduce the situation in such a way that when they lose the catering contract because the movie is canceled, our inciting incident, we have no doubt that this will certainly kill Sara. Now Sara isn’t one to take her impending death lightly and for that reason we know that once we’ve thrown the inciting incident at her that she will strike back. She will find a way to survive. She will take up arms and fight. But the stuff before the inciting incident is the stuff of beginnings. It’s the problems our character faces every day and yet, it’s not.

We all face problems every day. Most of the problems our characters face are problems like we have, but that doesn’t make a good story. You got up this morning and your kid couldn’t find one of his shoes. If it’s well written, that may be enough to hold a reader past the first few pages, but that alone doesn’t make a good story. So instead, we make it that your kid can’t find his shoe because he left it at your boyfriend’s house, but you can’t go retrieve it because you broke it off with your boyfriend and you don’t want to explain to your husband why you needed to by your son a new pair of shoes. It’s just ordinary stuff with a punch.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Sure I Did It, But I'm Not Fixing It

Fantasia has funny clocks. They aren’t so strange when you try to use them, but we can visit any time we wish. We can see things that haven’t happened yet and maybe never will, but it only works if you have licensed writer as your guide. With me being such a writer, I decided to move forward in time and explore a little, hoping to resolve this plotting issue I’ve been having with book five.

I closed my eyes and when I opened them I found myself standing on Main Street, just outside of Ellen’s café. In front of me I saw what appeared to be a car wreck. A camera boom was positioned near it, but I saw no cameras or camera crew or anyone at all. I heard the door open behind me. It came to a stop so hard that the glass rattled. I turned around and saw Sara coming toward me.

“I’ve got a bone to pick with you!” she said, pointing at me as she spoke. I could see the redness in her face.

“Me?” I asked, putting my hand against my chest.

Sara seemed to cool a couple of degrees. “You didn’t this, didn’t you?”

“Did what?” I asked.

“Did this,” she said, sweeping her hand toward the street. “I just heard they’re going to pack up and go home. The movie’s canceled.”

“Why?” I asked. “That doesn’t make sense. The movie production is a key feature in the book. It doesn’t make sense.”

“That’s what I said, but Jill told me this morning that they’ve decided to cancel shooting. Now Mom is in there trying to figure out who she’s going to have layoff. She hired people for this summer because she thought we’d need them and now…” Sara’s voice trailed off.

“Did Jill tell you why they canceled the movie?”

“She just said that Ada doesn’t want to do it. I guess you already know that Ada’s the star of the movie.”

“Yeah,” I said, “that much I know.”

“It isn’t fair to Kelly and Cora. Cora does Ada’s makeup and Kelly is Ada’s assistant. You’d think she would be more considerate.”

“Yeah, I would think so,” I said. “There’s got to be a good reason for it. You won’t remember this when I write the book, but you ought to know that Ada and Kelly are the same person.”

Sara looked at me in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“No, I’m not,” I said. “It was the only way Kelly could be an actor without her mother finding out.”

“That’s probably the reason they’re canceling the movie,” Sara said. “It probably has something to do with Kelly’s mother. I don’t like that woman. The way she treats Kelly is terrible. Someone ought to do something about that woman.”

“Someone should,” I said.

“How many people know that Kelly is Ada?” Sara asked. “Please don’t tell me that a bunch of people know. Kelly is one of my best friends, you know.”

“Cora knows; it was her idea, but Kelly wanted to keep it from as many people as possible. If anyone else knows, it isn’t because she told them.”

“So, are you going to fix this problem?” Sara asked. “It isn’t right for Mom to have layoff people when the studio told us they’d need us all summer and it isn’t fair to Kelly to give her a shot at an acting career and just take it away from her.”

“No, Sara,” I said, “I’m not going to fix it. As steamed as you are about this, I think this might be the thing I’ve been looking for. If you don’t like it, you’re just going to have to fix it yourself.”

“Just how am I supposed to do that?”

“If I were you, I would start by getting a better idea of why the movie was canceled. It might not be what you think. Go talk to David. He might be able to convince his grandfather to do something. Maybe it wasn’t Ada’s decision to back out at all. If you find out that it is go talk to her. Maybe you can help her through whatever problem she’s having.”

“Yeah, and you could be asking the impossible.”

“I know,” I said. “Isn’t it great?”

“You have a very warped mind,” Sara said.

“Thank you,” I said. “That’s one of the greatest compliments you can pay to an author.”

I left her to plan her attack.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Telling Details

Here’s an odd thing: 16,000 words into a manuscript, I decided I couldn’t do anything with the story without major changes, so I made the changes and only lost about 5,000 words. I put the manuscript aside and went back to the outline. Aside from the theme, the characters and the setting, I started from scratch. The original was about Sara helping a woman convince the father of her child to do the right thing. The revamped version is about Sara’s efforts to keep Ellen from losing a catering contract for the movie that is being filmed in the area. I then went back through the manuscript and deleted everything that didn’t fit. I still had over 10,000 words. I may still have to move some of those words around, because some of the problems to be solved in the new outline were not mentioned in the first 39 pages, but I don’t think I’ll lose many more words.

Maybe no one else finds that interesting, but I find the commonality of these two stories very interesting. It seems to indicate that 60% of what I had written deals with setting and the actions of the characters in that place, while 40% deals with plot specific elements. When you think about it, it is probably a much smaller number of words that deal with plot specifics.

Consider a scene in which our protagonist, Sara, is woken by a ringing phone. She answers the phone and the person on the other end says, “You need to get down here. Amber is arguing with David.” That would fit the original outline, since Amber was claiming that David was the father of her child. Now, let’s change that scene to one in which Sara is woken by a ringing phone. She answers the phone and the person on the other end says, “You need to get down here. Ada is refusing to come out of her room.” That would fit with the new outline, but notice that the only thing that changes is the reason the person called Sara. The rest of it—the fact she’s asleep, the ringing phone, the need to go somewhere—is just the product of the environment in which we’ve placed Sara. There’s so much that goes into a story that is there only to tell us what the characters are like and to show them in their daily lives.

If there’s something to be learned from that, I think that it is that details are important. If a character decides to put on a pair of shoes, it isn’t important that she decides to put on a pair of shoes, but it is hugely important which pair she decides to wear. Is she dressing to go hiking or is she dressing to impress a guy? Throughout our stories, there are these telling details that not only define who the character is, but what the character is doing.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Scared by Christian Writers' Conferences

If you think Christians agree, you’re only fooling yourself. It’s hard to find complete agreement in one church, much less in an interdenominational gathering of people from different churches. Let me tie this back to the writing community. A Facebook friend recently posted, “Honored to assist in serving Palm Sunday communion to 350 writers and 75 authors/editors/agents in a beautiful redwood setting.” He was referring to the Mount Hermon Writers’ Conference. I won’t go into the details of my belief right now, but suffice it to say that I have problems with this on many levels.

Someone once talked about Christian doctrine as being in concentric circles. At the core we have the things most Christians agree on, such as, the trinity, the virgin birth, the deity of Jesus Christ, the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and the return of Christ. Moving outward, we have things for which there is disagreement between denominations or associations. A step farther and we have things for which there is disagreement within the denomination or association. Farther out and we have things that members of a local church may not agree on, such as the type of music that should be sung, etc.

When we look at Christian writers’ conferences and Christian publishing, we find that they try to stick to the very core Christian doctrines. From a business perspective, I understand that. The more specific we are about doctrine, the less room for growth there is. We maximize growth potential by focusing on common ground while at the same time we can make the claim that we are supporting Christians. Okay, that’s all good, but I do see a problem. What happened at Mount Hermon is a symptom of that problem.

The problem I see is that in the quest to find common ground, people are marginalizing the issues that are farther away from the center of our concentric circles. The assumption is that the things Christians agree on are the most important things and the farther out we go the less important things are. This isn’t always the case. Granted, I think those core doctrines I mentioned are important, but lets look at a doctrine that falls in the next ring out, the one that deals with things that denominations don’t agree on. What is required for salvation? You think that might be important? Sure it is. Eternity depends on knowing the correct answer to that question, but throw a bunch of Christians together in a writers’ conference and they aren’t going to agree on that issue, so we put it aside and don’t mention it.

Okay, so you might be thinking that that issue is pretty close to the center and we can move out into the outer rings and we we’ll find things that aren’t so important. In the next ring out, we have the issue of communion or the Lord’s Supper, depending on which denomination you are in. There is disagreement even within some denominations about how this should be handled. Some churches, obviously, will look at what happened at Mount Hermon and they won’t see it as an issue, but another church within the same denomination might look at it and see problems with it. In the interest of Christian fellowship, we might say that since there is some much disagreement anyway, we might as well put it aside and not make it an issue. But let me ask you this, how important is the proper order to communion or the Lord’s Supper?

Let’s not make this a matter of opinion. Instead, let’s take a look at what the Bible says. In I Corinthians 11:30 it says, “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.” For what cause? Because they were participating in the Lord’s Supper in the wrong manner. That seems important to me. If how I do something could result in me being sick or even dying, I think it might be wise for me to know how it should be done. And if other people could be dying for doing it incorrectly, then it might be important to take stand on this issue.

I think what we see here is that there is more than one set of concentric circles. There are different levels of agreement among Christians, but there are also different levels of importance. What we find is that some of the things that we agree on aren’t really that important and some of the things that are important are the things we disagree about. Of course, we also disagree about how important these things are.

Now, to get to the crux of the matter and the danger that we face in this atmosphere of interdenominational writers’ conferences and interdenominational publishers. When Christians come together with the intent of laying aside those things that do not fall within the core Christian beliefs, they marginalize the important issues that fall in the areas outside of the core Christian beliefs. I want to get along with all Christians as much as anyone, but we must not call important doctrines unimportant just because there is much disagreement. By doing that, we weaken the impact of the gospel. Throughout history, the people who have had the greatest impact for Christ have not been those who looked for common ground among the Christian denominations, but those who took a stand for what they believed. As writers, we ought to know this. Change doesn’t come, either in the lives of our characters or in the lives of those around us, without conflict. I would rather see Christian writers take firm stand for something with which I disagree than for them to stick to the common ground and ignore the important things.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What's Wrong With You?

Pantser or Plotter? Some people write by the seat of their pants and some people spend time working out the plot before they begin writing. Most of the time my attitude is that whatever other writers want to do is find with me. If it works for you, go for it. But there are other times that I can’t help but think of the pantser, “What are you thinking?” because these two methods are not created equal.

Recently, Rachelle Gardner has been looking at query letters, making comments and opening the floor to her readers for comments. What gets me about that and what is relevant to this post is that I read the query letter and I think “this would be better if the story was about [insert something here],” but then realize that off in the wings is this massive manuscript that the author is hoping to send to Rachelle. The author is going to be resistant to change.

Suppose the author sends a query in which we see a statement like, “This is the story of a runway model living in Paris, France.” Now I look at it and say that I would rather it read, “This is the story of a runway model living Paris, Texas.” There’re plenty of reasons we might want to do that, not the least of which is that creates a fish out of water situation. And it’s only a one word change. But how willing is an author who believes his story is complete enough to send it out to agents going to be to make that change, no matter how much it might help the story? That one word change to the query could amount to weeks of work by the author.

That’s why we plot our stories first. The synopsis should be one of the first things we write, not the last. Once we get the synopsis to the point that we think it makes an interesting story that we would purchase if we saw it in the store, then it is time for us to write the story, sticking with what we decided in the synopsis. It’s so much easier to consider those “simple” one word changes that people suggest when they really are one word changes than waiting until thousands of words are hanging on each word.

Monday, April 5, 2010

How Can I Know If God Is Calling Me to Write?

Am I called to write? How do I know if I’m called to write? Those are a couple of questions I’m going to try to help you answer today. We hear a lot of people talking about how they are called to write, but what does that mean? And what about you? Are you called to write?

First, let’s define what we mean by the phrase called to write. There are all kinds of people who talk about their calling or someone else’s calling when they don’t have any idea what a calling is. Here, what we mean by a calling to write is that God has decided that he want you to write for him. It is similar to a calling to preach, though also very different. It is not a desire to write or the fact that you enjoy writing, as some people might think. When God calls someone to a ministry, whatever that ministry might be, that person may not enjoy doing what God has asked him to do. If it is a short-term thing, he may never reach the point that he enjoys it. With long-term callings, people tend to reach a point at which they do enjoy the work. But don’t assume that just because you want to be a writer so badly that you can taste it that God has called you to be a writer.

What Is My Relationship With Jesus Christ?

The first thing you should ask when considering whether you are called to write or not is your relationship with God’s Son, Jesus. Do you know that if you died today that you would go to heaven to be with him, or are you unsure? If you have never trusted Jesus as your personal savior, you can be sure of two things. One, you won’t be going to heaven and two, you aren’t called to write. I can’t make it any more plain.

Now, suppose you have been saved and your relationship still isn’t what it should be, that’s a somewhat different situation. You may be living in sin, haven’t repented and haven’t removed that sin from your life. You feel God speaking to you and you wonder if he is calling you to write. He could be, but it could be that he’s trying to tell you to get that sin out of your life. Take care of the sin first and don’t consider whether God is calling you to something until it is gone.

Who Is My Audience?

If you don’t know who your audience is, there’s a good chance that you haven’t been called to write. I think the Bible bears me out on that. Consider God’s calling of the prophets. There are plenty of examples, but look at how the Lord called Samuel as a child. You recall how the Lord spoke to Samuel and Samuel went running to Eli, but Eli figured out that the Lord was speaking to him and to him to respond “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.” After Samuel said, “speak, for thy servant hearth,” the Lord said, “Behold, I will do a thing in Israel at which both the ears of every one who heareth it shall tingle. In that day I will perform against Eli all things which I have spoken concerning his house. When I begin, I will also make an end; for I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth, because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not.” It was very clear that Samuel was being given a message for Israel, but more specifically to Eli.

Very often, when the Lord called someone in the Bible, it was referred to as “the burden.” Do you know your audience? Do you have a burden for your audience? I believe that when the Lord calls someone, he does so knowing which lives that person will touch through his ministry. If you don’t feel a burden to write to a specific group of people, you probably haven’t been called to write.

What Is My Message?

Just as the Lord doesn’t call someone to write without a specific group of people in mind, he doesn’t call a person to write without a specific message in mind. It could be that the Lord is calling you to write, but he isn’t calling you to write books. He could be calling you to write articles for your church website. But if he’s calling you to write, he’ll give you a message that the people you are burdened for need to hear. I very much doubt that he’ll call you to something generic like writing clean entertaining books because there so many bad books out there. To me, that’s like someone saying their calling is to sit in the pew every Sunday.

You message may change. Over a career of writing, it may change many times. You may write one book and be burdened to say one thing. You may write another book and be burdened to say something else, but if you are called to write the book, you will know your message.

Is My Message Consistent With the Word of God?

God will not call someone to write and give him a message that is inconsistent with God’s revealed will. If you believe God is calling you to write, check your message against what God has said in his Word. If they aren’t the same, He isn’t calling you to write.

Is The Written Word the Best Way to Get My Message to My Audience?

Just because God has given you a specific message to a specific bunch of people doesn’t mean that you are called to write. It could be that the message God has for this people would be better if it were presented in a different way. He might be calling you to teach a Bible study class, for example. Sure, you could write the message down and let them read it, but if there is a better way, then maybe you should try that first. But if your audience is more widespread, then writing may be one of the better ways to go.

Is My Calling Short-term or Long-term?

We once had a class that focused on a special topic for four weeks. The class had just lost its teacher prior to that special emphasis and I felt burdened to take on teaching the class during that time. I had no doubt that the Lord was calling me to do that, but I mistakenly assumed that he wanted me to continue teaching that class afterward. When that didn’t happen, I was disappointed, to say the least, but I learned from that experience. Not all callings are for life.

If you feel the Lord calling you to write, consider whether he is calling you to write about a single topic or if he is calling you to a career of writing. You may have experience that will be helpful to others and the Lord may lead you to write it for the benefit of others, but that doesn’t mean he wants you to continue writing after that.

Have I Exceeded the Length of My Calling?

Let’s suppose that you were called to write, but only for a short period of time. Now you’ve exceeded that time and you want to continue writing because you enjoy it, but the Lord is calling you to do something else. There may be no harm if you do that new thing while you continue writing, but if you don’t do the new thing and use your previous calling to write as an excuse, that is a problem. You may have once been called to write, but not now.

What Do Other People Think?

While the opinions of others probably shouldn’t be our primary concern, it is often the case that fellow Christians have a good idea of whether a person is called to do something or not, even before the person admits it. How many times have we seen a young man surrender to preach and people say, “I was expecting that?” Of course, we have to be careful because some people think someone ought to be doing something that the Lord isn’t calling that person to at all.

When considering the calling to write, you might want to consider whether respect you as a writer, even before you make an effort to be a writer. Do strangers pay you compliments or do you have to beg your friends to say something nice about your writing? If you ask your friends whether they think you would make a good writer, do they mention specific examples of your writing they like or do they just nod their heads and say they think you could do well? If you aren’t gifted as a writer, then maybe God isn’t calling you to be a writer.

But if God is really calling you to be a writer, by all means go for it. Follow the will of God and bless the rest of us with the message he gives you.

Friday, April 2, 2010

It Isn't Good Enough

I watched Up for the first time the other day. Wow! Okay, so parts of it could have been better, but that setup… Wow!

In a novel, we would call that section the prologue. It takes place in a different time with a different set of characters than the rest of the story and if some readers are true to form, they would skip over it, but all I can say is that I aspire to write a prologue like that. With hardly a word being spoken, the filmmakers paint us a picture of a couple who love each other very much. They live a long life together, but none of their dreams are realized. They dream of taking a trip to South America. They save their pennies, but life eats into their savings. They dream of having children, but the doctor tells them it isn’t possible. They keep dreaming, but the day comes that she dies. All that is left for the old man to do is to head off to the retirement community and wait to die too. By the time we reach the end of the prologue, we understand why the old man would fill a bunch of balloons with helium and float off into the blue.

The story itself is a love story, but not a love story between the old man and his wife. The story is a love story between the old man and the boy. As is the way with all stories with this plot, the old man doesn’t like the boy at first. He doesn’t want him around and tries to get rid of him by sending him off snipe hunting. As the story progresses, we see how they need each other and by the end of the story, we see that the boy has become the son that the old man and his wife couldn’t have.

I think there’s something to be learned here. Don’t be satisfied with some generic motivation to lead our protagonist into some action. If the motivation emotional enough, it could cause the protagonist to do almost anything, including flying off in his house, but if it isn’t, the move into the second act is somewhat boring. Blake Snyder aptly described what we need as the stasis equals death moment. If the story isn’t such that we feel the protagonist will die in some form if he doesn’t take action, then we haven’t done enough.

It turns out that this is the point I’m struggling with in my work in progress, at the moment. In this story, a mother and daughter have shown up, claiming that David is the father of the daughter. After some convincing, Sara decides they are telling the truth and moving into the second acts she decides to persuade David to do the right thing by these two. But why? In actual fact, it is in Sara’s nature to stick her nose in things where it might not belong, but that’s not the kind of motivation we need. What we need is some kind of motivation such that if Sara doesn’t do something about the situation there’s a part of her that dies. But what could that be?

There are a few possibilities. One would be to draw on Sara’s relationship with Ellen. Ellen is out of town and when she gets back she may not be happy to learn that there is a mother and daughter living rent free above the restaurant. She may express her displeasure with Sara and talk about losing respect for her. But this is Ellen we’re talking about; she would probably have done the same thing.

Another possibility is to pull Sara’s past into the story. As you recall, in Searching for Mom begins her existence in a single parent family. In her case, she was without a mother, while Beth is without a father, but it makes them sisters, of sorts. But can I show that by not helping Beth gain a relationship with her father that Sara will die or lose a piece of who she is? It isn’t the same caliber as the Up prologue, but it’s a start.

I could combine the two, so that Sara would feel that she would lose part of her self by not helping, after Ellen expresses disappointment in Sara’s decision not to help. That would be more consistent with Ellen. But maybe I’m making it too hard. I doubt I’ll be able to raise it to the level of Up anyway, so maybe the thing to do is to dare Sara to take action. She wants to help Beth and Amber because it hurts to see her “sister” without a father, but things aren’t clear and she needs an extra push. She discusses it with Neal, who dares her to persuade Beth’s father to take responsibility for his actions. Now it becomes a matter of principle and Sara being Sara isn’t going to back away from it once she says she can and will do it.

I’ll give it some more thought, but one thing I know is that she won’t be doing it for her dead husband. I see no way it could every be as emotionally charged as Up.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Black Thursday

If Sunday is the day Jesus rose, then today, Thursday, is the day he died. Many people will be celebrating his death tomorrow. I’m really not sure why that’s the case. Maybe it’s because it comes right before the weekend and it’s easier to get people to attend weekday church services if they don’t have to go to work or school the next day. I don’t suppose it really matters when people celebrate it. I usually don’t celebrate it at all. I never knew that Easter was such a big deal until I moved to Texas. For us, Easter was usually a few colored eggs and a sermon about Jesus dying and rising again. There was one year that we blew the yokes out of the eggs instead of hard boiling them. That was fun. But I digress.

Whether you celebrate it or not, what Jesus did on that Thursday so many centuries ago is important. Whether you celebrate it on the right day or not, you can be sure that Jesus died on the right day. It isn’t a coincidence that Jesus died at the time of Passover. When the Lord instituted Passover prior to the Children of Israel fleeing Egypt, he painted a picture that pointed to the sacrifice that Jesus would make. Jesus is our Passover lamb. As the blood of the Passover lambs was the sign that told the angel of death that he was not to take the firstborn of that house, the blood of Jesus is protects us.

Much is made of Christ’s suffering. That is important, because it helps us to see how much he was willing to endure for us. I suppose if he had died and easy death and rose from the dead, we might wonder how that compares to what we deserve. It’s important that we see him agonizing in the garden over whether to go on or not. Jesus Christ didn’t just face death; he faced the death of the very worst sinner. Because of that, we can see that the death we face is no harder. But the manner of his death is not as important as the fact that his death was a sacrifice. The law that God gave Moses laid out how the blood of sheep and goats could cover the sins of the people for a period of time. We look at the Passover lamb, how it was taken in to the family, became part of the family for a time and when it was slaughtered it’s blood covered the family. Jesus came to earth and took on the form of man. He walked among us and was part of us. When he died, he died as a member of the human family and his blood covers us, if we put our trust in him.

The Best Monsters

Let’s talk about monsters. You might as well know that this post is related to yesterday’s post. You will recall that I mentioned that Brandilyn Collins is writing a Lyme disease book. She’s a suspense author, so there’s a couple of plots that are likely candidates for her book. She could do a Whydunit, but she’s already revealed the why and the who, so that’s out. The most likely candidate is the Monster in the House story. The basic plot is this: someone commits a sin, the result of which is a monster that is trapped within a confined space (a house) with our protagonist. I’ve got to admit that when I saw the press release my first thought was “Arachnophobia with Ticks.” But I’ll give Brandilyn the benefit of the doubt and assume she is going to use ticks as her monster. I really don’t expect that the man she says lost his wife is going to break into the doctor’s house and dump Lyme infested ticks on his bed.

Ticks don’t work well as a monster because they are small and relatively slow moving. You can watch a Lyme infested tick crawl across your skin without fear that you are going to get Lyme disease from it, as long as you get rid of it before it bites you. If you wander through tall grass, play with the pets or walk through the woods, you might pick up a few ticks or even hundreds of ticks, but a little insect repellant will help keep them from biting. Even if you know of a particularly deadly tick in your area, you can move and get away. A tick is a terrible choice for a monster.

The sin, in her upcoming novel appears to be that the doctors didn’t treat the man’s wife to his satisfaction, resulting in her death. That should give us some idea of what kind of monster she can create. We can’t really choose the doctors as the monster, since their teeth have already been removed by the death of the man’s wife. I think the monster has to be the man himself. If she make the man the protagonist, which seems to be indicated by her comments about the book, it’s likely to become Amber Morn in a doctor’s office. He’ll go in, wave a gun around, lock the doors, shoot a few people and then either be killed or taken to jail by the police. The hard thing with a monster like that is that it’s difficult to know who we should cheer for. We want to cheer for the protagonist, but we know he will have to face justice in the end.

A different approach would be to forget the question of “to what lengths will he go,” but instead make him the monster and be done with it. We’ll send the medical providers off in the woods somewhere, either vacation or have them out looking for ticks. While they are cut off from help, he shows up and kills one of them. This sends them running. Our protagonist is a doctor and in the end he is able to defeat the man, but only after coming to the realization that something he did resulted in the death of the man’s wife, showing us the true monster in the story. The best monsters are always those who reveal that as bad as they are, they aren’t as bad as a character we trust and they are even better if they reveal the monster we see when we look in the mirror.