Friday, July 30, 2010

Electricity and Writing

Electricity is a fascinating thing. You can cook a hotdog by plugging it into a wall socket, but a bird can sit on a high voltage line and not be harmed. Using a curling iron in the bathtub could kill you, but lightning strikes the ocean all the time with no harm to the sea life. Electricity works when there is a difference in voltage and a path that the current can follow.

Okay, other than to say that some writers need to take a physics class before they kill off any more characters with electricity, I am going somewhere writing related with this. Stories, are about relationships and a means by which those relationships can be revealed. Let’s say we have two characters, A and B. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say A is like the ground and has a voltage of zero (an arbitrary value). A is a normal average citizen, but B is a high voltage guy. He is a drug dealer and a murderer. As long as A stays in his part of town and B stays in his part of town, there’s no story because they never come in contact. It’s as if we’re missing the wire to connect them. But let’s suppose that B meets A’s daughter and decides that he must have her. Now we have a story. A’s daughter serves as the conduit through which the conflict flows.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

House Churches: Closer to God?

I heard the other day that a lot of people are dropping out of mega-churches and are attending house churches as their only place of worship. A house church is a church that meets in someone’s home and has less than twelve or so members. I’ve got no problem with churches like that. I grew up in a church about that size. The highest attendance I ever saw was twenty-five, but we had a church building to meet in. I’ve known of several mission points that were started by meeting in someone’s home.

Some say they are returning to the way the early church worshiped by having house churches. Personally, I think that’s hogwash. There’s evidence in the Bible of big churches, little churches and everything in between. If you feel more comfortable in a tiny church, by all means attend a tiny church, but don’t try to say that makes you closer to God.

Another justification for these house churches is that people see it as a way of shaking off the tyranny of the larger churches, requiring them to pay for the overhead of the church building and the pastor’s salary. Once again, from my experience with tiny churches, I can say that they’ve missed the boat. First, the Bible teaches us to pay the pastor. (1 Corinthians 9) I can’t disagree that a house church makes more efficient use of buildings than larger churches. Most church buildings are grossly underutilized during the week. But what I can say is that having a larger church building may provide benefits that outweigh the inefficiencies. The overhead cost of the building is spread out across many families, so it is a small burden for each family and may be no more of a burden for each family than hosting the church is for the family in whose home a house church meets. A larger church can provide more resources than a tiny church can. A baptistery, for example, is a wonderful thing to have. I was baptized in the river because we didn’t have one, but the church I’m in now does and we can baptize all year round.

And consider the pastor. Some of the house churches don’t have a traditional preacher, but they all have a leader of some kind. There is someone who dedicates himself to doctrine and teaching. If the church isn’t large enough to pay the pastor full time, the pastor will have to work during the week to make enough money to feed his family. My dad did that for years and I can tell you that it is hard for a man to work forty or more hours at a secular job and still find enough time to prepare for his responsibilities on Sunday. Of course he’s also expected to visit the sick church members and a number of other things. The reason we pay pastors and church staff full time is so they will be free to spend the time they need in preparation.

So what I’m saying is that I don’t believe there is a “right” size for churches. They all have different problems. Some people desire to worship in a small house church and that is fine, but they miss out on some of the benefits of a larger church. Some people desire to worship in a larger church, but there are things about that that keep it from being perfect as well. So worship in whatever size of church you want, but don’t try to tell other people that your size of church is better than their size of church.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Motivation is one of those things that seems to come to me naturally when I write. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the need for a character to be have motivation. When a character does something I just naturally ask why he would do it. This works for me, but I’m not beyond making mistakes. The other day I found myself in a position of having about twenty pages that I could fill with things related to the subplots of my novel. The story is told from Sara’s point of view, so I decided I would have a particular character talk to Sara. The easiest way to introduce conflict into the scene was to have the character complain about her food and that’s the way I wrote it. At this point, the reader knows who the character is, but they know little else. If they knew her, they would know she actually a better person then her husband, but I don’t want the reader to know that yet. The problem is that because she is a good person she wouldn’t complain without cause and yet she has nothing to complain about because you don’t get bad food from Ellen’s café. In other words, she had no motivation to complain about the food, so having her do so could ruin her character.

It’s easy to see that the scene has a problem just by reading it, but talking about character motivation is a way to explain why the scene has a problem. A better solution to my problem may be to have Sara stumble upon something this character is trying to hide. Or maybe we have her asking questions that might make Sara thing that she is trying to do something against a particular person when in fact she’s trying to help them. Later in the novel, when her motives are revealed, the misunderstanding will be explained away and we’ll see that we should have liked this character the whole time, but we don’t want her to be mean just to be mean.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Make 'em Work for What?

The very first thing a reader wants to know is why the things that are happening are happening. Don’t tell him.

In fact, anything the reader wants we shouldn’t give it to him. Make him work for it. The villain hurts our hero and the reader wants the hero to strike back, don’t do it. The reader wants to know why the door is open. Don’t tell him. The reader wants to know why the characters react the way they do. Don’t tell him.

Okay, eventually you have to tell him something, but the longer you make him wait the more he will have to read to figure it out. When you do tell him what’s going on, tell him in such a way that the answer raises more questions. Why is the door open? Because the killer left it open. Who is the killer? Someone who feared the victim. Why would someone fear the victim? And it goes on.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Three Act Structure

We often talk about stories in terms of a three act structure. We usually break the second act into two halves, divided at the midpoint of our story. If we’re trying to develop the outline of a story, whether it is before we write or afterward, one way to start is to hang the story off of the three act structure.

The first act is a picture of the way things are before the lead begins to change. In this act, the lead is going through a slow death. For our example today, let’s look at the story of Hosea. The first act of this story is that Hosea is commanded by God to marry a whore. Hosea does as he is commanded and marries Gomer. Gomer stays with him for a while, but she isn’t happy with the situation. She has children but it appears that at least one of the children isn’t Hosea’s. She moves out of the house and chooses to spend her time with other men.

Act two is like the act one turned on its head. The lead of the story chooses to do something that brings him out of the slow dead of the status quo, giving us the opposite of act one. As I said, the second act is split in two. In the first part of act two, Hosea goes after his wife seeking to bring her home, but she prefers the other men. He provides for her needs, while she’s with these men, but she believes the other men are providing for her. So, in comparison to act one, she is now outside the home rather than in the home. She is playing the whore rather than the wife. Hosea is providing for her indirectly rather than directly. Her sin was private, but now it’s public.

The second half of act two is still in the upside down world, but the stakes are raised. She’s still chasing after men, but Hosea cuts off his support. Perhaps he doesn’t know where she is. Perhaps he gives up. Whatever the case, she is totally reliant on the men she’s sleeping with. But those men don’t want her being reliant on them. They want her for what she can give them, but they don’t want to give her anything in return. In time, her debts mount and she falls into slavery.

The third act merges the worlds of the first two acts. As we move into act three, God tells Hosea to go love Gomer. Hosea once more goes after her. This time, he gathers his money and goes to the slave market. As her husband, he had a right to her, but she sold herself to other men. But in this act he buys her and takes her home. This time, she stays. We see the merging of the worlds in that he takes her back where she belongs, but he does so by becoming one of the men who is willing to pay for her.

Hanging a story from this three act structure helps us to see the big picture of what’s happening in the story.

To see a modern retelling of the story of Hosea read For the Love of a Devil.

Friday, July 23, 2010

More On Book Videos

When someone does something right I like to point it out. Take a look at the book videos below. They both answer a very important question, “Why do I need this book?” The big problem I’ve seen with book videos is that most don’t answer that question. Yeah, I know it’s harder with fiction than non-fiction, but these guys are doing something right.

While we’re on the subject, why is it that it is so hard to create videos for fiction while it is easier for non-fiction? If you watched the first video you can see that one of the reasons people will want to read Rework. Meetings to plan planning meetings can’t be a good thing and if these guys can say anything that will help keep this from happening then it is well worth reading. But what about fiction? How do we make fiction well worth reading?

Fiction is written for entertainment, but it is similar to non-fiction in some ways. I’ve never read it, but I’ve heard that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code reads like a documentary. More than for entertainment, people read fiction to learn something. The only difference is that the author has made it up instead of it being based on facts. But don’t get me wrong; what people want to learn isn’t the recipe for Amish cornbread or some of the stuff you’ll find in some books. Some readers may find that kind of stuff helpful, but they could get that from a cookbook. The story is king.

Given an unusual situation, people want to see how it plays out for ordinary people. Given unusual people, people want to see how they handle ordinary situations. And we don’t have to tell a different story. Often people read a book because they want to see how the author handled the same story they’ve seen elsewhere. Some authors have built a career on retelling well known stories.

It was for that reason that I didn’t see it as a bad thing to retell the story of Hosea. I’ve plenty of retellings of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Some change the story, some don’t. The thing that attracted me to the For the Love of a Devil project was that I wanted to see how the story would play out if it had happened today. While slavery is considered a bad thing today, we tend to romanticize it when we see it in the Bible and the same is true of prostitution. But why isn’t it leaping off the shelves?

One thing we need to consider when looking at For the Love of a Devil is that there are very few books that have been read by most readers. Consider that only about 3 percent of American readers have read Harry Potter. So, even though it is widely successful, the vast majority of readers didn’t read the book. What that means for a book like For the Love of a Devil is that I could go ask a bunch of people why they didn’t purchase my book and their answers would be meaningless. Even if it approached the success of Harry Potter, 230 million people would still have a very good reason why they didn’t buy the book, but as it is, there aren’t even 230 million people who know about my book. That is part of the problem.

I think another problem may be that there aren’t that many people who know who Hosea is. It’s a book in the Bible, right? Hosea’s the guy who married a prostitute, right? He’s the guy who bought his wife, right? But how many people have actually read it? Even for those who have read it, it takes some study to understand what’s happening. It’s hard to find people interested in seeing how Hosea is retold if they don’t understand the story to begin with.

But people do want to learn and discover what is going on in a fictional world, just like they want to discover what is going on in the world around us.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I Love Fair Use

A few days ago, Rachelle Gardner raised the topic of what writers have to pay for rather than the publisher. One of the things is permissions to use various copyrighted materials. In the comment section, the topic moved from what writers pay for to a discussion of copyright and fair use. Visit the Stanford University website if you want a well written discussion of fair use. What I want to do is to make some general observations as a writer and not as a legal expert.

We may be tempted to think that fair use has to do with things like how much of something we copy, such as a percentage of the whole, or how much money we make from selling the work we copy. I’ve seen several people make this mistake. In actual fact, U.S. copyright law is not very clear on what is and is not fair use. There’s a reason for it not being clear. The principle of fair use is deeply rooted in the principle of freedom of speech.

We need the principle of fair use because when we comment, criticize or parody the work of another person the other person may not like what we’re doing. If we were required to obtain permission to copy a person’s work for every possible case then they would have the ability to silence us by refusing to grant permission and taking us to court if we copied something.

Fair use allows for other things as well, such as allowing us to save a television show to a DVR and then watch it later. That has nothing to do with freedom of speech but it is protected because television viewers are essentially shifting their viewing time and money made by the copyright holders is not impacted. There are also such things as moving data around on a network. If someone sends me a file I have permission to have one copy, but my machine may actually have multiple copies, one in the e-mail message, one in the Recycle Bin, one in folder, plus those on the e-mail server, but because it’s the way things have to be to work smoothly, it would be fair use. That does not mean I have right to forward the file to a friend.

Of all that fair use covers, the thing that I really love about it is the tie-in to freedom of speech and of the press. I love that I can open a book, copy a portion of it to my blog and say, “see what this guy did here? It would have been better if he had...” and he can’t do a thing about it. Of course it goes both ways. If you see something on my blog or in my books that you don’t like, fair use gives you the freedom to quote me and tell people why you think I’m an idiot. But you know what? I like that too.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Emotion and Reason

I’ve never read Playboy, but I’ve heard that they’ve got great articles. I’ve never eaten at Hooters, but I understand that they’ve got great wings. Do you notice what those two statements have in common? There is an obvious reason why many of the customers purchase the magazine or visit the bar, but there is also a justifiable reason for them to do so. No one would fault someone for reading a magazine with great articles or for visiting a restaurant with great food. When we do something, there’s often a real reason why we do something and the reason we’re willing to talk about. For example, we buy a car because we want a new toy, but we tell our friends how the old one was falling apart and how much better gas mileage we’re getting. We seldom say, “I bought it because I wanted it.”

As writers, we’re trying sell the idea of a book to agents, editors and eventually readers. As we write our manuscripts we want to create two things, an emotional desire for the story and a logical reason for the manuscript. We want an agent to look at the story and say, “I love this story,” but we also want to give the agent some good ammunition to use. An agent answering a publisher’s question about why they should publish a manuscript with, “I just like the story” is about as helpful as your mother telling the publisher the same thing. Maybe the agent likes the particular kind of story yours happens to be. But when she goes to the publisher she instead talks about how the story falls within a popular genre, the story is related to a well known news event, there is a growing trend for these kinds of stories. The acquisitions editor agrees to look at it for those reasons, but he won’t take it farther on those reasons. He’s more likely to move forward on emotional attachment, but like the agent, he needs a way to justify his like for the story.

Readers are a little different because they can buy a book based on emotional attachment alone, but if we want them to talk about the book we need something more. We need to give them a way to tell their friends about the book. The reader may not be able to tell friends about his emotional attachment, but he can tell them what the book is about and the point the writer is trying to get across. I’m not likely to tell people about reading Fahrenheit 451 because I had heard the title many times and I wanted to know what it was about, but I am likely to tell them that the book is about protecting freedom of the press. It is for that reason that I think other people should read it, but it is not the reason I read it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Medieval Times: A different view

History is an interesting thing that is often flavored by our point of view. One of Tamela Hancock Murray’s clients, Deborah Kinnard, recently wrote about why she sets her stories in medieval times. One of the things she says is that “Medieval Europeans took for granted that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. These weren’t matters for discussion or question—they simply were. Faith informed people’s lives, and if they questioned, they did so privately.” No doubt, that may provide for an interesting framework for a story, but many would say that it is an unrealistic portrayal of the time period.

You will recall that the medieval period began a little more than a hundred years after Constantine unified many of the churches in to the Catholic Church. It began as the Roman Empire ended. In the vacuum left by the decline of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church was the strongest political and cultural influence of the time. The result is that much of what we know of the time was written by Catholic historians. But we shouldn’t assume that there weren’t less powerful groups during that time. The Jews, for example, were one of the groups that existed during medieval times. There a lot of pagans and superstitious people during the time. There were also non-Catholic Christian groups, all of which were branded heretics by the Catholics and who faced the sword and other forms of death for their heresy.

One of the non-Catholic Christian groups we find during the medieval period are the Waldenses. In 1254 Reinerius Saceho stated concerning this group:

Heretics are distinguished by their manners and their words, for they are sedate and modest in their manners. They have no pride in clothes, for they wear such as are neither costly nor mean. They do not carry on business in order to avoid falsehoods, oaths, and frauds, but only live by labor as workmen. Their teachers also are shoemakers and weavers. They do not multiply riches, but are content with what is necessary, and they are chaste, especially the Leonists. They are also temperate in meat and drink. They do not go to taverns, dances, or other vanities.

In other words, the “heretics” of that day were recognizable because they were good salt of the earth people, not given to sinful activities. Speaking of the Albigenses of Cologne in 1147, Evernius in a letter to Bernard says, “They do not believe infant baptism, alleging that place of the gospel, ‘Whosoever shall believe and be baptized shall be saved.’” But these people faced death for their doctrine. They certainly questioned the doctrine of the powerful Catholic Church, as is seen by the Catholic Church’s desire to eliminate them, but it should come as no surprise that they did so quietly, while working in the fields, rather than standing in the town center.

But as a novelist, I would argue that whether you agree with the doctrine of the “heretics” or not, they are far more interesting than characters who supported the Catholic doctrine. Can you imagine what it would be like to read the Bible to your family in fear that the Catholics would rush in and take it away from you, if not something worse? Can you imagine the fear that would motivate some of these “heretic” preachers to memorize the entire New Testament? Can you imagine women going from house to house selling bread so they could tell people of the good news of salvation because their husbands faced death if they were caught preaching the gospel?

We often look at the medieval age through rose colored glasses. We think of the chivalry of the knights. The common folk often because the extras and redshirts in our stories of the period, but let’s not forget that it was the common folk who were out preaching the gospel.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Explaining the Leap of Faith

In an interview, the late Blake Snyder was talking about Superhero stories—James Bond, etc.—and he said a few interesting things. He said that the superhero is the character is the one offered something, but he knows the problems of accepting it, so he refuses. A superhero warrior might be encouraged to become the king, but refuses to go home to be with his family because he’s seen the problems that come with that position. I can’t help but thing of Jesus Christ. Satan offered him the world. People crowded around him and wanted him to rule over them, but he knew he had something better. The superhero knows the risks and challenges of being special and takes it seriously.

Blake also mentioned that while the nemesis wants to bring the power of the world to himself and it destroys him. Some of these characters exert so much effort into their plan that they bleed. I suppose it isn’t that much different from people who seek fame and fortune. Their quest for fame is so hard on them that many burnout and commit suicide or die from drug use.

It is a picture of what happens when we’re in sync with God and when we’re not, Blake says. He used an illustration that really brought this home for me. He talks about James Bond being a divine character and says that “James Bond jumps across building and finds a pier for his feet to land on. He doesn’t hesitate, because he knows he’s on a mission and it’s a divine mission. And so he knows he cannot fail.”

Now most of us aren’t so in tune to God that we know that we cannot fail, but if God were to reveal to us that our mission as divine and that we would accomplish it, if we had faith, we would be freed to accomplish things that we wouldn’t normally think possible. If you knew that you wouldn’t be hurt by jumping off a cliff because you know it is your destiny to live to fight another day, of course you’d be able to take that leap.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Story of Legion in Three Acts

On Sunday I was reminded of how all good storytelling follows the same known structures when my pastor talked about the story of Legion in three acts. I’m going to expound upon that somewhat. As storytellers, we know that in the three act story we have three acts with the second act split in two. The first act is the status quo world, but it is a world that has problems that need solving. The second act is an upside down version of the first world. In the first part of the second act, the protagonist has taken action to move out of the problem world to this new world. In the second half of the second act, the villains appear to have success again. Thing in the third act we create a world where the problems are resolved. You can think of this a down-up-down-up in terms of how the protagonist feels about it. Of course, in a tragedy, we could have an up-down-up-down situation. But let’s look at how Legion’s story fits.

Act One: Demon possession

The story occurs in more than one place in the Bible, but my pastor spoke from Mark 5. In verses one through five we see Jesus and the disciples approaching the country of the Gadarenes and finding a man living among the tombs. This man, Legion, was possessed by many spirits and was essentially like a wild animal. He was very strong and no man could bind him. He would cry out in the night and cut himself with stones. He wore little if any clothing.

As you can see, the story begins with the problem. Now, I should point out that this problem is told as what many would call backstory. I think it would be more correct to call it flashback because it is necessary for us to understand the situation before we can understand the significance of the rest of the story.

Act Two: Worshiping Jesus

This act is broken into two parts and we see both of them in verses six through seventeen. But first notice the upside down nature of this act. In Act One we see a man who appears to have no regard for people and obeys no man. They can’t even bind him with chains because he just breaks them. But in Act Two we see a man who comes before Jesus and worships him, which is quite the opposite of what we might expect.

Part One: Spirits into Hogs

In verses six through thirteen we see what we might call the fun and games section. If we were telling people what this story was about, we would say it’s about Jesus casting unclean spirits into a bunch of hogs. That’s exactly what happens here. The demons worship Jesus and begged him to allow them to go into the hogs. They may have feared he would send them someplace worse. But he did as they requested, they came out of the man, going into the hogs and the hogs became mad and ran into the sea.

We end this part on a high note. Legion is no longer demon possessed. Things are looking good, but as midpoints go, this is a false victory.

Part Two: The Pig Farmers Aren’t Happy

We’re still in that upside down world, but Part Two is where the villains strike back. Now Jews had no business raising hogs and they should’ve been happy that Legion was normal again, but in verses fourteen through eighteen the pig farmers go get their buddies and they’re ready to run Jesus out of town. But when the people get out there, they see Legion sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind and they are afraid. It wasn’t in their power to run Jesus out since it was obvious that he had cast out the demons, so instead, the townspeople go to him and beg him to leave. And Jesus agrees to do so.

Act Three: A Preacher of the Gospel

Act Three of a story merges the worlds of the previous two acts. It is also where our heroes dig down deep and find a solution, even after it appearing that all is lost. It appears that Jesus won’t be able to reach these people because they want him out of their country. But look what happens in verses eighteen through twenty. Legion wanted to go with Jesus, but Jesus wouldn’t let him. Instead, he told Legion to go home and tell his friends what the Lord had done. So, Legion does as Jesus said, telling of the great thing Jesus had done and all men marveled.

We see this merge in that Legion is still where he was, but now he has learned something from the upside down world. He is no longer worshiping at the feet of Jesus, but he is worshiping by preaching the gospel. The people who would not listen to Jesus are listening to Legion.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Writing to Structure

Sometimes in our stories we reach a point where we’ve discovered something that appears to allow us to move into the next act, but should we move into the next act now? Should we have already moved into the act? Should we wait? This is why it is so important to know the structure of the story and how many pages deep into the story each should occur. I won’t go into how to know which pages each structure element occurs on because the answer isn’t must be determined by the study of various successful stories and I don’t wish to bore you with details. However, there is one structural element that has both a known and an obvious location. It will serve well as our example.

The midpoint of a story is a structural element that occurs in the middle of the book and in the middle of the second act of a three act story. It is either a false success or a false failure. In my WIP, the midpoint is a false success because it is at this point that Sara finds a person she is looking for. We will find out that this person cannot do what Sara needs her to do. Sara has been looking and through that process she has found an envelope with the woman’s address on it. At this point, it would be easy to just have Sara visit the address and introduce herself, giving us the midpoint. But are we ready for the midpoint? In this case, no, because the midpoint is at page 166 and we’ve only reach page 133 in the writing. This means that Sara must spend another 33 pages looking and investigating, which is essentially what the primary action of this book is.

So, how do we solve this problem of having 33 pages to go? For one thing, we can use this space to further develop the subplots, but primarily we want to take the success of finding the address and turn it into a setback. When Sara goes to the address, we want her to discover that woman doesn’t live there anymore. It doesn’t have to be a complete failure. Sara can talk to a neighbor who will send her off to another address or to someone who should know where the woman lives now, but it will take time to resolve the setback and in the process we end up filling the 33 pages and putting the midpoint where it ought to be. Had we not been forces to fill those pages we would have introduced the midpoint too soon and things would seem too easy and the second half of the book would drag.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Importance of Chapter Breaks

Chapter breaks are a lot more important than you might realize. The reader likes to have a chapter break so he can put the book down and go do something else for a while. That may be why some authors have taken to leaving chapter breaks out completely. Personally, I think that’s rather arrogant. Sure, we want readers to say that they never put the book down, but that isn’t really the best measure of a good book. Some of the best books are so thought provoking that the reader takes weeks to read the book, letting each point sink in before moving on. I don’t write books like that, but some people do. But chapter breaks are more important than just allowing the reader a place to put a bookmark before going to fix supper.

In my current work in progress, one of the characters is a mysterious little child whose mother has died. His mother is unknown to the other characters and the boy is unable to tell them enough for them to figure out who she is. Besides that, the boy has taken to speaking only to Sara. With the other characters, his usual response is to look right through them, as if they weren’t there. At the graveside service for his mother, Wayne tries to offer the boy encouragement and asks the boy a question, “Can I count on you to let us help you?” The next paragraph is the single line, “Bradley nodded.”

It was at that point that I chose to end the chapter. I could have easily written more about the funeral service and what followed it. As it relates to topic, a chapter break wouldn’t have been necessary for me to include that information, but by including a paragraph directly after that two word paragraph we lose significance. As is, the weight of all the previous chapters rest on those two words. Upon seeing that big splotch of whitespace following those two words, the reader will realize that is the important bit of information the whole chapter was driving to, “Bradley nodded.”

Even if all the reader does it turn to the next chapter and start reading, there is enough of a pause for the reader to consider the weight of those words. But suppose the reader really does put a bookmark in the book and goes to fix supper at this point. The thing she is thinking about as she browns the hamburger meat is, “Bradley nodded.” She has time to think back over the rest of what she has read and she can consider what is important about the fact that Bradley nodded.

So sometimes, our choice of where we put chapter breaks is a important as the words we choose.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How to Know if Your Writing is Good

One of the problems we writers face is that we have trouble determining if our writing is good or not. We want to believe it is, so our judgment is biased. Agents and publishers are no help because they don’t have time to critique our work. Friends and family are no help because they want to encourage us (or discourage us) and what they say may not be accurate. Critique groups aren’t much help either because there’s a tendency to either say another author’s work is good so that the author will feel good about the critic or to slam it so the critic’s own work looks better in comparison.

Here’s something you can do to get past these problems. Write a passage and forget that you did it. I mean that literally. Mix that passage in with similar length passages from other writers, but good and bad. After you’ve had sufficient time to forget what you wrote, go back and pick the passages that you think are well written and those that aren’t. Once you’ve done that, look at how well you rated the passage that you wrote.

I’ve sort of done this myself. I saw a Word document I had saved and found a writing example inside. My first thought was that I had saved the work of another author, but I didn’t remember why I had it. I approached the work with a critical eye, like I normally do, but I concluded that whoever had written it wasn’t a bad writer. Then I started to notice that the voice was similar to my own. I kept reading and discovered that I had written it. Frankly, I’m glad I liked it. It would have be bad if I had read my own work and thought it terrible.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Does Prayer Work

Scientific studies concerning the results of prayer are mixed. Some studies seem to show that it helps while others seem to indicate that it could actually have the opposite effect. Most of these studies have been done concerning the healing of sick patients. The purpose of one study I saw was to determine if prayer could be used as an effective treatment to speed the recovery time from surgery. The result was that the people who knew they were being prayed for had somewhat longer recovery times. So maybe prayer doesn’t work. That’s what that study seems to tell us. But to be honest, I’m not really surprised, given the conditions of the study. It has the appearance of putting God in a test tube to see if we can bottle him and put him to good use.

So many times, what people are looking for is for there to be some kind of power in the action itself. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what prayer is. People want prayer to be a type of magic that they can control. They want to pray for a million dollars and get it. They want to pray for healing and get it. Their whole concept of prayer rests on whether they receive what they asked for or not. But prayer, in the simplest terms, is talking to God. The fact that we have the ability to talk to God at all should amaze us. Who are we to talk to God? But we have better access to God than we do to a famous Hollywood movie star.

Imagine if we went to the home of a very wealthy man, sat down with him and said, “I would like for you to give me a million dollars.” You can be sure he isn’t going to just write us a check. Even if he is our parent, he isn’t going to do that. “What are you going to use it for?” he would ask us. If we tell him that it’s because we’re lazy and want to quit our job, there’s no way he would give it to us. But if we told him about a building we want to build to give children a place to go after school, our chances of getting that million dollars from him is much higher.

Now, transfer that same concept to our heavenly Father. He already knows why we ask for the things we ask for. When we ask for the wrong reason, he is under no obligation to give us what we ask for. Also, the things he does give us may come in a different form than we thought they would be or they might come on a different timetable. God is the higher authority in this relationship; he can do what he wants.

But God does want to give us things and when the things we ask for will be used in a way that pleases him, he will give us those things. We don’t need a scientific study to prove that God answers prayer. If you want to know if God answers prayer, why don’t you just ask him? As an example of God answering prayer, let me tell you about what happened to me the other day. While I’m not a great pianist by any means, I play the piano. As I was playing the piano the other day, was thinking about how I would like to play for congregational singing at our church. I won’t say I want to do it all the time, but it’s something of a stretch goal related to my playing ability. In my thirteen years at our church, I’ve had one opportunity to play the piano for congregational singing and I passed it up, saying my skill level wasn’t high enough. That was some time ago. But as I was playing the piano at home I worded a simple little prayer asking God to let me play for the congregational singing at church. That was on Sunday. On Wednesday, all of our better pianists were out. Our regular pianist was with her daughter-in-law who had just had a baby. Our pastor’s wife was vacationing. The regular alternate was out somewhere—I don’t know where. Our church secretary plays some and she was there, but she was off doing something else at the time for us to start. I was sitting all the way at the back and someone mentioned my name. The guy leading the singing that night looked back at me and said, “Yeah, he is here. Would you mind playing?”

As you look at that chain of events, there’s not a miracle in any of it. It wouldn’t be farfetched to say that it might have happened that way anyway. Answer to prayer or not? The situation isn’t unique, considering that key people are sometimes out at the same time for various reasons. The one thing that made this situation different was that someone mentioned my name. We were on the verge of singing acappella and yet I ended up playing. It was something that hadn’t happened in thirteen years. There is no escaping the fact that I prayed and what I asked for came into being.

While it may seem to beg the question, we know that God answers prayer because he answers prayer. We don’t need a scientific study to prove something that we have witnessed happening. If you want proof that God answers prayer, pray for something that is within the will of God and observe that he answers prayer.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Damsels in Distress

The topic came up the other day about damsels in distress. It was related to Bella from the Twilight series. The woman saying it was basically saying that Bella is much too weak and stupid. I haven’t read the books or watched the movies, but I’ve gotten the impression that they’re about getting women’s hearts pumping. As such, the idea is to make Bella an average woman that women can connect with and then put her in situations where good looking muscle bound young men can save her. Of course that doesn’t really happen in real life because men like that are too busy looking at their reflections in the mirror and primping for their close-up. But in fiction we’re free to create a world that operates the way we want. But just how strong should a damsel in distress be?

I know of some women in real life that really are very weak. They can find their way out of bed by noon, after which they find their way to the mall to buy shoes, but there isn’t a single intelligent thought that runs through their heads. They need someone to explain even the simplest of tasks. But on the other end of the scale there are women who when you shake hands with them you can just tell they are hard workers. They give you a firm handshake. There are calluses on their hands. If their husbands are away from home and something needs to be done, these women will figure out how to accomplish it. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to look nice once in a while, but they aren’t weak.

In terms of connecting with the reader, there are women of all types and readers of all types, so I don’t think we have to be overly concerned about that. Apparently, Stephanie Meyers was able to connect to readers with a very weak woman. But in terms of the damsel in distress story itself, I think there are other things we need to consider. The whole reason we have damsel in distress stories is because we want the handsome knight rushing in to save the day. For women, this is about her imagining what it would be like to marry a great hero of a man. But it has appeal to men as well because men like to imagine what it would be like to be that great hero. Look at the movie Die Hard. That’s a man’s movie, but at its heart it is a damsel in distress story.

In a damsel in distress story, we want the hero to be as strong as he can be. Applying the show, don’t just tell rule, the strength of the hero is revealed by the strength of the villains he defeats. It doesn’t take much strength to take down some evil accountants, for example, but if he takes down a drug lord who is well protected by an army of men, that’s a different story. But we don’t know just how strong the drug lord is unless he takes down some people. He kidnaps our damsel. If she is weak, that doesn’t tell us much about the drug lord. But suppose she also has an army to protect her. Only after the drug lord’s men break through her army are they able to take her. So now, when our hero rushes in to rescue the damsel we see that he is still more powerful. So, I would argue that the best damsels are not weak but strong.

While we’re on the subject, let’s look at a different kind of damsel in distress story. The Shakiest Gun in the West is the story of a eastern born dentist who decides to take dental hygiene to the people out west. He can’t shoot worth anything and ends up spending too much money for a wagon without horses to pull it. He appears to be the weakest hero you ever saw. Then along comes our damsel. She is an outlaw who has been promised a pardon if she’ll help find out who is running guns to the Indians. The federal marshal she’s working with is killed, but rather than go to jail she hopes to carry out the plan anyway. There’s nothing weak about this damsel. Her one problem is that she can’t get on the wagon train as an unmarried woman. Having no other options, she persuades the dentist to marry her under false pretenses. After several situations in which she saves our hero’s skin, she is captured by the villains and carted off to the Indians. Our hero runs after her, intending to rescue his wife. He dresses as an Indian woman and frees her, only to be discovered himself. Facing a duel with another man, he has confidence because he sees her rifle sticking out of the teepee. But other men who came to rescue her pull her away before she can fire a shot. The men and she return to town, fearful that the newly armed Indian warriors will take control of the town. They wait behind barricades for the Indians to come. But when they come, the dentist is leading the way. By a stroke of luck, he won the duel, but he fitted the Indian Chief with a set of false teeth and negotiated peace by offering him a big juicy steak.

This isn’t the typical damsel in distress story, but it illustrates what I was saying. The strength of the Indian threat is revealed by the strength we see in the damsel. There isn’t much that scares her, but these Indians scare her and the strong men around her. At first, we have trouble seeing the strength in the dentist, but in the end we see that his strength is of a different kind than that of most men out west and it is a strength that is even stronger than what they have. So it makes sense in the end when our damsel carries her man off into the sunset.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What Would Jesus Do To Those Who Would Say He Would Sin?

Charles Sheldon introduced the world to the question What would Jesus do? when he wrote the book In His Steps 114 years ago. I can’t help but think that that question gets answered in a far different way today than what Sheldon thought it would way back in the day. As I was driving into work yesterday, I had the radio on and I heard about a woman preacher within the Presbyterian Church who is facing church discipline for conducting Sodomite weddings. That is unless the Presbyterian Church votes to change their constitution to define marriage as between two people rather than between a man and a woman. The words I heard her say were, “I was only doing what I believed Jesus would want us to do.”

I had thought to write about the ecumenical movement today, because I see so many writers who go to writers conferences and come away thinking that it would be such a good thing for all Christians to put aside their differences and worship together because “we all agree on the important things” but when I heard about this I realized that if you can’t look at current events and see how wrong it would be, nothing I can say will persuade you. I mean get real! At what point did supporting fornication become what Jesus would have us do?

One church sign read, “Jesus in not a law maker, but a life giver.” The Bible never says that. Jesus himself said that he didn’t come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Mathew 5:17). Some people have this idea that because we are under grace the law is of no use. Others have taken this a step farther and would throw out the Old Testament completely. They would have us think that Jesus is all about forgiveness. They would have us believe that old time Christianity is outdated. The belief seems to be that the world has moved on and Christians need to move on too. That, they believe, is what Jesus would do.

Remember what Jesus would say after he had forgiven someone? “Go and sin no more.” The woman who as caught in adultery wasn’t stoned, but Jesus didn’t give her permission to keep doing what she’d been doing. We are to love people who sin, but loving people and encouraging them in their sin are to different things.

Look at the Book of Jude. Read it. Study it. It’s a short letter, but it has a lot to say. If anyone has a right claim they know what Jesus would do, Jude does. There is some dispute exactly who Jude was, but any of the possibilities would have made him more aware of what Jesus would have done than what we are. He may have been the Apostle, thought that is somewhat unlikely. He may have been the son of James the brother of Jesus, but most likely he was a brother of Jesus, one of the sons of Joseph and Mary. So we’re looking at a book written by a man who at least learned at the feet of Jesus and it’s very likely that Jesus changed his diapers. Now how’s that for knowing what Jesus would do?

What does Jesus have to say about people like this Presbyterian preacher woman? He reminds us that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their fornication (verse 7). He calls them filthy dreamers (verse 8). He calls them ignorant (verse 10). He calls them spots on our fellowship meals and clouds without water (verse 12). He says they walk after their own lusts (verse 18). He calls them sensual and says they aren’t listening to the Spirit (verse 19). He promises judgment (verse 15).

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to believe a man who grew up in the same home as Jesus and promises judgment on people who are trying to teach ungodly doctrine. And while we may be able to pull some of these back (verses 22, 23) we are not to take part in their ungodly ways.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Stories With a Twist

How do we write a story with a twist at the end. You know the type—a man spends the whole story searching for the person who hit and killed his wife with a car. He finds a man and the man goes to prison, but as the story closes we see something that tells us that the man who was searching for the killer is actually the killer himself, so he was just looking for a scapegoat.

I think one of the things that make stories like this interesting to us writers is that we’re essentially writing two stories at once. We have the story that we want the reader to believe throughout the book, but it has to match up with the story that will be revealed on the final page. Some of our characters have two motives. There’s the motive that we want the reader to believe and the motive that the character actually has. Both motives must be capable of producing the same action.

Writing a story like this requires that we start at the end, because that is the most important part. We may have a rough idea of what the story is about, but that twist has to be etched in stone before we write the rest of the story. Once we have that, we know our two motives and can start adding the details of the story.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Making a Better Plot

On her blog, I’ve seen Rachelle Gardner write that she would rather see a well written manuscript with a poor plot than a poorly written manuscript with a great plot. The assumption here is that an agent can make suggestions concerning the plot and through a collaborative effort the author and agent can produce a good book, whereas poor writing is much more difficult to correct because it requires going through the manuscript sentence by sentence to make changes. I see some truth to that. Assuming the agent has the ability to do either, improving the plot requires less work, but is that a safe assumption. I kind of wonder if literary agents aren’t somewhat like movie directors who believe they can fix all of the mistakes that happened on the set in the editing room. The implication is that plotting is so easy that anyone can do it.

Recently, I’ve watched many of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes. You would be hard pressed to find a television series with better written episodes. But it’s the plots that make these episodes what they are. In one episode two men are in a bar. One man is having marital problems. His wife is openly having an affair with another man. It is established that the husband can’t beat up his wife’s lover because he was once a professional boxer, but the other man in the bar, a legal student, suggests that the husband challenge the lover to a duel. According to the legal student, under California law a duel doesn’t carry with it the same consequences as murder and a jury might be lenient, considering the situation. They work out how it can be done and the husband goes home. He finds his wife and her lover together, pulls a couple of swords off the wall and challenges the man to a duel. The husband kills the lover, and then turns himself in to the police. The trial takes place and it works out just as the legal student said, except the judge throws in an additional provision in California law that requires the winner of the duel to provide for the survivors of the person killed. There is one son and the judge rules that the husband must give the son $100,000 and $1,000 a month for the rest of his life. The husband, a wealthy man, is happy to do this since this is the price of ridding himself of his wife’s lover. He returns home and finds that his wife is with another man. When we see who the man is, we find that it is the legal student from the bar who also happens to be the son of the man killed.

After watching that episode, I began to ask myself what I would do if I wanted to come up with a similar story. We can’t just copy the story; it has already been done. It isn’t likely that it was just a creative stroke of genius or a dream in the night that created this plot. As I considered it, most of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents stories are setup in a similar way. The story follows one line that is quite interesting in and of itself, but then we reach the end and we are given a twist that changes our understanding of the story. The stories are the work of skilled writers.

It’s easy to come up with a plot, but not all plots are created equal. My mother has told me that of the novels I’ve written, she likes For the Love of a Devil more than the others. So do I and it all has to do with the plot. I like the others and stand behind them, but For the Love of a Devil as a little extra spark. The difference is that the theme is much more primal. It’s about a man who wants his wife back. Searching for Mom is a little closer to that, since it is about a girl who wants a mother, but when I look at the plots of How to Become a Bible Character and And Thy House they aren’t as primal. And Thy House has the appearance of being primal because it is about a man who wants his children saved, but it’s hard to bring that down to an immediate concern. We feel an immediate concern when we’re under conviction, but no book can put the reader under conviction.

So here’s the problem, the stories are what they are. An agent or an editor might be able to go through and suggest ramping up a scene, deleting a scene or adding a scene, but no such change will make How to Become a Bible Character as primal as For the Love of a Devil. If you read both of these books, I think you’ll find that some of the scenes in How to Become a Bible Character are ramped up just as much as those in For the Love of a Devil. I don’t care how good you think you are, not plot changes you can make will ever make How to Become a Bible Character the story that For the Love of a Devil is.

There are things we can do to improve the plot of a story after it is written, but there fundamental things that can’t be changed without creating a new story. That aspect of writing requires skill. I believe it is a learnable skill, but it isn’t a skill everyone has. So, when an agent says that she can help an author with a plot, I think what we’ll find is that she can only improve upon the strengths of a manuscript that has a great plot as its backbone, but no more.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Three Important Things

What does it take to have a good novel? As much as we would like to know the answer to that, it isn’t always an easy thing to answer. There’s lot of subjectivity. A lot of people talk about the rules of writing, but there’s always an exception that people point to and wonder why that particular author was able to get by with it. So what I would like to address today are three things that must be handled well in every story, without exception, in order for the story to be good. These three aren’t checkbox items that you have or you don’t but rather things that as you handle them better your story improves. The best stories handle them very well and the worst stories handle them poorly.

A Likeable Protagonist

We’ve all run into stories with a protagonist we had trouble connecting with. Maybe we didn’t out and out dislike the guy, but we didn’t care what happened to him. It’s like the story of the woman who had fifteen kids. One of them fell in a tar pit and the children came running to tell her. “Leave him there,” she said. “It’s easier to have another one than to clean him up.” We find these protagonists and something bad is about to happen to them, but we don’t care or we hope it does. I usually don’t make it to the end of these stories.

By likeable, we don’t mean that the protagonist is the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry. Maybe he is, but he could just as easily be a criminal of some sort. We might not want to spend time with him in the real world or run into him in a dark alley, but we like him as a character and we feel a connection to him. There’s something about him that makes us believe he is like us.

The key to creating a likable character is to have him do something good when we introduce him. Take an ice cream vender, for example. This vender is approached by a kid with no money, but the vender gives the kid an ice cream cone anyway. Later, when the ice cream vender gets into a fight with his wife, we find it much easier to side with the vendor because we know that there is a redeeming quality within him. Had we just shown the fight we would have thought badly of him. We might not like the wife either and the book would be ruined for us.

Something at Stake

Let’s say our protagonist is taking on city hall because they’ve passed an ordinance that keeps him from planting flowers next to the street. Most likely, that would create a very boring story. But what if our ice cream vendor takes on city hall because they’ve passed an ordinance that prohibits street vendors. Now we’ve raised the stakes by targeting his livelihood. It’s essentially the same story, but it got more interesting. We could push the stakes even higher by having city hall pass an ordinance that will only allow him to sell ice cream in a gang infested neighborhood. Now, not only is his job on the line, but his life may be as well.

That may be stretching our ice cream vendor story a bit far, but the point is that the higher we raise the stakes the better the story becomes. Our protagonist needs to be at risk of losing something that is very important to him. That thing should be something that we easily understand why he is afraid of losing it. The importance of the thing at stake and the immediacy of the risk determine how realistic it is that the character will take significant action. The city not allowing flowers next to the street warrants a letter to a city councilman or a visit to the city council meeting, but a loss of a job might convince a man to take more drastic action.

Conflicting Goals and Motives

Imagine this story: something bad happens. Our protagonist says, “This is what we should do.” Our antagonist says, “I agree.” That’s about as boring as you can get. But let’s suppose we have a villain who is going to blow the dam. Hero A says, “Let’s call the cops, so they can stop him.” Hero B says, “Let’s stop him ourselves.” We have three different people who want to do three different things and they each have a reason. The villain is angry at the town. Hero A wants him stopped, but Hero A is fearful. Hero B also wants him stopped but Hero B wants to get the credit for stopping him. Because of this, the two heroes could appear to be antagonists to each other. Hero A will put Hero B’s goal at risk. Hero B might try to stop Hero A before he goes after the villain.

Putting the characters at odds with each other in this way introduces possible situations with unexpected results. Even the good guys can’t agree and no more than one can be right.

If these things are handled well in the story, the story will be good. If even one of them is missing or handled poorly, the story will be poor.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Do Backstory Right

Some people are just better at writing backstory than others. As a rule, backstory isn’t a good thing because it tends to bring the story to a halt, but many writers still insist on using it and some of the bestselling books have large segments of backstory. With an if you can beat them, join them attitude, let’s consider what it might take to create interesting backstory.

One idea is that once we’re invested in the character we’re more likely to be interested in the backstory. This is the concept behind the idea that we shouldn’t have any backstory until page [insert some page number here]. I believe there’s some truth to that, but it doesn’t explain why some writers are able to begin a book with backstory and people read the book anyway.

I saw a blog the other day in which someone was talking about Justin Cronin’s The Passage. The blogger stated that she found the book to be a page turner, even though Cronin broke so many rules, including using so much backstory. I haven’t read the entire book, but it begins with backstory. The opening lines are these:

Before she became the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years—she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy, Amy Harper Bellafonte.

The day Amy was born, her mother, Jeanette, was nineteen years old. Jeanette name her baby Amy for her own mother, who’d died when Jeanette was little, and gave her the middle name Harper for Harper Lee, the Lady who’d written To Kill a Mockingbird, Jeanette’s favorite book—truth be told, the only book she’d made it all the way through in high school….

The rest of the page continues like that. Clearly, it is backstory, but Cronin uses this backstory differently than the way we normally see backstory used. Typically, backstory is used to justify something. The author is afraid the reader won’t believe the story if the reader doesn’t know where the story is coming from. In this case, the backstory is introducing the character as an interesting person. It might better be described as a character sketch than backstory, but we quickly see that even if the character does nothing she is interesting. The first paragraph implies that a girl from Iowa became a god like character. Cronin hasn’t yet told us how that happened, just that it happened. But the name is also interesting. About all I can say about Iowa is that I’ve been there. But what is a woman with the name Bellafonte doing in Iowa. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s possible, but it doesn’t seem like the type of name you’d expect to find there. That makes it interesting. A teenager having a baby tells us something and the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird struck a chord with Jeanette when no other book did tells us something also. We just aren’t sure what it is.

Do you see what happened there? Cronin’s backstory doesn’t answer questions that we didn’t want answered but instead raises questions that we hope he’ll answer in the book or just in the next paragraph. That’s really what the rule should be. Rather than making it a rule that we shouldn’t use backstory, the rule should be that we raise questions as we write. I don’t mean the kind with question marks at the end, but the reader should encounter details that cause him to question how it came to be or why the character is doing that. Even the simplest of activities can raise questions in the mind of the reader. A character sitting in a café may stir his coffee with a spoon. That is an ordinary thing that doesn’t raise any questions, but what if we instead said that our character stirred his coffee with a gold plated bottle opener? That would raise questions like who would have a bottle opener these days and why is this one gold plated? Why is it so unimportant to him that he would stick it in his coffee? If you’re going to do backstory, focus on the details and make us ask questions.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Shocking and Not So Shocking

Call it writing research if you will, but I was looking at the question of putting a father’s name on a baby’s birth certificate (not mine, I assure you) and became bombarded with websites in which unmarried women are asking about whether they should or should not put the father’s name on the birth certificate. Being naïve like I am, the thought had never crossed my mind that a mother who knew the name of the father would leave it off because she thought it would prevent him from laying claim to the baby or something like that. As I perused those websites, it shocked me how self-centered people can be. These women had not thought for what would be best for the father of their child. They had no thought for what would be best for what would be best for the child. All they cared about was what would make their own lives easier. You would think that the baby was nothing more than a possession and the baby’s father was nothing more than a means of obtaining that possession.

People find out that an unmarried woman is pregnant and they say, “She made a mistake.” That’s true, but pregnancy is not the mistake. To say that it is would be to say that a baby is a mistake and not child is a mistake. So what really gets me about these women looking to make things easier on themselves by leaving the father’s name off the birth certificate (which I doubt makes anything easier) is that they seem to think that they deserve life to be easier. The fact is that they chose to give up that right—not when they got pregnant—when they chose to have sex outside of marriage.

So many people have forgotten that it is God who designed sex and it is God who said it is only to occur within marriage. God designed marriage in such a way that the man and the woman are stuck together. They are no longer two people from different families but they are one. So when sex occurs and the woman’s midsection begins to swell, the man is stuck with her. He no longer has the option of going out and finding another woman who can get out and do the things he wants to do. When the children come and the doctor bill and the diaper bill and all the other bills start coming in, he no longer has the option of looking for a woman without children because he’s stuck with the one woman and the children that they share. While the laws require a man to pay child support, marriage is a woman’s assurance that the man will be there to take care of her. But it’s also the man’s assurance that the woman will be there for him. Whatever the laws of the land may say, when people have sex outside of marriage, it should come as no surprise when the other person up and decides to look for greener pastures. After all, they never actually committed to stay in the relationship.