Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Latest Disagreement with Michael Hyatt

Recently, Seth Godin wrote about why he is Moving On and no longer communicating through traditionally published books. In response to that post, Michael Hyatt wrote Why Most Authors Should Not Emulate Seth Godin. He made four arguments against it. While I don’t totally agree with Seth Godin, I don’t agree with Mike’s arguments either. I will address each in turn.

Most authors can’t get directly to their readers.

If you read the Godin article, this is part of the reason Godin is saying goodbye to traditional publishing. His statement is that the author doesn’t sell to the reader but to the publisher. Mike rightly says that Seth Godin has a much larger platform than most of us, but I disagree with his statement that most authors can’t get direct access to the readers. In fact, when we look at the way the publishing industry works, if an author can’t get direct access to the readers he can’t get a publishing contract either. Publishers have the expectation that authors will bring readers with them, not the other way around. If an author is going to have direct access to readers, he is much more likely to achieve that through electronic methods than through a book sitting on the shelf in a bookstore. Oddly, Mike stated that an author without a platform is like John the Baptist, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.” John had a platform and drew crowds. Maybe more of us need to follow his example.

Much content doesn’t lend itself to alternative forms of distribution.

Okay, so Mike has a good point here. There’s a lot of information out there that is best in long book format. It doesn’t work well, for example, to try to publish fiction through blogging. But let’s not forget that there’s a lot of information out there we can present better in non-book form. The question is, are we writing a book just to be writing a book or are we hoping to communicate? If communication is the goal, we can use websites of various forms. We can use video. We can use public speaking. Books are just one form of communication.

Most authors still have need to monetize their content.

Really? Why? Sure, I would love to make a ton of money from selling books. Who would pass up money if it is easy to come by? But do I really have a “need” to make money from my content? I published my first book several years ago and I’m still making money from it. Because of that book, I’ve made a profit from may publishing efforts, but I’ve got a day job. And this is true of most authors. While it would be nice to have the freedom to devote myself to writing, few authors make enough money from writing to cover the cost of writing. For that matter, few authors make any money at all. Most authors don’t even have a publishing contract and yet they keep on writing. We may not like the idea of giving our work away for nothing, but it won’t kill us if we do.

Most authors aren’t prepared to setup an alternative publishing infrastructure.

To this, Mike talked about “the ugly stuff” of publishing, including cover design, editing, typesetting, eBook formats, jacket and marketing copy, etc. My claim is that most authors are better prepared to do that stuff than they are to get a publishing contract. Actually, from what I’ve heard, traditionally published authors are doing a lot of that stuff anyway. Not cover design (not yet anyway), but they write the jacket and marketing copy. They also are responsible for putting together the book video, in many cases. If more publishers would provide expertise in areas where authors are weak, then I could see there being some truth to this argument, but the trend is that publishers are relying on one person, the author, to be the expert in everything. But most authors aren’t the experts. If that means failure at traditional publishing, then of course they will look for alternatives. Traditional publishers should make life easier for authors, not harder. Until that is the case, it is easy to see why authors might want to chuck the traditional publishing process.

I think the root of why Mike and I disagree on this is that we’re looking at it from opposite perspectives. The authors that I hang out with tend to be unpublished or authors with low sales volume. Mike, on the other hand has the opportunity to hang out with people he has described as “important authors.” And while he’s aware that there are a lot of authors out there who aren’t that successful, he has the luxury of giving very little thought to authors who don’t have a publishing contract, since they are little, if any, competition to the books Thomas Nelson publish. It’s hard to see how difficult it is for authors to follow the traditional publishing route when most of the authors you know are not only traditionally published but have achieved some degree of success. But when a root canal seems like more fun than dealing with traditional publishers, it is easy to consider alternatives.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Plot vs. What It's About

What’s the difference between plot and what the story’s about? In some ways, it seems like we’re talking about two terms to describe the same thing, but in others it doesn’t. One of the frequently used plots in television shows is that of Twelve Angry Men. You will recall that this screen play is about twelve men in a jury room who are anxious to go home. All but one vote that the defendant is guilty and even the person who votes not guilty just doesn’t feel right about having a quick vote without examining the evidence. They begin to look at the evidence and one by one they change their votes until they leave the jury room satisfied that the defendant is truly innocent. I’m sure that most film students are required to study this script at some point in their college careers. That may explain why it appears in so many television series. But there is a difference in each case. Monk’s version of this skit is very different from The Dead Zone’s version of this skit and they are both different from the original.

In Monk’s version, Monk solves the case by some of what he sees, including a murder that took place outside the jury room window. By the end of the show, we find that one of the jurors is involved. In The Dead Zone’s version, the psychic protagonist has doubts because of something he saw in a psychic vision. So, what we see is that the plot is flavored by the nature of the characters in the show. Monk is about a former police detective who has special abilities and many flaws. The Dead Zone is about a guy who woke up from a coma with special psychic abilities. Even when we place these people in the same plot, we must stay true to their nature.

Along that line, even though we talk about stories being about the changes a character experiences, there are some things that we should never change about a character. For example, we would never make Superman an ordinary man. At least, if we do, he must get his power back. It is always a bad thing in television for two main characters to get married. When a show is “about” a single guy, people expect him to stay single. If the show is “about” a married couple, people expect them to stay married. We can think of these things as constants in the world of our story. Whatever ease may change, these things must remain true. These things tend to be the things that draw us to the story. If a superhero has the ability to heal very quickly, we may be drawn to the story because of that. We are not interested in seeing how she lives without her superpower. If a story is about a single mother with ten kids, we aren’t interested in a story in which the ten kids are dead or in which she is married.

These constants are so important that when we even threaten to mess with them the reader feels a since of fear that we will ruin the story. This can we a way to introduce the concept of death into a story without actually killing anyone, but our ending can never be happy if we do not reestablish these constants by the end of the story. If a character has to give up who he is to get the woman he loves, it is sad. The reader wants the story to go on, but that is impossible if we change these constants. Oh, we can place the character in another plot, but it won’t be “about” the same thing.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Never an A-lister

I really don’t expect that I’ll ever be an A-list author. And I’m fine with that. I’ve made some observations about a similar environment, that of preachers. There are a number of A-list pastors out there. You can hear most of them on the radio or read their books. Some of them are great speakers and provide great entertainment. They can attract thousands of people each week. But here’s the interesting thing, if someone were to ask me to name the best pastor living today there isn’t a single A-list preacher that would come to mind. Of course, my own pastor would come to mind, but if I broadened my field of view to include other churches, the pastors that would come to mind mostly pastor small churches. A few of the men that come to mind pastor larger churches, but none are A-list preachers.

There is a simple truth that we so often forget. God uses people who are weak to accomplish his work in order to show himself strong. I truly believe that he has put some of his best men in some of the most out of the way places and while many of the A-list preachers may have a lot of good things to say, they are not “the best.” As authors, we might like to have the following that the A-list authors have, but I think we have a better chance of accomplishing something for God through our writing if we remain obscure.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Detectives are Backwards Protagonists

We want our characters to be fish out of water. You must realize, of course, that I’m an expert on fish out of water. But that has nothing to do with writing. Often, when we look at the story structure we find that the second quarter of the story is when the protagonist is the most out of his element. In Cinderella this is when she makes her appearance at the ball. In Beauty and the Beast this is where Belle goes to live in the beast’s castle. It is always the case that we go from a character being within his element, but his element is killing him to him being out of his element and having to learn something to survive, or so it would seem. It’s interesting, but there is a whole class of stories that don’t follow that model. In fact, it is reversed.

Look at the detective story. In the detective story, our protagonist begins as a fish out of water, but when the mystery appears he really hits his stride. The detective protagonist is too much for the ordinary world. Look at Diagnosis Murder. The good doctor is on roller-skates and owns a car that hardly works. He seems very out of place until he uses his quirks to solve a murder. Or look at Monk. He is afraid of everything and everything has to be in its place. He doesn’t fit well with normal people, but when he is solving a murder it is those things that make him able to notice when things aren’t the way they should be. Sherlock Holmes never fit with normal people, but no one could solve a case better.

Often a detective story begins with the detective failing to solve a case. This fits with the premise that the detective begins as a fish out of water but moves in to his element as the main case comes into play. The failure helps to show that his way of doing things is so much different than that of his peers.

What this means to us is that if we want to write a good mystery, we need a detective who doesn’t quite fit in the normal world, but when the case appears the things that make him different become the tools he uses to solve the case. We don’t want a character who is normal but gets thrust into solving a case. We want a character who should be solving a case but something is preventing him from having a case to solve.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Better Route to Traditional Publication?

Yesterday, I read that publishers are accepting 1-2% of the books submitted to them, including those submitted by agents. The same blog post stated that 1-5% of self-published books are being picked up by traditional publishers. On the surface, this makes it appear that a self-published book is twice as likely to be selected by a traditional publisher as a book that has an agent. I want to take a closer look at this, but before we go too far, I want to point out that these numbers may not be completely accurate and it isn’t always easy to compare the self-published path to the traditionally published path. Still, if were willing to accept some uncertainty, this “fact” is interesting.

Considering that publishers don’t like accepting unsolicited manuscripts without an agent, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume that publishers are accepting 2% of the agented books submitted to them. But what is that in terms of the likelihood that one particular book—your book—will be picked up by a publisher? It’s hard to say, but let’s suppose that one out of ten manuscripts are agented. That puts the odds of a book being published at 1 in 500. If only 5% are accepted by agents, then the odds of your book being published are 1 in 1000 when you go the traditional route.

Now consider the self-published route. Anyone can publish a book, so the odd of reaching traditional publication by first going the self-published route could be as high as 1 in 20. Even if agents accepted 100% of the books sent to them, you wouldn’t be able to achieve that great of odds.

So it seems that your best bet for reaching traditional publication is to self-publish first. But before everyone rushes out to self-publish their books, let’s look at why this might be true. Up until now, agents have argued that they serve as gatekeepers, preventing all the junk from reaching the publishers. So, if Rachelle Gardner’s numbers are anywhere close to right, it could be that capitalism serves as a better filter than agents do. Unlike when an agent pitches a book to an editor, the successful self-publisher is able to present actual sales data. The agent makes a decision based on what he thinks will sell, but the self-publisher can present verifiable data showing that he has sold some number of books. How many books? Oh, about 5,000 to 10,000. That isn’t easy to accomplish, but what publisher wouldn’t be interested in a book that has sold that many copies?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Getting Published is Easy

My research on the subject is by no means scientific, but my observations indicate that most authors aren’t interested in learning how to write, just in getting whatever they’ve written published. I base that statement on the fact that I get far more traffic and comments from people looking for information about getting published than the people who are looking for ways to improve their own writing. I have naïvely hoped that by posting about writing I would be able to spur some discussion about writing. I thought maybe someone would disagree with me on a few things and it would get interesting, but that has not been the case. What I have found, however, is that people are very interested in posts I’ve written about the details of getting published.

Let’s face it folks, getting published is easy and cheap. With a little knowhow, you can get anything you want published in book form and available for sale around the world within a few days. But convincing other people that they want to stand behind your book is a different story. While there’s more to it than just having a good story, the main reason people will stand behind a book is because they like what it says. Many authors are focusing so much attention on doing everything right, from obeying the rules of writing to wording the query letter correctly. There are even agents out there who dedicate a lot of time critiquing query letters. I think those agents should get over themselves, but it just goes to show how much importance has been placed on the stuff that isn’t really that important.

I don’t know that I can say anything that will change people’s attitude, but it seems to me that the relatively small number of people who are actually students of writing is a good thing. While everyone is just sending out the same old trash, these people are gradually improving their work. They may not start out as great writers, but over time they will become great writers. We look at the many thousands of people who hope to be traditionally published and we wonder if we have any hope, but the vast majority of those authors are no good and they will always be no good. But the people who work to improve have a much better chance.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Three Words Christians Don't Understand

Recently, I’ve been thinking about three words, blessing, praise, and worship. In those three words we have two pairs. We often use blessing and praise in a similar way. The Bible tells us to praise God and it also tells us to bless God. And we often talk about praise and worship. But as we consider these words, I think few people use blessing and worship correctly while praise isn’t used enough. The reason I say that is that I believe many churches are doing a lot of praise while forgetting about blessing and worship.

Praise is an easy word to understand. When a child does something good, we praise him for it. We never praise a child for something that he will do in the future. The same is true when we talk about praising God. We don’t praise God for the things he is going to do, but when we talk or sing about the great things he has done for us, that is praise. The song says, “Praise him! Praise him, Jesus our blessed redeemer. For our sins he suffered and bled and died.” Notice the use of past tense in the wording. We praise him because he has already suffered, bled, and died for our sins to redeem us.

Bless is a similar word to praise, but rather than talking about the events of the past, it refers to telling about the things of the future. When we sing the words, “For he shall reign forever and ever,” we are blessing God. There is confusion with this word because we think of the blessings we receive from God. We talk about being blessed with good health or with financial wellbeing and think of the stuff we have. This isn’t an incorrect usage of the word because when God says something will happen it is guaranteed, but the blessing isn’t the thing we receive but what God has said. Consider that blessing and cursing are opposites. If I say, “the Lord be with you,” that is a blessing while “go to hell,” is a curse. I have no more ability to cause the Lord to be with you than I have to send you to hell, but that doesn’t keep me from blessing or cursing you. The strength of those words are only as strong as the one who backs them up.

Worship is a word we use often to refer to what we do on Sunday. We attend a worship service. We have praise and worship. We talk about contemporary or traditional worship. Most of the time, we are using the word incorrectly. In the Bible, worship is always done with the worshiper facing down. Often we see it with the worshiper flat on his face before God. Worship never takes place with the worshiper standing. In praise we talk about how great God is, but in worship we recognize how unworthy we are. Worship is about recognizing that we are sinners. Worship is about recognizing that God is sovereign. Worship is about recognizing that God is holy and we are not. We don’t see a lot of that these days. So many people are focused on telling about the love of God and how much God wants to have a good relationship with people and making people feel good about their relationship with God. People like to focus on what God can do for them, but they aren’t so interested in worship. People are interested in forgiveness, but they want nothing to do with repentance.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Liking Characters

How do we make a character likeable? It isn’t always an easy task and yet we need people to like a character or they won’t stick with him throughout the story. By like I mean that readers want to know more about him, not that they want to be his friend. It isn’t as easy as making the character the good guy. Jar Jar Binks is perhaps the most despised character in the Star Wars franchise and yet he is one of the good guys. Conversely, the television show Dexter is built around a serial killer. I haven’t watched more than a few minutes of the show, but it seems that he is a likeable character.

Blake Snyder used to talk about making a character likeable through the use of a device he called the save the cat moment. Essentially, this works by having the character do something good, such as saving a cat, when we’re introduced to the character. Whatever bad stuff the character might do later, we’ll always remember that there’s something good about him, there’s something worth saving. In what I saw of the show Dexter, I believe that is why he is likeable. Even though he is a serial killer, he appears to be good to the people around him and he doesn’t want to be a serial killer. It also appears that he chooses victims that deserve to die for their crimes, giving us little reason to feel sorry for the victims. To make a character likeable, even the worst of characters, we have to create a situation in which it appears the character is “doing the right thing” given the inescapable nature of his situation.

So why then is Jar Jar Binks so dislikeable? I think that his problem is that he is so clumsy that he is always doing the wrong thing. He is exceptionally lucky, so the results turn out good, but we have no reason to want him to succeed in whatever he is trying to do. Usually, the actions he takes put the people around him in danger. Because we want to see them succeed, we want him out of the way. While he isn’t intentionally working with the villains, Jar Jar Binks is more closely aligned with the villain in a story than he is the hero.

When looking at the likability of a character, don’t consider whether the character is a great person or not. Instead, look at the redeemability of the character and how well he plays out his role in the situation he’s been dealt. If we gave him a better situation, would he do better things? Take a prostitute, for example. What she is doing is wrong, but prostitution is the only way she can survive in her situation then we might still find her likeable. But if we give her a way out and she refuses to change we’ll dislike her. And consider the philanthropist. He may give millions of dollars to worthy causes. We ought to like him, but if he’s only doing it to make himself look good then we might not like him at all. So it comes down to the motives of the person rather than the results of their actions.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Idea of an Idea

When you blog, sometimes things you say take you by surprise. The thing that surprised me about yesterday’s post was the statement that many story ideas begin with the inciting incident. I believe that’s a useful thing to know because it helps us know where we are and what we need to do. The inciting incident is a great starting point for the story idea because it allows us to ask the question of how we, other people, or our characters would handle the situation if something happened. If a child is killed in a hit and run accident, one person might lobby for a new traffic light, while another person might hunt down the driver and kill him with her car. The inciting incident is the same in both cases, but the story is very different.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Plot First or Character First?

Plot or character? I suppose you might call it a debate, but there are people who insist upon writing plot based stories and there are people who insist upon writing character based stories. I’ve also seen some people say we should chuck it all and writer premise based stories. I can’t say that’s such a bad idea, but the person who said it didn’t know what a premise is, defining it as the foundational idea upon which the characters and plot are based.[1] It may be good at this point to remind you that a premise is the statement we attempt to prove or disprove in an argument. The statement “writers should focus on character development first” is a premise, but that doesn’t mean we can create characters and plot from it. At the heart of this debate over plot, character, premise, or whatever is the underlying question of where should I start?

Let’s say you have a story idea. We won’t call it a premise, but you know enough to want to write the story and you’re looking for the best place to start. You could start with plot, detailing what happens and then finding characters with the proper motive. You could start with characters, find things that put them in conflict and then throw them together to find out where the conflict will lead. And while we’re at it, we might as well consider starting with the “premise.” There are a couple of possible ways to look at that. One is that you actually have a statement you want to make, so you build a story around it. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is built around the premise that slavery hurts innocent people, but many times the premise isn’t so clear and we may not know what it is until we’ve written much of the book.

The other way we start with the “premise” is what the writer I mentioned before is talking about. Often, the idea that triggers a book is the inciting incident. The writer gave an example premise as “A commodities broker lives for the excitement of the trading pit until his ex-wife dies and he must take custody of his four-year-old son.”[1] This is clearly the inciting incident, but it doesn’t tell us how the broker will handle the situation. There are many different stories we might build around this idea.

Beginning with the aforementioned inciting incident and developing the plot first, here are a few story concepts:

  • A commodities broker investigates the death of his ex-wife while struggling to help his son deal with the loss.
  • A commodities broker gives up the excitement of the trading pit in order to care for his son after the death of his ex-wife.
  • A commodities broker must prove he didn’t kill his ex-wife while trying to keep her family from hiding their son from him.
  • A commodities broker uses a dating service to find a wife to help care for his four-year-old son after the death of his ex-wife.

If we look at the characters first, we might have something like the following:

  • highly successful, but lonely commodities broker, doesn’t like kids
  • particularly needy four-year-old son
  • ex-wife’s family hates commodities broker

You’ll notice that the plots tell us little about the characters and the characters tell us little about the plot. In fact, the characters we defined could fit into any of the plots we defined. A plot doesn’t naturally come from throwing two enemies in a room together. At the same time, it’s impossible to fully develop a plot without knowing anything about the characters. In other words, we have to develop both plot and character together.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Premise

Recently, in the comments on The Kill Zone, Nancy J. Cohen stated, “In a murder mystery, [the premise] is usually who the victim is and where the body is found.” She’s actually wrong, but her statement is a premise. May sense? If so, you can stop reading now, but the rest of us are going to look at what a premise is.

Many people have the idea that the premise is what the story is about. Frankly, I may be guilty of using the word that way from time to time, but if we look at the dictionary definition of premise we find that it is “a proposition that forms the basis of an argument or from which a conclusion is drawn” (Encarta Dictionary). In more simple terms, a premise is a statement we’re trying to prove. Many novelists take issue with this because they see themselves writing to entertain rather than to make a point, but when examining story structure it’s beneficial to look at the similarities between a story and a traditional argument.

Before we go too deep, let’s look at an example. Often, the premise of a story is stated by one of the characters. The character may make the statement to the protagonist, but the protagonist won’t fully understand the truth of the statement until the end of the story. In the story of The Three Little Pigs, the momma pig says, “Whatever you do, do it the best that you can because that's the way to get along in the world.” That’s our premise, but the little pigs don’t understand until later in the story. The first two pigs don’t follow their mother’s advice and we see the opposite of the proposition when their houses fall and they are eaten up. This doesn’t prove the proposition, but it shows what the danger or not following it. But the third pig does follow his mother’s advice and builds a house of bricks. The house stands against the wolf’s huffing and puffing, so it seems to prove the proposition, but there are still arguments we must address. What if the wolf is smart and decides to enter the house another way? Or some of the other things we see the wolf doing in some versions of the story? The story shows that the pig, by following his mother’s advice is able to defeat the wolf at each turn, so by systematically eliminating the arguments against the proposition we prove that the premise is correct.

Now that you see the relationship of the premise to a story, it’s clear why the victim and location aren’t the premise to a mystery. We don’t have to prove the victim and location. As the authors, if we say the victim is dead, the victim is dead. The premise then has to be a statement about real life that we hope to prove by the story.

The premise of the story can also be called the theme of the story. While we may start writing without a clear idea of what the premise is, in time, the premise will reveal itself. Once that happens, anything in our story that doesn’t attempt to prove or disprove the premise will seem out of place. What if, for example, we told how the third pig’s brothers wouldn’t let him go to the ball and made him clean their houses? That concept fits nicely in Cinderella but is out of place in The Three Little Pigs. So once we know the premise it helps us to focus our story on the important stuff.

Stories relate to the premise something like this: We begin with a problem and someone states the premise as a means of getting rid of the problem. Next, we apply the premise to the problem in the form of a solution. Our solution seems to work, but our premise is challenged because our solution didn’t take everything into account. We adjust the solution, by again applying the premise and we’re victorious (or not) in proving our premise.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pitching the Catalyst

Blake Snyder is dead now, but the other day I listened to an interview he did shortly before he died. One of the things the interviewer asked was what mistakes he saw screenwriters making. In response, Blake said that he saw a lot of people making the mistake of pitching the catalyst rather than the fun and games. I could tell from the follow up questions that he interviewer didn’t have a clue what he was saying, but I listened with interest and thought to myself that he was absolutely right, patting myself on the back for not making that mistake. Then a few days later I opened a document in which I’d recorded what I saw as the logline for one of my stories. As it turns out, my clearly worded logline was the catalyst (inciting incident). So let’s say it’s an easy mistake to make.

If we pick on Where the Red Fern Grows again, the story is about a boy training two dogs to be championship quality hunting dogs. We’ll all agree that’s true and it turns out that that is exactly what happens in the fun-and-games section. The inciting incident is that Billy finds a magazine advertizing hunting dogs. If we pitch the story based on that, we would probably say that the story is about a boy who buys two hunting dogs. Blakes point is so what? Do I care that he bought two dogs? How is that different than if he bought two cats? In actual fact, it doesn’t matter whether he bought them or someone gave them to him. The story is about him training them.

It’s easy enough to figure out what a book like Where the Red Fern Grows is about, but it may be harder when it’s our own book. I saw a blog post by a literary agent claiming that she could tell what the book was about from the first thirty pages. I sure that what you’ll find is that she’s doing the very thing that Blake said not to do. She’s pitching the catalyst. But when we look at our own stories we may have a tendency to think about the catalyst. The idea for a book will often come to us in the form of a problem that needs to be solved. For example, Searching for Mom developed from the question of how a girl might go about setting her Dad up with a wife. Because that concept is so clear in our mind, we tend to think of it instead of what the book is actually about.

To keep from pitching the catalyst or the inciting incident, we need to turn our attention to the second quarter of the story. Whatever happens there is what we should be talking about. But you might be wondering what we should do if we look at that section and it does sound like a story we’d like to read or a story we think other people might like to read. In that case, you rewrite the story. At the very least you rewrite that section because your story is boring. Don’t waste your time sending queries until you have an interesting solution to the problem.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Wrestle With God

The Bible has a number of unusual stories. In Genesis 32 we find the account of Jacob’s name being changed to Israel. The unusual thing is what happened before God changed his name. Jacob was alone and wrestled with a man. Why he wrestled with the man isn’t clear, but Jacob wrestled with this man all night and refused to give up until the man blessed him. The man Jacob wrestled with was God. Many of the details of this story aren’t clear, but God felt it was important that it be included in the Bible. I have to think that there’s something more here than just that Jacob’s name changed.

Oh the audacity of Jacob to wrestle with God, but Jesus spoke of how men ought to pray and not faint in Luke 18. He told of an evil ruler and a woman who came to him for help. He wouldn’t have helped her, but she was persistent and he helped her because of her persistence. Jesus contrasted God with that ruler, saying that God would avenge his elect speedily, but he also talked about them crying unto him day and night. When we pray, God hears us the first time, but there’s benefit in wrestling with God. To wrestle with God shows our faith. That isn’t to say that God needs to see our faith, but we need to see our own faith. Had Jacob not believed the man he wrestled with could and would bless him, he wouldn’t have spent the night holding onto him.

When we pray, we may tell ourselves that we believe God will answer, but we often have the attitude that he either will or he won’t and it’s up to him. It could be that we’re too quick to take no for an answer. Jacob spent the whole night wrestling with God, refusing to let go until God blessed him. How long are we willing to pray? For how many of us is it our custom to say a short prayer at various times of the day? Perhaps it takes a minute of our time. But it’s not so easy for us to spend more time in prayer. An hour? Two hours? A whole night? It’s easy when we’re emotionally disturbed by something, but not with other things. But it takes faith to pray in such a way that we refuse to give up until God gives us an answer. We’re quick to settle for whatever. We may even think of ourselves as more devote because we’re willing to accept whatever answer God will give us. But when we look at the prayers of the great men of the Bible, that doesn’t appear to be their attitude. Yes, they were willing accept God’s revealed will, but until he revealed his will, they didn’t give up.

Often, we assume that because things are the way they are that that is God’s will for the situation. We might assume that God has a best solution for everything and if we just accept it then he’ll give us what is best. Even so, we take action on things as if we have the ability to change things. God has revealed his will concerning a great many things, but he often leaves the details of our lives wide open for us to decide what we want to do. And in some cases is may be that he wants us to ask for things so that we can see that he responds to our prayer made in faith. So it is beneficial for us to wrestle with God when we pray, asking specifically for a blessing from God and refusing to give up until God gives us a clear answer. He may still say no, but let’s not assume that’s the answer until he gives us the answer.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Anne Rice Leaves Christianity... ...Again

Today we leave our regularly scheduled program to talk about the big news in the Christian publishing world. (Okay, it’s a few days old, but we’ll talk about it anyway.) Anne Rice has left Christianity. Apparently, Anne Rice thinks you can switch from being a Christian to not being a Christian like you can change your underwear. Some time ago she left to become an atheist, then she came back. Well, now she’s gone again. And you know what? I refuse to be like some of these other churches and beg her to come join us instead of doing whatever she’s doing. As someone has said, none of us have a right to hear the gospel twice before everyone has heard it once. I believe she is a prime example of what is wrong with Christianity today. But before I get into that, let’s look at her own reasons for leaving Christianity this time:

In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life.

Does that make it clear enough for you? She doesn’t like what the Catholic church is teaching, so she’s decided to dump Christianity. To be fair, I don’t agree with what the Catholic church is teaching about some things either, but I think there’s a bigger issue here. I see a lot of people who don’t really believe what they “believe.” People have this idea that having a religion is the important thing because it makes us better people or something like that, but they don’t really expect God to hear their prayers. They go through the ritual of religion, but it’s hollow and not real. Because of this attitude toward religion, they are quick to throw out the traditional beliefs because while religion is important to them, they believe that not hurting other people is more important. So rather than continuing to say that God hates the sin of homosexuality, they say that a loving God would want us to be inclusive to gays. Rather than saying that God hates abortion, they say that a loving God wouldn’t want to force a woman to go through pregnancy. Rather than saying that God is more powerful than we could possibly imagine, they say that science disproves the miracles of the Bible.

The bottom line is that these people don’t trust God and never did. So while Anne Rice may say she’s leaving Christianity, it’s a safe bet that she was never a Christian in the first place. Not that I would actually bet on it. Jesus calls people to repentance. Jesus wants people to reject sin, not embrace it, yet all across Christianity we’re seeing people who decide for themselves what is right and wrong rather than going by what God has said is right and wrong.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Declining Christianity

You may not have noticed, but Christianity is losing ground. The percentage growth of the world population exceeds the percentage growth of the Christian faith. What we’re doing isn’t working. Or at least it isn’t working as well as it should. I realize that we have no control over how many people accept the gospel, but we have the responsibility to share it anyway. I realize that many people hear the gospel and reject it. And maybe the world is on final approach to the last judgment and we’re losing ground because the Lord is about to put an end to this period of grace. There’s plenty of maybes, but I don’t like to just throw up my hands and say, this is just the way it’s going to be. I don’t like to be on the losing side of anything. I don’t like that it makes God appear weak because his people aren’t accomplishing what he has called us to do.

The most important thing we can do to turn this thing around is to pray. There is much that God can do that can change the current trend. We don’t fully understand what God can do, but if we ask him to show himself strong in this situation with the expectation that he will we can look for the trend to change. But we should not expect it to change with prayer alone. God often works through us. His chosen method of reaching the world is the preaching of the gospel. We must get out and share the gospel with the lost around us or they will not accept Christ.

But I see some potential problems. One problem is that Christians have let too much of the world into the churches. Bible study and prayer is a lost art in many churches. The church services are filled with great praise songs and the preacher is eloquent, but the members are spiritual babes. The members know nothing of worship. The preacher rarely preaches about sin and the need for repentance. The membership doesn’t recognize sin when they see it. While adultery might be seen as sin, fornication is often ignored. Some churches are not only allowing sodomy but are making statements to the effect that anyone who doesn’t isn’t a Christian. Some Christians may not support such things on Sunday, but at home they take pleasure in television shows that do. How can we possibly expect God to hear and respond to our prayers when we offer them with unclean hands and from unclean lips?

We Christians must repent if we are to see the decline of Christianity turned around. We must confess our sins to God and repent if we want him to hear our prayers and use us to reach the lost. We must learn to recognize that is right and wrong so that we can take a stand against sin and encourage righteousness. Only then will the world be able to look at us and realize that there is something different about us. We don’t want them looking at us and seeing people who are just like them. We want them to see us as an example of what they can be when they turn their lives over to Jesus.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Love and Happiness

Marriage is a sacred institution, but some people just don’t get it. In a book I read the other day was a statement by a character concerning another character that was considering leaving her husband for another—actually, I can’t say man here because she would’ve left him for an elf. The statement was along the lines of you are the only one who can decide what will make you happy. Happy? Really? At what point did marriage become about the happiness of the individual? And what if the other person doesn’t make you happy?

Marriage is about commitment. The Bible tells us that a man is supposed to leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife. The Bible also tells us that a man is supposed to love his wife and the wife is to respect her husband. That’s not to say that if a man doesn’t love his wife and she does respect him that they should split up. These things aren’t optional. These things are commands. Men are commanded to love their wives, but even if they don’t, wives are commanded to respect their husbands. They are to cleave together through thick and thin.

But our culture has introduced this idea that love isn’t an action but a feeling. People have the idea that they love each other because they make each other happy and when the happiness disappears the love disappears also. They then think that because there is no love in the marriage they should separate. Love isn’t a feeling produced by happiness, but happiness is often produced by love.

What is love? Love is putting aside what we would rather be doing and doing things with and for the other person. Suppose a married woman meets this really hot guy that makes her heart race every time she sees him. He asks her to go have coffee with him, but she refuses, goes home and cleans the toilets instead. That is love. Yes, it is easier to make those choices if there is affection in the marriage, but we can love someone without being affectionate or liking that person. Of course, if you love someone through your actions, it won’t be long and you’ll love that person in feeling as well.

As writers, we have a responsibility to write about love in the right way. Let’s stop telling people that they should be looking for happiness in marriage and instead encourage them to love their spouses in action. Happiness is the byproduct of doing the right thing, not the way to decide what is the right thing.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Find the Solution First

The solution comes first. That’s not the case all the time, but I’ve been looking at the process of developing story outlines and what I’m seeing is that the most logical place to start is with the solution. In location, the solution is the first half of the second act. This is the section that Blake Snyder called the fun and games section because this is where the characters are doing all the fun stuff that we see in the movie trailer. In the movie Up, which I talked about before, this is the section in which the house goes floating into the wild blue yonder. In Where the Red Fern Grows this is where Billy trains the dogs. In Searching For Mom this is where Sara searches the Internet for someone she can set her father up with. And if you were going to tell a literary agent what your book is about, this is the section that you would focus most of your attention on. This section is what the book is about.

I think you see where I’m going with this. Without an interesting solution, the whole story is ruined. It’s pointless to give much thought to the rest of our story until we have a good solution. Of course we may have situations in which the problem triggers the idea for the solution, but once we have the solution and have amped it up a little, we may have to come up with a better problem to fit our solution. We might look at our e-mail one day and ask ourselves what we could do to stop the spam. And we think about how nice it would be to track down the person who’s sending it and destroy their computer. Of course, that would require a lot more work and risk than it’s worth, so we won’t do that. But it gives us the solution for a story, track down some spammers and destroy their stuff. Then we amp it up. The spammer we really need to track down lives out of the country. While we’re at it, let’s say our character carries a gun while he tracks down these guys. But now our problem (ordinary spam) isn’t big enough for the solution. To correct that, we make the problem such that the protagonist’s child responds to a spammer and is kidnapped. Now we understand the motivation for the solution.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Defining the Problem

No backstory allowed. That’s the rule anyway, but so many authors are quick to violate it. Usually it is because we feel the need to justify a character’s actions rather than trusting the reader to figure out that if the character is doing something then there’s something in the character’s past that caused it. As my pastor likes to say, when you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know he didn’t get there by himself. In writing, it’s sufficient to write about how the turtle gets down from the fence post. But we still have a tendency to explain the whole thing.

Backstory is a story that happens before the story. It isn’t actually part of our story, but how can we tell the difference between things of the past that are part of our story and things that aren’t. Using our turtle example, if the turtle got even with the person who put him on the post, then the action of putting the turtle on the post is part of our story rather than being backstory. And I’ve thought about the movie Up. (An excellent movie, by the way.) It begins with a lengthy section involving two children who are friends—a boy and a girl. It shows their dreams for the future. As the movie progresses, we see that these two grow to love each other, get married and build a life together. But life happens. One thing leads to another and their dreams are left by the wayside. They grow old and she dies with their dreams unrealized. Backstory or no?

At first glance, we might think the beginning of Up is backstory, but on closer examination we find something else going on. The first quarter of every story is the problem section and the second quarter is the solution section. In Up, the solution is that an old man fills thousands of balloons with helium and floats away in his house. I haven’t acted the people who developed the concept, but its one of those ideas that you have to assume was the initial thought for the story. Someone probably asked the question: what if someone filled a bunch of balloons with helium and carried their house away? But if that’s your starting point, what problem is that a solution for? We might throw some ideas around and some of with the idea that if a couple had wanted to build a house somewhere, but hadn’t been able to do it, the old man might throw caution to the wind because of the great love he has for his wife. When we begin to ask how we might show that problem we begin to see that the audience must see just how strong this man’s love for his wife is. We can’t see that unless we see it develop over the years. So what might appear to be backstory in that story is just defining the problem.

When we deal with backstory in our own work, we need to ask ourselves whether it is defining the problem or if we’re just rationalizing. If it’s defining the problem then it is part of our story. Otherwise, weed it out.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Building a Story

Ideas for stories come in many different forms, but I sometimes struggle with converting those ideas into an actual story. Often what happens is that I picture a scene that intrigues me, but I don’t know where it fits or what I can do with the characters. Even with an outline framework, I began to question what part I should figure out first. As I considered this, I realized that there are five basic elements to every story, a character, a problem, a solution, a challenge and a victory. If we can determine each of these then we have our story.

A Character

The character is your protagonist. Sometimes you’ll know who this is at the first and sometimes it is better to wait till you determine the other four before deciding on the character.

A Problem

Your character begins the story with a problem. This isn’t the hook or the initial disturbance, though those things may help to show what the problem is. The bigger the problem is the bigger the story. If you’re talking to a friend, you might talk about running out of milk. If you’re writing a novel you’ll want a bigger problem, such as a murder that takes place. Of course it has to be a problem for your character. We hear about murder all the time on the news. We don’t like that it happens, but unless we’re the police or it’s someone in our family, it isn’t a problem and it doesn’t give us a story. Same with the milk. If someone else runs out of milk, we don’t care.

A Solution

So you ran out of milk and went to the store to buy milk. That is your solution. If a character is accused of murder, his solution might be to find out who the real killer is. The solution is an upside down version of the world we see in the problem. You’re at home, open the refrigerator and there’s no milk. Turn that upside down and you have that you’re not at home, you have milk and you’re going to place it in the refrigerator.

A Challenge

Having no milk, you go to buy milk, but as you’re leaving you run into the most talkative person in town. Your character had a solution that seemed to work, but now he’s standing in the hot sun with someone who won’t shut up. The milk is sure to spoil and he’ll be out of milk again. Every story needs a challenge that threatens to keep our solution from working. In a murder mystery, the challenge may be that the person we thought did it has an alibi or turns up dead himself.

A Victory

This could also be a defeat, but because the character has a challenge to his solution to the problem, he needs to have something that will allow him to face the challenge and hopefully win. For our milk story, the victory can be that the character pretends to get a phone call and excuses himself so he can get home with the milk. For a murder mystery, the character might break into someone’s home to find the evidence he needs to discover the truth and clear his name.

Putting it Together in a Story

You might not realize how open we do this every day. You ran into that talkative person at the store and it frustrated you. You’ve got to get it off your chest. To do that, you want that person to understand why you’re frustrated. Instead of just saying, I ran into Talkative Tina at the store, you back up and tell why you went to the store and what you bought. Now when they hear that Talkative Tina stopped you in the parking lot, they’re wanting to know what you did. With every story, we start with something we want people to know and we fill in the gaps.

Given that you have a fragment of a story idea, ask yourself which of these things it is. I had a scene in my head where Sara discovered a corpse. By its nature, we know that this is either a problem or a challenge. Because Sara didn’t know who this person was, I knew that this was part of the problem. But maybe our scene idea is of the character removing the toe tag from a corpse. That might be a solution scene. Given that knowledge, we might ask what problem the character might have that would induce him to remove the toe tag. Then we might ask what challenge to his solution he must face and what the final victory he hopes for is. With that, we have a story.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Pet Words

Today’s topic: pet words. A pet word is a word that a writer tends to use in his writing to the distraction of the reader. A pet word could be anything, such as just, so, was, inconceivable (I couldn’t resist paying homage to The Princess Bride with that last one). There’s a guy that used to work where I do whose pet word is really. He says it loudly and with a question mark at the end as if whatever someone said is utterly surprising. It gets irritating. We don’t want to irritate our readers.

Our brains are wired to use pet words. When someone asks us something, we answer in practically the same way every time. Only when we take time to think about the answer do we say things differently. Because we are talking to different people throughout the day, no one notices that we said the same thing as we said before. Also, different people have different pet words, so a person listening to several conversations may not pick up on the pet words. In a book, we magnify our pet words because we have one reader and the work of weeks is compressed into hours of reading. As we write, we might not remember that we used the same word several times in a few pages, but the reader will see the word in quick succession and every character is using it.

The time to remove pet words is in the third draft. If you try reducing your use of pet words in the first draft you’ll find yourself second guessing yourself rather than just letting the words flow. The second draft is about moving big chunks around, so you may not be reading enough of the story to find the pet words. When you get to the third draft, read through it at a fairly normal pace and see what words pop out at you. If you find yourself using the same word or phrase repeatedly, rewrite those sentences. Search for the words that you notice and see where else they’re used. Write those as well.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


I read the book because it was written by a friend. Not a close friend, but an author I’ve encountered online in various places. Don’t start thinking that this author is just another self-published author who frequents agent blogs and other websites, but has no talent. This author has an agent and the book was published by a traditional publisher. This author also does the conference circuit as a faculty member. The book itself had some editing problems and some echo problems. It had things that we should try to avoid, but stuff happens. No book is perfect and this book told a story. The book has plenty of blurbs by well-known authors on cover and if you were to read the book you wouldn’t be bored. But the author committed an unforgivable sin in storytelling. The story is forgettable.

I read another book by this author and it had the same problem. I read this book and I can’t say which is the most forgettable because I don’t remember much about what happened in the other book. A few weeks from now, I won’t be able to tell you much about what happened in either one. You can see where I’m going with this. No matter how well we craft a book, if the story is forgettable then it kills any chance that readers will mention the story later. Aside from guys like me who’re writing about forgettability, there’s just no reason to mention a forgettable story.

So why is the story forgettable? I really didn’t expect that I would find a published book that does this, but what makes it forgettable is that an ordinary character faces an ordinary problem. By an ordinary character, what I mean is that there’s nothing about the character’s life that we find particularly interesting. We have a pretty good idea what goes on in this person’s life because we either know someone who has a similar life or we’ve seen enough stories about this type of person to know what they’re like. Doctors, lawyers, waitresses, engineers, police officers, etc. are all ordinary. Circus performers, movie actors, homeless, spies, Indians, etc. aren’t ordinary. We must allow for some subjectivity, of course. Situations that are ordinary are things like financial problems, robbery, drive by shootings, kidnappings, identity theft, divorce, unless we dress them up in some way.

In the case of this story, we have a doctor (ordinary) who has her identity stolen (ordinary). But what could we do to dress it up a bit? Instead of a doctor, we could pick another person. Suppose the bearded lady has her identity stolen. Now things get more interesting. Who would want to pass themselves off as the bearded lady? Read the book and find out. Or what about an Indian chief? While he’s off smoking peace pipes, someone is impersonating him.

Or let’s stay with the doctor idea; we need a few good doctor stories, but we need to do something that isn’t just ordinary. We need something that will turn a doctor into a fish out of water. Maybe he marries a woman who believes in faith healing. Read a book like that and you probably won’t forget it.

Monday, August 2, 2010


File this one under problems to avoid. I’ve been reading a book written by a friend of mine. I won’t mention the author’s name because many of you would recognize this particular person, but I keep seeing echoes. I’m not sure what else to call them. Essentially, a character says something like “It looks to me like it might’ve been caused by a blunt object,” the police come in and say, “The victim was hit over the head with a blunt object,” echoing what the previous character said.

In real life we experience echoes all the time. People tend to say things the same way, so when they see the same thing they may use very similar words to what the other person used. In a novel we want to avoid echoes, because our characters aren’t really talking to other characters; they’re talking for the benefit of the reader. If the reader already knows the victim was struck by a blunt object, we don’t need to say it again unless there’s something interesting about the fact that we’re pointing it out again. For example, one person says, “He was struck by a blunt object.” The next person says, “He was struck by a blunt object.” The third person says, “He was struck by a blunt object.” The fourth person says, “He choked on a peach seed.”

But really, most of the time we don’t want to see echoes. Echoes may appear during the first draft, but they should be removed in subsequent drafts. If information is repeated in much the same way before the reader has time to forget that someone else said it then it should be reworded or removed completely.