Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Comment on Michael Hyatt's Blog

I frequently read Mike Hyatt's blog and I sometimes post comments there, but his comment form leaves much to be desired. Sometimes it just won't work for me. Today, is one of those days. Today's post was about a video that Jason Fried did on where we're the most productive. After taking the time to write a response to Mike's post, I hate to see it go to waste, so I'm posting it below:

Jason Fried is well spoken and gets plenty of laughs by saying things that plenty of people are thinking, but I think it is a mistake to assume that "work" is what we do when we are off by ourselves. I suppose it says something about our society in which the individual is valued more than the group. One of the things that I have found is that my most productive time is when someone interrupts me and asks me how they should be doing something. Yeah, I may have to put aside something that I was doing, but when I get back to my desk, the person I helped is off being productive. So now, instead of just me being productive, the two of us are twice as productive because the other person isn't sitting there spinning his wheels while I'm "working." I've also noticed that the people who work from home or work odd hours cause their co-workers to spend a lot of time looking for them. Because they aren't around to answer questions that need to be answered, they are causing multiple people to be unproductive. That time alone may be the most productive time for an individual, but it is deadly to the team.

And I might as well add, trying to use a comment form that refuses to work is not an example of being productive.

The Reader

When I write, I always have reader in mind. Even though hundreds or even thousands of different people may read what I’ve written, I always image that I’m writing to one person. That person usually doesn’t have name, but he’s that guy that isn’t doing something right. If he were, I wouldn’t be writing to him. Today, my reader is an author who probably doesn’t have a traditional publishing contract and needs to change in order to achieve success. That reader could be you.

The reader always needs to change. If he didn’t, what would be the point writing to him? So when we write, the first thing we do is to help the reader determine that he needs to change. We want him to see the problem as his problem If we’re writing fiction, we want him to see that the problem the character faces is similar to something our reader might face. Once we helped the reader identify with the problem, we give him a solution to the problem. That sounds simple enough, but we have to assume that the reader has some objections to the solution. Our reader might identify with a character who is locked out of the house, for example. Our solution is for the character to call friend who has a copy of his keys. We assume reader might objecs and ask, what should be done if the friend isn’t home. So now we present a our reader with a solution that addresses his concerns. We don’t have our reader sitting there next to us, so we must guess the objections and address them all.

Even though we imagine we have one reader, more than one person has the attributes of the reader we imagine. If our reader needs to change because he is addicted to alcohol, we can easily see that there’s more than one person who fits that description. But there are also people who may not be that reader, but they want to read something aimed at that reader. The wife of that reader, for example, might want to read something like that. Even though we expect to have the wife of that reader in the audience, we don’t write about how the wife should handle the problems of the situations. We keep our focus on that reader.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Wrong Mother

I just finished a first draft of a revision of a previously completed manuscript. The manuscript has been around for a long time and had a title, but after the revisions and the clarity of time, I’ve decided that the title needs to change. To give you some background on the book, the story is about a woman from St. Louis who shows up on the doorstep of a moderately wealthy business owner in Fort Worth, claiming that she has raised his son’s daughter. Having lost all the other children in a terrible accident the year before, the businessman is elated at the possibility of another grandchild, but the timing couldn’t be worse. The woman and girl have shown up just as they are preparing to announce the merger of the family business with that of another family and there is talk that the businessman’s son will marry the daughter of the other family. The woman has a reputation as a con-artist but some of what she says convinces them that they must check out the story. The businessman hopes to find proof that the girl is his granddaughter while protecting his family from the con-artist. The woman wants to deliver the girl to her family, but she doesn’t want to be left out of the girl’s life. Of course it has all the normal twists you would expect from a story like this.

After giving it some thought, The Wrong Mother seemed like a good title. It has a bit of irony to it and it seems like someone would want to learn more about the book just to find out how the mother could be the wrong one. But then I did a search for that title and discovered that Sophie Hannah wrote a book using that title that was published in September of last year. Her book involves a woman who investigates a man with whom she had adulterous relations. If the reviews are any indication, Hannah’s book hasn’t been particularly well received, so I could probably go ahead and use the title without fear of people confusing the two books. I’m guessing that most of the people who read her book have forgotten the title. But I’m also a little concerned that I might like that title because I watched Alice in Wonderland this weekend and it made reference to “the wrong Alice.” And there’s also the Jack in the Beanstalk movie that makes a reference to “the wrong Jack.” For some reason, I like that phrase.

What can I say? I need a title. I’ve got another one up my sleeve that is similar to the one I mentioned, but if you’ve got suggestions, I would love to hear them.

Ill-advised Projects

An author mentioned her book in the comments of another blog the other day, so I went to see what the book was about. The author appears to have written the book to impart the wisdom she has gained during her life—all twenty-two years of it—through “poems and journalistic thoughts.” In other words, she published her diary. The folks over at PublishAmerica printed it for her, so don’t think this went through some editorial review process. But the fact is that she isn’t the first author who has published something so ill-advised. If she had sent her work to an agent, we know how it would’ve turned out. “Not for me.” But if we know that, then why didn’t she realize that? More importantly, how can we recognize our own ill-advised projects?

I suppose that he problem could be that we’re all so blinded by our own conceit that we can’t see how bad our own projects really are. That’s a unsatisfactory answer because that would mean that we have no means of judging the value of our own work. It isn’t just a problem with being able to tell whether the project idea is any good, it would also mean that we have no means of determining if the way we are telling the story, the sentences we use and our word choices are any good. Being so blinded, we shouldn’t even attempt to write without someone sitting at our side to tell us if what we’re doing is any good. That’s ridiculous. A good writer knows when his work is good, so it’s something a wannabe should learn.

Too often, authors look at the rule of writing that says we should write for one and only one person and they assume that the one person is either the writer or God. Let’s get that notion out of our heads. We should instead be writing to that reader that we want to see changed by what we write. That image of our reader is very important because it defines what we write. The things we would have to say to an electrical engineer are different from what we would say to a politician. Our subject matter would be different. The words we choose would be different.

In evaluating the worth of our project, we must keep our reader in mind, just like an agent or a publisher would, but we shouldn’t ask whether we are saying something we want the reader to know. Instead, we should ask whether this is something the reader believes he want to know. For non-fiction, we might write something that has all kinds of information an electrical engineer could understand, but until he sees a way he can apply it to his job, he isn’t interested. So, if we can’t see why our reader would want to apply our project to his life, then the whole project is junk. In the case of the author I mentioned above, she needs to grow up and realize that unless the author has had a particularly unusual experience, people don’t look to twenty-two year olds for life advice. For that matter, there aren’t many readers who want to read someone else’s journal. Put stuff like that on a blog.

With fiction it is more of a question of whether our reader would like to venture off into the world of our story. Forget the rules, but ask yourself if you are creating an environment that your reader will enjoy. Your reader in this case is defined more by genre. A romance reader enjoys a different kind of story than a mystery reader who enjoys a different kind of story than a techno-thriller reader does.

It’s an easy thing to do—I’ve been guilty of this—to sit down and write a story, just because we want to tell the story, without giving any thought of who the reader is. We assume that there’s a reader for anything we might write. That’s probably true. Her name is Mom. But who are the other readers. If we aren’t sure or if those readers are hard to find, our project probably isn’t any good.

Friday, November 26, 2010

De Facto Gatekeeper?

Nick Harrison recently called Jeff Gerke “the de facto gatekeeper of Christian speculative fiction.” I don’t have a clue what that means, so I decided to write about it. To be the de factor anything you either have to be the choice that pretty much everyone makes (as in Microsoft Word is the de facto standard for word processers) or you’ve got to be the only one doing it. So which is it with Jeff Gerke. Is he the person everyone chooses as the gatekeeper for Christian speculative fiction? The thing about gatekeepers (agent, editors, etc.) is that people choose the ones that let them through the gate. If you’re letting more junk through the gate than other people, that may not be a good thing. The other possibility is that he’s the only one publishing Christian speculative fiction. That isn’t true either. None of the Christian speculative fiction I’ve read recently has come from him. Seems like most of what I’ve read recently came from Thomas Nelson. I’d have to go back and check the spine to be sure, but I know it wasn’t from Jeff’s company. So, I’m still not sure what that means.

I do understand what Christian speculative fiction is, so maybe it’s worth writing about that. I like speculative fiction because it gives us the freedom to do things we can’t do with other stories. I think you have to be careful though. Some people decide they’re going to write about elves or vampires or spaceships, so they venture into speculative fiction. I think it would be better if people would think about their story first. If at all possible, put it in a normal setting, but if it turns out to be difficult to tell the story in that way, then use speculative fiction as the medium for the story. That’s about all I have to say on the subject and I still don’t know what it means to be “the de facto gatekeeper of Christian speculative fiction.”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! and Respect for Government

One of the marks of a false prophet is that they aren’t afraid to speak evil of dignities. Given the number of Christian TV and radio personalities that I hear saying bad things about governmental leaders, it seems to me that we have many false prophets in Christianity.

I think that the reason false prophets are so quick to speak ill of our leaders is because Satan and the evil spirits that are influencing these guys love to see people reject governmental authority and do their own thing. That’s practically the definition of sin. But we look at the Bible and we find that the archangel Michael wouldn’t say something bad about Satan, rather leaving that to the Lord. We find that David would not kill Saul, the Lord’s anointed, even when he had the chance. The Bible is very clear that we are to show respect to our governmental leaders, even when we don’t agree with them.

That isn’t to say that we can’t speak against the things they do. John the Baptist spoke against Herod’s adultery. But we need to be careful that we don’t follow the example of the false prophets and rail against our leaders. I won’t say that anyone who speaks ill of the President or our other leaders is a servant of Satan. I won’t even say that is true of all the preachers who speak against our leaders on TV, but it’s easy for those of us who aren’t to get drawn in by those who do. Because we hear someone else who claims to be a Christian speaking ill of our leaders, we find it easy to do the same thing. That’s not okay. I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone, but just because other people do it doesn’t mean that we have a right to be disrespectful to our God given leaders (all of them are God given). We still have a responsibility to attempt persuade them to do what is right, but we should work with them, not speak evil of them.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Diverging Story Lines

There’s a manuscript that I’ve had in the back corner of my closet for a while. I wrote it with the intent of using it to get an agent, so I sent it out with that purpose. It didn’t get any notice, so I let it sit there. I liked the story, but the more I let it sit the more I thought about how other people might not get it. Then I started thinking of things I could do to change it. So, I’ve been revamping it.

The interesting thing is that I could reuse most of the text and plot from the first three fourths of the manuscript with only minor changes. However, the closer I get the end the more the manuscript has to change for it to go with the new story. It seems odd that the actions for the first story and the one I’m working one are almost the same in the first part, but it diverges more and more as we approach the end. I’m finding that I’m deleting more than I’m keeping in the last part of the book. Of course, anything I delete has to be replaced with something new. In the first story, one of the protagonists had to learn not to be so much a snob. In this story, there is villain to overcome, but she isn’t obvious until late in the book. Up to that point, the protagonist is making some of the same decisions that he did before, but now it is from a different motive. In part, it is from the opinion of the villain that he makes these decisions, but the other characters are able to do pretty much the same thing as before. Once the villain is revealed, the protagonist has to move in a different direction because now he must find a way to reverse some of the mistakes he made in the first part of the story in order to defeat the villain.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Not Worthy

We received word that a man who had attended the Baptist Missionary Association (BMA) Theological Seminary and recently returned to his native home in Africa has been killed. While the details are still sketchy and may never be completely known, my understanding is that because of the danger he knew he would face, he left his pregnant wife and their children here in the States before returning home. While there, he was arrested and killed. This is very poignant reminder that persecution is very real.

One particular passae keeps coming to mind. Hebrews 11:37-38 says, “They were stoned, they were saw asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented (of whom the world was not worthy). They wandered in the deserts and in the mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” While I never met this man, but a feel a closeness to him because of his affiliation with the BMA Theological Seminary. But the world was not worthy of this man. The choices he made should be a inspiration to all of us. May we all live in such a way that the world is not worthy of us.

Cheating Men

On a news report I heard about a study showing that men are five times more likely to cheat on their wives if the wife makes more money than the man. Though there are people out there who would like to say that it doesn’t really matter who the major breadwinner is in the family, I don’t think anyone should be surprised by this. Christians should be especially unsurprised by this. In reading the Bible we see that God made us that way. That’s not to say that God made men to cheat on their wives, but God designed men and women in such a way that they man is to the be head of the home, the protector, the chief provider. God made men in such a way that they desire the respect of their wives. It’s understandable that a man who is earning less than his wife misses the respect afforded him when he is the chief provider.

I don’t know what we can do about the situation these days when so many women are going to school and getting high paying jobs while so many men aren’t manning up and doing what it takes to be the chief provider, but I do think that it might behoove wives to give special thought to how much they want that career that earns them more money than their husbands. Do they really value it more than they do their husbands and family? And for men, just because your wife is making more than you doesn’t give you a right to cheat on her. Maybe you should go back to school and get a better paying job.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Liking Characters

Should bad guys have something about them that makes them likeable? Some people say yes, but I have a hard time saying that is true in all cases. We certainly need our protagonist to be such that readers can identify with him, but I don’t think that’s always the case with the villain. There’s nothing wrong with having a villain that people like or identify with, but one way to look at a story is to see it as a protagonist facing a series of challenges. When we first see these challenges, we may not know who is opposing the protagonist. We might have a villain who is creating these challenges off camera, so all we know about the villain are the challenges the protagonist faces. We can’t be expected to like these challenges. So, your mother died. Yippee!

Once the villain makes an appearance, we may already know enough about him that we don’t like him and have no intention of identifying with him. That’s okay. It’s okay if the reader despises the guy. It may not be a comfortable feeling for the reader, but it also provides strong emotion. The stronger the emotions a reader feels the better, even if that emotion is great fear that a character they hate will win.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Plot or Character

How do you know if a story is character-based or plot-based? Maybe what I should be asking instead is how should a writer determine whether a story should be written as character-based or plot-based? I think a lot goes back to the inspiration for the story. Yesterday, I mentioned The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The selling point for that story is that it is about a guy who ages backwards. If that’s all you know about the story, you would be interested in it. I had no idea that it was a love story until I watched it. It didn’t surprise me that it was, since most movies have a love story in there somewhere, but that wasn’t the reason I wanted to watch it.

Contrast that with Die Hard, which is a plot-based story. If I tell you that it’s about a New York cop, you don’t have a great urge to go watch it. As great as the guys in the NYPD may be, they’re ordinary when it comes to stories. We aren’t particularly interested in how they handle ordinary situations, so until we know what the plot is about, we aren’t interested. Once we see that it’s about a guy taking back a building controlled by terrorists we become more interested.

So, look at why you want to write this story. Are you interested because you want to know more about a character you created or are you interested because you want to see certain events unfold? If it’s the character then the character will have a characteristic that forces him to experience the world differently from us. To highlight these aspects of the character, we actually want to avoid the more unusual actions that we might place in a plot. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, there are scenes in which the character is just sitting and having tea with a woman. It works in character-based fiction, but if you were to put a scene like that in Die Hard it would kill the movie. We don’t want the character sitting around discussing how he will do what he needs to do, he needs to take action.

Most romances are character-based. The plot is set in stone, so when you hear the fans talking about what they want to read they talk about different types of characters. “I want an Alpha male with a librarian.” Or whatever. But there’s also the premature marriage plot that appears in both romance and science fiction. It is a plot in which two people marry before they fall in love. It seems to work better as a plot-based story.

Mysteries can go either way. The Monk series was very much a character-based show. We laughed at the way Monk handled the ordinary things in life. But so often the gumshoe of a mystery is quite ordinary. Agatha Christie had some memorable detectives, but they were always secondary to the crime. Their specialness gave them access to the crime scene, but it was the nature of the crime and the actions of the cast of suspects that made the stories great.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Example of Character-based Fiction

Last week, I watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The movie was inspired by the F. Scott Fitzgerald story. The movie is about some morally bankrupt characters, which probably says more about the writers than it says about the story, but we don’t need to go into that. The thing that makes this movie worth talking about here is that it is a great example of character-based fiction. I’m sure that you are aware that there is something of a debate over whether character-based fiction or plot-based fiction is better. It isn’t a debate so much as a matter of personal preference. Each has its place, but some people prefer reading character-based fiction and some people prefer reading plot-based fiction. I don’t think we can say that one is better than the other, only that they are different.

The first thing that we notice about the movie as an example of character-based fiction is that the characters are unusual. Benjamin Button was born an old man and aged backwards. There’s nothing ordinary about that. The other characters are somewhat more ordinary, but we still see unusual aspects to them. We needn’t be too concerned with that since the main character is Benjamin Buton.

The second thing we notice is that this is a story about a sequence of ordinary events as seen from the perspective of an extraordinary character. The story begins with the birth of Benjamin Button and the death of his mother. Having a woman die in childbirth isn’t a particularly interesting plot device. It happens. It is quite ordinary. But because Benjamin Button is born an old man, he is old and wrinkled. He is quite hideous. His father, believing the child is a monster, is ready to throw the child in the river, but because a policeman is watching, he leaves the child on the steps of a house, that turns out to be an old folk’s home. This whole sequence of events is driven by the nature of person Benjamin Button is.

As the story progresses, we see Benjamin Button experience life. He goes to work. He goes to war. He falls in love. He has a child. It’s all ordinary stuff that ordinary people experience. The thing that makes this stuff interesting is that Benjamin Button is not an ordinary character. When he experiences these things, it is different from the way we experience them or imagine we would experience them. We’re drawn into the story because we want to see those differences.

That’s pretty much the formula for character-based fiction. Start with a character that is unusual. Then put that character through a sequence of events that the reader can imagine himself doing. It is the difference between the way your reader would handle the event and the way your character would handle the even that makes the story interesting.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Do I Have to Find an Agent?

One of the things that scares me about my writing pursuit is that I might have to choose an agent someday. The more I learn, the less I like the thought of that. Ideally, you want an agent that you can get along with, but you also want someone who can stand behind your work. But when I look at some of the agents out there that seem to be great agents and are practically everyone’s short list, I am left saying “No for me.”

I think that what scares me is that I see a lot of ecumenism in Christian publishing. I suppose it is to be expected because the publishers aren’t going to make money if they are too selective about which authors they choose and the conferences want to be as all inclusive as possible. We start to see a problem when we see that you can go to a Christian writing conference and they attempt to handle it like a church service. I’ve even heard of some conferences doing the communion thing. To me, that just says that the people running the conferences want to play church. What disturbs me is that there aren’t more people taking issue with it.

With some of the agents I’ve seen, they don’t like it when someone opposes their ecumenical views. In other words, Christian has a right to speak, unless you hold non-ecumenical views. If I were looking for an agent right now, I don’t know where I’d look. There are several that I like as people, but I’m not sure that we would agree enough for me to be comfortable with their willingness to promote a book written with my point of view.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Yeah, Let's Make Up Our Own Religion. That Should Work.

I think I’ll create my own religion. Everyone will want to join because in this religion, instead of going to heaven when we die, we’re all going to Disneyland. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Someone on Facebook said that Robin Meyers spoke at their church. I didn’t have a clue who Robin Meyers was, so I did a simple search and the first thing I found was this guy saying that using the “fear of hell” makes religion fundamentally bad and that any of the religions out there can get you to God. I asked if this was the same guy. She responded by saying that “Dr. Meyers doesn't believe in hell (and as he said today, he hopes he's right!), and he has great respect for the various spiritual traditions in which people find their way to God.”

During my life, there have been a lot of things that I have hoped were true. Even though my parents never encouraged my belief in Santa Claus I wanted to believe that if I could believe hard enough then he would actually bring me all that stuff I wanted. Then there was a time when I wanted to believe that I had a twin sister that my parents had never told me about. Oddly enough, the woman I wanted to be my twin sister was old enough to be my mother (weird, but true). And there was a time when I wanted to believe that my parents and my sister were superheroes, but they had to keep it secret from me because I didn’t have their special powers. Of everything, that was the one that I came the closest to truly believing. I was convinced that if it were true then everything would seem normal to me.

All of you realize those things are fanciful, but the thing about fanciful ideas is that as long as we don’t have proof that something isn’t true then we can argue that it is, even convincing ourselves to believe it. Have you ever noticed that Santa stories always say that he only reveals himself to non-skeptics? It’s hard to argue with that. As a skeptic, I point to the lack of evidence for his existence and they can say that I won’t be able to see the evidence because I’m a skeptic. That’s very convenient for them.

The problem we run into with people like Robin Meyers is that they try to apply Santa Claus belief to theology. They can read the Bible as well as anyone else and they can see that it clearly says that there is a Hell. They can see that Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” They can read were it says that God is to be feared because he is a consuming fire and a jealous God who will destroy those who follow after other religions and other gods. They can read it, but they don’t like it, so they decide that they aren’t going to believe it. They decide that they aren’t going to believe in hell and they’ll redesign God. Their justification for that is the belief that the Bible is sort of like a Santa Claus story. It may be a good way of telling us how we should live better lives, but it shouldn’t be taken as an accurate representation of who God is.

Folks that believe like Robin Meyers seem to think that what one religion says about God is about as accurate as what is said by any other religion. They would have us to believe that the various religions are like the blind men trying to describe the elephant. The truth may be out there, but no religion has the complete picture.

The problem with that view is that the Bible is pretentious enough to say that Jesus is the only way to God. It is pretentious enough to say that it is the very God breathed word of God. It is pretentious enough to call the other religions foolish. It is either wrong or it is right. There is no room for in between.

The problem Robin Meyers faces is that as soon as he throws out what the Bible says about hell, we have no means of knowing who God is. The only way to say that hell doesn’t exist is to say that the Bible is a lie. If that’s the case, then what it says about hell is just a product of fiction. If it’s just fiction, then we have no basis for any beliefs about the afterlife. Is there an afterlife? Maybe. Maybe not. Is there a heaven? Maybe. Maybe not. Is there a place of punishment? Maybe. Maybe not. Does God expect us to live up to a moral standard? Maybe. Maybe not. Given that, the only fact that we have about God is that he must exist because the world exists, the rest may just be fiction created by some writer.

What saves us from the foolishness of Robin Meyers is that we have proof that the Bible is true. Here’s a simple test for you: Open up a Bible to a random location and read until you find a promise made by God. Determine whether that promise was fulfilled or not. As an example, I opened my Bible and it fell open to 1 Kings 22. My eye fell on the statement, “So the king died, and was brought to Samaria; and they buried the king in Samaria. And one washed the chariot in the pool of Samaria, and the dogs licked up his blood; and they washed his armor according unto the word of the Lord which He spoke.” All throughout the Bible we find similar wording, “according unto the word of the Lord.” God says it and it happens. Our basis for belief is that when the Bible says something will happen, it happens. No other book can make that claim.

But sadly, for foolish people like Robin Meyers, one of the things that the Bible has promised is that the unbelieving will be cast into the lake of fire. He is literally playing with fire when he says that he hopes he’s right that there is no hell. That’s quite a gamble. After the Bible has proven itself to be right about everything we have the ability to test, he is betting that it will be wrong about what it says about hell. He is betting that Jesus lied. I suppose when he reaches the Great White Throne he’ll stand there and say, “You mean there really is a hell? I thought you were just kidding.” No, Dr. Meyers, I’m afraid I must tell you that when God says something, he means it. When God’s written word tells us something, it is our responsibility to believe it, not to make up a belief that we like better.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tough Decisions

I realize the Bible says that the love of money is the root of all evil, but have you ever stopped to think about what sin is at its most basic form? We can talk about murder, or adultery or lust, but what is it that they all have in common? At the very heart of sin is the belief that I have the right to do what I want and to make my own decisions. Look at the guy who walks into a convenience store and demands all the money. He wouldn’t do that if he didn’t believe he had the right to violate the store owner’s rights. A woman stands at the alter and agrees to commit herself to her husband til death do they part, but then she decides marriage isn’t what she thought it would be and she files for divorce. She wouldn’t do that if she believe that contract she signed had power over her.

Did you know that man is the only creature that has the freedom to make his own choices? The dog that sleeps at the foot of your bed, do you think he has choices? He does the same thing every day. He gets up in the morning, finds food, finds water, attends to his pack and goes to sleep. During certain times of the year, when the hormones are active, he attempts to procreate. You can train him to do some other things, but they are always an offshoot of the things he does by his nature.

Even the angel, beings so powerful a single angel can wipe out an entire army, are promitted only to act at the command of their creator. Satan, when he sinned, was cast from heaven along with those angels who sinned with him. What was the great sin that they committed? They chose to do their own thing instead of obeying God.

When you look at the sins of the world today, there isn’t a sin out there that isn’t based on a person deciding to disobey God or the people he has put in authority over them. Children disobey parents. Employees disobey bosses.

As writers, we often write about sin. We may not call it that, but we have flawed characters who make decisions that hurt other people. They often must choose between multiple choices, but it isn’t always clear which one is the best one.

As the crafters of these decisions, it is important for us to know when the decision is one of preference and when it is a choice between right and wrong. A character that must choose between saving the life of one of his children or another of his children is faced with an impossible decision, but it is still a preference decision rather than one of right and wrong. It is no more wrong to save the life of one child than the other.

The choice between right and wrong only comes into the picture when it is a matter of authority. Suppose a man can only save the life of his child by breaking the law. I’m not talking about violating the speed limit to get to the hospital. The authorities are somewhat lenient about that sort of thing, but suppose the child is kidnapped and the man can only save her life if by giving the kidnappers an expensive painting from the museum where he works. Now the man is presented with a choice. Does he obey the law or not? The incentive to break the law is great, but what will his choice be? Does he have a right to violate the law or not? That is something that he must decide.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Simple Outline Method in Detail

Yesterday, I introduced you to the simplest story outline you can possibly have, saying that every story can be broken into four equal sections, Problem, Solution, Challenge, and Victory. Today, we’ll look at how we can expand upon that idea to create an outline we can use for a book. Dividing a book into four sections isn’t much of an outline.

If you consider a book that has 200 pages and 20 chapters (for simplicity of math) that we’ve outlined using this method, each of the four sections has 50 pages and 5 chapters. There’s a lot that can happen in 5 chapters. So we would like to provide more detail to our outline. One way to start is to say that each of our four sections is a story within a story. We know how to outline a story. From yesterday, we can record the following outline in a text document:

Problem: Anna needs a man.

Solution: Anna gets to know an attractive man named Chris.

Challenge: Anna learns Chris is engaged to Beth.

Victory: Anna shows Chris that she’s a better choice than Beth.

To add detail, we need only to repeat the same process for each of the four sections. We can start were we choose. The following is what the outline would look like if we started with the Challenge section:

Problem: Anna needs a man.

Solution: Anna gets to know an attractive man named Chris.

Challenge: Anna learns Chris is engaged to Beth.

P: Anna needs to grow her business.

S: Anna begins advertising.

C: People visit the shop, but are turned off by how it looks.

V: Chris introduces Anna to Beth, an interior decorator and his fiancée.

Victory: Anna shows Chris that she’s a better choice than Beth.

Notice that in moving deeper into the story we’ve started to say more about who these people are and what they do. We’ve also moved away from the basic love story somewhat into the B-plot somewhat. The love story will play out but over the structure of what is going on with Anna’s shop. In the preceding sections of the book, we may have had Anna beginning her business, which creates the problem we see in the Challenge section.

Depending on your style, this may be enough of an outline, but we can go deeper. Keep in mind that each of the subsections we just added related to more than one chapter. If we divide those subsections the same way we may come closer to having it broken into scenes. For example:

Problem: Anna needs a man.

Solution: Anna gets to know an attractive man named Chris.

Challenge: Anna learns Chris is engaged to Beth.

P: Anna needs to grow her business.

S: Anna begins advertising.

P: Anna mentions her business to someone and that person has never heard of it.

S: Anna prints up a bunch of fliers to pass out. She enlists Chris’ help.

C: Anna doesn’t have time to work in her business and pass out fliers.

V: At Chris’ suggestion, Anna hires an advertising firm to help promote her business.

C: People visit the shop, but are turned off by how it looks.

V: Chris introduces Anna to Beth, an interior decorator and his fiancée.

Victory: Anna shows Chris that she’s a better choice than Beth.

At that level of detail, you should have enough information to write each scene. You could go even deeper, but at some point, you have to stop outlining and actually write. But now you have a list of what you need to write and a rough idea of how long each should be.

As you create each more detailed section, you will find that the victory of the subsection should be about the same thing as the section heading. Anna hiring an advertising firm is about like saying that she began advertising, but it is more detailed. With that in mind, as you outline, it will be helpful to you if you start with the victory and develop the problem, solution and challenge that fits the victory for that subsection.

There are other ways to outline a story, but you won’t find a simpler method than this.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Easy Way to Outline a Novel

No author truly sits down to write without having some idea of where the story is going. A romance author doesn’t come up with a crime novel once in a while just because that’s where the characters took her. A mystery author doesn’t end up with a story with no mystery simply because the characters didn’t take him in that direction. Every author has some idea of how the story will turn out. Despite what some authors will tell you, every author begins with an outline. We know that all romance novels are basically the same animal. They begin with a woman who is in need of love. This woman finds a man. They don’t a seem to the be perfect match. Then change happens and they discover that they need each other. There are many variations on that, but that’s the story every romance author sits down to write. That is her outline.

And yet, I’ve been told by many authors that they don’t outline. What they actually mean by that is that they don’t document their outline before they begin writing the detailed text of the story. Instead of putting their outline on paper, they are carrying it around in their heads. We all do that to some extent too. Even if we create a very detailed outline, there are parts of the story that never make it to the outline. I believe the reason pantsers don’t outline is because they see outlining as troublesome rather than as a memory aid. In some cases, I think they look at outlining as a meticulous task that yields few benefits. So I would like to discuss a minimalist approach to outlining. There are plenty of outlining approaches out there. I personally like to use FreeMind to store my work, but the framework I use is largely based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. It’s a great method, but I think even that may be cumbersome to someone who is afraid of outlining. So, we’ll be looking at a very simple method that I use when I’m just playing around with a story idea. It is similar to the Snowflake method, but it’s even easier to use. You don’t even need any special tools. You can do it on paper if you like. You probably at least want to use a word processor. It’s even easier with FreeMind, but Microsoft Word with work just fine.

We’ll have to wait until tomorrow to get into the details, but today I’d like to introduce the concept. It is based on the three act play, which is broken into four equal sections. We may have to reserve explaining why a three act play has four equal sections for another day, but that is certainly the case. For this method, you only need to understand for terms—Problem, Solution, Challenge and Victory. Each word refers to a different section of a story. If you go back and look at the basic outline of a romance novel you’ll see that the problem is that the woman doesn’t have a man. That’s easy enough to understand. As someone once said, everyone needs a hand to hold. If someone doesn’t have one, that is a problem. The solution seems simple enough, if she doesn’t have a man, give her one. But it isn’t much of a story if we just solve the woman’s problem for her. So we need something that challenges the solution. There has to be some reason why the solution won’t work. Our challenge is that they aren’t a perfect match. Maybe he’s a Republican and she’s a Democrat. Maybe he’s trying to evict her grandmother. Maybe she think’s he’s serial killer. Whatever the case, his hand doesn’t look like the hand she should be holding, no matter how much she might want to. But if we can overcome a challenge, we have a victory. The victory is that by changing the two people are able to put aside their differences. So she becomes a Republican or she figures out that grandma ought to be in a nursing home anyway. When that happens, they can come together and live happily ever after.

Every story follows that pattern and tomorrow we’ll look at how to expand this very basic high level outline into something that is more useful.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Give Already

Many years ago, I attended a meeting at which several preachers got up to speak. I was a young child at the time and I don’t remember what the other preachers spoke about, but the guy who spoke after lunch spoke about tithing. I’m sure it wasn’t anything you haven’t heard on the subject, but I was so convicted to tithe that I went home, counted all the money in my piggy bank and calculated my tithe, which I then placed in the offering plate the next Sunday. I’ve been giving more than a tithe ever since and I’ve never regretted it.

The tithe, which is ten percent, is at best a good starting point for giving. The Bible tells us that God claims the tithe as his own, so if you want to give God an offering you’ll have to do better than that, but something I saw on the Internet this week indicates that people in their 20s and 30s aren’t giving. It’s been said that if church members would all tithe there would be enough money for everything the church needs to do. I realize some people have trouble starting to tithe because they’ve already overextended themselves. But I wonder if the problem has more to do with other issues. It seems like so many people are neglecting to take on responsibilities that their parents embraced. People won’t give if they don’t see it as their responsibility.

Sadly, people who don’t give are missing out on a great blessing. I don’t really believe that statement about the church having what it needs if everyone would tithe because the fact is that God doesn’t need our money. He can accomplish his purposes without our help, but when I look at what my money has gone to support over the years, I see buildings that have been built, I see radio broadcasts reaching into foreign lands, I see missionaries preaching the gospel, I see students who have gone to college, I see souls that have been saved. Though my part may have been small, I am excited by what has been accomplished. As the Bible says, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Why would I care that there’s radio station broadcasting in a language that I can’t understand if I hadn’t given to support it? Why would I care about the success of a junior college in east Texas if I hadn’t sent part of my treasure to support it? But since I have, I rejoice at their success. Their success is my success.

What more can I say? Give. Give because God commands it. Give because God gives you the opportunity to serve him through giving. Give because God blesses our giving.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bad NaNoWriMo

It’s November and some writers are in the midst of NaNoWriMo. I had intended to skip writing about NaNoWriMo because I figured that just because it’s not for me doesn’t mean others can’t find it useful. Then I started hearing a few murmurings within the ranks. You probably know by now that I’m talking about the Laura Miller article in which she called it a waste of time and energy. While I’ve got no problem with people writing a novel in a month, some of what she has said highlights some of what I see as being wrong with the publishing industry.

One of the things that NaNoWriMo encourages is for anyone to write a book. That sounds like a good idea on the surface, but many of the people writing books have no business writing books. Many of our colleagues are unlearned and ignorant. All they will ever produce through NaNoWriMo or otherwise are illiterate rantings. They do not read, but they choose to write because they believe that they can correct this problem they see in the publishing industry—namely that there aren’t any good books being written.

NaNoWriMo can’t help but encourage that kind of writer. The belief is that the way to write a book is to encourage people to write every day. That will certainly produce the 50,000 words needed to say you’ve written a novel, but it assumes that writing is typing works into the computer. It doesn’t encourage thinking time. It doesn’t encourage outlining. It doesn’t encourage anything except producing words. If that’s all it takes to write a novel, I can give you a computer program that will write a novel and it will only take a matter of minutes.

NaNoWriMo is good at creating junk and I’m afraid that most of the authors out there don’t care. I think that what most authors want is to have their name on a book. They will gladly do all the religious stuff required to achieve that, but they sacrifice quality in their quest. Just look at the places authors hang out on the Internet. When you visit the blogs of publishers and agents you see that they have thousands of followers. They didn’t have to do much to get those followers, they just had to hang out a sign an talk the religion of publishing. Follow the rules. Put this in your query letter. Establish a platform. But visit the blog of a the well known authors and you won’t find nearly the following. I believe that is because authors don’t see them as a means of achieving publication and they aren’t really interested in what these authors have to say about how to write better. Even on my own blog, the most popular posts deal with how to get a manuscript published, not with how to improve the manuscript.

I don’t know that I can say that NaNoWriMo is causing all of this, but it isn’t helping. If you’re thinking of submitting a manuscript to an agent, I don’t recommend doing it next month because all those folks who used NaNoWriMo as a means to write that novel they’ve been meaning to write will be inundating slush piles throughout the industry. But then, maybe NaNoWriMo isn’t such a bad thing after all; it’s a good excuse for the rest of us to take a break.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Male vs. Female Fiction

Brandilyn Collins got off on the difference between male suspense and female suspense the other day. The difference that she pointed out is that in female suspense there is more angst and in male suspense there is more action. I’ve stated before that the difference between male fiction and female fiction is that in male fiction the protagonist takes action to save the girl, but in the female fiction the protagonist is looking for a knight in shining armor. I think we can meld my statement and Brandilyn’s statement to provide a better understanding of male fiction version female fiction.

Guys tend to be problem solvers. Present a guy with a problem and he’ll solve it. Women tend to talk about their problems. Present a woman with a problem and she’ll discuss it with her friends. It may not get solved, but she feels better about it. Guys don’t feel better about a problem until they’ve solve it. Women are content to let the guy solve the problem while they talk about it to their friends.

In terms of a story, a guy story takes a problem and the characters take action to solve the story. It is through these actions that the characters are revealed. Take Die Hard as an example. The story begins with a man and a woman having marital problems. He isn’t the type of guy who can sit down and talk about it, but because his wife is in danger, he is able to show through his actions how committed to his wife he really is. If this were woman fiction, we’d probably have a story in which they are trapped in the same room by the people taking over the building. Because of the situation, they’re able to talk through their differences and in the end the guy decides to save the day because he can’t stand the thought of losing the woman he now realizes he loves.

It’s worth noting these differences. I’ve read suspense in which the characters sat around talking about how scared they were. This is a classic example of telling rather than showing, but it seems that women are more interested in that sort of thing. As a guy, I found it rather boring. But we need to be aware of our audience. If we’re writing for women, more talk and less action may be the way to go. If we’re writing for men, we don’t need to spend so much time talking about what our next action should be. We just need to do it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Mistakes in Heaven

Do you think we’ll make mistakes in heaven? We know that in our glorified bodies we won’t sin anymore, but mistakes are different than sin. Here in this life, mistakes are a tool by which we learn. If we never made mistakes, we would do everything we do well, but there are things we would never attempt.

I don’t know of any Bible passage that says we won’t make mistakes, but I think some people assume that is the case. We don’t know much about how life will be in our glorified bodies, but we do know a little about some of the people who visited heaven and returned. Those people did make mistakes. One mistake was falling down to worship an angel. I don’t expect that any of us will make that mistake more than once, but angels are impressive creatures and it’s understandable why someone would make that mistake.

But let’s suppose we had no ability to make a mistake in our glorified bodies. If we don’t have complete knowledge, then that would make us nothing more than robots. If we have the ability to make choices and the reason we don’t make mistakes is because we know everything, then that would make us like God. I think we can go far enough to say that it would make us God. So while I believe we won’t sin in our glorified bodies, I think it is safe to say that we may make some mistakes due to a lack of knowledge. And just as we do here, I think we’ll learn from those mistakes. I’m sure we’ll handle those mistakes better than we do now, but they’ll still be there.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

This Story Be Broke

My mother told me about a novel she read. This particular novel is one she didn’t care for. I think I understand why. In what she told me of the book, the main character was the granddaughter of the governor. Of which state I’m not sure. In any case, the governor was the bad guy and because of what he did his granddaughter was put in danger. Without having read the book, I’d like to say that I believe the problem is that the archetype is messed up. A governor’s granddaughter is very similar to a president’s daughter. In that archetype, the president’s daughter is given special treatment. They don’t have a role in government, but as Daddy’s little girl they get special access. On the down side, they have a tendency to get kidnapped. That is because they’re an easier target than the president and the president is tempted to do give in to any and all demands to get them back.

The book Mom read had it messed up because making the governor the villain removes the special access of the granddaughter. And it’s not likely that the governor will kidnap his own granddaughter. As readers, we want that archetype preserved because we want to imagine that this woman has that special relationship to someone in power. In real life, we enjoy being a close friend of the most important person in the room. In the president’s daughter archetype, we enjoy that situation vicariously.

When we destroy an archetype like that, we vicariously experience the same pain we would experience if we thought we were close to a family member and then they betrayed us. Imagine if your mother was a famous author. At a book signing, she has a line going out the door and down the block. Thinking that you have a right to speak to her at any time, you walk past the line and up to your mother. When she refuses to see you because you cut in line.

While we shouldn’t assume that we have to stick to the archetype in all cases, it’s important to know which archetype we’re working with and how we’re violating it. Messing with the archetype can ruin a story, so it may be better to change archetypes or change the story to match the archetype.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Build a Platform

You will find a lot of articles online about website design. They come in the form of blog post and these article posting services that are found throughout the web. Most of these articles won’t provide you with any earth shattering information. You may glean something from reading them, but the main reason they are there is because all of these guys developing websites and selling website templates are trying to build a platform. Being the experts on the subject that they are, they know that one way to get people to visit their websites and blogs is to get as many links as they can. In part, it can be done using a blog, but the article publishing services also help because they all pass these articles around like a virus. I’m often surprised to find something I’ve written show up on a website I’ve never visited.

I’m going to offer a couple of pieces of advice here. Unless you’re trying to promote yourself as a website design expert (selling web design services or have written a book on the subject), don’t write about website design. There is so much stuff out there that the web is overloaded with it and you’ll have a hard time getting noticed.

The second piece of advice is to follow the example of the website design gurus and get your junk out there. Pick a subject related to your books and write an article. It can be junk, but stick it out there. At the bottom, you’ll have your name and maybe a link to your website. You’ll also include information about your book. So when people are searching for information and find the article you wrote, they’ll also have information directing them to you for more information. I can complain all I want about the lack of respect people have for true experts, but the fact is that we can use that to our advantage. Rather than turning to true experts, people turn to the person whose name they recognize. Because of that, if we can get our name out there and people begin to recognize it, we will appear to be the expert, whether we are or not. I hope you aren’t trying to convince people you’re an expert in an area that you aren’t, but even that is a possibility in some instances. Get your name out there and you’ll build your platform.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Watchout for the Potato Guy

As I was reading a bag of Lay’s chips the other day, I saw a phrase that they put in bold so it would stand out. Farm-grown potatoes. Really?

Sometimes I wonder about these marketing folks who write the copy on the products. Just where do they think they’re going to get potatoes if they aren’t farm grown? I can’t imagine where the other guys are getting their potatoes. You think Pringles is stealing potatoes out of someone’s garden or something? I wonder how many gardens that would take. Let’s see—if you have a couple of rows of potatoes in your backyard, you might get a couple of bushels. I’m not sure how many bushels Pringles processes in a day, but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot. If that’s what they’re doing, I bet they drive around in a Lay’s truck. If you see a Lay’s truck in your neighborhood being driving by a guy wearing a Pringles shirt, guard your potato patch.

Monday, November 1, 2010

EasyWorship (or not)

Our church has begun using EasyWorship presentation software during our worship services. The price isn’t bad, $379 for a site license, and from what I’ve seen of it, it has some nice features. I haven’t been actively involved in using it during the services, but in case you haven’t noticed, when you take on the task of being the church webmaster you are taking on the task of being the church’s computer helpdesk too. I suspect that as we see churches use more and more technology that we’ll see more of that kind of thing. I won’t say we’ll keep calling ourselves church webmasters in the future, but most medium to large sized churches will have a go to guy for technology. They may have a whole team of people.

Anyway, the reason I got pulled in on the EasyWorship thing is because we’ve been using Power Point to put sermon notes on the screen. For that to work, EasyWorship has to import the Power Point presentation so that the projectionist can select which slide he wants on the screen. When it works, it works nice, but our music director ran into a problem in which he tried importing the Power Point presentation and rather than importing all the slides the software duplicates some of the slides. He was able to get around the problem by splitting the presentation up before going through the import process, but that is troublesome.

I didn’t know what to tell him other than to contact the EasyWorship tech support, but I went ahead and installed the software on my home computer to see if I could duplicate the problem. I couldn’t get it to import the Power Point presentations saved with the new format (.pptx), but using the old format (.ppt), I didn’t have any problems at all. I used a presentation with over three hundred slides. I used one that was as much like the ones we’ve been using at church as I could get it (short of obtaining a copy of one of those) and I used a shorter one. I used the import process several times and I didn’t have any issues at all with the .ppt files.

So, at this point I can only hope that EasyWorship’s tech support knows what is going on because I’ve run out of ideas. If I could duplicate the problem on my machine, I might be able to look for a cause. As it is, I’m left comparing my machine to the one we’re using at church and there are more differences than I can count.