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Friday, December 31, 2010

Eating Humble Pie

To date, I've not received any really negative reviews on my books, for which I'm grateful. The one short story that was reviewed early on, was somewhat negative. But most of the reviews of Infinite Realities and Transforming Realities have been very positive, 4 and 5 star reviews. But I've always, deep inside, worried what would happen if I received a really negative review. I guess all authors feel that concern, even if on the outside we acknowledge that there is no way everyone will like what we've written. Every reviewer is different both in what technical issues are their pet peeves to what style of stories they like, what strikes them as cool and unique, or ho hum and trite. So it is inevitable that one will get an unenthusiastic review, maybe even a very negative review, on what most would consider a good or even great book.

So, I feel to clear the slate on 2010 as we go into 2011, I need to fess up to not doing one reviewer justice. Not because he gave me a negative review, but because he gave me a "so-so" review. Because he honestly had some issues with what I'd written, and stated those, I felt upon first reading like it was a negative review. It really wasn't, taken as a whole, but phrases like: "On occasion the dialogue can be a bit wooden, as Copple uses some contortions to get his characters to preach as well as speak," and "Overall, I was not excited about this collection," stood out to me. You know how the negative obliterates any positive statements, especially when it is about your story? So it sounded very negative to me. It's not that others hadn't said anything negative before, but in general, this is the first review that made me wince.

Being the first "not enthusiastic" review of this book, I held back from mentioning it on my blog, or on Twitter, or on Facebook. And the worse part was, going into it I had received the impression that the reviewer was Christian. After that, in part due to the way he spoke about God in the book, and in part due to some other things on his blog, I began to question whether he was a Christian, and voiced my doubts on a private list that I believe he is on. No one ever corrected me, and they were simply doubts, I wasn't saying he wasn't. But I later found out not only from other comments, but post by he himself, that he is indeed a Christian and that comment could have been offensive to him.

So while it was a private list, I came to some conclusions that were in error, not being familiar with the gist and point of his blog site, which is read by a lot more people than Christians, and the review was written with that audience in mind. In retrospect, I realize I was being way too reactionary to what I perceived as negative, and I made some assumptions that I shouldn't have made. And because of that, I failed to promote the review and his blog on my platform.

So, I'm taking this last day of 2010 to fix what I believe to be an error on my part, and though it comes six months after the fact, I'm offering an apology to John Ottinger, III for any offense and failure to promote his site and the review in question. I promise not to be so reactionary in the future to what is an honest and valid review, which not only had some things he didn't like about the book, but also some things he found good, and suggestions to the types of people who would enjoy my book more than perhaps he did.

Because, yes, some of the dialog is on the wooden side. Not all of it, but as he said, "occasionally." There are some "unnatural" situations, some of which I'm aware of. Common issues when these stories were first written in my first year of writing fiction. John had some valid points. But I should have taken heart with other comments he made like "Told in first person, part of the enjoyment of the stories comes from trying to discover what principle or lesson Copple is trying to relate," and "If allegories like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or the fables of Aesop, or morality plays like Everyman are enjoyable to you, then you will like Infinite Realities."

And I have to add, that out of all the places that have reviewed Infinite Realities, it is the only review to which I actually saw a measurable bump in books sold on Amazon and my own bookstore. So despite it being a "so-so" review of the book, it obviously encouraged people to check it out for themselves, to which I can only be grateful for the exposure.

So, John, consider this my personal and public apology, and finally correcting the lack of promotion, as this will go to my Facebook friends as well as those subscribed to my blog. And I will add for my friends reading this blog on my site or on Facebook, I have subscribed to his blog since I first discovered it back around May of 2010, if I recall correctly. I can vouch for it not only being a wealth of information, but some great articles and book reviews. If you're not reading it, and you like speculative fiction, you should be.

I encourage everyone to read his honest and well-thought out review of Infinite Realities, and then check out the rest of his site, "Grasping for the Wind," and subscribe to the RSS feed if you're not already. You'll thank me later.

And thank you, John, for your work and enthusiasm for supporting speculative fiction. It is appreciated, even if sometimes some of us don't show it as we should. Here's the link:

John Ottinger's review of Infinite Realities at Grasping for the Wind

How have you, as a writer, reacted to negative reviews of your work? Do you fear them? How do you plan to react if you've not received one yet? Certainly somethings to think about.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Anthology: Ethereal Worlds

Can you believe it? I've written enough short stories and flash fictions over the past five years to fill a full novel-length book! And so what did I do? I made a book, naturally.

Introducing Ethereal Worlds, an anthology of 23 space-opera-style science fiction and fantasy stories written and appearing in magazines between 2006 and 2010. Two of the stories have never appeared anywhere before, and one is set to come out in ResAliens around the beginning of 2011.

Follow Moth Man as he searches for the light, and in a spoof, searches for Rumor. Deal with an angel who thinks a dragon and dragon-slayer marrying is a good idea. Ride into Neptune's atmosphere as man discovers what is there for the first time. Learn that a toilet can be used as a dimensional transportation device. Hours of fun stories await the brave reader of this compendium.

Currently the book is available as an ebook at Amazon, Smashwords, and soon at Barnes and Noble, IBooks, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, and other online ebook retailers.

What? Don't have an ereader or don't care to read on a screen? It will also be coming out in paperback soon through CreateSpace. Will announce when it becomes available.

Don't miss out! And if you haven't decided yet what to do with that Christmas money, can you think of anything better than enjoying fun stories? Go for it!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Hope

I contemplated writing another Christmas themed fiction to post here on my blog as a gift to my readers, like I did last year. Several appeared to appreciate that story, so I thought it would be something good to continue. But I decided today to do something a little different, and a little more personal for my Christmas blog post. I decided to tell about a special Christmas in my life.

What made it special? Really, it is what happened before that. I went into one of the worst depressions of my life. I don't get depressed all that often, but in 1988, several events conspired to drag me down.

One impending issue was my ministerial license. I had graduated from college in 1984. Four years later I hadn't gone to seminary nor had I become a pastor. When I met with the district board that year, they told me that if I hadn't either headed to seminary or found a pastorate, they wouldn't renew my license the following year.

Problem was, I had no luck getting a pastorate. Went to a few interviews, but nothing had ever materialized. And I had a mobile home that I couldn't seem to sell, even though I had tried for a couple of years. Until I came out from under that, there was no way to pull up roots and go to seminary in Kansas City, MO. So as the year marched on, and I knew I would be facing the board again the following year, the threat of losing my license and all that I had gone to college for pressed in upon me.

On top of that, I worked at a job that hadn't kept up with the bills. Each month I sat down to decide who would get paid and who would have to wait. This situation had gone on for at least three years. There were times I would think I was about to climb out of the hole, only to have something happen that shoved me back down. By the fall of 1988, I had grown weary of struggling with the bills, and began to believe that I would never get out of this downward financial spiral. The constant pressure and self-doubt of not being able to pay my bills began to get to me.

I also had some negative things happen at church that ate away at my self-esteem. Our young adult group did a monthly get together, where one family would plan it and get the goodies together each month. These were always well attended and fun. When it was our turn, I planned this fun seeking for clues. They would get an envelope with a clue in it, which would lead to the next clue, and the next, and so on until they found the prize. The task was to see who could get to it first. The night arrived, and no one except the Sunday School teacher showed up. Everyone had an excuse. I had felt an underlying sense of people didn't take me seriously, or respect that I could take on something and make it work from some previous events that had happened. But that night I felt I could no longer ignore the reality that no one in that church believed I could head up a function and make it work well. No one wanted to attend anything that I planned or taught.  And the pity that came later as some found out what happened didn't help any either. I couldn't get past the thought that they only did it because they felt bad about what they really felt inside about me. The cat was out of the bag, and they felt guilty about it. But out of the bag nonetheless.

To make matters worse, my wife had become pregnant the year before. Yes, that overall is a good thing.  And I wouldn't trade my son for anything. But at the time my wife dealt with sickness all through her pregnancy. Her desire for any intimate relationship, whether that be hugging or more, had gone out the window. I struggled through her pregnancy that year until my son was born on September 9, 1988. I expected her to finally get better and be able to emotionally support me as those other issues rushed toward me.

But I had already gone into a depression of sorts by then, even though at the time I didn't realize it. Because of that, she didn't want to be around me because I was so depressing. She didn't want to get sucked into my depression, so she withdrew. Which, or course, only made my depression worse. I didn't feel connected to her at all.

As if that wasn't enough, one month after my wife gave birth, her gall bladder sent her into pains. She ended up in the hospital, getting her gall bladder taken out. I had to take care of my three year old daughter and the new baby while she went under the knife and recuperated. Thankfully, her sister who lived nearby was able to help me out. Don't know how I would have made it. I was in the situation of expecting to be the strong one, and I didn't feel strong at all. I felt helpless, overwhelmed, and sinking fast.

By the time she returned home in mid-October of that year, I hit rock bottom. I felt I would lose my license and would never pastor a church. The bills would spiral out of control and flush me financially down the toilet. My wife would hate to be around me and hold me at arms length forever! I knew in my mind these things weren't necessarily true, but at that point it felt like they were. And that's what mattered as far as my depression went.

When November arrived, I had lost all hope that these things would improve. Literally. I was doomed. It was all going to come crashing in upon me, wave after wave. What did I do? I crashed and burned. All motivation to do anything disappeared. I dropped all responsibilities at church. Just stopped doing them. I couldn't bring myself to open the checkbook and write bills to pay what we could. I had to show my wife how to do it because I simply couldn't. I couldn't do anything, and now everyone could see just how worthless I was. I struggled to even go to work, but at least I did that much.

Now, I'm sure in the grand scheme of things others have had worse depressions than I had that year. But if you've been in one, that matters little because to the one in a depression, everything is bleak, horrible, and the worst it can get, all the while knowing that it will get still worse. So I'm not saying all this to say "my depression was worse than yours, na na ney boo boo!" No, simply that I was in a deep depression. Never had one that worse before then, nor since, though I've had some minor ones since then.

Then December arrived. Christmas music filled the air. Nativity scenes and lights popped up everywhere. The spirit of Christmas nibbled at my heart. Now I know for many, Christmas tends to be one of the more depressing times of the year due to the loss of loved ones, or some tragic event that happened around that time. Some this year will experience their first Christmas without someone dear to them. I'm not belittling that at all. Those are real feelings. I'm not saying deny those or hide them.

But, as Christmas moved closer, I noticed something happening in my heart. And the only way I can describe it is hope. As Christmas approached, I focused on Christ, and what His birth meant to the world, and to me. As I did that, I felt the hopelessness I had experienced the previous few months evaporate in the face of His reality. Hope was born anew in my soul. Literally, by the time Christmas arrived, I felt joy in my heart, and no longer felt depressed. It was as if the world brightened, and I felt at peace about the future, simply because He was there. Alive. Born in a manger so many years ago, but born in my heart, and His hope renewed in my life. How could I not be happy?

What changed? I still didn't have enough money to pay the bills. I still felt the threat of losing my ministerial license the coming spring. I still couldn't sell my mobile home. My wife hadn't at that point indicated any further desire to be with me other than what she had to be. Nothing exterior had changed around me. The same events that pushed me into depression were still there. But I had changed. I began to hope again. Hope that Jesus was enough, and He would get me through whatever would happen. He was in charge.

Well, I hate to make this sound like that alone fixed everything, but it just about did. Because I was no longer depressed, my wife started wanting to be around me. Her desire for me even returned, after over a year of minimal physical contact or desire to be with each other. A couple from our church heard we had a mobile home for sale, and were getting married, and wanted to buy it. The money from the sale allowed me to go on a work and witness trip, and get caught up on all my bills. It also allowed me to start plans to go to Kansas City, so I could start attending seminary. In the month of January, 1989, all the issues that had sent me into depression were resolved. And while 1988 was the worst year of my life to that point, 1989 was the best and brightest year. I did move to Kansas City and start going to seminary. The new church I attended looked at me with respect, and I took on some task there that I succeeded wonderfully at. I kept my license and went on to pastor two churches and be ordained as a minister so I didn't have to renew every year. Life went from horrible to great, all because of a baby in a manger that gave me hope for the future.

I'm not saying have hope and all your problems will disappear. I've had more since then, and not all were totally solved at that point as well. But it didn't matter. He showed me that I shouldn't have to wait until I've hit rock bottom to learn to place the future into His hands. He'll take care of it. My duty is to do what He wants me to do. And to keep hope alive, because He was born into this world to establish that very hope, that our future is not one of death and destruction, but life and joy with Him.

May your Christmas this year be full of hope, given by the gift of Christ Himself, to us. Because of that, I can truly say, Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Spaced Out

A new short story of mine, titled "Spaced Out," has been published at Fantasy World Geographic. It is a space opera story, with a hint of mystery and humor. Give it a read, and leave a comment if you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dare to be Bad?

One of the traditions I've had is when I'm writing my NaNo novel in November, it gets printed out, and whenever our family is driving a ways, usually to church which is 45 minutes each way, or to Austin which is about an hour, my wife will it read in it in the car, warts and all, and my two sons (22 and almost 17) will listen. It usually does two things for me. One, if they really like something, they'll laugh, or say something. If they find something silly, then I know it doesn't work. And listening as someone else reads your work allows you to see what mistakes you've made.

This year right in chapter 1, I noticed as my wife read it that I had an "As you know, Bob" bit of dialog. So I made a mental note it needed to be fixed. A little later on, they mentioned something I had the main character find. And I realized I'd never used it during the rest of the novel to that point, creating a smoking gun. Check, another issue to fix. And so it goes.

I see all those glaring bad mistakes. Then I read a blog post of Dean Wesley Smith titled "Dare to be Bad." I have to admit, the concept makes a lot of sense. And it is supported by numerous professional writers. Take a moment to read the blog post, and the comments if you have the time are good too. But make sure you come back. Or open it in a tab to read after this.

I've posted this on my Facebook account, and Twitter, and retweeted. But he mentions there that the scariest thing is to take literally Robert A. Heinlein's third rule of writing: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

Checking a few writer blogs on his rules, I've read those who think what he "really meant" was not to tinker with it endlessly. Another simply dismisses the rule as something of his culture or experience, but things are different now. But not too many want to take it literally, as Dean does, and I know from secondary sources, some other authors do as well.

In Dean's case, he doesn't do any rewriting. He does do "editing," that is, he corrects typos and grammar mistakes, but that's it. So I'm thinking about this. I'm looking at that "As you know, Bob" dialog I have in chapter 1. If I take this literally, does that mean even if I notice something, and I'm right on that page fixing a typo, that I shouldn't fix that "As you know, Bob" dialog or ignore it and let it be?

Most writers would fix that if they saw it. Can I ignore that obvious newbie mistake and send it out like that anyway? That's scary. And I know I tend to be light on description. My last short story I sent out, the editors sent back that they would like some revisions, and one was better descriptions. That actually fits with Heinlein's rule, since it was to editorial request. But do I take my current NaNo novel draft, and send it out without going through and adding in needed description? I know I have places that need it. But if I followed this rule, I would only add in description if the editor requested it.

Now, some of the reinterpretation of Heinlein's rule appeared to be because the writer didn't want to take it literally. But I would suggest that the "except" clause specifically specifies the one time you can rewrite, so Heinlein meant one shouldn't rewrite at all. I don't think he was specifically addressing endless tinkering, though obviously that gets fixed in the process. I don't even think it applies purely to newbie writers, though it probably applies more to them than anyone. Yes, I know. That goes counter to what all newbie writers are told, to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and then do it again. My first short story, I must have rewritten ten to fifteen times, but the last two were to editorial request.

Let me explain why I think Heinlein put this rule into place, not as a "writing process" rule as one blogger put it, but as something that will prevent an author from selling the work and so fits with the rest of the rules. There are two reasons why I think he said this.

One, and maybe the obvious one, is that rewriting, even once, will slow your output down by at least half or more. For instance, I've written all but one novel within a month's time for the first draft. Yet, I'll take several months just to get the first edit done. Then I will take a few days to go back and fix what my chapter-by-chapter beta reader noticed, both typos/grammar and plot/character issues. Then I'll send the complete novel to one or two beta readers, and then fix whatever things they noticed that I agree with need to be fixed. Then I deem it ready to ship out. But by then, it's been nine months or more since I wrote it.

If I didn't rewrite, just sent the rough draft to a beta reader, then when I received that back, fixed the typos, grammar, and maybe any glaring plot holes/continuity problems (not rewriting, mind you, just easy fixes that don't require me rewriting paragraphs), then ship it out, I'd probably have the novel sitting at an editor's desk within three to four months of writing it, rather than the nine months to a year it currently takes, if I am diligently working on it and the beta reader doesn't take too long going over it.

Why is that important, you ask? After all, some writers, even some famous writers, sweat over their manuscripts for years. It's the difference between wanting to make a career out of writing, to earn a real living out of writing, as opposed to it being a side hobby. If you look at most professional writers who earned their living writing fiction, they have one thing in common: they put out multiple titles a year. They were prolific, whether we're talking the classics like Asmov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Del Ray, or current authors like King, Card, and McCaffrey. And the closer to being a mid-list author, which most are, the more true it becomes. Short of hitting the big time like J. K. Rowling, you can't earn a living pumping out one book a year. Most advances on a novel will fall in the $10,000 to $25,000 range until the author can command more because of customer demand. If you can live on that, then maybe you can do it. But it will be a slow build.

And if I spend a year getting one book out, guess what? I'll never reach my goal of becoming a full-time professional writer. Now, if your goal isn't to make a living off writing, you want to tinker away at it, maybe get a book here or there published, then this point doesn't apply to you. Don't quit your day job short of hitting the Rowling jackpot. But if you do, it means you need to cut your rewrite time down to the minimum, so that you can get started on the next book. You're call there.

Two, unless you know what you're doing, you're more likely to rewrite your voice out of the work the more you tinker with it. What makes a story uniquely yours is your writer's voice. To develop that voice takes doing a fair amount of writing, for most authors somewhere between half a million to one million, or maybe more. But your rough draft will contain your raw, unedited, unique voice. Dean Wesley Smith points out that when writers do rewrites, especially new writers, they will tend to edit their voice out of the work. This is most especially true if you take your work to a critique group and adopt changes they suggest.

The problem, especially for new writers, is they don't have the skills, the time spent writing, to readily identify their voice to know how to preserve that in rewrites. Why is that? Well, it really makes sense if you think about it.

First, what is voice? It isn't just style, it isn't just word choices, it isn't just poetic feel, it isn't just worldview. Voice is a combination of all these elements, the way your brain thinks and views the world, the reactions and interactions of people. It is all these things combined into your unique mixture. Because of that, it isn't something you logically think about doing. You don't decide, "Hum, today, I'm going to write with voice X." It is a subconscious event that develops the more you write. Once you have a distinct voice, people can hear something being read, no matter the style you used, and identify it as yours if they are familiar enough with your novels and stories to know your voice.

Because of the way voice gets into your work, once you shift from the creative mode of writing that first draft, over to the critical thinking mode of editing a work, it is easy for your critical mind to say, "Hum, all the books say I shouldn't use [insert favorite writing rule] so I should edit that out." Or someone in your critique group says, "Your teen is talking too much like an adult," so you go back and rewrite his dialog to sound more teenish. What you may have actually done is to remove your voice. Why? Because you don't know what your voice involves, especially early on. You can't even identify "this is my voice," so how are you going to know if you are taking it out with any specific rewrite? Bottom line, you won't. And what you're likely to end up with is something generic that sounds like every other writer out there.

And that's not what editors want. They want something with a unique voice. The reader wants something with a unique voice. Most any story you write will be something someone has done before. What will make it "original" is your voice infused into it. Edit that out, and you have the same story everyone else has told. Therefore, if your goal is to ever sell your work to an editor, the more you rewrite, the greater the chance you've edited your voice out of the work, unless you really know what you are doing. Therefore, the more you rewrite, the less likely it is to sell to an editor.

Dean, in the post linked above, relates how he used to be a rewriter in the comments section (and other places on his blog). And he had a hard time selling. One, because he wasn't sending out that much, and two, because his work sounded like everyone else's. When he took the advice of the professional writers he hung out with to heart and stopped rewriting, he started selling. And over 100 books later, is still selling using the same formula. Write the first draft. Give it to a beta reader. Make typo and grammar corrections the beta reader caught. Send it out.

Because what sells a story is primarily and foremost, the author's voice. Not the absence of plot holes. Not the hard to find "unnatural" dialog. And when the editor finds a unique voice, they will request whatever edits they believe need to be there. Then, according to Heinlein's rule, you rewrite. Why? Because they can buy it and publish it. Not your beta reader. Not your critique group. Not even your agent. The editor is the one ready to put up the money to publish it. He's the only one with a significant vested interest and the knowledge of the market to suggest changes that need to be made. He's the one with the cash to put behind your novel.

The editor can suggest changes to improve marketability. He can point out typos or grammar mistakes, or plot holes that he deems needing fixing. But he can't tell you how to put your voice into something. If that isn't there, the novel's not going to fly.

Therefore, I believe the rewrite prohibition is more than to prevent endless tinkering and never sending something out. It is to prevent an author from cutting the voice out of his novel, and make him productive enough to earn a living writing fiction. If you skip step three, steps four and five are not as likely to produce a sell. Not impossible, mind you. Just make it that much harder.

So the main problem we writers have with this, is the fear of sending out a flawed manuscript. One author blog talking about this, said to not rewrite, a writer would have to write a perfect first draft.

No, no, no, no! That's not what this means. And this is where the title comes into play. We know that draft will have problems. It isn't a matter of making the story "perfect." Indeed, make it "perfect" and it will sound like everything else unless you really know what you're doing, and feel proficient enough to identify and edit your voice. Rather, we send it out knowing it isn't perfect, but does have our voice in it, and that is what will sell it. Not the perfection of the writing craft.

That point right there is exactly why you see editors buying books like "The Davinci Code," which breaks tons of writing rules, and is roundly criticized among writer types. And justly so. But writers ask, "How did that make it to market?" The answer: a unique voice. And the sales proved it to be a correct assessment. People gobbled it up.

Then how is a writer supposed to get better? Do we really want them to send out crap to an editor? Yes. What? Well, think about it. Let's say a new writer who doesn't really know what he's doing yet, writes a novel, fixes the typos and grammar, then sends it to an editor. The editor may see a unique voice in the work, but sees there are tons of things that would need to be fixed for people to read it. Maybe the plot is all over the place. Maybe the characters are stereotypical. So he'll reject it, maybe even write an encouraging note of what the writer needs to work on if he likes the voice he sees. The writer learns and grows through the effort, both the practice in writing it, and finding out from someone with the money to publish the work what doesn't work for them.

The writer keeps sending it out, but while waiting on that one, he's already written another novel that is ready to go out. So he sends that one to the editor. The second novel is even better, because the writer has improved. But, still, there are too many things that the editor would have to fix, but the voice is stronger now, and compelling. So he writes another note back. Multiply this process for several editors at several publishing houses. With each novel, the writer gets closer to critical mass. So maybe on his fourth or fifth novel, his writing has improved significantly enough that despite the remaining issues the editor sees that needs fixing, he likes the voice so much that he's ready to go to bat for the novel with the sales team.

If the writer is putting out even one book every quarter, shoot, how about one every six months, then he's spent two years before getting his novel published. Meanwhile, the person that takes a year to crank out a novel because they spend so much time editing and polishing and rewriting based on input and critiques from a variety of people, not only are they likely as new writers to have their voice edited out by the time they get to sending it to an editor, but in the same time they are only on their second novel when our other author gets published. And because the voice is gone in their work, they only get back form rejections because the story didn't grab the editor's attention with a unique voice. So they never hear from the one who can buy their work, what was wrong with it. Instead, all they get is the input from other writers who are also not published, in many cases. Or an agent who acts more like a critique partner than an agent to negotiate your book deal, but also has never published anything (in many cases). And what feedback they do get, they use spending time rewriting the same story yet again, instead of using it to write something new, something better.

Granted, that is one scenario, and one can find the exceptions to that. But you're more likely to have that scenario than not. Maybe the numbers would be a bit different in various cases. Five years instead of two, etc. But the dynamic remains the same.

Point being, a new writer learns best by doing creative writing, not by doing critical rewriting. So you write something, learn from your mistakes, go onto the next story. Do that over and over again, until you start selling.

So, am I going to "dare to be bad"? I'm certainly eager to test drive that theory. I even have the perfect candidate with this last NaNo novel, because while it is a good story, I don't feel it is my best (but writers are said to be the worst judges of their own work). If I send it out and it sells, then it will confirm what I know in my brain, but am scared to do in my heart.

What about you? Would you dare to be bad and follow literally Heinlein's rule number three: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

NaNoWriMo - Pros and Cons

I finished my fifth NaNo (short for "National Novel Writing Month," where people from all over the world sign up to accept the challenge to write fifty thousand words on a novel during the month of November). Out of the five years I've done this, this is the first time that I've barely stretched across the finish line on the last day, crossing the 50K mark around 9:30 pm yesterday. I ended up with 51,553 words by midnight and the marathon ended. Every previous year, I hit that before or around Thanksgiving.

So after five years of doing this, what do I see as the pros and cons to it? The day after is a good time to reflect on this.

First, let me dispel what some claim are cons, but are not. So we can get those out of the way.

Fake Con 1: All these people writing crap will flood the market with it, thinking it is some kind of masterpiece.

Some will put them out on the market, when they are not ready. And it can add to the noise of publishing. But when you factor in how much noise is already out there, percentage wise it will not add significantly to it. And the fact is, cream will rise to the top. Even if everyone who participated in NaNo self-published their work, it wouldn't prevent readers from finding what they like. There is a natural weeding out process that takes place through reviews and such. It has always been hard to get noticed as a new writer. This will not make it much harder, if any.

Keep in mind that the biggest majority of NaNo participants will simply file away their manuscript, and it will never see the light of day again. Their goal wasn't to publish a novel, but to either prove to themselves that they could write a novel in one month, or they are simply working on their craft. They know they are not good enough yet but this is concentrated practice time. Only a small percentage of NaNoers will ever send that to an editor/agent, or throw it on the market via self-publishing. And an even smaller percentage of those will actually be something that readers want to read, and will start buying.

Fake Con 2: Anything written in one month has to be crap. It takes months, if not years, to write a truly great novel.

Experience says the opposite. While you will find some literary masterpieces that took years to write, like the "Lord of the Rings" Trilogy, there are others that were written in weeks, and became best sellers and/or classics. Dean Wesley Smith speaks to this much better than I could on his blog post titled "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Speed." The fact is many classics and best sellers have been written within a month or less.

I've seen those two thrown out as to why NaNo is bad, but they are baseless. Myths that some writers believe, but Myths all the same. But onto the pros and cons. First we'll attack the cons.

Con 1: Not getting to the 50K goal can make one feel like a failure as a writer.

This happens when a writer or a region totally misses the point of NaNo. They see the 50K as the line that says, "I'm a good writer," so if you don't make it, you think, "I'm a horrible writer." No, the 50K goal is simply a challenge, a motivation to do one thing: stop worrying about editing and write, freeing the creative mind. Having that goal, that deadline, allows one to push themselves and see what they can do. And many are often surprised.

But there is nothing magical about being able to write 50K words in one month that makes one a good or bad writer. The majority of people who crossed the 50K line last month won't publish what they have, because it is crap. And they know it. Those who don't know it will find out soon enough, probably the hard way. But there is a lot of crap people have spent years pouring over as well.

The problem results when in the heat of the month, the regional leadership, or the writer, sees that 50K mark as a validation of their writing skills and ability. Let me say this: speed has nothing to do with the quality of your work, whether it took two weeks to write it, or ten years. So anyone going into it with this mentality will set yourself up for failure, because you had that nagging feeling in the back of your head that says you're not a good writer, and this proves it. Hogwash.

It proves one of several potential things. You're method and style of writing isn't fit for working in a month time frame. You tried it, didn't work, move on. Or too many real life events kept you away from the computer. Some unavoidable, some not, but stuff happens. Bottom line, you didn't have the approximately two to three hours a day (depending on typing/writing speed) to invest in getting to the mark. Or you ate too much on Thanksgiving, sending you into a state of shock, which you just pulled out of on November 30th.

Con 2: Seeing the 50K as THE goal, and nothing else matters.

The message at times can seem to be just that. Getting to 50K is the end all and be all of what NaNo is about. Do it anyway you can. Some may even "cheat" by copy/pasting, or just typing eileis.  s eiels is els e seis se eis as fast as they can. If you "cheat," you're only harming yourself. It means you've gained nothing from the month long effort, for which the 50K goal is designed to spur the writer to achieve. NaNo would be a total waste of your time.

What that also means is if you don't make it to 50K, say you reached 30K, though you didn't reach the group goal, you still have 30K of a novel written! You still enjoyed the benefit of pushing yourself, despite time limitations. You still got in at a minimum 30K more words of practice, if nothing else. Your time wasn't wasted because you didn't reach the 50K. Yes, you're name won't be on the list. You won't have the "winner" plastered on your progress bar. But you know what? All of that is designed to get you to do one thing: write. You did write, and so you have won where it really counts. The point isn't to reach 50K, that is a goal to spur you to write. If you didn't write something, then you're a loser no matter what the progress bar says, and if you did, you're a winner.

Those are the main two valid cons, and why people might decide NaNo is not worth it for them. The really big logical fallacy happens when that person, taking their limited experience, decides that NaNo must be bad for everyone else too.  Let's say this person is simply not a "fast" writer, in that they have trouble spending more than an hour a day on their work, and stare at the screen the majority of the time. So they think everyone else who writes must write the same way, if they produce decent work. This is because they've bought into the "fast equals low quality" myth.

But every writer is different. Every writer will approach writing in different ways. So it is impossible for one writer to say that they way they write, the speed they write at, and claim it is the only or even best way for all other writers, or even a majority of writers, to follow if they want to produce "quality" stories.

So, what are the pros I've experienced or seen?

Pro 1: It encourages you to write.

When approached in the correct way, the main thing NaNo does is help people who might be future writers, to actually sit down and write something. The first novel I wrote, I did in a month without ever knowing anything about NaNo. It just happened. I'd never done anything like that before in my life, back in October of 2005, but when I finished that rough draft, I knew then that this is what I wanted to do. And I've been working on it ever since.

With motivation to reach a goal and the support of other writers, people will be stretched to do more than they ever have before, and potentially discover that this is what they want to do. Even if they don't make it to 50K, they may have never written anything as big as 20K previously, and find they love it.

Pro 2: It gives a writer motivation to practice their art.

And the one true fact that applies to all but some prodigy kids, is writers have to do one thing if they are to be writers: write. And write a lot. The general figure is that most authors won't reach professional levels of writing until they've written one million words. Because that's how much practice it tends to take for most people. Some may take fewer words or some may take more. But the more you practice, the better you get if you are seeking to learn from your mistakes and take guidance. And that is true even if you're a professional writer with three million words under your belt.

Pro 3: Many discover their creative side is able to produce some really good stuff.

While all writers are different in how they approach things, there is one area that is limited to our physiology. We have a creative and critical side of our brain. And the fact is, for a majority of writers, the critical side will get in the way of the creative side.

There are writers who work best editing as they go. Through whatever training, life experiences, or just the way they are put together, they can switch to the critical thinking mode without disrupting the creative mode's flow and rhythm. But based on what I've read, these folk are not the majority. From several different authors and how they worked, from several editing books I've read, they are practically in 100% agreement that these two modes should be separated if we want to free the creative mind to do its best work.

Problem is, either because it seems right, or because they've been told it is "the right way," many people assume that they should write a scene, then go back and edit it, rewrite it, polish it, before moving onto the next. But not realizing this, they stay stuck in that process, taking years to write it, and maybe even give up on it and toss it in the drawer, never to be pulled out again other than to show relatives what you did.

NaNo can help those folks discover whether they really are edit as you go types, and have not bought into it without critical thinking. For what you'll discover is that when the goal is to attempt to write 50K in a month, and you've never written that much in a year, is that you can't afford the time to let the editor in the door to review what you've written. You're onto the next scene, the next chapter. Then you get to the end of it and look back and say, "Wow, that's actually pretty good. A bit rough, needs some editing, but the plot is so much better than anything I've written to date."

Someone in that state finds out that their better mode of writing is to let the creative side of the brain free reign for a month, free of the editor sticking his nose into everything, with the promise the editor can dig into it uninterrupted by the creative side later on. Or it may be total frustration, and the writer is feeling horrible because they are leaving crap back on page 21 and it is bugging them to no end, that they can't write page 25. Then those people discover either they are locked into a belief system that says it has to be done that way, or have done it that way for so long they find it hard to change, and/or the way they write best is through edit as you go, and this NaNo proves that for them.

In either case, NaNo can be a big help in either showing a writer that they can be much more productive and write better stuff by leaving the editor out of it while writing the first draft, or that they need that editor and can't do without him/her.

Those are my main pros, cons, and even the fake cons thrown in for good measure. I probably haven't covered them all, these are the main ones I see. What are pros and cons you've seen or experienced?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

New Review of Transforming Realities

Steve Wilson has recently put up a review on my book, Transforming Realities. And he has rated it excellent! He wrote a really nice piece. Click here to read it and leave a comment. Thanks to Steve for reviewing it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Stumbling Fears

When I was a Nazarene minister, my friend and I had a little joke about our up and coming ordination reviews. One of the stories we'd heard is that some applicants had been questioned about wearing wedding rings. You have to know the history of the Nazarene Church in that regard. In the "early days" holiness was evidenced by following several rules, both dos and don'ts. One "rule" was wearing no jewelry, and that included wedding rings. (You'll rarely find this sentiment today in the Nazarene Church, and I did pass my ordination, ring and all.)

My friend and I would joke that if we were asked about our wedding rings in the ordination meeting, we'd tell them, "Well, I think it is all right to wear one, but if me wearing this will make you stumble, I'll take it off." Like, I'm sure that would have gone over like a lead balloon.

Well, that verse is used in lots of situations. Most recently I've heard it used in relation to how much sin we depict in our stories as Christian authors. Since I just broke down one verse along these lines, why not this one too? Here's the specific verses:
But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to the weak. For if a man see thee who hast knowledge sitting at meat in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be emboldened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through thy knowledge he that is weak perisheth, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And thus, sinning against the brethren, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I cause not my brother to stumble.
(1Co 8:9-13 ASV)

The concern is that by depicting a sin as enticing, or even a possibility to do, that we could cause someone to plunge into that sin who is weak.

First, I will acknowledge that there is a line we shouldn't cross. In my understanding, it is when we show sin as enticing, but also without the negative consequences it can have. That could potentially send a message to a brother or sister who is weak to stumble. I would suggest that depicting a sin, even if done in a "this is normal" way, if it shows the negative consequences, or that it was wrong, it should provide support for the weaker brother or sister to avoid such things, not a cause for them to stumble.

And as mentioned last time, we have a responsibility as Christian writers to only show what needs to be shown to make the story and characters work, not merely for shock value, or trying to be "edgy." If we do the later, we are unnecessarily throwing out enticement without intending to show any consequences, which can be just as bad as showing positive consequences to sin.

All that as a given, there is still one area where I feel some go too far with this verse. First, let's take a look at the context of what St. Paul was talking about here.

There was an apparent debate in Corinth over whether it was okay to eat meat offered to idols. Those who had come out of that religion, who had participated in those rituals, or felt strongly that eating such meat was the same as worshiping that idol, naturally felt that no Christian should eat such meat. Likewise, there were those who saw it as nothing more than meat. They couldn't care less about where it was before. It was just meat to eat, and they didn't feel they worshiped any idol by eating it. It was food, nothing more, nothing less.

St. Paul diplomatically agrees with both. Yes, it is only meat, but your brother over there feels strongly the other way, and for good reasons. So don't eat meat offered to idols when you know it has been, so as not to put your brother into a situation where he either has to say "no" and make a scene, or eat it out of hospitality and then feel he's sinned. But to those who go to a brother's house and meat is placed before them, St. Paul tells them not to ask where it came from, but just eat it. Sort of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Note what this is talking about. It is talking about one's direct influence on a specific brother. They are in your house. You're serving them meat, or you're with them at another's house and they mention that the meat before you was offered to an idol. What do you do? That's the context of what St. Paul is answering here.

If we want to put this in modern terms, what St. Paul is talking about here is disillusionment. Same thing as when some big celebrity we idolize ends up sinning, or a pastor ends up running away with another woman, or embezzling from the church. They can cause a lot of people to stumble. This verse speaks of those who you have direct influence over. They look up to you as an example to follow. So when you blow it, and at some point you will, they will potentially stumble. But if you intentionally do something you know will cause them to stumble, then you have some culpability for their sinning on that point.

But we can take this too far. Yes, I could write something that causes someone to stumble. As a matter of fact, given the number of people out there, the wide views on many topics, and interpretations of things, I think it will be very hard for any author, Christian or not, to avoid causing someone to stumble. If we wrote to avoid that possibility, then we wouldn't be writing.

And another point goes back to the previous discussion. Some people out there will associate my values with my character's values. Because I have a character that blows someone's head off doesn't mean I personally approve of that action. Yet, some readers will make the assumption that I do. On that specific instance, they may not because of the sin. But let me have a character cussing up a storm, and many a reader will think I must cuss a lot and approve of it.

But the fact that this is a fictional character isn't even in the same realm as me personally have influence over someone. That's true to a degree. If we've built our character up as a model of virtue, then some could stumble over that character approving of something they have believed is sinful. But most people are savvy enough to know that because my character drinks, doesn't mean they should too, especially if they know they have a tendency towards alcoholism. It's simply not on the same level as what St. Paul was talking about, with real people in real life with real influence.

But this is also true: someone who stumbles can't blame anyone but themselves, in most cases. To point the finger and say, "Rick's book made me do this sin," is akin to saying "The Devil made me do it." We can't make excuses for our sins by pointing the finger. God requires us to confess, repent, humble ourselves, and seek His face. Not point fingers like Adam did and say, "That woman you gave me, she caused me to sin!"

That's right. If we take these verses literally, God is the biggest offender because He gave Adam Eve, and she caused him to stumble by sticking the fruit in his hands. But Adam was wrong to use that as an excuse for his sin.

But to get back to the verse, a lot of this revolves around what we approve. So we return to what I said at the beginning. If we show sin, do we show it as something good, something to be desired, that has no negative consequences even if enticing at first? In other words, when your story is taken as a whole, does it show an approval of a sin? That's where we have to focus to apply the above verses. For if our story doesn't in the final analysis show it as a positive or neutral, then we haven't shown that we approve of the sin. Writing about it, even if in graphic detail (if the story requires it), doesn't mean the story approves of it if the proper negative outcome is shown. Consequently, we haven't violated the above verses which first requires that we show that we approve of the activity in question.

In the end, while I share a responsibility to those I have direct influence over to not show approval over something that could cause someone else to stumble, even if I believe and have reason to support that it isn't a sin, I can't be responsible for all the ways a reader might interpret what I write and commit some sin because of it. I believe using these verses to over generalize their application is to take them out of their proper context. There is a big difference between causing someone to stumble, and offending someone. As a matter of fact, if something you've written offends someone, then it didn't cause them to stumble. Otherwise, they'd not be offended.

As I said last time, it isn't where a story starts that makes it Christian, it's where it ends.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Think on These Things

As a Christian author and writer, I've seen the discussion appear on boards, blogs, and email lists, concerning how far is too far in showing cussing, sex, violence, and other behaviors in ways that most Christians would consider sin. Most authors have their own opinions on where that line is. And it usually revolves around the concern on one hand to present realistic characters and natural reactions, and on the other, to not tantalize or offend readers who find cussing or sex, among other things, to be offensive, uncomfortable, and appear to promote sin.

In my writing, I tend to fall into the group who says avoid those things unless the plot or character calls for it in order to "work." And then, only "show" what has to be shown to make it work. So, for instance, a married couple will have sex. In most plots, it's not important to mention that they do. Most will assume they do without even having to allude to it. If one needs to allude to it, because you are showing a scene where it would naturally happen, then there are cut aways before it gets too hot, or simply "told" and not shown so as no need to go into graphic detail. But there can be and are on occasion times I'll need to go there for the plot to work, and show it for the scene to be believable. That has only happened to me once in my novels.

But, I'm not really wanting to discuss that specifically. Rather, I wanted to address something that many Christian writers who feel we should avoid all such things in any shape or form, tend to put up at some point on discussions like these. They quote the following verse as Biblical evidence that we shouldn't depict anything of sin in our books:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
(Php 4:8 ASV)

I wanted to break this down, because I feel this verse is being used out of context when it comes to these discussions, and therefore, uses the Bible in an incorrect manner.

First, let's look at the context St. Paul said these words. He was writing a letter to the Philippians, and is ending his letter to them. He was promoting an attitude in our spiritual lives where we don't focus on the negative in ourselves and others, but the positive. We focus on what will unite us, not on what will divide us.

This is St. Paul's non-fiction spiritual self-help information. Yes, we should think on those things. But note what it doesn't say. It doesn't say we should never be aware of, acknowledge, or speak on the other things. Rather, think, meditate, set them before you as your goal. It's like driving a car. Your attention is focused on what's going on in front of you. But my driving instructor said you should be looking in your rear view mirror about once every few seconds. And we only know the good, the praise worthy, the pure, by understanding what is evil, debased, and impure.

And anyone who reads St. Paul's letter to the Galatians knows St. Paul himself suggested that those leading them astray should go all the way on doing circumcisions. Ouch! Not exactly a pure and good thought he's presenting there.

But it isn't just that aspect that we're dealing with here. No, this verse isn't saying never think on the other things at all. It simply means keep your focus on these things. It is a general principle he is giving out here, along with several others. But, one must keep in mind what else this is not saying. He is not saying "apply this to fiction."

St. Paul wasn't telling them a story here. He was attempting to give them some principles that would aid them in their spiritual growth. But the converse of that principle isn't necessarily negated by its positive expression. Fiction isn't the same thing as non-fiction, or any story really. When an author tells a story, there is by necessity an element of conflict. Without that conflict and its resolution, you have no story. You have a boring tale where nothing really happens of interest.

Stories are about people with problems, moving from getting into those problems, and moving to resolve them, or at least make the attempt. There is no way to have that kind of conflict if you follow the above formula as a straitjacket answer to everything you can possibly think about. All stories would have to go, as all conflict tends to involve someone sinning on some level or another.

Take the children's book, "Are You My Mother?" Most of us have probably read that tale of a baby bird having fallen out of the nest, walking around trying to find its mother, and not knowing what she looks like, ask everything under the sun, including a tractor. The conflict there is this baby bird is lost and can't find its mother. Will it find her? Or will the baby be lost, and maybe die?

Some deep stuff for kiddos, when you think about it. But what's the sin? The mother who isn't there to protect and take care of her children! Doesn't this book promote neglectful mothers and fathers? How evil is the action of that mother? Why would we want to think on that impure thought, that a little baby bird is left to wander the countryside searching for his mother because she wasn't responsible enough to be there for him? Aren't we by reading that story instilling fears of abandonment into children?

You see, every story has that element in it, even in children's stories. You can't get away from it if you're going to tell a story that people will want to read. Rather, you have to show your character going from point A to point B in growth. The difference between a secular and Christian author is where that point B ends one up. Not on where point A starts. And if the author wants to write a book that will reach gang members, guess what? It will not read realistically to them unless point A represents their life. Any attempt to soft peddle the cussing or the debased lifestyle will lose that audience.

That's why I always say it goes back to two main things. One, what do you need to make the plot work, and two, who your intended audience is. Use only what you have to, and no more.

But the above verses are not talking about fiction stories. They are talking about real life, and spiritual development. The reader also has some responsibility. If you don't like cussing, then don't pick up a book written about gangs. The restrictions placed upon some Christian authors, like some who write for the CBA audience, can only write books targeted for an already Christian audience. Because those are the only people many of those stories (not all, granted) will appeal too, are Christians. If you want to write something that is redemptive, that shows redemption from sin and for it to have an impact upon a reader in that sin, you are going to have to make it real. You will want them to identify with it. Short of that, you'll have little impact.

Stories are an attempt in most cases, to take someone already not "thinking on these things" and are thinking on the level of cussing, sex, violence, ect., and hopefully moving them to thinking on "these things." But if we never write it so they can identify with it, they will never read it, and never be redeemed short of God doing a number on them.

Those verses are not meant by St. Paul to mean, "no story or text can ever think on anything else but these things." St. Paul didn't have in mind prohibiting good story telling when he pinned those words. If a person doesn't want to think on those things, they certainly don't have to. I would suggest never reading any story unless they've been given the sanitized stamp of approval. Because nearly every story is going to have some kind of sin going on.

Our problem is we're often comfortable with certain types of sin in a story, but not others. Like judgmentalism and gossip. You don't want to think on those things either.

It's where a story leads you that makes it Christian, not where it starts.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Update on Fiery Realities

I posted on my blog earlier that the third novel in my Reality Series would be coming out the beginning of December. I'm sad to report that this book will be delayed. The reason? The short version is simply that the publisher who intended to publish it has decided not to get into book publishing due to time commitment and constraints.

I can certainly relate to finding ones self over committed. Kudos to him for recognizing it early and working to avoid burnout and burn down. I wish him all the best in his continued endevors.

But that does mean I'm back to looking for a publisher since the one who published the first two books is no longer focused on speculative fiction. Somehow, this series ending will get published. And you'll read it here first, when I have anything new to report on that.

Until then, faithful readers, you'll have to wait right along with me to see Fiery Realities sitting on your reading shelf.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

NaNoWriMo Barnes and Noble Bookfair

As readers of this blog know, I've participated in "National Novel Writing Month" for the last four years, making this coming November my fifth run at the crazed word race. Last year I wrote just over 102,000 words in November, my personal record. It will be hard to beat that again, but I'm sure going to make a valiant attempt! If you want to track my progress, make sure you follow me on my Twitter account: rlcopple, where I will be giving near-daily updates on my word count.

Now for the news. Each October, our regional liaison/leader, Emily, plans events leading up to the launch date. Last year, she had me give a presentation at the Round Rock, TX library on planing for a novel. This year, she is launching a bookfair at the Round Rock, TX Barnes & Noble. If you are in the Austin, TX area on October 23rd, you can download the flyer to get the date, time, and location.

Around 4:00 pm that day, I will be doing a reading from my published NaNo novel, Transforming Realities. Some other NaNo published authors will be reading from theirs as well, but I would love to see/meet whoever is able to show up for the event. There will be activities going on all day.

So, who all will be doing NaNoWriMo (short for "National Novel Writing Month") this year? Don't know what it is? Really it's quite simple. Even though it is called "national," people from all over the world participate: Europe, Africa, Australia, everywhere. You register (it's free!) at the central site where you will be able to set up your profile, tell about the novel you will be writing, connect with other writers in your area or anywhere in the world, and most importantly, provides a place to enter and track your word count.

The goal is to write 50,000 or more words in the month of November. What you write may be publishable, it may be practice, it may be whatever you come up with. The concern isn't how good it is, or even what it is, but to get the creative side of your brain flowing and give your inner editor a rest for a month...and just write! Most people are surprised by just how good what comes out actually is, and it's the best way to develop and display your voice.

Haven't done it before? Why not give it a try? The worst that can happen is you don't reach 50,000 words. Maybe you only get to 10,000. Hey, that's 10,000 more than you would have had otherwise? It's hard to lose on this, other than not giving it a shot even once.

See you on the NaNo forums, and hopefully if you can make it, to the B&N bookfair.  Write on!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review: Earthbow: Volume 2 by Sherry Thompson

Earthbow: Volume 2

ISBN: 978-0982508787

As the name suggest, this book picks up where Earthbow, Volume 1 left off. And the reader will be confused if they start with this book. Things will make a lot more sense if you get a copy of Volume 1 to read before reading Volume 2. If you haven't read either, the full story is worth the purchase price.

Why? Because this story continues to track the personal journeys of Harone, Coris, and Xander as they struggle to fight the evil threatening to consume the Narentia lands. And the situation does appear hopeless. And that's where the real battle plays out. For our heroes, this is a tale of self-sacrifice of the highest kind.

And this is not a book for the feint of heart. People die, sometimes in ways that make you wince. You don't get gory detail, but the evil is real, and threatening. You feel their struggle, and you sense their despair. And you watch them rise to the occasion, even when all seems lost.

It is a book of inspiration, that even in our darkest hours, we are not without hope.

I enjoyed the characters in this volume, as I did in the first. I liked seeing Xander discover his place in the story. The interaction is well done between the characters, and each had a story to tell.

As in the other books, the writing painted good pictures for me to see clearly what was happening. The descriptions gave a solid sense of setting and mood. There's a lot going on in this story, though it gets pulled together more in this volume than in the first, as threads come together, and the story boils down to the final face off with the enemy. The tension runs strong through the book, and culminates in a satisfying manner, that not only leaves you with a sense of resolution, but the meaning behind it sticks with you, and I found myself thinking about those events for days after reading it.

I gave the first volume a five star rating. After reading Volume 2, I found my five star rating wasn't wasted on a lackluster ending, and I can confidently give this one a corresponding five star rating as well. Which means, if you like a great fantasy story, you'll not go wrong in reading the whole set of these books, beginning with Seabird, Volumes 1 and 2, and Earthbow, Volumes 1 and 2. You can thank me later.

And I hear there is more stories in this world coming out. Your time in this world will give you a return, both in entertainment and enlightenment.

Note: The author gave me a copy of her book to review.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Review: Alpha Redemption by P. A. Baines

Alpha Redemption

ISBN-13: 978-0986451744

I've always enjoyed a good story about people exploring space. When I heard that P. A. Baine's book, Alpha Redemption, was about a man traveling to Alpha Centauri, naturally it perked my interest. I also heard about the computer aboard this ship, called the Comet, and rumors of similarities to Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. As I read it, indeed there were similarities, as well as major differences. I believe it would be of help in deciding if this is the book for you, to list those.

Similarities revolve around a computer on the trip developing sentience and a sense of self-preservation. Another similarity would involve giving away the plot, thus giving you no reason to read for yourself. And of course both are set in space, and above all, while both have some elements of tension to them, neither is what you would call a high action type book. Rather, like 2001, it has a decidedly "inner space" philosophical/theological journey as the book progresses.

Indeed, one of the striking similarities is in the style of writing. Baines isn't quite as descriptive as Clarke was, but the pacing and feel of the book is very similar to 2001. The reader gets to experience the day-to-day life on the ship, and the cycle of life in space. I'm not an expert on such things, but the details felt very authentic to me, given he's using the science fiction conventions of artificial gravity.

Where it differed with Clarke's 2001 is the direction Baines takes the story. Whereas Clarke's story headed into a more secular "we'll all evolve into a god-like creature," Alpha takes us into a different direction—in a decidedly Christian direction—and in an very unconventional manner. And does so convincingly. Though toward the end the changes happened a little too fast for my taste, overall it provided a believable story on one man's inner journey to escape his past, only to run headlong into the future.

Likewise, whereas Hal, the computer from 2001, went berserk and attempted to kill everyone on board, Jay, the computer running the Comet, works to save the life of his passenger. The book is about Jay's journey as much as Brett's, and is one of the more interesting elements of the story.

Another area of difference is this story adds a plot element not found in 2001. For Brett, in signing onto this mission, is as much running from something as he is trying to go down in history. And Baines introduces a parallel storyline that slowly reveals Brett's past in a manner that relates to what he experiences on the trip to Alpha Centauri. Watching as Baines weaves this alternate storyline into the main one, very deftly I might add, provided another of the interests as I read.

If there is one thing that stands out to me about this book, it is the interesting relationship between Brett and Jay, as well as Jay's own growing awareness not only of himself, but God. Like a child learning truths for the first time, this prototype computer ends up stealing the show, in more ways than one.

It's for those reasons that I can recommend this book if you are someone who enjoyed Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Personally, I had a hard time with 2001, due to the slow pace. So this one was a bit of work for me, especially at the beginning. I'm addicted to tension in a story, and while this has some, it isn't the standard kind of tension. The tension in this story revolves around the relationship between Brett and Jay, and while it starts out slow, the tension grows until it hits big in the end.

So while personally I'd give this a three on a scale of one to five for my own preferences, for those who enjoy a story with the style and pacing of 2001, this falls into a solid four, even a five for many.

Note: This book was given to me by the publisher for the purpose of reviewing it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Writing with Passion

I don't dish out this writing tip because I think I have it down, but more to get us thinking on this topic. "What's the topic?" you ask. Guess with that title, it could mean several things.

What I'm thinking of is writing so that our character's passionate moments really pop out. This is a bit of a hard one, in that what is the "right" amount is so subjective. I've heard everything from "less is more" to "have your characters stomping about and crying their heads off."

And what I tend to be guilty of myself is not bringing out a character's passion in a moment they should be feeling some strong emotions. Only on occasion have I had someone say I overdid it. And I'm sure because in part I'm a level-headed guy who rarely gets extremely angry, sad, or anything. When I do, watch out. It's like Mt. St. Helen coming apart. But it takes a lot of pressure to blow that top off. So I think I tend to write my characters that way.

And therein may be part of my answer. The character. Every character we write should respond differently than another character. What I sometimes receive in crits is that this or that character should be hitting things, or ripping the place apart. I think that's because that's what that critiquer would do, whereas I would not. I would respond to such a situation differently. And I've been in a few as well.

But the key is to write what that character, with their history and traits, would do in such a situation. Let's bring this from the abstract to the concrete.

The traditional scene, John enters the room to find his wife lying dead on the floor. His oldest son and daughter file in behind him. The father might be stunned and simply stand there, not believing his eyes, not wanting to acknowledge that what he's seeing is true. The son, meanwhile, may bang his head on the door post and squeeze his eyes shut, tears welling up and falling to the floor. The girl might scream and throw herself over the dead body, weeping.

And if we threw more people in the room, we could have each one react differently, different levels of emotional reaction, and they would all be true to life, and realistic. But what happens is when a reader picks it up, if that specific reaction isn't in their experience, they tend to say it isn't believable. It isn't believable that the dad would just stand there, stunned. They would never react that way and they don't know anyone who would.

But I think we can toss aside the question of whether a specific reaction is realistic or not. I think most any reaction would be realistic. Even the girl who remains in denial, plays and makes jokes as if her mother's body isn't laying on the floor, is realistic. There are as many valid reactions as their are people.

However, we also have to acknowledge that we are writing fiction. We are attempting to tell a compelling story, which at times requires a "not realistic" approach. For instance, as I mentioned in the article on writing descriptions, how many people go through their day noticing all the descriptions you traditionally see in a novel? I seriously doubt anyone does. To be going through your day, thinking about the leaves waving the breeze, the smell of exhaust in traffic, hearing a train pass by, the colorful sign we pass everyday on our way to work, etc. What you see in a novel is totally unrealistic. Yet, to make the story work, we have to put that level of detail in there, even though the character wouldn't likely notice 10% of that detail in real life.

As one author I read said, dialog in fiction is likewise unrealistic. Few of us go around speaking with each other in smooth, flowing sentences that are crisp and clear. Our conversations go something more like this: "Well, yeah, I see your point. Uh, sure. Where can we meet, how about Jerry's? No, I forgot, I have an appointment at that time. How about ten instead of nine? You don't like Jerry's? Okay, let me think. Hum, well, we could try the Lucky Duck. Cool, well, how about we chat then. Yeah. I agree. See you later."

Can you think of reading that for a whole novel? You'd die from boredom. Yet that's the kind of stuff our days are filled with. Menial task, discussions, that would be borrring to watch or listen to. You don't want to have realistic dialog in your novel! Oh, yes, you have to have a level of realism, but you don't want it to be realistic to life. That would be boring.

The same thing applies here with emotions and conveying passion. The point isn't to duplicate true life as close as possible. The point is to keep the reader entertained and involved in the story. And when you're trying to write that emotional scene where your characters should be reacting to a horrific situation, for instance, you could realistically have a man stand in shock and not react immediately to such a scene, but that doesn't create good drama. It doesn't keep the reader gripped to the scene.  So I think while one has to be careful to not overdue it, there is a time and place for drama.

The problem with overdoing it is when the reaction doesn't fit the situation. Then it's seen as the author trying to generate emotions that the situation doesn't call for.  So, for instance, if the man entered the room and found a sandwich on the floor, he might get angry that someone knocked his lunch on the floor, but if he ran in, grabbed the plate and smashed it against the window, kicked the chair across the room, and fell to the floor crying his head off, we'd be calling the for the white men to bring the straight jacket with them. They guy's cracked.

But, in the end, you need to stay true to your character. If it is a Clint Eastwood type character, he probably will remain stoic and unmoved, even in the face of danger or what is otherwise an emotional scene for others. The character and story will guide on what is too much or not enough. This is one of those areas where it becomes a judgment call, and except for blatant over or under done moments, each author's call will likely be right.

Monday, August 2, 2010

What's With the Hebrew?

For the second installment on the allegories in the Reality series, I wanted to talk more about the ring. Eventually, I'll talk about the allegorical nature of the ring itself, once the final book in the series comes out later this fall, and some time has passed. Meanwhile, there is one aspect of the ring that early on received comments.

For those not familiar, the first chapter/short story in the novella, Infinite Realities, tells how Sisko gains the ring, which as the priest says, marries him to God much as Sampson's hair created a vow between him and God. The ring Sisko gains in the mystical steam house enables him to be his "brother's keeper" by helping others with his new abilities to heal and perform miracles. And like Sampson's warning to never cut his hair, Sisko is told to never use the ring for his own benefit or it will become a curse instead of a blessing.

The words inscribed on the ring, which the priest reads, are the words of Christ, "It is more blessed to give, than to receive." And as the story relates it, these words are inscribed in Hebrew on the ring. That's why you see the Hebrew infinitive forms "to give" and "to receive" printed on the cover of Infinite Realities.

Early on when fellow writers critiqued that first story, someone mentioned the fact that Christ would have said those words in Aramaic or Greek, not likely Hebrew. And though it is entirely possible He could have said them originally in Hebrew, I agree, He probably used one of those two languages. Most likely Aramaic since that was the common tongue at that time in Israel. And I received that comment more than once from different people.

So, why did I use Hebrew? Did I have a reason? Oh yes! I did.

First, the practical consideration. Yes, it is unlikely Jesus used Hebrew when he said those words, and you won't find them exactly like that in the Old Testament, so He wasn't directly quoting Scripture. My response: and your point is...?

Think about the premise of the story here. Jesus isn't talking, rather God inscribed those words on the ring for a reason. He could have used any language in the world. He might have used German, or Swahili. It could have been anything. Because Jesus originally said them in one particular language wouldn't restrict God to use that one language, within the context of the story. So what language Jesus used initially has nothing to do with what language can be on that ring. Using a different one doesn't violate any historical reality. And, need I remind you, this is after all, fiction.

"So, dear author," I can hear you asking, "why did God use Hebrew to inscribe those words?"

Good question. Thanks for asking. In my mind, God chose Sisko to bear that ring. Hebrew is the language of God's chosen people. By using Hebrew, it analogically and allegorically signifies that God chose Sisko to bear the ring and fulfill that mission.

Warning, a bit of a spoiler coming up on Transforming Realities, but I'll be as general as I can to make the point.

Now, let's take this a bit further. In my novel sequel, Transforming Realities, toward the end of the book one of the results for Sisko's son being in the steam house is obtaining an ability, but it also causes him to be dependent upon his sister to both activate it and deactivate it. The first draft of that created some interesting reactions among those critiquing the story. Most didn't like it because they felt it bound the poor lad against his will to the whims of his sister. I think nearly everyone who critiqued it didn't like it.

I did a few things to lessen the negative affect on the reader, created a positive sense that Nathan liked this ability, and had a choice to accept it, though he couldn't reject it without some consequences. And while that helped, I think the general consensus was an uneasy feeling that Kaylee had that much control over him.

But in the end, I left it that way, and it relates to the fact that God chose Sisko to wear the ring above. Because Sisko didn't really have a choice either. God put the ring on him, and he couldn't pull it off. God didn't bother to stop and ask him if he wanted this mission. Yet this ring, as the priest said, married him to God's will in this matter.

No one balked at that situation. Why? I think it's because in Sisko's case, he is bound to God. In Nathan's case, he is bound to a human, his sister. And our reaction to that tends to run deep, especially in our individualistic society. We don't want to be dependent upon anyone, and rugged individualism is most often seen as a good thing. To have someone be put under the control of another hits our image of independence right where it hurts. We would rather not be forced to deal with that.

Before someone accuses me otherwise, let me say I'm not excusing one's responsibility to do for themselves what they can, and help out each other as often as we can. But the truth of the matter is that each of us is enslaved to another in one form or fashion, and according to the Bible, we are required to live out our lives by loving one another. And what is love but the total giving of ourselves for another person? Is it not enslaving ourselves to them? Is it not martyrdom of our lives to benefit another?

"But that's a willing enslavement," you might say. Hum, you think? Once you say "I do," it's supposed to be for life, and yet frequently isn't. A boss tells you what to do and how to do it. You are forced to do so if you want to make enough money to live. You may not even do that out of love. And yet, all labor is a form of slavery. Some freer to come and go as they please, but you give hours of your life to benefit another so you can feed and put a roof over yourself and maybe a family. Circumstances put us at the mercy of others, whether it is cancer entrusting us to the wisdom of doctors, or an earthquake destroying all we have, and we are forced to seek out help to survive. We are even enslaved to our government, which most of us didn't ask for, and required to pay taxes.

And do we need to go down through the pages of history and look at all the different forms of slavery? No, we cringe at the idea of another having authority over us. So much so that St. Paul's words in Ephesians about wives and husbands still ruffles the feathers of many a church goer.

But the bottom line is that Christ said, "In as much as you do it to the least of these, you do it to Me." And the least of these includes also the greatest of these, whether that is a rich boss, a overworked spouse, a screaming child, a beggar, or a dying friend. In as much as you show your love to these, you are enslaving yourself to Christ. I would even go so far as to say, that unless you are willing to be enslaved by another, you will fail to be a slave for Christ.

"But they might abuse me! Take advantage of me!" Yes, they might. Get out of destructive relationships if at all possible. Loving a person doesn't mean enabling them to continue with behaviors that are destructive for their souls and those around them. Indeed, your enslavement to them demands you want what is best for them, which may be counter to what they say they want. But we are still called to love, to fulfill whatever the calling, ministry, or investment into each others lives that we are given the means and ability to do. For God has chosen it for us.

That's why the inscription is written in Hebrew in my story. It's because God chose Sisko. Sisko didn't chose to bear the ring or become a miracle man. Just as Nathan didn't chose to be bound to help his sister. But he did so out of love for her, and the "bond" turned from a "have to" to a "want to." If we are not bound to another in some form or fashion, we don't love Christ as we ought. And we would do well not to shy away from the mission God has given us, but embrace it with faith in our Master, even if that calling entails a human "master."

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review: The Duke's Handmaid by Caprice Hokstad

The Duke's Handmaid

ISBN: 978-0986451737

Have you ever read a book that refused to be pigeonholed? In some cases, that can be a negative, in that the author shoots all over the place and so hits nothing. In other cases, as we have here, the author creates her own unique story that accomplishes several things.

Is this a fantasy? Well, not really. Yes, it is a different world than our own. Yes, you'll encounter some odd creatures, and a caste-like society where the author explores the different reactions from both sides of the servant/slave issue. And yet, once you're in the story, it really doesn't seem too different from our world. Difference circumstances, same issues and people. You'll not find magic, elves, dwarfs, or dragons in this story. Not even hobbits. Instead, you'll find some well developed characters.

Is it science fiction? Hum, it is set on another planet, with two suns. Yet, that's about the extent of it. The society is less developed technology-wise than our own, still using horses for transportation. The feel is more Medieval.

Is it a romance? We're getting warmer. There is a romance involved, but if you're thinking boy meets girl, they fall in love, but encounter problems they overcome in the end, it's not really a romance as such. Indeed, while the story is focused primarily on the relationship between Keedrina and the Duke, the servant-master relationship it is filtered through creates a very highly unusual romance story. Indeed, even knowing this, the ending is a bit of a surprise. It is a romance, but not the standard variety. It will challenge your assumptions on those grounds.

Is it an action/adventure? You could say that. Early on, there is action and difficult situations that must be dealt with. We come into the story after Keedrina has lost her family and she is the only surviving heir. The Duke quickly gathers a gang of town folk and they ride off to deal justice to the perpetrators. While there are big gaps where guys who want action will find scenes more focused on the romance angle than moving the story forward action-wise, you will find political intrigue, back-stabbing, and a conclusion that will keep you glued to the page till the end.

So, what do we have here? The story of a girl who loses everything, and willingly gives of herself to serve the man she loves. You have a story of amazing loyalty, convicting humility, and graceful love, despite the cruelties she faces.

Indeed, the book is more about her love than the Duke's. He's a man that causes revulsion one minute, and admiration the next. He can be extremely cruel to his enemies, but faithful and loyal to his friends and servants. He is a flawed man operating in a flawed culture. And yet, finds a woman in Keedrina that convicts him and changes him. Indeed, will not let him go.

While the book speaks of great violence and the depravity of the society, Ms. Hokstad delivers it in a PG-13 manner. She doesn't gloss over evil, but neither does she wallow in it. The writing is easy to read and pulls you into the well-developed world. The characters are interesting and engaging.

A most unique story of loyalty that provides a stark contrast against the harsh realities of a slave society. Prepare to wince, cry, and laugh. Easily a recommended read from this reviewer.

Note: The publisher gave me a copy of this book to review.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Guest Post: Why Publishers Run With the Crowd

Another blogger, Michael Lynch, has offered to post a piece I wrote, actually in a discussion on a list. But then I tweaked it a bit more for prime-time. So I'm guest posting once again.

Check it out: Why Publishers Run With the Crowd

Thanks, Mike, for the invite, and everyone go take a read.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Book Review: Legendary Space Pilgrims by Grace Bridges

ISBN 978-0986451720

Legendary Space Pilgrims reminded me of C. S. Lewis' Space Trilogy along with a dose of his Chronicles of Narnia while firmly remaining its own unique science fiction story. If you like exploring, experiencing new places, along with a bit of an adventure, you'll enjoy watching the two main characters, Mario and Caitlin, not only escape from their forced labor on the planet Monday, but do so guided by a voice Mario hears in his head. The voice leads them to several planets before they discover their ultimate mission.

I especially enjoyed the worlds explored by the characters, which are well developed as evidenced by a detailed history unfolding as the novel progresses. The images Ms. Bridges paints with her words activated my imagination and brought the story into the realm of the possible.

I also enjoyed watching the relationship between the two main characters develop. Though they had a history together, the mind-swipes used to control them caused it to be new each time. Once they escape, they learn to explore their relationship beyond the limits imposed by their former world, and they struggle learning to incorporate their new experiences with each other.

The constant presence of the voice provides another developing relationship that they work to understand and follow. As we often experience, they don't always get it right but growth happens all the same as the voice guides them to fulfill their destiny.

Most questions that came to my mind found answers before the book ended. The few that didn't are left for a sequel to finish out the story. Yet, I learned enough to satisfy and wet my appetite for the next book.

While there were some instances where I didn't grasp the logic of the character's actions, and a couple of times solutions appeared too conveniently, they didn't distract me from the story or make the story itself implausible. Overall, I found it a fun ride and look forward to finding out how they accomplish their mission in the next sequel.

The story not only entertained me, it provided me with a sense of wonder, the diversity of God's creation, our common struggle to do the right things, or know what the right thing is to do. And above all, that it's often not about us, but about something bigger than ourselves. The character's pilgrimage reflects our own in many ways, and through them we find hope for our own journeys.

Younger children will enjoy Legendary Space Pilgrims as well as the young adult audience it is targeted for. Adults will also find the story an interesting and fun read. If you like the books I mentioned at the top of this review, you'll like this one. I recommend you obtain a copy and enjoy the journey. You won't be the same by the end of it.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Review: Earthbow, Vol. 1by Sherry Thompson

Sherry Thompson's Blog
ISBN: 978-0-9825087-3-2

Any fears that Seabird and its sequels would end up mimicking The Chronicles of Narnia are dispelled with this first volume of Earthbow, by Sherry Thompson. Indeed, in feel and focus, this book departs from Seabird while still living in the rich universe created there.

First, while Seabird remained in Cara's point of view the whole time, this book has several. The storyline is more complicated, with various threads spinning around each other. Some threads touch others, some tie together, others remain lose, waiting to be wrapped up in Volume 2. The reader sees and experiences more of the world, the culture, and the darkness than in Seabird.

Second, Cara doesn't return for this story, rather her brother, Xander, is introduced into this world. And instead of experiencing Xander's entrance into the world and his acceptance of his mission, we jump into the story two weeks after he's been in the world, already carrying the Earthbow, and apparently ready to find out what he was sent there to do, and do it, though it's obvious he isn't ready.

Third, Xander, while the Outworlder, isn't the central character or focus in this volume. Harone, a key character from Seabird, acts as Xander's guide and we frequently find ourselves in his point of view, and realize he's struggling with his own journey and growth as an Enchanter, facing the dark evil that he wrestles to fight back. Another thread follows Coris, serving an evil king influenced by the dark evil that is working to enslave the lands, and his ethical struggle both to do what is right in the face of possible death, and his struggle with faith in someone greater than himself. Many other characters interact or take the points of view, but relate to one of these two threads in one way or another. As a matter of fact, while Xander is an interesting character, in this volume he is upstaged by the rich and varied cast of characters. This volume isn't as much his story as it is Harone's and Coris'.

I admit, when I first dug into this book, I was expecting Seabird II, and it threw me a bit when I didn't get that. But once past that realization, I found a greatly expanded and darker view of Narenta and the lands in this world. The characters are well drawn, complete with their own histories, flaws, and struggles. The silent enemy working behind the scenes, and those he controls, provide definite and constant tension as the story progresses. Earthbow, while in the Narenta world, is its own book. The feel is more like Lord of the Rings. Not so much in the plot, but in the scope of the story arc. The book takes on a more epic ambiance than Seabird contained.

But unlike Lord of the Rings, and more like The Chronicles of Narnia, the allegory runs deep. Alphesis still is present and guiding, but hidden. This makes the volume a great read for the non-Christian who may not bother with seeing allegorical relationships to Christian characters or principles, and simply enjoy the story for what it is: an engaging story any fantasy fan would love to sink their teeth into. At the same time, the Christian reader can read it and derive valid Christian thoughts and applications to their lives, if they wish. For either reader, they will find Earthbow a gem of a story.

The writing is well done, easy to follow most of the time. Sometimes the jumping around to different points of view takes some getting used too, and for my taste, happened too frequently in spots. Yet, it wasn't so bad that it distracted me from the story. More like shifting gears on a manual transmission. Most of the shifts are established well enough and the reader will be able to keep up with who's who and where they are. I also found many of the descriptions rich without being overbearing, and the action easy to follow.

One other note, mentioned above but bears pointing out: this is volume 1 of a two volume book. It contains books one and two. The second volume, yet to come out as of this writing, will have books three and four and an epilogue. Consequently, while there is a thread that is tied up and a climax to this book, there are also a lot of threads yet to be woven to a conclusion. I'm told that Xander will play a greater role in the next volume, and a lot of the story lines will be completed there, including Coris'. It's your traditional middle book problem. You have to wait for the next one to get the ending.

That said, don't wait for the next volume to come out to read this. I highly recommend this book. And though I rarely do this, I'll give it five out of five stars. If the follow-up fails to deliver, that would be a shame. But I have every expectation that it will deliver. And I look forward to discovering how these stories conclude.

Disclaimer: This book was given to me by the author.