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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."