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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Interview with Joel

I figured I would do something a little different and interview one of my favorite characters from my new novel, Reality's Dawn: Joel.

Joel shows up in this book in one story, but makes some major appearances in both Reality's Ascent and Reality's Glory (yet to be published). And he's a unique enough character, I figured it would only do me good to interview him, so the readers get a chance to say hi. So the following is my interview for your enjoyment!

R: Today I'd like to introduce to our readers Joel. Say hi to the folks and tell us a bit about yourself.

J: Hi folks. Thanks, R. L., for the chance to come on here and clear my...I mean, fill everyone in on how I really make this series sing. After all, who else can--

R: Joel, hold on one minute. I didn't say give us a "praise Joel" section. Just tell us something about yourself.

J: Something about myself. Hum. Well, there is the fact I'm the most powerful character in your books. Almost god-like. Note to Creator: I did say god-like, not god! Excuse me, but had to make sure that was clear.

R: Why?

J: He's sort of sensitive about that. Doesn't like it when people step on His toes.

R: Sounds like you know Him quite well. How does that relationship work?

J: Sort of a love-hate. I mean, not that I hate Him, you see, but He can be hard to get along with at times.

R: In what way does He ring your bell?

J: Ring my bell! You don't have my bell, do you! How did you get that?

R: (Laughs) No, I don't have your bell. What are you talking about?

J: As if you didn't know. You're the author, after all. If anyone knows about the bell, it should be you.

R: You got me there. While we're on the subject, tell us about the bell.

J: It's one of the times God wasn't too happy with me. It was a minor thing, really. So, He gives me this bell--

R: Joel, what was the "minor thing"?

J: (Sigh) He wanted me to do something for Him. I couldn't fit it into my schedule is all. I had things to take care of. Important things.

R: What did He need done?

J: Aren't you full of questions today.

R: This is an interview. It sort of comes with questions. That's the point.

J: Alright. Like I said, it was a minor thing. He needed me to deliver a message to someone. I put it at the bottom of my to-do list. He didn't think I prioritized it high enough, is all.

R: Who was supposed to get this message?

J: Well, that's the kicker. One of his favorites: Daniel. After several days had passed and He wanted to know why Daniel was still praying by the river the same prayer, He came looking for me. Got all hot under the collar--not that God has a collar, mind you, just a figure of speech--and said something about diluting the effectiveness of the prayer of a righteous man availth much guarantee. Complained He'd have to send one of his angels before the poor guy gave up waiting.

R: Wow. Sounds serious. What did you say?

J: That's what got me the bell. I said, "Whatever." I found out you don't say, "whatever" when God wants you to do something. But, you know, he could have asked a little nicer. I would have scooted it up the priority ladder if I'd known it was so important to Him.

R: I suppose He expects it to be a priority by default.  So, what was so bad about the bell?

J: You know where the phrase, "he rung my bell" came from? (Shakes head) That's right. From me. He linked me with a bell, and gave it to someone. When they rang it, no matter where I was or what I was doing, I was transported there and they would ask me for favors.

R: You mean, like a genie granting three wishes?

J: Similar, but no end to the request as long as they had the bell. If I refused, they'd simply keep pulling me back. If I wanted any peace, I'd have to grant them their wishes. Very annoying. So the one who had the bell before Sisko came along, he rang my bell one too many times. While he slept, I snatched it and took it deep into the mountains where very few if any ever traveled, and hid it in a cave.

R: And Sisko somehow found it?

J: Not immediately, but yes. (Points to the sky) I think He had something to do with that. But I met Sisko, and even though I was a most powerful being, like everyone else whose path he came across, I was changed. But that gets into the story.

R: Now, maybe we should clear up one other thing. Some have speculated that you're an angel. Are you?

J: (Turns his back toward R. L.) Do you see any wings back there?

R: Come on. Everyone knows those are symbolic to mean a messenger, which apparently you were delivering messages, where you not?

J: Hey, God does outsource, you know. What do you think all those prophets did? Deliver messages. Besides, you should see the cherubim when they start training to fly. They have those wings covering their face so they can't see where they are going, and another set covering their feet so they can't land without falling over. Watching them makes for a very entertaining evening. But, no wings for me.

R: Okay, on that note, I think we'll end this interview. Thanks Joel for spending time with us today. Maybe we'll have you back to find out about your tea. I hear it is heavenly.

J: You're welcome. And it is heavenly. I only give it to those that need it. But some things can't be revealed. I work under restrictions.

R: Maybe you can start a bell choir.

J: (Shutters) Not in this life. Bye.

That's it folks. He's vanished. Until next time.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Understanding Point of View

Learning how to handle point of view in writing is one of the first things I had to learn. My first short story that eventually become my first published short story, Dragon Stew, had three limited-third person points of view, and I learned early on the importance of establishing the point of view character within the first paragraph, if not the first line of their section.

So I felt it a good idea to break down for the new writer, as well as perhaps a way of looking at it for the more established writer, the main types of points of view. Note: I'm probably not going to use the "official" term in every case, but use the generally accepted term. And I probably won't touch upon some of the more obscure points of view. Some of these could have further breakdowns and get more detailed. I'm keeping it simple so we don't get too bogged down in point of view overload.

Before we get into that, it is helpful to discuss briefly a side issue related to point of view: tense. A point of view can be written in past tense, present tense, or future tense. I suppose if you wanted to be adventurous, you could go for writing it in past perfect tense. The common tense is past, and sometimes you'll see present. Rarely, if ever, any other.

You'd be hard put to find a book written in future tense. For that to work, you'd have to be speaking with a medium using a crystal ball, or maybe God Himself. But the real problem with this tense is there is no reality to it. It is all future and the reader will get the sense that it could all change, that the story may end up being something totally different when it actually happens. That makes it hard for the reader to feel any tension in the story and to care about it.

And present tense, while done, is also hard. The main reason someone would use this tense is for the immediacy, and to completely limit the character's ability to know anything. It's downside is it usually takes the reader some time to adjust to the unusualness of it. We are so used to reading stories in past tense, that when we read, "I kick the can down the road and watch as it tumbles and rocks to a stop. I shake my head. 'Just like my life,'" it pulls us out of the story. I read a novel written in present tense once. It took me about three or four chapters before I no longer noticed that it was in present tense. Until then, it just sounded weird.

Past tense is the most familiar. The above example would be: "I kicked the can down the road and watched as it tumbled and rocked to a stop. I shook my head. 'Just like my life.'" It is a more natural tense to tell a story, because there is the assumption when you tell a story, that it has already happened. Present tense is like watching a reality show live, seeing events unfold as they happen. Future is predicting what will happen. In either case, to tell a story assumes that you already have a story to tell, which presupposes past tense. The assumption in all past tense points of view is that there is a narrator telling the story, whether or not the narrator ever "speaks" for him/herself. That is the most natural story telling mode, and why the other tenses create a sense of artificialness and weirdness.

Whichever tense you'll use, you'll need to chose a point of view to tell the story. For each point of view, I'm going to categorize this from the perspective of who you are as the narrator. How much you can know, and what you can relate to the reader, all depends on who the narrator is, and determines your point of view.

1. You Are the Character in the Story

First person, limited point of view. When the character speaks about themselves, it is always in the terms of "I frowned," "I kicked," "I laughed." And since it is "in story," the character doesn't know anything more than what the character knows at any given point in the story. So if you as a writer know someone is sneaking up on your character, the character can't know it is happening until he or she hears a board creaking and turns around, or something like that. They can't see the future or know what anyone else is thinking other than what they assume from body language and what is said.

On the other side, the reader should know anything important that the character knows.  I read one first person book where during the whole book there was something the main character had done to their brother, and he feared his bigger brother was going to take revenge on him if he found out. One of the book's main tension points was this fear of what would happen when his brother discovered the truth. It was built up to be this really big thing, and I expected the big reveal would show some horrible deed. But we were never let in on what that horrible deed was until the very end. That's info hiding. The reader, being the character, should have known what that deed was. When I reached the end and found out what it was, it was something petty, and the older brother forgave him without a problem. All that tension, for nothing! And based on info we should have been told at the start of the book.

This point of view is probably the second most used point of view today. You'll often see it in mystery novels to give you the sense of being the detective, seeking clues. It is the most intimate point of view between the character and the reader, as the reader "becomes" the character. They feel and hear what this character thinks and feels, and has the most intimate relationship with that character out of any in the novel.

It is also the point of view to use if you wish to show "facts" in a distorted manner. You are getting your information filtered through this character's finite and peculiar viewpoint, even more so than third person limited. You will get more of the feeling about the facts coming through, and their importance or non-importance. And you as the reader don't really know whether they are perceiving things correctly or not.

One has to be careful with that, because give too distorted a picture of reality, and the reader can feel tricked. Few like to read a whole novel thinking something is one way or the other, only to find out at the end that the character simply misread things. If you use it, you'll want to use it to create a specific effect.

For instance, in my novel coming out in the near future, Reality's Glory, third and final book of the trilogy, I use first person to show the reader my character's misreading of a relationship. Then at some point, it is revealed what the real relationship is, and she realizes she's been deceiving herself, rationalizing because she wanted something to be real so bad. Some of my critiquers would say, "Why is she doing that? Shouldn't she know better?" and they were a bit frustrated with the direction my character was going. I thought, good. They should be wanting to slap her back to reality. That's the idea and illustrated what we ourselves so often do, but don't want to admit. But because it was in first person, I could pull that off because we all rationalize things we should know better about, but want so badly that we'll ignore real facts to see what we want to see. First person is the best point of view to make that happen.

One note about first person. You'll often hear folk say what you can't do in first person is have your character die. The idea being, who is telling the story if they are dead? But that makes an assumption that the character ceases to exist, which in several religions that is not the case. The character could be coming back as a spirit, or chatting with St. Peter in heaven, relating his/her story. It is helpful if that framing story is present, but not necessary. All you need to do is show that the person in question can continue to live on in another form. And even if you don't believe in an afterlife but that everyone ceases to exist once dead, this is speculative fiction where most anything can happen and often does. It isn't hard to speculate a reason why this character can still tell their story, though dead.

That to say, I don't agree that you can't have a first person point of view character die in a story. Problem is, you have a lot of editors out there who think that way, so you'll either need to put in that implicit framing story or use limited third to make them happy, or write them a lecture on this subject, which pretty much means you aren't getting published by them.

2. You Are an Observer Telling the Character's Story, in the Story

Third person, limited point of view. In this one, we switch from first person to third, but they still don't know the future, they still don't know what the other character is thinking, but you need to tell anything important that the character knows to avoid "info hiding," etc. They only know what they know as the story progresses. It has a lot of similarities with first person limited point of view. You can even show to some degree a distorted viewpoint. This is by far the most used point of view in modern literature. It provides the intimacy of first person, but the more natural story telling of third person.

So why use it over first, or first over third? While the two are interchangeable on several points, there are a few differences. First person is one step more intimate than third. While third limited is quite intimate, being inside the head of the character, first person you are the character. You can't get any more intimate than that. Third person, even limited, assumes that the character is not telling the story, someone else is. Because of that, third person limited, while widely accepted, isn't as natural as first person for being inside someone's head. There is an omniscient aspect to limited third, that the narrator who isn't the main character can know what the main character is thinking. Because of that, it creates one sense of removal in intimacy from what first person gives.

And for that reason, if you want to show a distorted viewpoint, first is more natural to that. Third person limited, for all its intimacy, is another person relating the story than the main character, and so wouldn't be as influenced by that character's viewpoint as you would be in first person where it is the character telling the story. The reader is more likely to feel tricked if you show a distorted point of view in third person.

But it's main advantage is that it still is very intimate because you are inside the character's head so deeply like first person, but is told in the more natural third person. There is less chance of getting jarred out of the story. It is more natural to discover their names. There is a bit more freedom by the narrator to be objective as well as filtered through the thinking of the character. It represents the best of most points of view: intimacy but told as a storyteller would tell it, not as "this is what happened to me," but "this is what happened to our hero."

The other main advantage is third person can sound less self-absorbed than first. Whether you are describing a battle, or a relationship, the constant use of "I" this or "I" that can start to sound like someone bragging. Third person can remain more objective. It is also why most author bios are written in third person, not first. Otherwise it comes across more as the author bragging than someone else praising the author.

3. You Are an Observer Telling Multiple Characters' Stories, in the Story

Multiple third person, limited point of view. This is a point of view frequently used as well, which is simply an expansion of third person, limited. You are in multiple character's heads, usually one point of view per chapter or at least per scene. And like third person limited, you can only know what those characters know, sense, think, and can deduce. But expanding to more than one character means you can expand that knowledge, because each point of view will know things the others don't.

There are also times you will see a mixture of third and first, either in terms of a framing story when a narrator goes into telling a story to someone else, making the framing story limited third, while the story itself is first person, or one or more characters is written in third while one is in first.

You will rarely see more than one first person in a multiple, if at all. It is simply hard to switch points of view to have more than one first person point of view, because you generally can't use their name unless you artificially have someone talking to them, using their name at the beginning of each section they have. The writer has to create some characters with distinct feels to be able to pull of a multiple first person points of view, so that the reader will know within the first paragraph who's head they are in. If you have one first person among several thirds, however, you know as soon as you read, "I hit the pillow," who's head you are in. Likewise, such a tactic can make one point of view stand out as the primary point of view among several if that is what you wish to convey, simply because it is different from the rest.

But the advantage of this is that you can have several different heads you can be in to get a bigger overview of events and perspectives. It creates a more epic feel of multiple story lines swirling around each other until they tie up at the end. The reader gets a chance to know more than one character intimately, giving a wider experience.

However, the more characters you add into the mix, the more likely you'll lose your reader as they feel they have to keep starting the story over and over again with each new character, and by the time they return to a previous story thread, they may have forgotten details of what had happened, even the characters' names. In some novels, the list gets so long you need a program to keep track of the players.

The other downside is the more characters you add, the less intimate the reader will feel with each one. Intimacy, by definition, is something shared with few, or the most intimate, one. The more characters the reader shares intimate details with, the less intimate he/she will feel about those characters. Aside from the obvious reason of reduced page time with any one particular character, the less it is a one-to-one relationship between the characters and the reader, the less intimate it will feel.

4. You Are the Character, Telling Someone Else Your Story

First person, omniscient point of view. This assumes a framing story, whether there or not, of the character with an audience in front of him/her, telling them about their exploits. You'll read parts that are obvious narrator sections, and indicate that the narrator has knowledge of what will happen, or what other characters are really thinking, knowing more in hindsight. So you might read a phrase like this in the story: "If I had known then what I know now, I'd never gone into that house." Then it might jump back to "in story" telling.

The advantages to this mode are you have more freedom to drop hints like the above that can increase tension. The narrator already knows what is going to happen, and is holding back information to increase the dramatic effect upon his listeners. Unlike the limited version, you can hide information that the point of view character knows. The point of view assumes the character is holding back information in order to tell the story well. Otherwise, since he or she knows how it comes out, the narrator could say, "Well, to make a long story short, they got a divorce and he died in a car accident. Alright, let's go eat!"

The disadvantages are less intimacy. However, this point of view had almost as much intimacy, if not more, than third limited. You are still inside the character's head, you are still "the character," to a large degree, and you can still present a distorted viewpoint if you wish, it all depends on how the first person narrator wants to play it to tell his/her story. In once sense, because the first person narrator knows more about what happened and what they were thinking at the time it happened, you could say there is more intimacy. You get to hear the point of view character reminisce on what they were thinking of what things were going on they should have realized, etc.  So you can keep it fairy intimate.

What you really lose that affects intimacy is immediacy. You are no longer purely "in the story" and watching it as it unfolds, but being told it by someone who knows what all will happen, and jumps in from time to time to tell you that. It's obvious that the story isn't happening as it happens for the reader, but is a past event. For that reason you could never use present tense with this point of view. The loss of immediacy, as a past event, is what causes it to lose some of its intimacy with between the character and the reader.

5. You Are God

Third person, omniscient point of view. Or someone who knows a whole lot about the entire story, including what multiple characters are thinking about at any given time. This narrator, who is not in the story, plays a big role in telling the story. Descriptions can be rich since you aren't limited to just what a particular character would likely notice. You can jump into different heads at different times to listen in on what they are thinking or feeling. The narrator can say things like, "While George was climbing the mountain, Henry sat in a park playing with ants, and Diane strolled the isles of a grocery story, contemplating which cheese she would want to eat that evening." In limited third or first, there is no way the character narrating would know all this short of magic and telepathy.

This point of view used to be the most popular about one hundred years ago. Books like Lord of the Rings by Tolkien are classic examples of this. At one point, for instance, as the hobbits are sleeping in Tom Bombadil's house, Tolkien takes the reader into each hobbit's head to tell the reader what they are dreaming about. That can only be done in a third person omniscient point of view.

But it is also one of the harder points of view to pull of convincingly. New writers will tend to lose their readers unless they make it clear where the narrator is going, and who's thoughts they are in. The feeling of "head hopping" can easily creep in as the reader thinks to themselves, "Oh, where in this character's head now. I didn't realize we'd changed."

There is also the temptation in this point of view, more than any other, to have massive info dumping sections, or such detailed descriptions of places and events that the reader grows bored waiting for the story to get back underway. Because you can go there legitimately in this point of view, doesn't mean you should for good story telling. This is why my youngest son, after I read one section of Lord of the Rings to him, said, "He just took a whole paragraph to tell me they got off their horses!"

The biggest disadvantage here is loss of intimacy. It isn't totally gone, but the more you switch heads, the more you go into narrator mode describing scenery and events as if you were God, the less the reader will feel connected to the characters. It takes some skillful writing, and maybe three mega-volumes like the Lord of the Rings trilogy to pull off character intimacy. But since you are going into heads still, there is a degree of it. And if you stay in one head for a protracted period of time, it helps to offset it. But each time you jump out of a head and into another, or into an "overview" description or events section, it reminds the reader that they are not "in the story," but being told the story in hindsight, by someone who knows everything that will happen, and what everyone of importance is thinking. You as a reader can know what's around the corner before the character does. That creates distance and less intimacy.

But it can also create tension, and for the same reasons is one of its advantages. You can know what the bad guy is planning on doing to your character, and know your hero is walking into a trap while the character themselves are quite oblivious to it. Tension builds as you know the bad guy is about to strike, and your character appears to not know what is coming, and will surely die...what will he do! What will happen! I don't want him to die! Watch out! Horror movies play on this aspect frequently to build such suspense and tension that you couldn't pull off in a limited point of view.

"But this sounds like Multiple Limited Third Person Point of View." As far as dropping into different heads, yes. As far as being able to pull back and know what is going on without looking through a particular character, no. With the multiple third person limited, you are still restricted by being in someone's head. The narrator never pulls back from being "in story" to tell what is happening. The narrator is still restricted to what any one particular person can know, sense, notice, or think. No one point of view sees the whole picture. In third person omniscient, the narrator can give a panoramic view of events as they unfold, and jump around in the story, hopefully carrying their readers with them.

6. You Are the Camera

Camera point of view. This is the least intimate point of view, in that you are not going into anyone's head. Rather, it is as if you are a camera and can only record what is being said and people's body language. The reader is left to interpret and read between the lines as to what is going on. Descriptions play a big part in such a point of view. They need to be vivid and detailed, especially as it relates to body language to give a clear picture of the emotions running through any one particular individual, as well as giving the reader a feel of "being at the movies."

This view point more than any other requires a lot of writing skill to pull of effectively and not lose your reader, either to boredom or confusion. The writing needs to be poetic, to flow as you paint the pictures that lay out the events as they happen. It is more about ambiance and feel than about just telling a story of what happened. Emotion has to come from the scenery, what happens, and what is said, instead of what the character is thinking or feeling. In this sense, a more literary touch takes charge in this point of view, and is why it is the hardest to pull off in a way that conveys emotion and tension. But done well, can be effective in creating an unique story experience.

I've attempted one short story using this point of view. One thing I've found is that many editors don't understand this point of view. They want it to fit into one of the others they are familiar with. So in my story at one point as the hero is facing down the villain, I have a baby crying in the distance. One editor questioned why that irrelevant detail was in there, seeming to have nothing to do with the story. A valid question if I had been in any other point of view, but in camera view, it creates some ambiance, scattered details that give the reader a sense of what any camera might pick up, and speaks to the destruction and tension of the moment to create that ambiance as the point gets close that one of them will act.

So this is hard to sell as well as hard to write. Because editors don't see it very frequently, they will not tend to treat it within the framework of this point of view, but want it to fit into a point of view they are familiar with. As a matter of fact, the editors wanted me to give more what the people were thinking in that story, which would have created more of a third person omniscient point of view. When I did that, they didn't like it as much, and those scattered details did appear more irrelevant. So expect such a story to be misunderstood, even if you are able to pull it off with skill and grace.


Those are the main points of view you'll see and deal with. There are other lesser used and obscure points of view. One would be called a "Microphone" point of view, more limited than camera but with the same restrictions. Orson Scott Card used this effectively in Ender's Game. Before each chapter, you would hear some characters talking. You didn't know who they where, or what they looked like. All you read was dialog, as if you had a bug in their room and listened in. You couldn't do a whole story that way easily, but for those small bits before each chapter, it effectively set up the realization for the reader that Ender was being manipulated by someone, you assumed in the upper ranks of the military.

Likewise, occasionally you may come across a story written in second person. Usually these involve stories where you have to make a decision, or a game of some type where you have choices. But to write a novel in it is awkward and unnatural to read.

But these points of ivew would be rarely used, as would many other sub-categories of points of view. The above is a good primer on the main points of view you are likely to run across. Others will most likely be some form of the above, or a mishmash between them. Choosing the right point of view will determine a lot of how the story will play out. You have to consider the scope of the story, what the reader will need to know to make sense of it, whether one particular character can tell the whole story, or if you need multiple points of view. Whether you're shooting for a grand epic with a wide scope, or the personal story of a character's struggles.

But once you pick a point of view, you'll want to stick within its limitations and avoid its abuses, and learn how to write it well enough you don't lose your reader. Many new writers end up writing omniscient when they don't even know how to switch points of view effectively, and then wonder why so many consider their self-published novel confusing and not worth the struggle. But it is one of the first things a new writer needs to learn to write well and tell the reader a story that is authentic and easy to follow.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fishing for God

Back in the early 90s, I was the pastor for a small, country church in Noel, MO. On the same district, I happened to have a good friend who shepherded a congregation not too many miles away, named Tom. Occasionally, we'd get together and go trout fishing at a trout farm in Cassville.

The first thing you need to know is I'm not much of a fisherman. I did it a few times as a kid and teen, and even caught an occasional fish. First one was a small perch when I was in Jr. High School. And after filleting it, making batter and deep-frying it, it was a one-bite meal.  More like one popcorn fish. By the time of Tom's and my first outing together, I had caught a total of five fish in my life. Aside from that one small perch, some nine inch bass at a local lake in Austin, TX.

And because I had caught so few fish in my life, despite having spent hours tossing a lure into the water and reeling it in, I had decided I didn't like fishing. To much work, very little reward, and long boring hours of doing nothing.  I figured I had things I really wanted to do rather than spend hours sitting by a lake or river accomplishing nothing in most cases other than wasting time.

Before I get responses about how great fishing is for others, I recognize for many it isn't a waste of time. We all have our priorities, what we enjoy doing. But for me, fishing isn't one of them. Because of that, I've probably deprived my children. I've never taken one of them fishing. But that's another story and post.

So the first time I head out with Tom, because I figure at least it will give us a chance to spend time together even if I didn't catch anything, we arrive at the trout farm. I'd never been to one of these before. We walk in and this small stream runs through the place, and the fish! Yes, lots and lots of fish filling up that small stream. I couldn't believe it. It appeared there was at least one trout for every cubic foot of water.

Well, my hopes shot high. I figured, "If I can't catch a fish here, I can't catch one anywhere." I knew I would grab me several before the day was over. How could I miss when there were so many fish?

I plunked my lure in and reeled. Nothing. Did it again. Still nothing. I did it over and over again. I began to wonder if the fish had just been fed or something. So I tried other spots. Meanwhile, Tom's catching some. I don't recall how many he had that day, but by the end of the fishing trip, he had several. I had zero. I couldn't catch a fish if it jumped into my hands and surrendered.

At a later date, I agreed to submit myself to the same torture. We went back to the farm, and after an hour or two of Tom catching some fish, and I still couldn't get even one measly fish to pay attention to my lure, Tom checked it out and determined that my line was too thick. It was scaring them off. So he pulled out some of his line, cut off a piece, and tied it to the end of my line, then attached the lure to that.

I started tossing and reeling again, and after a few minutes, I had a bite! Yes! Reeled in my first catch in who knows how many years. By the time we left, I had two or three. Not great, but much, much better than zero. And I at least felt maybe I could catch a fish, if I had to, I guess.  All I needed to do was use the right line.

Most Christians know the the phrase Jesus used to Peter when he called him to be a disciple, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." And then He proceeded to show them how it was done on numerous occasions. And the approach Jesus had was to speak to people where they were at. He used their language. In other words, He used the right line to fish with so as not to scare them away, but instead draw them to Him.

As a Christian writer, I have stories that have Christian themes to them. Sometimes it is obvious as in my Reality Chronicles series, or other times not so obvious, but there nonetheless, at least a basic worldview where God exist, even if He doesn't enter into the story or religion is never mentioned. Concerning my more subtle Christian themed work, one could make the claim that I'm trying to hide my Christianity so as to slide the Gospel in undetected into impressionable minds.

Two thoughts to that. One, I'm not hiding it, I'm simply presenting it in a manner that a non-Christian can digest and understand. It's not like I'm intentionally trying to be evangelistic in my subtle writing, but simply present good stories that are based upon a Christian worldview, even if no character ever prays, worships, or talks about God or religion. I don't call that hiding, I call it using the right line, by presenting my worldview in a way that my target audience will comprehend and understand. It has nothing to do with hiding, but how it is presented. Exactly what Jesus did. He spoke to the person, not according to a man-created formula of "how to save a soul." If I'm writing a story for the general market, the last thing I want to do is have a bunch of preachers saving a horde of people, or using a bunch of Christian jargon. It will scare them away. It sends up too many red flags and won't fly in the general market, by and large.

This is not to disparage folks who are writing primarily to a more Christian audience, and use such jargon, and have people regularly finding God and getting saved. If you're writing to that group, more power to you. But don't assume because another author writing to a different audience who would be put off by that same kind of story, writing a story where Christ isn't mentioned, not having anyone pray or get saved, is by default "hiding" their Christianity. Or not doing God's work, what He's called them to do.

Likewise, secular readers shouldn't assume because of that, that such a writer is trying to slip Christianity in unnoticed so that we can ultimately save someone from hell. Sure, we'd love for that to happen. But it also may simply be we want to tell a good story on our hearts, and do it from a Christian worldview so that we are represented along with everyone else. You can't claim tolerance and deny Christian artist their place as equally as anyone else. Otherwise, you are being bigoted and discrimiatory.

Which leads into point number two. For those secular folk who do decry, as one reviewer who sent back my book with a note that said, "I don't review Christian propaganda," that the Christian worldview is being hidden and slid in unaware by such books, look no further than your own backyard.

How many secular science fiction promotes a purely secular worldview, often a very anti-Christian worldview, where God is derided and humanism promoted? How many fantasy books are mere propaganda pieces for pagan religions? Why do they get a pass on this litmus test applied to writings from a Christian worldview?

It boils down to simply because you think you're right and we're wrong. It is cultural arrogance. It is tolerance to everyone except those you can't tolerate. But if it is okay for shows like "Star Trek: The Next Generation" to promote a secular worldview without God, and even that man will eventually become like God, and be accepted as not trying to influence people to a particular belief system, then neither should stories from a Christian worldview be singled out and labeled as trying to trick people into Christianity. No more than secularist are trying to trick people into secularism.

So I'll keep fishing, attempting to use the right line, the right lure for the right fish. Naturally I hope that by presenting Christians fairly, both the good and the bad, I hope to break down some walls of preconceived, caricatured ideas of what Christianity is about, and hopefully allow some to give themselves permission to move beyond those and see what we're really about. Just as the secularist wants to promote their worldview in their writings. And it isn't hiding it, it is presenting it differently for a different audience, in a way they can receive it and understand.

How would you go about presenting Christianity to a secular audience?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Conflict to Resolution

One of the axioms that fiction writers hear is that a gripping story is a story with conflict. Indeed, even in high school, we were told that the parts to a story were introduction, a building to a climax, the climax, and the resolution. Or, a story needs  to introduce a conflict, push that conflict to a breaking point, until at its peak, one side gives, and the conflict resolves. Usually one side "wins' and the other "loses." Most plots are built upon that basic premise.

That leads one to then ask, what is conflict? We discussed this in a writer's group for a while. Some appeared to want to define it narrowly to only be about two people fighting. My self, I defined it more broadly, to mean any conflicted emotion. I pointed out that even hunger pains are a form of conflict. Most certainly not a conflict we control mentally, but within one's body there is a conflict. Pain by its nature is a conflict. It creates a demand.

Perhaps it may be best to define conflict itself. A book that has had a big influence on me is "Managing Church Conflict" by Hugh F. Halverstadt. I took a seminary course on that back in the early 90s, and I would wager was the most practical and useful seminary course I took while there, as far as preparing one to be a pastor. He says on page four:
Conflicts are power struggles over differences: differing information or differing beliefs; differing interests, desires, or values; differing abilities to secure needed resources.

Note the lack of an "and" before the last entry. That indicates the list could go on, these are some basic examples. Conflict at is core is a power struggle over two entities who have different agendas. And the two entities can be within one person. We all have our hypocritical tendencies. We believe or say one thing, but do a different one. That creates a power struggle between our brain and our heart. Temptation is a conflict between what we know is the right thing to do, and what we really want to do emotionally.

The later is called internal conflict, whereas a power struggle between two people or groups of people is called external conflict. Internal conflict is  form of discontentment. We are not satisfied with were we are at, but long to move over to a place we believe will make us happier (often finding out the promise of happiness doesn't pan out). It points to a conflict between what we want, and what we have. The executive who wants to get that promotion has an internal conflict. He's not happy where he is at, but struggles to convince his bosses that he's the man for the job. He may also have some external conflict. Another employee may also be trying to grab that job, and may do some underhanded tricks to make our protagonist look bad.

Indeed, a good story will generally have both internal and external conflict. We generally call internal conflict "motivation" while external is the protagonist against the "enemy" who either wants to stop the protagonist from reaching their goal, or get to it first. It's a power struggle. Will our hero succumb to the temptation to kill the man or will he stay his hand and show mercy? Will they give into their hate or overcome it? Will they win the sword fight or lose it? Will the protagonist's hunger cause him to eat what is forbidden or will he resist?

There are all types of conflict, and the conflict has a life cycle. It usually starts small. Maybe two people simply look at each other the wrong way, and one of them perceives it as, "He hates me." A power struggle has begun. Then that person is in a position to decide whether the other can join the group, and they vote no. The other now perceives that that person hates him as well. At a church function, they refuse to talk to each other. Tension builds. They both end up on a church board, and it can be counted on that if one votes one way, the other will buck it. It all gets swept under the carpet, and the tension continues to build. Finally, the whole mess threatens to blow up. The climax of the story arises when the board takes on a seemingly innocent decision...the color of the carpet. The volcano of emotions blow. The two parties who have aligned themselves with either individual have a knock down, drag out "fight," and one group ends up "losing." And the result is a church split as the resolution. Though the tension continues in the two communities.

This kind of thing informs our plots, our character arcs, all of which are founded on conflict. In reality, humanity doesn't move forward without some level of conflict. If we didn't have conflict, we would never seek to improve ourselves, never want to grow. It is the interaction and conflict, and learning to resolve it in a productive manner that results in everyone moving closer together, closer to God. Going through conflict and resolving it changes us. Either for the better, or the worse. And that is the heart of any story. Not only whether the conflict will be resolved, but how it will be resolved and whether it will be a good thing or bad thing for the character(s) we cheer for.

"But does a story have to have conflict?" One member said no. Describing the experience of watching a sunrise can be quite interesting and exciting, but there really isn't any conflict there. This is true in part. This type of literature is known as "literary." Literary doesn't rely upon a plot, but upon the deeper meaning conveyed in the words and situation being described, and the beauty/poetry of the language used to describe it. But such stories usually lack one thing: a plot.

Yes, they are stories. They can be interesting. And any "conflict" isn't so much a conflict in the story itself, but more a conflict in the reader who wants to see something unique, a new perspective on something, a fresh and original take on an old experience. The "tension" created isn't so much between conflict proper, but the reader seeking a new experience that makes them go, "Wow!"

But such isn't a plot. It is an experience, maybe a very good one. It may have meaning it conveys. But it doesn't fit the traditional story telling, and generally doesn't make for a compelling plot that will keep the reader wanting more. Humans being what they are, there are going to be exceptions to that. But it should be a given that what most people are going to look for in a novel, especially genre fiction, isn't literary, but a good character and plot driven story full of conflict. If your telling a story, you'll need conflict. Certainly you can have those moments of literary brilliance, but the plot has to be there, and if there is a plot, it means it is a conflict, or else it will bore the reader and they won't care.

But understanding conflict is key to building a good plot. How it starts and builds, and the ways it can be resolved, both positively and negatively. Build characters with internal and external conflict, and you have yourself a story. At least the guts of one.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Top Blog Post of All Time

I've seen some others do this occasionally. Don't know how often I will do this, but I thought it a good idea to let others know what are the top 5 blog post based on traffic on my site. After all, if that many people are looking at them, perhaps others who have missed it might want to get a second chance to check them out?

Here are the top 5 blog posts:

  1. Using Open Office for Novel Writing with 160 unique page views

  2. Dealing with Reviews with 90 unique page views

  3. Book Review: Dark Side of the Moon by Terri Lynn Main with 57 unique page views

  4. Preparing to Smash Words with 23 unique page views

  5. It’s Coming! It’s Coming! Reality’s Coming! with 21 unique page views

Congrats to Terri for getting her book review up in the top 5 of viewed blog pages, and the top ranked book review on the site by far.

What is also interesting is aside from the book review and the last one, the other three slots are all taken up by "how tos" on the site. Which I guess points to the kind of post people like to read here, and I need to come up with more. The 6th ranked blog post was also a how-to about building covers for CreateSpace. Point taken!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

To Explic Or Not To Explic

I think I've addressed this at least one other time on this blog, but I've been giving some more thought to the subject of cussing. This post is at least as much for solidifying my thinking and potentially getting feedback on it as it is to "debate" the topic yet again.

As I've stated elsewhere, I rarely, if ever, cuss. Just wasn't raised that way, as my mother can attest. Back then, even words commonly accepted as okay in today's world, like crap and damn, were big no-nos, and I would have gotten in trouble for saying it (though my mom was never the wash your mouth out with soap type). But we grew up that way. And when I became a Christian, the group I was in reinforced that ban on cussing. In that group, you simply weren't a Christian, at least a very good one, if you cussed.

Now, I've been around people who cuss regularly. Some more than others. I've been in environments where there is a lot of cussing. In my current job, I hear it occasionally though we aren't supposed to do it there. And here's where I think I've come down on all this both for me personally and for the characters in my fiction.

First I'm going to identify some major categories. Warning: I will use the words since that is what I'm discussing here, just so we're clear. After all, I don't think there is much difference between writing "s--t" and "shit". We all know what the former means and everyone hears the word in your head. You've not avoided eternal damnation by doing that. If you're going to use it, use it. Don't beat around the bush. Saying "the F word" is the exact same thing as saying the word itself. Its only use is to bypass the censors on TV.

Category 1: Taking God's Name in Vain

First off, for me as a Christian, anything that takes God's name in vain is out. Sorry, even for the sake of characterization I could not bring myself to have a character take God's name in vain. Maybe someday I'll find to make a character really "bad" that needs to happen. But if it gets to that point, I'm more likely to not write the story than continue. There are other and more effective ways to draw a bad character on the page than have them take God's name in vain.

And in case someone doesn't know what that means, it means using "God" or "Jesus" in a sentence when you're not really talking to them or really about them. Rather, their name is being used as a cuss word. It degrades and debases the one we worship, and the Bible specifically forbids that.

Category 2: Cuss Words That Fit

What do I mean by that? Simply, words that fit the flavor. Usually when we cuss, it's because we don't like something. Yes, in some quarters it is common to cuss to praise something, but that is not normal. I had picked up some drunks one time to drive them home and they called me a nice mother fucker several times in thanking me for taking them home. But by and large, they are used in a negative and derogatory manner about either a situation or a person.

For example, a common word people use is shit. I've always had the urge to tell people when they use that word, "Down the hall, second door on the right." I mean, if you take these literally, it is really funny. I've had people say, "This is a bunch of shit," in which case my response is, "Well, I'm not touching it then!"

But the point being, shit, crap, poo poo, is yucky, bad, negative, and no one wants to mess with it other than to flush it down a toilet. The word fits if you're trying to say something is horrible, or that you especially don't like something. Most cuss words fall into this category.

One that does, but I think we should consider how it is used, is hell. People will often say "hell" about something they don't like, which again fits because that is a bad place and conveys the emotion. But I think it crosses the line to tell someone to "go to hell." We should never wish that on anyone. It puts us as the judge and under condemnation ourselves. I may have  a character at some point say that, but I don't think Christians in real life should wish that on anyone.

But for balance, we need to note that the Psalmist tells God the equivalent of he hopes some of his enemies "go to hell." Psalm 55:15. There's always exceptions.

Category 3:  Cuss Words That Degrade

There is a smaller group of cuss words that take something meant to be beautiful, meant to be praiseworthy, and turn it into something debased and ugly. While there may be others, the most obvious one is fuck. Sex was created by God to be a positive force in our life. It is an analogy to our union with God, as Ephesians points out, and so holds a special place of meaning in the Christian life as well as the marital life. To take that beauty and meaning, and turn it into something nasty and hate-filled is a debasement of God's creation and in this case, is right up next to taking God's name in vain, for it is taking what He created to be good and turning it into something horrible.

So I personally would never use that word in a cussing sense. And the connotation now attributed to it makes the word near unusable to describe what it is really pointing to. That makes it a word I would avoid personally, but also one that I doubt I would ever use in my fiction. I'll find a different cuss word if needed, or a different way to characterize the character before I use that word.

And this is not a recent problem. St. John Chrysostom, in a very frank sermon on marital union back in the fourth century, had this to say:
And how become they one flesh? As if thou shouldest take away the purest part of gold, and mingle it with other gold; so in truth here also the woman as it were receiving the richest part fused by pleasure, nourisheth it and cherisheth it, and withal contributing her own share, restoreth it back a Man....I know that many are ashamed at what is said, and the cause of this is what I spoke of, your own lasciviousness, and unchasteness....Why art thou ashamed of the honorable, why blushest thou at the undefiled?...Thinking then on all these things, let us not cast shame upon so great a mystery. Marriage is a type of the presence of Christ, and art thou drunken at it?

(St. John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Colossians,” Homily 12, vs. 18)

Final Thoughts

I doubt I'll have much, if any cussing in most of my stories. I've used it here and there, but very rarely. Not because I think cussing in general is unChristian. A case can be made for the crassness of one's language, and that we are to speak those things which are uplifting, not degrading. But as long as one isn't taking God's name in vain, or degrading his creation, or degrading a person He created that we should love, God is not likely to ask us at the Great Judgment, "You said 'shit' while you were around Me. Depart from Me!" Christians can get too wrapped up in majoring on the minor issues, usually to avoid looking at the bigger sins in their own lives.

But there are lines I wouldn't cross in my fiction for personal reasons as stated above, aside from the fact that I'm not likely to use most any cuss word in my daily life. There may be times I'll have my characters cuss, but those will be far and few between. Why? Because I'm writing for the general audience. And the fact is there are some out there that can't handle cussing. Most can handle a word here or there on occasion. But many don't want cussing on every page, or a character that regularly cusses. Some can handle it, some will put the book down.

And it's because there are those who will put the book down that I'll avoid it. I want to reach the widest audience possible. If I have a character who cusses regularly, I'm automatically going to lose a segment of my readership. And as a Christian author, if the story is at all written with the intention of holding a Christian audience, that percentage goes up even higher. It's just the way it is, folks.

If a writer regularly uses cussing in a story, they do so knowing they are going to lose a segment of potential buyers. If they are aware of it, acknowledge it, and go ahead and do it, that is fine. But they had better not come back and bemoan the fact that several people are put off by the cussing and state so in reviews. Expect it if you use it. And if you don't want to have that reaction, don't use it. It isn't a moral issue at that point, but a practical one, a marketing decision, and it should be treated as such. Because frankly, it should be rare that you have a character that you have to have cuss to make him or her believable.

So, that's where I fall into this scheme of things, both personal and in my writing. What lines do you draw, and why?

And the Winner is...

Didn't know I had a contest, did you?

Well, it was a race to see which online retail outlet would be the first to have physical copies of my new book, Reality's Dawn, available for sale. It was between my own store (if the books arrived here, which they haven't yet), Amazon, or Barnes and Noble.

And the winner is!!!!!!....

Barnes and Noble!

Good for them. And good for you, because that means you can now order and receive in a timely fashion a copy of this new book. I'm sure Amazon will be along soon, and I'll have copies any day now that I can sell and sign from my own author's store. Congrats to Barnes and Noble for beating out Amazon.