Theme—Day 26

As part of Mark Bertrand’s rumination concerning Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, he posted a thought-provoking essay at the Master’s Artist and included this statement:

Instead of starting from scratch and scrutinizing everything from the ground up, it’s easier for a writer to visit the Home Depot of ideas and choose from the pre-fabricated stuff, the familiar types and patterns.

This concept of “pre-fabricated stuff” is what, I believe, results from the practice of letting the characters craft the theme.

If Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel, Writer’s Digest Books) is right, and theme starts with the author identifying what he is passionate about, then it seems to me, I as a Christian writer must first do some spiritual work.

I posed the question earlier whether I had more stories in me than I do passionate beliefs. Since I believe in an infinite God, that should not be.

I mean, if I explore nothing but God’s character and believe passionately in Who He is, then I have enough thematic material to last a life time.

Writing, as always, starts within the writer, and as a Christian, of necessity, I must start my writing from my spiritual life. At least if I want to be serious.

For more thoughts on being a serious writer, read all of Mark’s excellent essay.

Published in: on April 29, 2006 at 11:10 am  Comments (9)  

Review—Web of Lies

For the final leg of Brandilyn Collins’s blour (her word for web tour 🙂 ), I’m posting my review of Web of Lies

Fans of Brandilyn Collins’s earlier Chelsea Adams books will especially enjoy this suspense thriller because it brings together that heroine with the star of the Hidden Faces novels, Annie Kingston. Collins has again written a compelling, page-turner suspense, with an especially strong climactic scene.

The pace is fast but not mind-numbingly so. Collins takes time to develop her characters and to explore inner conflicts while moving the story, driven by the outer conflict, forward to an unexpected conclusion.

The expert writing is all the more important in this book because, as the author note indicates, the novel not only brought together two different protagonists, it is a marriage of two different writing styles—a shifting third person point of view in the earlier series and a first person point of view in Annie’s stories. Collins does a wonderful job uniting these varied forms without disrupting the narrative.

Collins did one of her best jobs weaving the spiritual threads together with the story in a realistic, believable way. No big conversion scene stopped the natural flow of the events, but Collins did not back away from what would be normal reactions—whether questions or faith—for a Christian. At the same time, those without faith were not portrayed in a stereotypical fashion.

This book will capture your interest on page one and hold you to the end. Definitely a book suspense readers will enjoy.

Highly recommend.

Published in: on April 28, 2006 at 4:00 am  Comments (2)  

Brandilyn Collins Interview—Part II

We’re continuing the interview with Brandilyn Collins about her latest release, Web of Lies.

RLM: Brandilyn, do you have a favorite book that you’ve written and if so which one and why?

BC: Not a total favorite. I have some that I like better than others. I like Color the Sidewalk for Me. (There’s that women’s fiction stuff again.) I like Eyes of Elisha—my first suspense. Out of the Hidden Faces series, I think Dead of Night is my favorite, with Web of Lies a close second. Who’d ever have thought I’d say that about WOL? Man, I hated that book while I was writing it. Was just sure it would ruin my career, and Zondervan would never wanna talk to me again.

But then, I think that with every book.

RLM: You are so prolific. How do you keep from burning out writing suspense? I mean, does it ever feel as if you’re writing the same story over again?

BC: Yeah. All the time. How to keep it fresh? Suspense is a genre with strong conventions. You gotta fulfill those conventions to satisfy the reader. It doesn’t help when you’ve taken on the brand of “Seatbelt Suspense™.” Really, what was I thinking? And I’ve got years ahead of me in this business.

Pardon me while I go lie down.

RLM: Sure, as long as you can write from a prone position! 😉

It seems there is a trend toward dark perpetrators. Will suspense of necessity become darker as you explore the psyche of the antagonist?

BC: You want darker than a sociopath with a room full of spiders? What are you, warped?

RLM: Hahah! 😀 No, I am definitely NOT asking for darker perps. Just making an observation. In light of the fact that you have to realistically portray such characters, how do you keep from being depressed or disheartened by looking into the evil heart of the antagonist?

BC: Okay, now you’re gonna think I’m warped. It doesn’t bother me. In fact, I find the bad guy POVs easier to write than the protagonist. I fully believe it’s God’s protection. I pray my way through every book. Sometimes I stop and pray before writing a certain scene. God gives me the ability to get inside the bad guy’s psyche without feeling it myself. Sort of like being close to flame with a fire-proof shield.

RLM: How important is it to you that readers come away from WoL with something more than a few hours of entertainment?

BC: I’m most bouyed by fan letters that rave about the book and include what the message did for them spiritually. So yes, it’s important. However, I have to add that the desire to make a spiritual impact is not what drives me as I plot a book. My aim is to write the best suspense I can. If I can capture readers with an entertaining, hair-raising tale about characters they care for, they’ll hear the message. Otherwise, they’ll just shut the book without finishing.

RLM: What would you say about WoL to a reader who doesn’t typically read suspense?

BC: I’d be cautious in recommending it. I’d first ask if the person is frightened easily. A yes answer means—this is not the book for you. Give it to your warped relative. But for someone who just hasn’t tried suspense but feels he/she can handle it—I’d say, “Hey, where have you been? This is one honkin’ creep story, and if you haven’t read it, you’re losin’ out big time!”

Think that’ll get ’em?

RLM: It got me! Thanks again, Brandilyn.

Up tomorrow, my review of Web of Lies.

Published in: on April 27, 2006 at 4:00 am  Comments (1)  

Brandilyn Collins Interview—Part I

Today begins the book tour for Web of Lies, the final book in the Hidden Faces series by Christian suspense writer Brandilyn Collins.

About Brandilyn Collins. Collins is an award-winning and best-selling novelist, writing “Seatbelt Suspense” for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers. She also has written the distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons).

Brandilyn’s first book, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995. Its promotion landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. In 1998, Brandilyn felt a strong calling to write Christian fiction—unpredictable, fast-paced and highly characterized stories interwoven with the message of God’s power and grace. She sold her first novel, Cast a Road Before Me, in 1999. From 2001 through 2004, Brandilyn saw seven more novels published (both suspense and contemporary), plus her non-fiction book Getting Into Character. In 2005, she turned her focus solely to her “Seatbelt Suspense”—harrowing crime thrillers that have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to breathe…”

In between writing novels, Brandilyn teaches the craft of fiction at writers’ conferences.

About Web of Lies. The final book in the Hidden Faces series, Web of Lies brings together forensic artist Annie Kingston with Chelsea Adams, heroine in Collins’s previous suspense series, to solve a murder but instead snares them in a terrifying battle against time, greed, and a deadly opponent.

RLM: Brandilyn, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. I know you are busy with your own blog and other promotional efforts, not to mention working on the next book in your upcoming Kanner Lake series, so it’s gracious of you to give your time.

What did you enjoy most in writing Web of Lies (WoL)?

BC: Finishing! This book was a killer to write, from page one.

RLM: In your author note in the book, you elaborated some about the difficulties of writing from two different points of view—something you chose to do in order to accommodate both your heroines. What besides the two different points of view made WoL a challenge to write?

BC: It’s a convoluted tale, with more than one crime and numerous levels of intrigue. I had to figure out how they all fit together, and keep a thousand and one details in my head. Since I’m always writing to the twist in my stories, many scenes have to be written on more than one level. I try to lead the reader to make certain subconcious assumptions—ergo, the top layer of writing. Then there’s what’s really going on—the layer of writing underneath. But of course, just to make things interesting, some assumptions from the top layer of writing are true, while some red herrings are woven into the level below. I have to remember what’s real and what’s not, plus what the reader knows in any given scene versus what I know as author of all. Sometimes I feel like I’ve entered this huge maze of my own creating, and can’t find the way out myself. I can really drive myself crazy sometimes.

And yeah, mixing the POVs was a bear. In all the Hidden Faces books, I’ve mixed in short third-person POV scenes of the killer. But to have two heroines—well, really a main heroine and a “guest star”—and do one in first and one in third . . . sheesh. But the story absolutely called for it. At first I tried writing it all in first, and it didn’t work. I needed those third person POV scenes, especially in the long build-up of the crisis/climax.

RLM: I understand that once you have a title for a book, the premise begins to unfold. How did you come up with the title for WoL?

BC: Actually, it’s usually the other way around. I write the book and then figure out a title that speaks to the main plot as well as the theme. However, in this case, it was reversed. Zondervan needed the title for marketing copy—and I didn’t have a clue as to the story, so how in the heck was I supposed to know the title? That whole scenario led to a very backward series of events for me in plotting. No doubt another reason why the book was so hard to write. I told his whole sordid tale on my blog, Forensics and Faith [see link above or in the sidebar]. Check out the posts on May 25, ’05 to May 31. These are parts 59-62 of the four-month-long tale of my journey toward publication in fiction. My BGs (bloggees, or blog readers) and I took to calling this tale the NES, for “Never-Ending Saga.”

RLM: As one of the BGs hooked by the NES, I can unqualifyingly recommend your story as a must read. But back to POV, how did you like writing in first person after having written your last series in third? And why did you decide to write the Hidden Faces series from that POV?

BC: First person’s great. The most intimate of POVs. It also can be the hardest, depending upon the type of first person POV you use. Hidden Faces was written in the easier form of first person–the “it just happened” form. The “long look back” form is really difficult, because you have to create the voice of both the older and younger character, and segueway between them smoothly. This is the POV I used in my Bradleyville series, back when I wrote women’s fiction as well as suspense. Now I’ve crossed to the dark side for good.

But I digress.

Why did I use first person? Well, I didn’t plan to. I started in third with the first book, Brink of Death. And the first 20,000 words just bugged me. Wasn’t working. The story called for first. So I changed it. And that’s all there was to it. Story rules, folks. Story rules.

Part II tomorrow.

Published in: on April 26, 2006 at 4:00 am  Comments (5)  

Theme—Day 25

Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel (Writer’s Digest Books), is my hero. Yep, he addresses theme with an eye to teaching writers how to craft it. Love what this guy has to say. In fact, it’s tempting to try and tell you everything I learned all in one post. After all, I’d sort of thought I’d wrap the topic up and then move on to the blog tour. Now I’m thinking I’ll need more time to really absorb all this.

Let me get started. In Maass’s chapter titled “Theme” he first builds a strong foundation for the need for theme, opening with the fact that readers will not want to read something that says nothing.

He also declares that novels are moral, that part of the purpose of story is to pass on cultural values. He says that readers most often gravitate to stories that are consistent with their beliefs. Then this key:

Readers want to have their values validated, true, but usually not in simplistic, moralizing ways. They may not want to be converted, but they do want to be stretched … If a powerful problem is a novel’s sine, then a powerful theme is its animating spirit. (Emphasis added.)

My contention is that theme left to spring up from the story without purposeful design more often than not IS simplistic.

Maass says the place to start is to have something passionate to say. I would love to jump ahead to the next thing, but this point is the crux of the issue, and I can’t slide by it as if it is a given.

He compares a novel to a person—though most of us try to fit in, the person we admire is the person willing to stand up for his beliefs in the face of ridicule and threat (Rosa Parks might be a good example. Maass harkens back to Tienamen Square and the man who lay down in front of a tank). Then this:

A breakout novelist needs courage, too: the courage to say something passionately. A breakout novelist believes that what she has to say is not just worth saying, but it is something that must be said. It is a truth that the world needs to hear, an insight without which we would find ourselves diminished. (Again, emphasis in bold is mine.)

Have Christian novelists lost that passion, that courage? Is there nothing we have to say today to our culture that HAS to be said?

If we believe that there is, then taking the time to learn to craft this truth in a way that will make it intriguing, thought provoking, motivating should be a commitment. More than learning any other part of novel writing.

So, definitely, I think the subject of theme is worth a bit more study.

Tomorrow we join Brandilyn Collins’s virtual book tour to promote Web of Lies.

Published in: on April 25, 2006 at 12:20 pm  Comments (10)  

Theme—Day 24

I know I’m sort of backtracking here, but I feel that “theme” has gotten such a bad rap and writers have been given such poor instruction, I have to serve as an apologist for learning how to craft theme. The “how to” will be completely lost if someone doesn’t think it should be done at all.

I mentioned last week how Rebecca McClanahan, author of Word Painting makes a great analogy to describe the design of theme only to back off and later state that theme should “just happen.”

I’m not sure what logic these “how to write” writers are using. Noah Lukeman does something similar. In his book The Plot Thickens, he makes a great case for “transcendency,” stories that move readers through four stages he calls the audience arc.

Those stages are curiosity, interest, need, and action. About action he says the following:

The highest level to which you could rouse the audience is a place where they are so moved by the work that merely finishing it … is not enough; you have instilled in them a burning desire to take action based on what they’ve read.

The odd thing is that Lukeman precedes this audience arc section with the following declaration:

As much as your writing is a work of art, it can also be a vehicle, a platform for your message. This becomes shockingly clear when you reach millions of people and, as a result of your writing, popular culture is influenced, people go out and take action. You become more than an entertainer, an artist—you become a teacher, a role model … What is your message? What action might the audience take as a result?

Still, as important as it is to know your message, you must remember that you are ultimately an artist, not a moralist. As an artist, your goal is to dramatize, to bring to life—not to state facts or propound an agenda. Works that strive to put forth a moral or teach a lesson will generate resentment in the audience. It is actually a variation of writing with an agenda, and is still contrived. Such writing is suited for fairy tales, children’s stories, and biblical lessons, but has no place in creative writing.

HUH? So he says we are to have a message and know our message, even know what action we want readers to take, but not put forth a moral or teach a lesson because the audience will resent it? Except for children or people who read fairy tales or the Bible.

Such confused thoughts do nothing to help writers craft theme. I am more convinced than ever that instructors like Lukeman recognize that “transcendent works” give readers more than momentary enjoyment, but they fail to address the “how is that accomplished.”

More “how to” tomorrow. Then Wednesday, the Brandilyn Collins blog tour begins!

Published in: on April 24, 2006 at 7:13 pm  Comments (4)  

Books! Lots and Lots of Books

I am rereading Donald Maass’s great book Writing the Breakout Novel, and I suspect his comments will spark some additional thoughts on theme. But not yet. Thus a departure from the topic.

Mostly I wanted to alert readers to the upcoming blog tour for Brandilyn Collins’s latest release, Web of Lies—April 26, 27, 28. That’s next Wednesday through Friday. I have an interview with Brandilyn I will be posting, and I may include some of the review I wrote at,

I am swimming in books right now. I came home from Mount Hermon with more than my normal share, including Austin Boyd’s first novel, a sci fi/thriller entitled The Evidence (NavPress). I also bought Ethel Herr’s third novel in The Seeker series, The Citadel and the Lamb (Bethany House Publishers).

What else? Kay Marshall Strom and Michelle Rickett’s Daughters of Hope (non-fiction—InterVarsity Pressx). I mentioned yesterday Word Painting (Writer’s Digest) by Rebecca McCalahan.

Oh, and I won a copy of Chris Well’s Deliver Us from Evelyn (Harvest House). On top of which, I started reading Giver of Roses (Revell) by Kathleen Morgan before going to Mount Hermon.

Then I recently won a contest at Gina Holms’s blog, the prize being a free book which arrived this week: Full Tilt (Multnomah Publishers) by Creston Mapes.

Did I mention that I am also judging a contest that requires me to read a number of books and that box arrived last week?

Yep, swimming in books just now. Then I find out that Jonathan Rogers next book is releasing, too (see details at Jonathan’s blog, The Wilderking Weblog or Sally Apokedak’s blog, All About Children’s Books). So much to read!! Don’t forget to do your share.

Published in: on April 22, 2006 at 8:52 pm  Comments (4)  

Theme—Day 23

First I want to congratulate the other ACFW Genesis finalists (yes, I am one, too) in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category:
Beth Goddard
Rebecca Grabill
Shannon McNear
Mirta Ann Shultz
Sherry Thompson

I don’t know all these writers, but the ones I do know are excellent.

This novel contest is a first for me and is a great learning experience. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, if nothing further comes of this little foray, I have a new story and characters that I look forward to writing once Efrathah is put to bed.

On to theme. My newest writing book is Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan (Writer’s Digest), and sure enough, towards the back she addresses the topic of theme:

I prefer to think of theme … as … the hidden pattern that lies beneath a story’s surface. Theme is the underside of the weaving, the design we may not see until we turn the story over.

We don’t have to, of course. Like a beautifully woven shawl, a story or poem can be appreciated simply for its surface beauty … But if we do, we may discover another design, one as fascinating as the surface design …

The main theme or idea of a story may appear as an echo, like the musical theme that underscores a motion picture, its tune resurfacing now and again with slight variation.

A couple things strike me with this. First, if the theme is really a below-the-surface design, then I don’t see how it can “just happen,” though McClanahan later advocates that approach to incorporating theme. YIKES. Do musical themes just happen in motion pictures? Someone feels like humming a few bars at random intervals? Her own analogies emphasize the need to craft theme.

Which leads me to the second point. That idea of the theme being an echo, a reoccurring melody with slight variations, triggers a realization. It is in the repetition of a subject or a symbol that it gains meaning throughout the story. But there is a fine line between overdoing the use so that it becomes obvious and underdoing it so that readers miss it all together.

Finally, I also realize why preachy writing comes across as preachy. The melody that should be playing in the background has taken precedence. It has announced itself, become too obvious, drowned out the lines of the characters. No longer does it enhance or provoke thought. It stares the readers in the face. It waves its hand before their eyes shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!”

It becomes the over-salted meal, where salt is what the diner tastes rather than the meat or the rice or the peas.

It … OK. I am preaching. Heheh—brought to you intentionally as another illustration (I wish—but it serves the purpose).

My concluding thought: designing theme so that it stays below the surface and enhances the story takes work. To leave it to chance is to miss some of the beauty and power of the story. To force it to the forefront is to spoil the beauty and power of the story.

Published in: on April 21, 2006 at 11:45 am  Comments (10)  

Theme—Day 22

From a San Gabriel Valley Tribune book review of “Aftermath” by Brian Shawver (Nan A Talese/Doubleday) by staff writer Michelle Mills:

When I first finished the book, I was left wishing the end was more complete, as there are a few questions left unanswered, but upon reflection, I think Sawver did his job.

“Aftermath” is thought-provoking and presents a realistic slice of life that could have happened anywhere in modern America.

I like that “thought-provoking” comment, but coupled with “slice of life,” the review makes me certain I will not read this book. I like novels, essays, poems, non-fiction books, newspaper articles—whatever—that make me think. I do not like that thinking to lead nowhere. I tend to think “slice of life” stories lead nowhere. Nothing resolved. Little character change. Just a glimpse at a fictional character’s hard life. Or some anomaly in that life (see Message in a Bottle).

My conclusion about theme: fiction writing needs to lead somewhere without explaining where that place is.

In a companion review of Stephen White’s “Kill Me” (Dutton) by Knight Ridder Newspapers’ Connie Ogle, this similar and yet so different statement:

White cleverly uses maddening questions of quality of life and responsibility to family to craft a thought-provoking and timely thriller about life, death and the surprising nature of hope. (emphasis added)

Now that’s the kind of thought-provoking theme I’d like to craft.

Published in: on April 20, 2006 at 12:39 pm  Comments (6)  

Theme—Day 21

I’d really like to call this Theme—Day 20 1/2 because I want to explore this “self-discovery” issue a little more. Hard to believe, since I am not a fan of angst-driven stories or coming of age tales. I like characters who have it together for the most part.

So how can I hope for a reader to enter into some kind of self-discovery?

I guess the reality is, even though I like characters who have it together, none of them have it ALL together. Characters, if they are three-dimensional, will have flaws or weaknesses or sin in their lives.

Part of a good story is seeing a character overcome or forsake his flaw, weakness, sin. It makes him a better person, one I like even more because he didn’t hide from his marred personality or pretend it was really OK because “nobody’s perfect” or some other plausible reason.

That willingness to face his weakness is a big part of why I feel empathy for a character, I think.

So why am I concentrating on empathy for the character? First because I think that’s what makes him universal. Something about him has to resonate with others across economic, social, racial, age, gender gulfs.

A character who faces what all humans face will be a character who has universal appeal. What is it we all face? A need for love, acceptance, purpose, a place in the universe. A need to deal with our marred nature, to repair the broken connection between us and God, between us and others.

Secondly, if I can create a character universally empathetic, then I think his journey toward growth will of necessity trigger self-discovery in a reader. I as a writer don’t have to point out the thematic change or give a challenge to “go thou and do likewise.” The character growth and development should make the theme clear, or I haven’t done my job, and tacking it on won’t make it better. In fact, tacking it on can become a barrier to self-discovery. It negates the “self” part.

Instead, readers should feel something like, “I’m just like character X because I do Y.” Or “I wish I was like character X. If I do Y I could be.” Or “I used to be just like X. If I’m not careful to do Y, I could be like him again.” Those kinds of things. But none of that happens if the reader doesn’t feel a connection with the character.

I feel like I’m experiencing self-discovery here. Several years ago, my protagonist was about as unsympathetic as you could get, and I thought that was the way I needed him to be in order to show his growth and change. How thankful I am I had critiquers who told me otherwise. Is he universally empathetic? Only time will tell, I guess. But I know that’s what I’m aiming for in my protagonists from now on.

Published in: on April 19, 2006 at 1:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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