Let’s All Write the Same

I hope you realize I’m being facetious by suggesting all writers should write in the same way. However, I sometimes get the feeling that advocates of certain writing approaches think this outcome would be desirable.

I recently read a review that criticized a work for what it did NOT do, as if all works had, in fact, to do exactly the same thing. Now if the criticism was that the story did not have a likable protagonist or it did not have sufficient conflict or a central theme, then I would understand. These are things necessary to every story. But this was not the case.

Instead this criticism centered on a style. I’ll use an example. James Scott Bell, in his excellent book Plot & Structure advocates using the “three-act structure.” Does that mean this is the only structure a novel can follow?

Apparently some people believe so, religiously, to the point of criticizing any novel that dares to use a different structure as if it is inferior or deficient. The fact is, the three-act structure is one way of telling a story, but not the only way. James Bell himself says so:

Can You Play With Structure?
Of course. Once you understand why it works, you are free to use that understanding to fit your artistic purposes … So grasp the worth of structure, then write what you will.
– p. 24

Jim does go on to say that even in non-linear plots eventually the same elements and information found in a plot organized into three acts will also surface.

But what if a reviewer uses the three-act structure as his bible for The Way Stories Should Be, and he comes across a story like Lost Mission by Athol Dickson? Anyone reading the various posts during the CSFF Blog Tour for this book probably knows Athol did not follow the three-act structure.

And I suggest, the literary world is better for it. We’re better for books like George Bryan Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon, too, that creates “story movement” as John Truby calls it, through a means other than linear story telling.

My point is simply this: when an author is allowed to actually create, his work may be very different from some of the patterns advocated in writing instruction books. Truth is, it may be inaccessible, as I find A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be, no matter how acclaimed a writer James Joyce is. But it also might be brilliant and award winning (think, Gilead by Marianne Robinson) and wonderfully fresh and even wildly successful (think Harry Potter).

The alternative is for authors to put creativity aside and work exclusively within the cookie-cutter structure of screenplays. All books would soon become predictable (have you started noticing that the least likely suspect is almost always the culprit?) and characters, interchangeable.

The same is true of any other dearly held belief about writing. Some of the oft repeated writer advice—avoid an omniscient point of view, strip away all adverbs, don’t use “was,” kill off -ing words, and so on—ends up sterilizing writing. No longer does an author have a unique voice, a creative story, a fresh approach. Instead, it all needs to sound the same, only better.

I think the “only better” part is accurate. I’m taking issue with the hard and fast approaches that render fiction too much the same.

I Am Not God

Of course, stating that I am not God shocks no one. Yet I see an increase of teaching—yes, even among Christians—that seems to promote individuals behaving as if we ARE God.

I wish I could give you the instance that triggered my reaction, but I’ve buried the info in my subconscious somewhere. All for the better, I’m sure. But let me explain a little what I mean.

There is this positive-think movement that talks about each of us being in control of our destiny. For instance, we need to think positively about our finances, and good things will happen. We need to have hope about our health, and disease will disappear. We need to believe in our abilities as writers, and contracts will come our way.

You get the idea.

The fact is, some of this is true. Health professionals have done studies about the power of the mind in the process of healing. Some brain studies have shown that “phantom” pain is a real brain message being sent to the body though there is no physical cause. Sociologists have shown that infants are drawn to people who smile and people who are attractive.

Like most false teaching, however, the facts can morph into error when they are misinterpreted. Many people look at the amazing things our brains can do and draw the conclusion that therefore we are capable of unlimited success, health, happiness. It’s all in our control.

Isn’t that just another way of saying, I am God?

Any real understanding of facts about human abilities should lead us to gape in awe at our omnipotent God, not crow about our unlimited potential.

The most disturbing thing for me, however, is to see this “I can do all things because I’m empowered to do so” attitude creep into the church.

Sure, it’s couched in religious language, but at the heart is a belief that we are in charge. Not so.

Prayer changes things because God answers, not because I’ve put my mind to good health or happiness or hope. I don’t will myself into a better place because I’ve visualized it.

In fact, God seems to love coming through when all seems darkest, victory seems out of reach, despair seems the only option.

Look at Abraham. What must he have thought when he took up the knife to slay his son? Was it happy thoughts? A belief in his own ability to make this situation right?

No. He went no further than trusting in God’s promise and obeying His word. God said Isaac was to be the beginning of a great nation. And God said Abraham was to offer Isaac to Him.

No amount of self talk could resolve these two contrasting facts. Abraham had to believe that God meant what He said, both times. He had to accept that God would do what to him seemed impossible. He had to accept that God was God, and he was not.

Published in: on May 27, 2010 at 9:44 am  Comments (1)  
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Jesus Is God

I’m reading Melody Green’s No Compromise: The Life Story of Keith Green right now as part of the research for the non-fiction project I’m working on. Melody, you might know, is the widow of musician Keith Green, a song writer in her own right, and the President and CEO of Last Days Ministries.

In telling Keith’s story, Melody of course wove her own with his. When she details the spiritual journey they took exploring Christianity, she explains they both had problems with Jesus. Melody has a Jewish background on her mother’s side of the family, and Keith came out of the Christian Science religion.

When they first started investigating Jesus, they were drawn to His teachings. Keith first decided he wanted to follow what Jesus said. But friends told him he still wasn’t a Christian.

Later both he and Melody became convinced that Jesus was God’s Son. But how could He then be God?

So is He?

I used to teach a short unit on the Doctrine of God, including the trinity. Because of this, I began looking at the gospels with that question in mind.

Well, to be honest, I already believed He is God from other passages of Scripture. Colossians 2:9 for example, says, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.”

Then there is John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Since John 1:14a goes on to say, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,” it seems clear John’s declaration in verse one is that Jesus is God.

But I began to look for more.

I started with some of the names ascribed to Jesus—they were the same as those given to God: Creator, Savior, Shepherd, King, even I AM:

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.”

But I also began to note the attributes of God which Jesus demonstrated.

For example, He was omniscient. Toward the end of His ministry He told his disciples that He would be crucified. He knew Judas was the one who would betray Him. He told Peter he would deny Him—three times, and before the rooster crowed—but also that he would “bounce back.” He knew what Phillip was doing before He came to see Jesus. He knew at various times what the Pharisees were thinking when they were trying to trap Him with their questions. He knew Peter would find a gold coin in the mouth of a fish. There are others.

Jesus also demonstrated omnipotence. He calmed stormy seas, walked on water, healed the blind and lame and leprous, raised the dead, multiplied bread and fish, cast out demons, and forgave sins.

And of course Jesus declared Himself to be one with the Father:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.”

Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”

Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
– John 14:6-9

There’s more, and happily Keith and Melody Green learned the truth in their own study of Scriptures. It’s an important truth, a dividing point, really, separating those who know about Jesus, and may even admire Him, from those who know Him and recognize Him as God Incarnate.

Published in: on May 26, 2010 at 1:09 pm  Comments (2)  
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Writer’s Block Equals Writer’s Fear

I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I think of it more accurately as writers’ fear, with an affect similar to any other phobia.

I have acrophobia, the fear of heights. I first realized this when I was perhaps in fourth grade. My family spent some time up in the mountains during the summer, and one of our activities was to hike to a nearby manned fire tower.

At the time forest rangers lived on site during the months of highest fire danger. To encourage fire safety they gave out Junior Fire Ranger member cards to kids making the trek to a fire tower.

Hiking to the tower was the easy part for me. The hard part was climbing the steps to the enclosed platform at the top. We were already at the summit of the mountain, but the steps took us higher.

I knew better than to look down, but in between the steps I could see … sky! Now that was truly frightening. So much so that I was immobilized. I couldn’t make myself keep going.

That’s the sensation of writer’s block. Immobilization. But what’s to fear?

I suppose in part it’s a fear of failure, but it might also be a kind of performance anxiety. I’m reminded of a Charlie Brown monologue some of my English students performed during our speech unit.

Supposedly at school, on the playground during lunch, Charlie Brown is detailing why lunchtime is among the worst times of the day for him. Eventually he muses about the Little Redhead Girl he’s got a crush on. At one point he wonders why she never looks at him. He thinks he should go over to her and sit and ask her to have lunch with him. He stands up, realizes he’s standing up, then sits down. He declares he’s a coward.

Still he doesn’t know why she doesn’t look at him. He says he never remembers a time when she looked at him. He gets worked up, even a little indignant, and says

Is she so great and I’m so small, that she can’t spare one single moment just to … She’s looking at me. She’s looking at me! SHE’S LOOKING AT ME!

With that, he pops his lunch bag over his head, then says,

Lunchtime is among the worst times of the day for me. If that Little Redhead Girl is looking at me with this stupid bag over my head she must think I’m the biggest dork alive.

Poor Charlie Brown. He wanted to have courage. He wanted the Little Redhead Girl to like him or talk to him or at least look at him—until she did. Then he froze. And worse, he did something stupid.

I think writers, because we operate in a public arena, are afraid we might write something stupid and we’re wondering if readers are out there pointing and laughing while we sit with our lunch bags over our heads, hoping to go unnoticed by the very people we want to talk to.

No one ever said writers are rational! 😉

Published in: on May 25, 2010 at 11:20 am  Comments (1)  
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CSFF Top Tour Blogger Award

Thirty-four blogs and fifty-nine posts later and the May CSFF Blog Tour for Jill Williamson’s By Darkness Hid (Marcher Lord Press) is finished. What a great time.

I’ve said before how much fun I have on these tours, in part because they are the nearest thing I’ve seen to an on-line book club. A number of us receive copies of the book, most often from the publisher, and then talk about the story and/or the author for three days.

Sometimes the interaction is lively because of the subject matter. This time there wasn’t as much back and forth because for the most part all of us who read the book agreed that it was excellent.

I admit to making an effort to stir up some controversy by tying the book in with the current event issue of illegal immigration, but apparently that didn’t cause much of a stir. The book itself did that.

A number of participants immediately ordered Blood of Kings Book 2, To Darkness Fled, thankful that it had come out last month and was now available. Others begged CSFF to tour the second book (not likely to happen, I’m afraid).

So all that’s left is to vote for the CSFF participant who deserves the May Top Tour Blogger Award. The candidates to choose from are these:

Please vote for the one you think has written the most interesting, creative content. You have until midnight, June 1.

Published in: on May 24, 2010 at 10:56 am  Comments Off on CSFF Top Tour Blogger Award  
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God Causes

I’m posting on Saturday! That’s to make up for not posting yesterday. I’ve been tinkering with my work schedule in order to be more efficient with my time, but obviously what I did yesterday didn’t work! So that leaves me with a Saturday post.

No problem really. I wasn’t sure what to say yesterday, but today as I read in the book of Habakkuk, something clicked.

I’d already noted when I read through Jonah all the things that God directly caused in order to get Jonah where He wanted Him. First He sent His prophet a message. An order, really—Go to Nineveh and give them My message.

Jonah boarded a ship and high-tailed it in the opposite direction. So God “hurled a great wind on the sea” bringing up a great storm.

To stop the storm from crashing the ship and taking the lives of all on board, Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard. Eventually they did. Then God appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah.

After three days Jonah thanked God for saving Him and remembered his commitment. Then God commanded the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land.

Jonah went to Nineveh and preached, warning of God’s judgment on them because of their wickedness. Who wouldn’t believe the message of someone bleached albino-white by fish stomach acid and smelling of fish throw-up? OK, that’s all conjecture on my part, but the truth is, the people of Nineveh repented because they believed in God. They mourned and fasted and called on God earnestly that he might relent of the judgment Jonah had declared.

God heard them and did just that.

Which made Jonah mad—maybe because he hated the Assyrians, maybe because he knew that a prophet’s words were supposed to come true, so some might now question his role. At any rate, he decided to wait out the time (forty days) to see if by any chance God would still judge Nineveh.

God appointed a plant to grow to shade him, but the next day He appointed a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah grieved the death of the plant, and God used the object lesson to teach him something about compassion.

What struck me in the story was all the things in nature God caused—or appointed, as the NASB says. The wind/storm, the fish to swallow Jonah, the fish to throw him up, the plant, the worm.

How can we read a story like Jonah’s and not understand that God rules nature? He didn’t wind it up and let it go. Instead He holds it together. The “laws of nature” are no laws but observations of how God works. The “natural” things are the way they are because that is how God ordained them to be and how He maintains them to be.

At any moment He can check those “natural laws,” reverse them just as He reversed the sun and made shadows retreat instead of advance as a sign to Hezekiah, just as He “relented” and staid His hand against the Assyrians.

But I mentioned Habakkuk. God told the prophet He was doing something he would have a hard time believing: God was raising up the Babylonians “to march throughout the earth/To seize dwelling places which are not theirs” (Habakkuk 1:6b). Interestingly He says a verse later “their justice and authority originate with themselves” (Habakkuk 1:7b).

Here’s the point. What Man can observe is incomplete at best. We don’t know what God does behind the scenes unless He tells us, as He did in Jonah. How many other “great winds” were anomalous events God caused for a particular moment, a particular reason. Storms arise in the natural course of things—the God sustained natural course of things. But He also sends storms or prophets or cruel nations.

To observe weather patterns or political trends or human nature and believe we can figure out how to manipulate our environment is shortsighted at best and idolatrous at worst. We are not God. We ought to stop trying to take on His role.

Published in: on May 22, 2010 at 10:09 am  Comments (3)  
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To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice

I’m finding the Christian life hard. I know in my head that it is actually impossible—that living in obedience isn’t a matter of trying harder but trusting more.

But what does that mean practically when we’re faced with issues like Arizona’s illegal immigration law?

I feel like this issue might be a lot like the AIDS issue back in the ’80s. Some Christians were saying that homosexuals and drug addicts, who were the majority of the victims at the time, brought the disease on themselves by their lifestyle, so what responsibility did we who were straight and drug free have to do with helping those who suffered?

So illegal immigrants are illegal. They broke the law. Does that mean we should withhold medical treatment? Deny education to their children?

On the other hand, does it mean we give any resident, no matter how they arrived in the US, the right to vote, such as has been recently proposed, or give amnesty and declare all illegals legal?

What does obedience require?

Sacrifice in the Scriptural context would seem to refer to going through the motions when it comes to worshiping God. He doesn’t want empty gestures. He wants our lives—our care for orphans and widows and strangers. Our justice, mercy, and humility. Our whole-hearted love for Him. Our love for our neighbors.

And who are our neighbors? Might they not be illegal immigrants?

Anyone who’s studied history knows that what we’re dealing with today isn’t so very different from what our nation experienced during other immigration surges. Except for this illegal angle. But the complaints are the same—immigrants not learning English, draining our resources, introducing “un-American” ways.

Similar charges were leveled at Germans, Irish, Japanese at points in our history..

But how is a Christian to respond? How is a Christian to obey God? How is a Christian to think Biblically about treating illegals as we would want to be treated ourselves?

And lest we get too self-righteous about those breaking the law, when was the last time any of us broke the speed limit?

Oh, not the same category of law breaking, some may think. But isn’t the book of James true when it says if we break the law at one point, we’re guilty of all? So we who are guilty, stand before our Creator and beg His mercy, which He bestows on us because of His Son.

We, then, must go and extend mercy to he who owes us.

Finally, wouldn’t a policy advocating mercy and compassion, however it is framed, be a testimony to the world? Which most reflects God’s heart—withholding social services and public education from illegal immigrants, or finding a workable compromise that allows illegal immigrants to take a path to legal immigration?

CSFF Blog Tour – By Darkness Hid, Day 3

A year ago CSFF Blog Tour maintained the policy not to feature print on demand books. Our administrative team revisited that position, in large part, because of Jill Williamson’s urging. Happily we changed the policy to include any books published by royalty paying houses. As a result, we’re privileged to spotlight By Darkness Hid (Marcher Lord Press, 2009).

I say “privileged” and I mean it. First, as CSFF member and regular participator Phyllis Wheeler pointed out, this wonderful book is batting 1.000, or nearly so, when it comes to positive reviews and recommendations:

“This tour is unusual: everyone who posted loved the book. Last time that happened, it was Stephen Lawhead who was the author.”

I love when this happens. CSFF aims to feature good books so readers can find them and so publishers can see there’s interest in good speculative fiction. We stress the importance of each blogger saying what they want about the books they review. Consequently, it’s usual to get some of us taking issue with writing or subject matter or entertainment value or worldview. Not so, for the most part, this time around.

The fix is not in. Bloggers are quite specific about what they love—from the characters to the Christian content to the fast pace to the intrigue to the unique world.

Simply put, By Darkness Hid is the kind of book that makes it fun to be on the tour.

But there’s more. It’s a privilege to feature By Darkness Hid because Jill Williamson is such a gracious author. Not to mention that she’s also an active CSFF Blog Tour Member.

First she’s been available for a number of excellent interviews. They’re all good, but I might specifically recommend the two part-er John Otte posted here and here. In addition, Jill has done a wonderful job touring our sites and leaving comments. It’s been a delight to see her interact with so many.

And all this was to be set up for what I actually wanted to talk about. I wanted to follow up a little on the power issue I brought up in my last post.

A group of people seeking power for themselves anchored a key choice with the argument that they acted for the good of the country, regardless that they were going against the law. King Axel, they said, was a weak king because he treated the lowly with kindness. In so doing, he nearly destroyed the nation.

In answer, the king’s brother says, “Do not confuse compassion with neglect … My brother was loved by the people.”

The issue was rule of law vs. a strong, stable government, which the Council said could not take place if compassion for peasants and slaves was the guiding principle.

In some ways, this same conflict seems to be behind today’s illegal immigration debate (something we here in California are attuned to). On one hand is the rule of law, but in contrast to By Darkness Hid the opposition is (apparent) compassion for illegal immigrants.

In the novel, rule of law and compassion were on the same side, making the “it’s good for the country” argument suspect. In the illegal immigration argument, two important values seem to be on opposite sides of the fence. But do they have to be?

Honestly, Christians turning a blind eye to compassion for the sake of Law come across as far from the Grace we see in Scripture. What is it that God says He wants? For us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God.

Can we do all three? I don’t see how, apart from God’s strength and guidance. But depending on Him for wisdom to look at this issue in a different way than the world looks at it might be the very thing that sets Christians apart. We love differently, even those who are “Strays,” or at least we ought to.

CSFF Blog Tour – By Darkness Hid, Day 2

One of the good things about the CSFF Blog Tours that I’ve discovered is the fact that I am more purposeful in my reading. I think about the books we feature because I know I’m going to be interacting with other readers.

In preparation for this month’s tour featuring By Darkness Hid (Marcher Lord Press, 2009), Book One of the Blood of Kings series by Jill Williamson, I ended up rereading the book. Since I knew the plot line already, I found myself freed up to notice other parts and pieces of the story.

Honestly, I’m surprised at how much I missed the first time around. I suspect that’s because By Darkness Hid is a fast-paced story with lots of intrigue. A page-turner. So I read fast—after all, the prose flows nicely as it paints clear pictures of the setting and action. But in so doing, I missed some of the nuances.

One of the things I missed first time around was the explanation of Darkness. The setting of By Darkness Hid is the Kingdom of Er’Rets, a land literally divided in two by a wall of gray mist. On one side was Darkness and on the other Light, in which the sun shone in the day and set at night. (To better understand, check out the header of Jill’s Official Web Site).

All that I understood, but I missed what caused Darkness. When the good and well-loved King Axel and his wife were killed, Darkness set in. In addition, many believe that when the boy prince comes of age and takes the throne, Darkness will be pushed back.

Another thing I completely missed was the reference to the son-god, Câan. In this world there is One True God and many idols. While few people, at least in the duchy in which most of the story occurs, follow the Way, a few do. Others mock by saying such things as “Who would worship a God whose Son could be killed by men?” Clearly the religion of the Blood of Kings series intends to evoke Christianity.

One topic I brushed past but which should engender more thought was the theme of treating others with respect. The socio-political aspect of Er’Rets is a quasi-caste system based on serfdom. People fall into different classes—royalty, nobility, merchants, peasants (servants), and strays (slaves). While some embrace the pecking order, others seem able to ignore it or to rise above it.

The key ingredient is power, and wealth seems to be a by-product. Those in control maintain their position by intimidation and manipulation, or by generating respect and loyalty. The contrast is stark, and it’s evident at every level—among the lower classes as well as among those vying for political power.

Today, in real life, with primary elections looming on the horizon, it’s interesting for me to think about those seeking office in light of these two opposing positions. Which candidates seem to be putting themselves forward through intimidation or manipulation? Which by earning respect and generating loyalty?

Clearly there’s more to say about By Darkness Hid, but I’ll save that for tomorrow.

Just a reminder to stop by the blogs of other tour participants. You can see the list at the end of yesterday’s post. One you won’t want to miss is the terrific interview with Jill at New Authors Fellowship.

CSFF Blog Tour – By Darkness Hid, Day 1

I first became acquainted with Jill Williamson, author of this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature, By Darkness Hid (Marcher Lord Press) a number of years ago, when she and her husband still lived in the Los Angeles area.

A small group of Christian speculative fiction writers got together one Saturday afternoon to talk writerly. We hung out together for hours comparing news and notes about the publishing world we were all still learning about.

One thing led to another, and before I realized it, Jill was probing me about the possibility of an edit. We worked out the details, and a few days later she sent me a hard copy of The Last Recruit, a YA suspense with some minor speculative elements.

I don’t know why I requested a hard copy. Up to that point, and ever since, I’d done all my editing on the computer. In this case, however, I was thankful I had the pages because, for the most part, I settled back and enjoyed a good story. I learned from that moment what a wonderful writer Jill is.

Imagine my surprise, then, when her first book came out two years later with Marcher Lord Press—a completely different story in an entirely different genre. By Darkness Hid is the first book in the adult/YA fantasy series Blood of Kings.

Happily, Jill included me as one of those who received a review copy of her book. I devoured the story and posted my review at Spec Faith.

As I said in my recommendation, By Darkness Hid is my kind of fantasy. It’s a fresh rendering of epic fantasy. Jill has done a great job creating sympathetic characters and lots of tension. The story zipped by.

Because I read the book over a year ago, I decided to skim it before the blog tour. As I read the first couple chapters, I soon found myself as hooked as I had been originally, and rather than skimming, I once again devoured the book whole.

I’ve been happy to discover that By Darkness Hid is receiving recognition by others as well. The review in Library Journal said that readers who enjoy Donita K. Paul and J. R. R. Tolkien will like By Darkness Hid. It’s one thing when a writer says, My story is just like C. S. Lewis or some other famous author. It’s an entirely different matter when a prestigious industry publication puts a work on the same plane as one of the greats.

In addition, By Darkness Hid has been nominated for the Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction – Readers Choice, the Christy Awards – Visionary Category, and is a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. I suspect there are more awards in Jill’s future!

Take a look at what other CSFF members have to say about Jill and By Darkness Hid:

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