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.

Fantasy Friday — Blaggards and Heros

Please take a moment to help determine the April CSFF Top Blogger Award winner. Round one ends next Wednesday.

And speaking of the April tour, one more participant has posted about Blaggard’s Moon. Stop by Reviews Plus and see what Caleb has to say.

I’ve been thinking about something since I read Chawna’s post, Heroic Heroes in which she expresses a desire for heroic heroes in fiction, ones that will be models for us, that will challenge us to live better, truer, more generously, more nobly.

While I agree that in each of us is the desire for a heroic hero to show up and save us (even as some, like the drowning man with a would-be rescuer, fight Him off when He comes), I wonder about putting heroic heroes into our fiction.

As I see it, the world is propagating the belief that Mankind is good. A common theme in fiction, from TV to children’s books, is that all we have to do is reach down inside us and become who we are capable of becoming.

So I wonder, if a Christian writes a story with a heroic hero, won’t it look so much like that message of the world that readers may miss the point?

Personally, I thought Blaggard’s Moon author, George Bryan Polivka, did a wonderful job creating a type of Christ (“a person or thing symbolizing or exemplifying the ideal or defining characteristics of something”).


Damrick Fellows rescued Jenta. He loved her and was willing to give his life to her even though he thought she deserved death.

Then she raised the pistol, and aimed it at him.

Damrick shook his head. His mind turned. She was a pirate, then. She had a gun. So did he. The oaths he’d made others take, his calling, his mission, justice, the law, even his instincts…all led him to one single conclusion. She should die.

Jenta clicked back the pistol’s hammer. Her eyes were empty and dark.

…He made his choice. Without taking his eyes off her, he set his pistol on the bar.

“I’m not leaving you to him,” he told her.

To me, that’s a type of Christ. Loving us, making the church His bride.

Of course, in the story, Damrick later tells Jenta that she saved him. So the character found personal redemption that was not associated with his representative act of salvation.

Personally, I find this to be heroic and true, without giving the world’s message that heroism is within each one of us, if we just follow an example or dig down deep and become like the one we emulate.

Maybe the story isn’t quite as satisfying, but that’s as it should be too, I think. Because we won’t find true satisfaction in this life or apart from Christ. We will continue to long. And hope.

A story that shows that part of life seems to me to be the truest kind.

Published in: on April 24, 2009 at 10:33 am  Comments (6)  
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CSFF Blog Tour — Blaggard’s Moon, a Review

trophy-chase-logoWhen a talented writer creates an entertaining story, the result is a worthwhile book, one that will linger long in the minds and imaginations of its readers. The components are all here when we look at this month’s CSFF feature, Blaggard’s Moon. George Bryan Polivka is unquestionably a talented author. And the prequel to the Trophy Chase Trilogy is an entertaining story. I can only hope, for their sakes, that readers will discover this gem.

By the way, lest I forget, I encourage you to read Brandon Barr’s two-part interview with Mr. Polivka, here and here. Brandon asked some outstanding questions, and as a result, you’ll learn a lot about who Bryan Polivka is, not just who his favorite authors are (though that comes out, too).

The Story. Blaggard’s Moon is a unique book because it is actually three stories. In the opening, pirate Smith Delaney, who readers of the Trophy Chase Trilogy will know, is sitting on a post with piranha swimming below. Through his musings, the reader learns that he’s been abandoned there as punishment for some unknown deed. Throughout most of the book, Delaney is remembering his life, particularly his decision to become a pirate. But in the remembering, he recalls a period of time when the storyteller on board, Ham Drumbone, related to his pirate shipmates the tale of Jenta Stillmithers and the Hell’s Gatemen. The majority of the book is Jenta’s story—one of hope and sacrifice and redemption and love and fear and grief and conviction.

Yes, there are battles, though not related in the blow-by-blow style most common today. Still, there are sword fights and gun battles and ship-to-ship assaults. There is blood on the deck and in the water. There are bodies on the pier and skeletons on the ocean floor. This is definitely a pirates’ story. But at the center is Jenta.

Strengths. If you’ve read my previous posts, you already can tell that this is a book I’m excited about. The packaging is terrific—Harvest House did a wonderful job with the cover, the paper, the interior art.

The writing is terrific. Perhaps because of the non-linear structure of the story, it has a somewhat literary feel. Certainly there is a wonderful rhythm to the writing, and the descriptions are vivid and evocative.

The characters win the day, though. In my opinion, Mr. Polivka is masterful in developing believable, authentic characters. It is their authenticity that make them memorable and engaging, in my opinion. I’ll have more to say about that in my post at Speculative Faith.

While the characters make the reader care, the story keeps the reader turning pages. It is amazing that Delaney didn’t leave his post for 330 pages, but the tension and suspense of his story line consistently grew.

Ultimately, Blaggard’s Moon is important because it carries a timeless message. Rachel Starr Thomson perhaps said it best in her review:

Yet beneath all of that [the entertaining qualities] is a lament for a world gone wrong, for a world where good people can suffer while evil men prosper. It’s the lament of Ecclesiastes and Job and some of the Psalms, and like them it asks us to find hope in the goodness of God while never asking us to pretend that hope negates the sadness.

I’d add one more thing. It asks us to be willing to make the choice for good, for God, knowing that we may suffer for it.

Weaknesses. For someone wanting faster action, this book may seem slow. Clearly, this is intended to be a book that readers remember, not one they will forget amid multiple ho-hum battles. While a movie version might capitalize on the fight scenes—and certainly there are places aplenty for special effects—the book is a deeper story. Readers who want one chase scene after another, separated by a bit of steamy romance, will be disappointed.

For me, the main hurtle was the decision to read another pirate story, but I touched on that subject Monday. The other issue was that about the time I became interested in Delaney’s situation, the story switched to the flashback of Ham telling Jenta’s story. And about the time I really started caring what was going on with Jenta, the story switched back to Delaney. Eventually I came to care about both equally and felt satisfied in either place of the story. So these aren’t weaknesses, really. More how I reacted to the story.

Recommendation. I feel confident that Blaggard’s Moon is destined to win Mr. Polivka another Christy Award nomination. (For those who may not remember, the third book in the Trophy Chase Trilogy, The Battle for Vast Dominion, has been nominated this year.) Readers should not think of this book as “just a pirate story.” It is more, and readers of fantasy, of historical, romance, suspense, or literary fiction will find a satisfying novel. I recommend Blaggard’s Moon as a must read. Those who enjoy a faster-paced story will find enough here to keep them entertained, and they may be surprised by how a deeper tale affects them.

Published in: on April 22, 2009 at 9:44 am  Comments (10)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – Blaggard’s Moon, Day 2

I was miffed, to say the least, when I discovered yesterday that the post I’d set to publish in the morning, didn’t. For those of you who stopped by hoping to find a list of participating blogger links, I apologize.

But I’m not about to let a rough start spoil this tour for Blaggard’s Moon. With good reason, this is one of those books that gets high acclaim from a wide variety of readers. For an excellent story summary, I suggest Fred Warren‘s. Rachel Starr Thomson has an especially thoughtful post. Brandon Barr, Jill Williamson, and Epic Rat posted reviews you might be interested in (and if you’d like to win a free copy Epic Rat is holding a contest)—you’ll get an interesting balance if you look at all three.

Keanan Brand has a study of the word “blaggard” that is interesting as well as a post highlighting his favorite passage. How different from the one I want to share!

polivka-at-booksigningPhyllis Wheeler takes an excellent look at The Nearing Vast Web site. Her post prompted me to visit there again myself—which is where I found this picture of our quiet, hard-working author, George Bryan (he goes by Bryan) Polivka, here participating in a book signing.

Jason Joyner does a nice overview (with links to several reviews) of the Trophy Chase Trilogy—and has some pirate fun along the way. Certainly for anyone who just discovered Nearing Vast, I hope you put the trilogy on your to-buy list, along with Blaggard’s Moon.

So here’s the writing sample I chose, in part because it shows the depth of character development, in part because it shows the writer’s and the character’s voice so well. In part because it shows how Polivka weaves his themes into the story seamlessly.

It seemed to Delaney like it was usually women that made up those things a man couldn’t ever get over. Like Yer Poor Ma, who he could never forget. She’d been his whole world once, though she was in fact just a small, no-account woman who got herself married to a drunk, and had a kid. She wasn’t any kind of special person in any way. But she was still his Poor Ma. She still had magic in her songs, and a heart that blazed like a cookstove in his memory, and she was all inside him and would never leave him. She would always be singing him lullabies as the dark waves rose.

And Maybelle Cuddy. Just a barmaid, a plain barmaid, not like Jenta, but a regular girl serving up ale and getting pinched and slapping away rude hands and counting her tips at the end of a day. But oh, those eyes. That voice. Those things she said to him. He thought he could leave her behind, but he couldn’t. She’d always be in his heart now, always promising she’d love him forever [….]

It was as though men just couldn’t help themselves. Look at Conch Imbry, as fierce a man as ever was, and yet Jenta Stillmithers had softened him all up. She was stroking his hand, and he was a puppy dog. It was like … it was like women were made to do that to men. Like men were made with a big soft spot, and no matter how tough they got they couldn’t protect themselves there. Like maybe, when God took that rib from the man to make the woman, the way the priests told it from their Scripture books, he left a hole in the man. One that she could always slide into. And the man couldn’t stop her doing it, either.

Hmmm. Pretty good writing, don’t you think?

Published in: on April 21, 2009 at 10:20 am  Comments (9)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – Blaggard’s Moon

blaggards-moon-coverChristian publisher Harvest House must be pleased with George Bryan Polivka’s latest pirate fantasy—this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature, Blaggard’s Moon. Starting with this great cover, the book promises an adventure story set in a mythical world that will captivate readers.

Billed as a prequel to Polivka’s excellent Trophy Chase Trilogy, Blaggard’s Moon does what few books even attempt. It portrays pirates like pirates, without softening or “graying” their sinful ways, and it portrays God like God, without softening or glossing His righteous character. In that regard alone, this book is masterful.

I’ll be frank. I’m not a great fan of pirate stories. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they feel predictable. After all, I’ve been to Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride time and again. I’ve read Treasure Island with Long John Silver. I’ve seen comics and cartoons and stories aplenty with pirate characters. Peter Pan comes to mind, with Captain Hook. Characters like Blackbeard and Black Bart come to mind. Plays like Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance and theme restaurants like the Jolly Roger have popularized the pirate stereotype. Most recently, Jack Sparrow has added to pirate lore.

It adds up to make the pirate scenario feel predictable, but Polivka takes the familiar and makes it distinct. Blaggard’s Moon is anything but a warmed over version of an old story.

For one thing, the fantasy elements, existent in the form of fantasy creatures, add an unexpected twist. For another, Polivka paints all the characters with unique voices. He makes them believable—some terrifyingly cold-hearted, some poignantly naive, some understandably compliant.

In addition, Polivka tells this story in a most unique way. In structure, it reminds me a little of To Kill a Mockingbird. The fundamental story is told as a memory. However, it is also a story with a frame, and part of what I as a reader want to know the further I got, was how the main character got into the pickle we find him in the beginning.

I’ll give a full review later in the tour, but here’s the point I want to make today. Blaggard’s Moon is the kind of story that readers of all kinds of genres will like. There’s romance, adventure, spiritual depth, wonderful characters, artistic structure and prose. It’s a masterful work, one I hope you don’t miss.

Also, check out what other CSFF bloggers on the tour have to say:

Published in: on April 20, 2009 at 6:00 am  Comments (6)  
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