The Compelling Quality Of Love


People write songs about love — usually the romantic kind — and make it the centerpiece of a great deal of fiction. Christ said there is one chief commandment but another close behind, and both of them involve love.

Paul narrowed things down to faith, hope, and love, only to conclude that the greatest of those is love.

Jesus said the greatest love was for someone to give his life for another:

Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

Donald Maass in his writing instruction book Writing The Breakout Novel identified two character qualities that “leave a deeper, more lasting and powerful impression of a character than any other” (pp. 121-122). One trait is forgiveness and the other self-sacrifice.

Maass, who to my knowledge doesn’t profess to be a Christian, went on to say, ” As for self-sacrifice, is there a higher form of heroism? It is the ultimate expression of love and as such is about the most powerful action a character can perform” (p. 122 – emphasis mine).

Love draws us. It lures us and entices us, woos us and wins us. We are moths to its flame. If we can’t look away from an accident, we can’t stay away from love. It is compelling.

The world is moved by amazing love. Some years ago Kent Whitaker, a man I met at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference, appeared on Oprah to talk about Murder By Family, the book he’d recently published.

Kent’s wife and son had been murdered and he himself had been wounded in the attack. In the days that followed, he came to realize that he needed to forgive the man who had taken those he loved. Only later did he learn that this person was his surviving son.

What caught Oprah’s interest in his story? Was it the irony? The tragedy? Or was it the amazing forgiveness of a man who knew himself to stand in need of forgiveness too.

Oprah Winfrey used Kent Whitaker’s story to highlight forgiveness even under the worst possible scenario. If Kent Whitaker could forgive his son for murdering his family then surely we can learn to forgive those who’ve done much lesser evils. (from “Kent Whitaker on the Oprah Show”)

But this brings us to the point I want to make. As compelling as love is, trying harder doesn’t make it possible for us to forgive.

Corrie ten Boom testified to this when she came face to face, after World War II and during her talk on forgiveness, with one of the guards involved in her Nazi internment.

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course — how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.

‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out — ’will you forgive me?’

And I stood there — I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven — and could not forgive. (excerpt from The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom)

Of course the story doesn’t end there. Corrie could not forgive, but God did. What’s more, He could provide Corrie with the wherewithal to forgive as well, and He did that too.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then. (excerpt from The Hiding Placeemphasis mine)

Love is compelling, but a self-sacrificial act or the forgiveness offered to the sinner who has wronged us does not come from within the human heart. We can’t try harder. We can’t learn it through a twelve step program or even follow the example of someone else who’s forgiven greater things than we know.

What comes naturally to us is pay back. When we’ve given as good as we got, then we’ll forgive. But that’s not forgiveness at all. That’s retribution.

Sometimes we’ll “forgive” because we’re not the one who suffered. We think it’s time to let a criminal out of jail because he’s getting old and probably won’t hurt anyone any more. So out of a magnanimous sense of mercy we let the prisoner go free. Apart from the most general sense of being wronged because we’re part of the society whose laws were broken, we’re not the injured party and therefore not in a position to actually forgive.

It seems to me, the best we can do humanly speaking is tolerance. We don’t have in us the selfless kind of love that sacrifices or forgives, so we tolerate. And we preach tolerance as if it is an answer to the hate of the world.

It’s not. Love is the answer. And there’s only one source of true love. He who knew no sin, He who gave Himself up for us all. He who IS, also is love.

The Compelling Quality Of Love


People write songs about love — usually the romantic kind — and make it the centerpiece of a great deal of fiction. Christ said there is one chief commandment but another close behind, and both of them involve love.

Paul narrowed things down to faith, hope, and love, only to conclude that the greatest of those is love.

Jesus said the greatest love was for someone to give his life for another:

Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

Donald Maass in his writing instruction book Writing The Breakout Novel identified two character qualities that “leave a deeper, more lasting and powerful impression of a character than any other” (pp. 121-122). One trait is forgiveness and the other self-sacrifice.

Maass, who to my knowledge doesn’t profess to be a Christian, went on to say, ” As for self-sacrifice, is there a higher form of heroism? It is the ultimate expression of love and as such is about the most powerful action a character can perform” (p. 122 – emphasis mine).

Love draws us. It lures us and entices us, woos us and wins us. We are moths to its flame. If we can’t look away from an accident, we can’t stay away from love. It is compelling.

The world is moved by amazing love. Some years ago Kent Whitaker, a man I met at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference, appeared on Oprah to talk about Murder By Family, the book he’d recently published.

Kent’s wife and son had been murdered and he himself had been wounded in the attack. In the days that followed, he came to realize that he needed to forgive the man who had taken those he loved. Only later did he learn that this person was his surviving son.

What caught Oprah’s interest in his story? Was it the irony? The tragedy? Or was it the amazing forgiveness of a man who knew himself to stand in need of forgiveness too.

Oprah Winfrey used Kent Whitaker’s story to highlight forgiveness even under the worst possible scenario. If Kent Whitaker could forgive his son for murdering his family then surely we can learn to forgive those who’ve done much lesser evils. (from “Kent Whitaker on the Oprah Show”)

But this brings us to the point I want to make. As compelling as love is, trying harder doesn’t make it possible for us to forgive.

Corrie ten Boom testified to this when she came face to face, after World War II and during her talk on forgiveness, with one of the guards involved in her Nazi internment.

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course — how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.

‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out — ’will you forgive me?’

And I stood there — I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven — and could not forgive. (excerpt from The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom)

Of course the story doesn’t end there. Corrie could not forgive, but God did. What’s more, He could provide Corrie with the wherewithal to forgive as well, and He did that too.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then. (excerpt from The Hiding Placeemphasis mine)

Love is compelling, but a self-sacrificial act or the forgiveness offered to the sinner who has wronged us does not come from within the human heart. We can’t try harder. We can’t learn it through a twelve step program or even follow the example of someone else who’s forgiven greater things than we know.

What comes naturally to us is pay back. When we’ve given as good as we got, then we’ll forgive. But that’s not forgiveness at all. That’s retribution.

Sometimes we’ll “forgive” because we’re not the one who suffered. We think it’s time to let a criminal out of jail because he’s getting old and probably won’t hurt anyone any more. So out of a magnanimous sense of mercy we let the prisoner go free. Apart from the most general sense of being wronged because we’re part of the society whose laws were broken, we’re not the injured party and therefore not in a position to actually forgive.

It seems to me, the best we can do humanly speaking is tolerance. We don’t have in us the selfless kind of love that sacrifices or forgives, so we tolerate. And we preach tolerance as if it is an answer to the hate of the world.

It’s not. Love is the answer. And there’s only one source of true love. He who knew no sin, He who gave Himself up for us all. He who IS, also is love.

The Fire in Fiction


Fire in Fiction coverIt’s HERE! Came on Monday, actually. I ordered this book when I first heard about it from Writer’s Digest, but when Jessica Dotta published an interview over at Novel Journey with agent guru and expert writing instructor, Donald Maass, I was more excited than ever to get his newest book, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, purpose, and techniques to make your novel great.

I know some people think there is a problem with that subtitle. I mean, come on, they say, techniques to make your novel great? As if you can create a masterpiece by using a paint-by-the-numbers kit.

Well, that’s the beauty of Mr. Maass’s books, at least the other two I’m familiar with—Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. He is not trying to give a formula but an analysis. He’s looking at what has made other novels “breakout” or have an impact (his working definition of “great”).

The point is, he identifies what elements great novels have, gives some practice tools, and lets writers go from there.

Nick Harrison:Jim Bell debateThis instruction book is light on “rules.” From a glance at the table of contents, I can tell you shouldn’t expect a discussion on point of view or verb tense or passive voice. If I were to categorize the main emphasis, I’d say it’s on characters.

This would make Nick Harrison very happy, while Jim Bell will be grinding his teeth. 😀 This picture was taken during a 2008 Mount Hermon workshop in which Nick and Jim “debated” the importance of character over story. According to Nick, no one cares about all the fast-action events in a story unless they first care about a character.

According to Jim Bell, no one can know a character unless they see them in action in the midst of a story.

Truth to both, clearly, but Mr. Maass spends the first fifty pages of his writing instruction about characters, so I think that provides us with a clue as to his position on the question.

Since I read to find out what happened next, I never thought I would agree with this character first approach. But I’ve read too many stories of late in which I just didn’t care … until I got to know what drove the character forward. Then, if I’m engaged with the character, I’m engaged in the story.

I read one book some years ago in which the character I followed for four hundred or so pages dies in the end. I have not picked up another book by that author since. I invested in that character and had no clue he would die. And I had no other rooting interest. I didn’t want to just have it all stop.

I’ve read other books that start with bad guys or with guys who die. I hate those books. I don’t want to attach to a bad guy. I don’t want to root for someone who’s out of the story after page twenty.

Characters matter, and they have to be done right. I’m convinced of that, but I’m still not sure if I understand how to do “right.”

The Value of Promotion vs. the Value of Story


First, the announcement. After our first CSFF Top Blogger Award run-off, Rachel Starr Thomson garnered 55% of the vote to secure the April Tour honors. Congratulations to both her and Brandon Barr for superb posts during the Blaggard’s Moon tour.

– – –

In case you missed it, on Friday Novel Journey posted an interview with contributor Jessica Dotta and uber-agent, Donald Maass. Half way through, the discussion turned to promotion.

Jessica noted that Mr. Maass is credited with saying that promotion and marketing play a small role in the success of a book. In fact, in Writing the Breakout Novel he calls these ideas about promotion and marketing myths authors continue to believe. When Jessic asked (in question five) if authors shouldn’t strive for the best marketing possible, Mr. Maass replied with a succinct analogy:

Great stories are the engine. Promotion may be the gasoline but gasoline won’t propel a two-cylinder putt-putt very fast–or push a broken engine very far down the road.

Jessica expanded the discussion, pointing to a handful of successful debut novels that snagged reviews in elite media sources and then went to the top of the best selling charts. But Mr. Maass insisted that great storytelling explained the success:

Why does media get excited about a novel? What starts the bandwagon rolling? Publisher hype? That’s a prod, obviously, but media far more often than not take a pass. What gets them excited is the same thing that gets word of mouth going: a great story. It all comes back to that. Up and down the ladder it all starts there.

As you might expect, Mr. Maass also believes that a writer should take the time to get the story right. Apparently this is a point he strongly makes in his new book The Fire in Fiction (which I am anxiously waiting to arrive from Writer’s Digest), prompting this exchange:

[Jessica] One of the elements I loved about The Fire in Fiction was your encouragement to work until the book is right. As writers, we often hear that in order to survive we must be capable of producing one or more books a year—lest we lose our audience and future contracts. But what if it takes an author two to five years to craft a good book?

[Donald Maass] Writing a great novel at a book-a-year pace is extremely difficult. I watch clients struggle with that challenge. One empowering thing to know is that the bigger the impact a novel has, the longer readers will wait for the next one.
– emphasis mine

I have to admit, that last line might be my favorite. Well, what do you expect from a writer of a four-book epic fantasy? 😉 I mean, isn’t it important for readers to have time to spread the word if book one gripped them? Even in this technological age, that doesn’t really happen over night. Or necessarily in three months. I didn’t read my first Harry Potter book until the third one was out, and they were not flying off the presses every six months.

For the most part, the word builds and the promotion builds because the story demands it. Yes, there may be some mysterious exceptions. I think of G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer which burst on the scene in 2004 as another book coming out of the UK with a huge following. Americans dutifully lined up and bought the book, and it did indeed hit the best selling list.

But today the lifetime sales on Amazon of the Creation House edition is over 450,000. What’s worse, the book that followed, Wormwood, is 250,000 places higher. Since I haven’t read Shadowmancer, I am going by the reports I’ve heard from writer friends (but the lion’s share of the Amazon reviews bear out their opinion)—this was not a good story.

Maybe this is the exception that proves the rule. On occasion the media will jump on a book bandwagon built by hype not substance. The result may be great sales, but the public, when fooled once, won’t likely be fooled twice by the same author.

Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 1


After years and years of subscribing to Writer’s Digest, I just added The Writer to my writing resources. So far I’m not sorry.

One article in the October issue chronicles the worst mistakes in mystery writing. Some points were unique to the genre, but many were not. Some I’d already filed away in my mental folder of Things to Avoid, including coincidence or an act of God, narration masquerading as dialogue, a superfluity of viewpoints, and stereotypical characters.

Another point was “false starts.” At first I didn’t know what that referred to—prologues, maybe? As it turns out, this was in part also in my Things to Avoid list. The point of emphasis is that readers need to keep reading, so the first scene should intrigue. Readers should be asking, What happens next?

Pitfalls that dampen the intrigue are glumps of backstory, over-the-top “gore, profanity or explicit sex,” and the “flash forward,” usually formatted in, yes, a prologue.

I was familiar with the flash forward itself. The author of this particular article, Hallie Ephron, says the flash forward is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz.

The real point of this “false starts” issue, I think, is that readers need to keep reading. But that speaks to more than the beginning. If readers love the first five pages of a book, only to be bored silly in the next ten, I doubt seriously if they will feel the Need to Read.

And that’s the goal writers should have—make those readers care, make them want to keep going, make them impatient to pick up the book again if life forces them to put it down.

Is there a trick writers can use to pull this off? Yes. First we must create characters readers care about. One of the best writers I know creates quirky characters that are hard to connect with, which I think is an automatic strike against the story. Other books I’ve read have bland characters that are floating through the life of their story. These have a strike against them too because it’s hard to care for a character who doesn’t care.

But the engaging character is only one part. The other is to put tension on every page, as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says. It’s so easy to think the reader will “get” that the character description and backstory is vital for their understanding of what’s about to take place, and that they will surely stick around to see just how great the story really is.

This one, I’ve learned the hard way, just isn’t so.

Published in: on September 15, 2008 at 1:02 pm  Comments Off on Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 1  
Tags: , , ,

Making Characters Memorable


So I’m trying to decide if I should spend $200 dollars and go the one day BookExpo America, held by Writer’s Digest Books in Los Angeles. Tomorrow. The biggest draw for me is Donald Maass, agent extraordinaire, and author of Writing the Breakout Novel. What I’d really like is to attend one of his ripping Breakout Novel Intensive Seminars, but there’s not one remotely close this year.

So instead, I could pay $200 to hear him speak/teach for one hour on “Fire in Fiction.” Of course, James Scott Bell is also teaching and could make the time worthwhile, but I’m getting off track.

One reason I would like to hear from Donald Maass and to have him rip apart my writing is because I think he’s identified the keys to creating memorable characters. And it isn’t through research. He doesn’t say this, to be sure, and I suspect he would actually advocate a writer becoming a student of human nature.

However, I suspect he would frown on pulling a list of characteristics from the Myers-Briggs personality test results and plugging them into a character. Rather this method would seem to be the antithesis of his idea that “larger-than-life” characters are, in part, quirky, willing to say or do what average people are afraid to.

Interestingly, Maass does not include “fatal flaw” or even “harmful flaw” as one of the needed elements to create the next Scarlet O’Hara or Bilbo Baggins. You don’t hear that in many Christian writing conferences … at least not the ones I’ve attended. What Maass does say is the character must have an inner conflict.

Which brings to mind a recent discussion on a writers’ email loop about the new breed of hero, the Jack Bauer and Batman types. The interesting thing to me is that Jack Bauer (of the television program 24) is always experiencing inner conflict. His choices are moral in the sense that he adheres to his over arching purpose—to preserve democracy and make the world safe. He struggles, though, against evil leaders, threats to his family, friends who lose sight of that central goal, and against the need to violate another person’s freedoms in order to preserve the lives and freedom of the greater population

In other words, he is god. He becomes the final authority to judge who is an agent of good and how good. But his decisions cost him, which is why he struggles internally.

And thus he becomes larger than life, a hero we remember and cheer, even as we lament his moral choices.

How much better to create that kind of character (memorable) than to take a list of traits from some personality model and formulate a character (type-cast). I’m not saying there isn’t truth in these professional observations of human nature. But I think writers need to do better, to see people as unique and capable of breaking the mold. Because a test identifies them as a “guardian” or “introverted” or “analytic” doesn’t need to mean the character must therefore behave in a patterned way according to the trait list presented.

In essence, this is where art must overrule science—at least if the characters are to be memorable. And memorable is one thing I’ve decided I what from my characters. Which is why I would like Donald Maass to rip apart my manuscript.

%d bloggers like this: