More Is Not Better


No, more is not better. Better is better. More is just more. If it’s more of the same, and the same is boring or insipid or unimaginative, then how is more better? It’s not.

Yes, this is somewhat of a rant. Recently I’ve been reminded of some authors who are overly busy because they are putting out several books a year, some in different series and even for different publishers.

This means there is little, if any, coordination between when a manuscript is due and when the book needs to be edited or promoted. There’s also a question in my mind how well an author can write unique characters when she spends so little time getting to know them.

Experts say we only can have three or four close friends at any one time. So how many characters can a writer develop? Seems to me we should know our characters nearly as well as we do our close friends.

Consequently, I feel confident that more characters don’t make for better stories. More books of course require more characters, so it seems to me, every book an author puts out in a relatively short amount of time indicates less time spent with the characters.

There are exceptions, of course. D. Barkley Briggs, for example, is in the process of publishing three books this year. He published the first of a young adult trilogy with NavPress back in 2008, but weeks before the second released — a book that had already gone through the editing process — his publisher decided to end its fiction line.

When he recently signed with AMG Publishers, they reprinted his first book, then three months later published Corus The Champion. The third in the Legends of Karac Tor series is due out a scant three months after Corus, but this elapse of time is not a reflection of how long it took to write the books.

Apart from the obvious — the disadvantage a writer puts herself at by trying to create deep and realistic characters and a story that is fresh and well crafted in such a short amount of time — there’s also reader weariness.

Yes, reader weariness. What if the Harry Potter books all came out within six months of each other? Would readers have been ready to stand in line waiting for a midnight release when they’d done it just six months earlier?

Would so many readers have been clamoring for the next book, or would some give up the effort to be in the mix because after three books, they’d fallen hopelessly behind?

My point is, writers that believe more is better may actually be saturating the market with their own work. Readers either can’t keep up or may grow weary of the writer’s voice.

Not to mention that some writers sacrifice story structure for the more is better approach. The plot twists and twists and twists again in a meandering plot because the writer doesn’t really know where the story is going and is just hoping it all comes out in the end.

Some readers don’t care how convoluted a plot is, as long as there’s a spaceship battle in every chapter. Some don’t care how realistic the characters are, so long as there’s a good guy and a bad guy. I understand — I once watched western movies that had characters like that.

But make no mistake, those stores are not better. No matter how many of them a writer cranks out, more does not make them better.

Fantasy Friday: Imaginative Is Not Weird


Grendel, the monster Beowulf faced

Over and over I’ve heard the description: speculative fiction is that weird niche of fiction that appeals to a small group of people who see things differently from almost everyone else. Some notable people working with Christian speculative fiction promote that perspective.

I’m calling a halt to this line of thinking. Weird does not describe good speculative literature — either that, or the whole world is weird.

Exhibit A — Harry Potter. Not only did millions buy the seven hefty tomes, millions more have been flocking to see the movies.

Exhibit B — The Lord of the Rings. Not only did the movies earn renown, they also brought a resurgence to the popularity of the books, which had already won over a generation in the mid-twentieth century.

Exhibit C — Speculative movies. The titles featuring speculative elements dominate the list of highest grossing movies. Of the top thirty, only Titanic is without some form of speculative elements. If you look at the numbers adjusted for inflation, nineteen of the top thirty are still speculative (and that’s if you count The Ten Commandments as not speculative).

Exhibit D — Television. From Topper in the 50s, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched in the 60s to Star Trek, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Lost, V, and the flood of speculative shows out today, clearly the fascination with the speculative is part of the culture at large.

"Double, double toil and trouble" - Macbeth

Exhibit E — Classic literature. Starting with works like Beowulf, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and moving to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet, on to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Edgar Allen Poe’s various short stories and even poetry, and many others, speculative elements are a part of the fabric of the stories that literature students continue to study.

What’s my point? Imagination carries all of us beyond the confines of contemporary reality. It is not weird to imagine. Those who write imaginative fiction are not weird. Those who read or watch imaginative stories are not weird. Speculative fiction that is done well has a broad appeal and has had that appeal since the beginning of literature.

Why some today think they are doing the genre a service to call it weird and to define it as a narrow niche that only a few not-normals will like, is beyond me.

Certainly some speculative fiction is more “hard core” than others. The harder the core, I suppose, the smaller the audience.

And yet books like The Hunger Games and movies like The Matrix which some might consider hard core were widely popular.

I believe we can account for the popularity of speculative fiction simply because it is imaginative. God made us with an imagination. As a result readers and viewers love to be transported to new places they’ve never seen. Stories of a place or time that is different from the here and now create wonder and intrigue and spark a sense of adventure.

Is speculative fiction a “‘weird’ kind of fiction” as one professional says? Are writers and readers of speculative fiction “not normal” as a speculative writer says? I counter that the evidence shows speculative fiction is in the mainstream and has been for a very, very long time.

The problem, as I see it, is that we Christians have yet to write a “break out” story that will catch the eye of all those speculative fans. Rather than settling for a niche market of hard core speculative readers who will devour anything in the genre regardless of quality, I think we should commit ourselves to learning what makes imaginative stories work. And stop calling what we do and what we like weird!

Promotion – What Makes A Work Go Viral?


I suppose every author and musician, maybe every dancer or videographer, movie producer, or TV exec wants to know the same thing — what makes a work go viral?

In other words, why did Harry Potter become such a success? Why Eragon? The Passion of the Christ? Twilight? Hunger Games? Left Behind? Shadowmancer? The Da Vinci Code? The Shack? Is there something these books have in common that brought them so much attention?

The first thing I notice is that all except perhaps Hunger Games made the national news for one reason or the other. In most cases the reason was controversy. Harry Potter received criticism from Christians as did The Da Vinci Code. Christians debated the merits of The Shack. Shadowmancer supposedly angered a faction of Christians and came to the US under a cloud of criticism. And Jews objected to The Passion.

Some of the works received national attention because of a human interest aspect. Christopher Paolini began writing Eragon when he was fifteen, self-published, and traveled the country with his parents hand selling the book until it was picked up by a traditional publisher, and made national news.

The Left Behind books found their way in front of network viewers because of their success in the Christian market. (In the same way, Amish stories are now coming out of the ABA — because they continue to sell and sell and sell.) Twilight was a phenom because, of all things, the teenage lovers didn’t have sex.

But the question remains. How did these books garner enough sales to catch the public’s attention?

It seems something first captivated an initial group who started talking. Left Behind had a well-known non-fiction writer as one of the co-authors, and I expect that pulled in a number of initial readers. But I also believe it tapped into a fascination about future events.

The Shack took a different path. The book creators solicited promotion from its readers within its covers. At the end, there were specific action points that were designed to get satisfied readers talking about the book and buying more copies to give away.

Twilight caught the attention of a group of romance lovers with a strict moral code. Perhaps Mormons banded together to support the book initially (pure conjecture on my part).

Shadowmancer, besides claiming religious controversy, also took on the mantle of the “Christian” Harry Potter, possibly earning itself a niche following.

In contrast, The Da Vinci Code may have picked up fans from the new atheist crowd or from any anti-Catholic, and of course once the Pope spoke out against it, the controversy was on.

It appears that the first thing, though, was something within the work itself. The Passion of the Christ had so many unique aspects — a famous actor seeing the project through in the face of rejection from traditional sources (human interest), opposition from a religious group (controversy) which garnered national attention, a non-traditional approach to the subject matter, a highly religious film using Biblical material as its primary source, a select group of unknown actors. In other words, there was lots to talk about.

I already mentioned the content of the Left Behind books. Harry Potter had a unique story world. Hunger Games had a timely, intriguing dystopian concept that tapped into a current cultural phenomenon — reality games.

In other words, either the author or the subject seemed to set the work apart from others, which caused first readers/viewers to pay attention.

In each case, a big budget marketing plan didn’t seem to be responsible for the work’s success. People were. But the people who talked about what they read or viewed first had to have something to talk about, something unique enough that they wanted to pass it along to others.

And viral happened.

What Makes Fantasy Work, The Continuation Continued


One of the elements that good fantasy needs happens to be part of world building, and it’s one of the genre’s tropes. Fantasy needs magic. I’m using the term loosely. A good number of Christian fantasies don’t have traditional magic. But they do have something mysterious or “other.”

In George Bryan Polivka’s Trophy Chase Trilogy, for example, the only “magical” element was the firefish, and that was enough. It was both mysterious and other—not of this world.

I personally like more magic, not less. I wanted Gandolf to overcome the Balrog and the Hobbits to escape the Black Riders. I wanted the Ents to stir up the trees and the Elves to shield the Hobbits from the Orcs. I wanted the White Tree to provide Gondor with protection and Boromir’s horn to bring the help he needed. I wanted to warn Pippin not to look into the palantir.

The more magic, the more intrigue. Anything can happen, and the reader is left equally to wonder and to worry because the best stories give magic to both sides.

Intrigue leads to the next point. Fantasy that works also has a plot that works. Rule one for a good plot is, Create conflict.

Like other fiction, fantasy is best when the character faces an external conflict and an internal conflict. Ideally the two battles will coalesce at the climax. That’s what J. R. R. Tolkien did so well in The Return of the King. Frodo wasn’t only fighting against Orcs and Sauron and Shelob. He was also fighting against becoming another Gollum.

Shockingly, the latter is the fight he lost. Which brings up another element that makes fantasy work—surprise. I think one of the reasons so much epic fantasy gets criticized is because of a lack of surprise. Readers and reviewers will say a story is “derivative” (the kiss of death to a fantasy) though you never hear that accusation made of romance or even of mystery. I have to believe that what the “derivative” accusers are actually saying is that the story tipped its hand and didn’t hold any surprise.

One of the things that kept me reading furiously through the last three Harry Potter books was the unpredictability. Was Snape good or evil? Would Harry be able to leave the Dursleys and go to live with Sirius Black? Would he win the Triwizard Tournament? Who was trying to kill him during the competiton? Why was he seeing such vivid visions of Voldemort? How would Harry find the horcruxes? And on and on.

Questions create intrigue, twists create surprise, and delay creates suspense. All of these elements, along with conflict, make a fantasy plot work.

There’s still more, I think, so I’ll tackle those last elements another time.

What Makes Fantasy Work, Continued


When I first posed the question, What makes fantasy work, my immediate thought was, an engaging character. That’s when I realized that there might not be so much difference between fantasy and other fiction.

In some of the fantasy I mentioned yesterday that I don’t think is working, I found two problems with the central character—either she/he was nondescript or whiny.

To make a character seem real, he must have a rounded personality. For fallen humanity, that means weaknesses and needs as well as strengths and things to offer others. At times, however, a character weakness can be painted with too much emphasis. I know because I created such a character.

It crushed me at first when members of my critique group told me they hated my main character. Hated him? I loved him. How could they misunderstand him so completely? Yes, he had problems, but don’t all characters? I mean, isn’t that part of the character arc?

That, in a nutshell, is the balancing act authors must achieve—give the character problems but not let him become embittered, sullen, whiny, complaining, slothful.

In some ways, Jonathan Rogers’ Grady in The Charlatan’s Boy is the perfect character. He’s got a problem—he’s an orphan, but that’s not all of it. The only person who knows anything about where he came from is unreliable—worse than unreliable. He twists the truth at will, however it suits him.

But instead of wallowing in self-pity, Grady makes the most of his circumstances. Here’s where the reader sees his real strengths. He’s loyal, hard working, and humble enough to play whatever part is given him.

So the first thing fantasy has to have in order to work is a main character that is believable and engaging.

The second thing, because this is fantasy I’m talking about, is a well-developed, consistent world. This is the aspect J. K. Rowling mastered. If I were to grade her, I might give her a C or C+ for her character. Harry wasn’t particularly believable in the first book because the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Dursleys was over the top. Nor was he particularly engaging. He didn’t whine but neither did he do anything to change his situation.

But the world Rowling created was unbelievable. Well, believably so. I mean, she did such a great job creating a magic place that the story came alive. She paid attention to detail and didn’t overlook anything.

In Hogwarts, food appeared magically on plates, the ceiling in the dining hall changed to appear like the outdoor sky, persons in portraits moved (and moved from their own frame to another’s), persons in newspaper photos moved too, and so did the figures on the cards that came with certain candy. And those chocolate frogs could actually jump away. The students had to be taught how to fly a boom and how to use their wands. And on and on and on. So many little details, everyday things twisted to fit a place where magic was real.

But there’s still more to this “What makes fantasy work” question, so I see I’m going to need another post on the topic. We’ll just say this continuation is to be continued. 😉

Why I Love Fantasy


I started re-reading one of the Harry Potter books this week. I often get the urge to read fantasy when it gets close to Christmas. I have yet to figure out why. My theory is that I enjoy fantasy so much because it fits in with all the other enjoyments—snuggling under a warm blanket (it would be in front of a roaring fire if I had a fireplace), with Christmas music playing and a hot mug of cider in reach.

But why fantasy?

I have several ideas.

One is that fantasy transports me to a magical other place, sort of like a snow-covered world does. Not that we have snow in Southern California, except in the mountains, but that’s the point, isn’t it. I grew up connecting snow with Christmas and my snow experiences are very other worldly.

Once, when I was about ten and we lived in Colorado, we had snow in September, before the trees had lost their leaves. Branches laden with wet snow broke, transforming our yard into secret tunnels and hideaways … until my poor dad cleaned up the mess. But for a few hours, I was in a private world, an imaginary place. The same kind good fantasies create.

Narnia, a secret place away from the adult world. The world beyond the Shire—more mysterious than secret. The magical realm accessed through platform 9 3/4. These are not your everyday places. These are tangibly other.

A second reason I love fantasy, especially this time of year, is because of the overarching story in each. Sally Apokedak said it best in her response to an earlier post. She was referencing Harry Potter originally but expanded her thoughts:

You take a poor, abused kid and give him more power than anyone else on earth has. And you see how his mentors help him develop his power and you see what he does with the power in the end. It’s a wonderful story.

It has shades of Christ, born in a manger, a powerless babe. Then he grows in wisdom and stature and he grows in favor with God and man. But he’s in a constant battle with an evil foe. In the end he has to make a great sacrifice to save his friends. This story–His story–is the one that all great stories imitate, I think.

His Story, indeed. Fantasy, with its good versus evil motif is the perfect fit for the story of Christmas—and Easter. Yet the best writers, retell it in a way that shines light on it anew.

Above all, after a glimpse of Narnia, further up and further in, or of Gondor under Aragon’s rule, these fantasies give me a hunger for heaven. They stir a longing for the return of the King, for the presence of the Lion of Judah. Great fantasies go far beyond good stories, which is why I love them.

– – –

Note: The previous post under this title took a turn away from this topic, so I decided to create a separate article, complete with the two pertinent comments.

Who’s Getting Better?


Earlier this month, former agent Nathan Bransford took a week to blog about Harry Potter—or more specifically about J. K. Rowling‘s writing. In one post, Mr. Bransford stated he believed Ms. Rowling continued to improve her writing throughout the series. I tend to agree, though I know others may see the books differently.

But here’s the point I want to discuss. Mr. Bransford had this to say about improving one’s writing:

In order to get better at something you can’t be self-satisfied and think you’ve made it and become convinced of your own genius. You have to keep digging deep and keep being skeptical of yourself and keep trying to spot your own flaws and resist the temptations that come along with success. And that is hard!!

I think it’s the success issue that makes continued striving for improvement hard.

When I was teaching, I didn’t really have a way to measure success. Oh, I suppose if I taught all the material in the curriculum guide and every student received an A and their standardize test results showed at least a full year of growth, then maybe I could rest on my laurels and say I’d been successful. But would you be surprised to learn, that never happened? 😛 I thought not.

Since I finished each year knowing that I hadn’t been successful, in the ultimate sense of the word, I would evaluate and plan and work so that next time things would be better. In fact, I often planned en route. I’d tweak lessons from class to class, and I’d make note of things that needed to be scrapped or retooled. There was never any “self-satisfied and think you’ve made it” time.

But besides teaching, I also coached. With sports, there is a winner after every game and coaches along with players can feel successful. At the end of each season, we even had league championships. So what happens if you string a series of those first place trophies together?

The right answer is to add up the hours of planning and practice that went into preparing a team to become a champion and make a new plan for the next year. But in the flush of success piled on top of success, isn’t it possible that a coach might start believing his or her own press clippings? Isn’t it possible he or she could “become convinced of [his or her] own genius”?

I’m reading about Solomon’s life right now, and in a way he was victim of his own success, too. Peace on every hand. Accolades of kings and queens from distant lands, wealth, achievement. He could claim responsibility for bring the glory of God back to His people when His presence filled the brand new temple Solomon constructed.

What happened after that? Solomon went wayward, to the point that God took part of the kingdom away from his heirs. What should have been a great legacy became a tarnished life, half lived well.

But why? Did he stop digging deep, stop being skeptical of himself, stop trying to spot his own flaws and resist temptations?

Spiritually, we have the Bible and can measure ourselves by God’s standard—His perfect Son. Seems like we ought to have no trouble with the success syndrome when it comes to our spiritual lives. Of course, that’s not true. How easy it is to take our eyes off Jesus and put them on the person living next door or on the guy on the street cussing out his girlfriend or on the one cutting me off in traffic. Next to Those People, I can feel pretty successful. Ugh! Using the wrong measuring stick can give a false positive.

Might not that happen for writers too? Might we look at sales and think we’re successful if our book “earns out”? Or if we get a half dozen or a dozen or a hundred dozen emails saying how wonderful our story is?

But shouldn’t the standard for our work be the same as for our lives—that we want to please Jesus? Who cares if a million people buy my book if God is not glorified?

And until He is pleased, with every word I write, with all parts of my writing process, with my work ethic and my relationships with my colleagues in the business, I have to dig deep, stay a little skeptical, look for my flaws, and resist temptation.

Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 6:10 pm  Comments (9)  
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Backfires and Books


Those of you who watch the news probably know that Northern California has been coping with an incredible number of wild fires, some threatening areas known for their pristine landscape. Recently I saw a news piece about one effort to contain these fires. The method of choice was the backfire.

I remember when I was young hearing about firefighters intentionally setting fires, and I was somewhat horrified. The concept of fighting fire with fire didn’t register as particularly wise. Not to mention, that those backfires looked dangerously closer than the wildfire.

Of course I’ve learned since just what the purpose is for these backfires—to eat up the available fuel before the out-of-control conflagration reaches whatever line firefighters have determined must not be crossed.

What does any of this have to do with books?

As I’ve thought about some of the most successful books—Left Behind, Harry Potter, Shadowmancer, and now, The Shack—it seems to me there is often a wildfire feel about the books, with a backfire kind of response. The result appears to be more flames and more smoke. In the book business, this is all good because the smoke and the flames mean the book is getting noticed.

The thing about wildfires is, something has to ignite them, in ample dry tinder. Continuing with this as an analogy for book sales, I suggest the publicist might be considered an arsonist, intentionally sparking the fire. But fires also start because of lightning or downed electric wires or a cigarette tossed out a car window. They can start by the wind catching a spark from a campfire or a car backfire. These accidental, unpredictable, unexpected beginnings of forest fires catch us off guard.

But here’s where the analogy falters. In the book business, there does indeed seem to be a backfire response to some books that seem to be uncontainable, but the backfire itself adds to the flame and the smoke and seems to become a part of the conflagration, not something to eat up the available fuel.

I’ve said before, controversy sells books. But can controversy be manufactured? Maybe for a one book length of time a la Shadowmancer. But in the end, there has to be substance to the original fire, or the backfires simply aren’t necessary.

Much like natural fires, the progress of a book-fire is in the hands of God. I may not understand why one fire starts and is immediately snuffed out or why another takes off and burns thousands and thousands of acres.

However, I do think it’s important not to go around setting unnecessary backfires. And I think it’s important not to go around setting imitation fires. 😉

As an author, I want my book-fire to be as big and out of control as it can possibly be. There are some things I can dictate. Where I start the fire, the strength of the flame. But winds, humidity, firefighting resources, those are things beyond my control. Not beyond God’s.

– – –

Two weeks to go before Donita K. Paul’s DragonLight blog tour. 😀

Published in: on July 7, 2008 at 10:59 am  Comments Off on Backfires and Books  
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Content, the Necessary Ingredient—Book Buzz, Part 2


I know, I know. We writers all understand that story matters most, we need to craft well, blah, blah, blah. You want, as I do, to get on with it. To talk about getting people buzzing about New Author’s work. How does it happen? What are the secrets?

First, if people really knew the answer to this, we would see more repeats of the Harry Potter phenomenon or that of the Left Behind series. My firm belief is Content is the secret. Trouble is, no one really knows what or why certain stories catch on as they do. In retrospect, though, we can learn a little, I think.

For example, the Left Behind series tapped into a universal curiosity about the future, in particular the apocalyptic end of time. Even people who don’t believe it are curious about it. And Harry Potter? I’d suggest the thing that first caught readers was the imaginative world that felt brand new yet familiar and believable. And secret. Which is what The Da Vinci Code used to vault Dan Brown into stardom.

The first literary explosion I witnessed was Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books back in the late ’70’s I think. Obviously well before the internet, so that buzz was person to person—the water-cooler kind. And what was it about his books? Even he does not know. I suspect it was a mixture—a most unlikely hero and a most desirable place (with wonderful, worthy people readers wanted to see saved).

In summary, very different hooks drew people into these different series. My conclusion is, there is no formula, unless you want to say, the formula is to avoid a formula. However, the books need to offer something that appeals broadly, whether it is place or topic or person.

So why all the emphasis on content? Because the best marketing in the world might get people to read book one, but because of the trust factor I mentioned yesterday, readers will never buy book two unless that first one delivers.

What must it deliver? Something that leaves people wanting to talk about the book to someone else. True buzz, the kind that creates the phenomenal book-buying events, comes about because people want to discuss what they read. People are saying to their friends, what did you think about …

You see, I don’t think these phenomenal events can be manufactured. People spread the word because a book is on their mind, because they don’t quite know what to think about it and want to hear what others have to say.

Is it possible to write that kind of book? Yes, on some level, but perhaps not on a universal level. In other words, people in the target audience can very well be so taken by a book that they want to tell others they know who love the same type of story, that this is a Must Read. But for that to happen, the book must stay on their mind. That means, the book has to offer something a cut above the average. Then, and only then, will buzz “work.”

Published in: on January 9, 2008 at 1:09 pm  Comments (3)  
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