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.

CSFF Blog Tour – Lost Mission by Athol Dickson, Day 3

As I suspected, the CSFF Blog Tour for Lost Mission by Athol Dickson (see his blog for more thoughtful discussion) has produced some controversy. It seems tour participants, for the most part, either loved the book as Andrea (blogging for Brandon Barr) did, or hated it as Cris did. The one thing nearly everyone agrees about is that the book disturbs. And so, I believe, it was intended to do. This is not your comfortable happily-ever-after novel that you’ll finish in one sitting and forget in the light of a new day.

The Story. Two distinct story threads run through Lost Mission, one from history when the Spanish were building missions and the other during a more contemporary period of time.

In the first thread, three Franciscan priests have the task of establishing a mission in Alta California with the purpose of converting the Indian peoples to Catholicism. As this thread unfolds, one priests reveals himself to be a tyrant, one a compassionate man with no true moral stand, and the third trapped by the two extremes.

The contemporary thread mirrors this story. The three principles are actually three and a half. One is a young pastor who wants to serve the poor. The second is a man who believes himself to be a Christian but who uses Scripture to manipulate and judge others. The third is a young Hispanic women from Mexico who comes to the US to tell the lost about her Savior. The “half” is a character that comes and goes, though his role is significant. Initially he helps the young woman to start her journey across the border.

In the historical thread, a devastating illness sweeps through the Mission and the surrounding villages. Each of the three priests reacts in different ways to stem the spread of the disease, while all around them, the people they came to save are dying.

In the contemporary thread, the characters are embroiled in love, loss, fear, and fervor. When those elements cross each other in the lives of the different people, the result is explosive. (That’s the best I can do without giving spoilers).

Strengths. From my perspective, the writing is the greatest strength. Athol utilizes an omniscient narrator, a technique not often seen in contemporary literature, to weave these two threads into one story. He forms transitions from short passages of narrative or character contemplation, segueing from the historical character to whom the thoughts apply, to the contemporary character dealing with similar issues.

In addition, the characters are complex, their problems genuine. There are no easy answers. Consequently, the novel is disturbing, another strength, in my way of thinking. It raises issues that need to be thought through, not rubber stamped with a ready answer.

But that leads me to a weakness of the story, and of necessity I’ll include spoilers, so here’s your

    * * * SPOILER ALERT * * *

Weaknesses. For me, the greatest weakness was the fact that none of the characters handled their crises—and their relationship to God—the way I think Scripture calls us to.

Clearly the two wayward priests dealt with life and crisis in ways that contradict Scripture, so that leaves us to hope Frey Alejandro will rise to the occasion. But he doesn’t. By God’s grace he is spared, and I think this is the point of the book, but let me continue.

Just as clearly young pastor Tucker does not handle crisis Scripturally, nor does the wealthy American, Delano. First when his wife left him, then when his daughter died, he struck out against others even as he folded in upon himself. That leaves us Lupe. She who once was so convinced she was following God’s leading becomes filled with doubt and comes close to despair.

But here’s why I consider this a weakness. Instead of turning to God’s Word, she looks for signs to be her guide, her comfort. She says a number of time, as Frey Alejandro did, that she doesn’t feel God’s presence any more. I want to shout, Then open your Bible! You’ll find Him within its pages. He promises that if we draw near to Him, He’ll draw near to us, so get moving!

In short, this is not a weakness in the story but a weakness in presenting truth, which I want to see in stories by Christians.

There were some plot issues I saw as well. Why, for example, didn’t Tucker plead with the church leaders who were denying him financial support for his mission, to give him the money for the medicine that would save the little girl? It seems to me he should have at least tried rather than thinking his only recourse was to steal.

There were a few other things, like Tucker, so intelligent he could become an accomplished thief in a short period of time, didn’t stop to think that Delano couldn’t have stolen the painting from Lupe’s ritablo because the clasps that held it together were ancient and had not been tampered with. In the same way, Delano, who was no dummy, should have realized that Lupe did not paint him into the picture because the work was old and cracked.

There were a couple other minor plot problems, but all of them together did not lessen the impact of the story. At one point I came to realize that I was Tucker at heart. It was a jolt, and it pushed me to repentance. A good thing, surely.

Recommendation. So how can I not recommend a book as powerful as Lost Mission. Like anything else we read, we must think and look to Scripture and compare and ask questions and pray. This book pushed me to do a lot of the above. I highly recommend Lost Mission for those who are ready to tackle a book that disturbs and makes them think about God and His work and His ways. The book doesn’t give the answers, and that’s why it is so powerful.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Published in: on April 14, 2010 at 9:57 am  Comments (9)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – Lost Mission by Athol Dickson, Day 2

Yesterday was a great start for the CSFF Blog Tour featuring Lost Mission by Athol Dickson. In discussing the obedience theme touched on in the book, I brushed against the second major theme, so I think I’ll go ahead and begin discussion of it today, saving my review for tomorrow.

The theme I’m referring to is wealth and the Christian. Athol explored the subject from two angles—Christians who had an abundance and Christians in need.

One group, the wealthy gringos living in Blanco Beach, had cushy church facilities and were blind to the needs of the poor. As a body, they funded projects, but as individuals they didn’t consider how their decisions affected actual people. They seemed callous to others, not loving. The church leaders operated their organization more like a business than a ministry, and they personally lived opulent lives while nearby children died for lack of medicine.

At best, the people in this group were clueless Christians. At worst, they were nominal Christians living Pharisaical lives and corrupting the true church in the process.

In the other group were the poor Mexican workers and their self-sacrificing white young pastor. These were people living in Wilson City who worked hard, sent money back to Mexico, lived simply, and suffered great need. They prayed for what they lacked, but God didn’t intervene to change their circumstances. So their pastor did. In the face of his people’s suffering, and the unseemly wealth of the uncaring, close-fisted Christians in a position to help, he determined to play Robin Hood.

Within the pages of Lost Mission we find Christians loving money, using money to accomplish an evil purpose, stealing money to accomplish a greater good, giving money away generously, investing money, and withholding money.

One of the things I like about this book is that no one—author or character—says, Pastor, you should stop stealing. Or, Wealthy tycoon, you should love your neighbor and give to the poor. Rather, through the actions of the characters and the events of the story, change occurs and the characters themselves come to realize their weaknesses, sins, mistakes.

The reader, meanwhile, is left to make of it all what he wishes. As I often say here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, we need to read with discernment. A book like Lost Mission requires that of us.

Possibly some cheered when Tucker, the young pastor, took the money to buy medicine for the critically ill child. Certainly any caring person would feel for the mother, the friend, the pastor who stood by helplessly as the little girl grew worse and worse. But discernment for the Christian means to look into God’s Word and see what our Heavenly Father says about life. Are the characters reflecting Biblical standards? Do they come to agree with the Bible at some point?

The Bible actually has a lot to say about the money issue. Here are a few key principles:

  • serving God and money at the same time is impossible
  • generous giving isn’t about how much but how self-sacrificially a person gives (see the story about the widow’s mite)
  • the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil
  • God provides abundantly beyond what we ask or think
  • the goal should be contentment, whether in plenty or in want
  • giving should be cheerful
  • stealing is against God’s law
  • giving is a function of loving our neighbor (see the story of the Good Samaritan)
  • storing up treasure in heaven is profitable
  • storing up treasure on earth may lead to losing it (James 5:1)
  • building a bigger barn to keep all our stuff is foolish

I’m sure there are others, but this sampling gives us enough to hold up as a standard by which to measure the actions and attitudes of the characters in Lost Mission.

For those of you who have read the book, here’s a question:

And now, take a look at yesterday’s post and check out what the other bloggers on the tour are saying about *Lost Mission.

*In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Published in: on April 13, 2010 at 10:29 am  Comments (6)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – Lost Mission by Athol Dickson, Day 1

The first of two CSFF Blog Tour April features is Lost Mission by Athol Dickson (Howard Fiction). This adult novel is best characterized as literary magic realism, so it’s quite different from the usual CSFF fare. Not a bad thing.

Several particulars stand out to me when I think of this book, not the least being two significant themes. I think I’ll treat each of those separately, then do my review. Or maybe I’ll do my review sandwiched between the treatment of the themes—we’ll see what tomorrow brings. 😉

At any rate, today I want to discuss obedience. In the context of Lost Mission, obedience refers to choosing to obey God rather than Man, choosing to obey or disobey national laws, choosing to follow rule or conscience.

The most obvious situation in which obedience becomes a central issue involves key characters who disregard immigration law and travel from Mexico to the US illegally.

As if to pave the way for acceptance of this action, the book fairly early introduced the idea of borders being artificial boundaries:

The friar knew nothing of geography, but he had seen no line upon the ground, no barricade along the border. To him the animals and plants and soil had all seemed the same … Pondering the power of such an invisible difference, Alejandro wondered what drove men to call one land different from another. Even if there had been some kind of marker at the border, what did it truly signify? A bird upon the wind would pass from here to there unchanged, and whether the wind blew from south or north it did not pause at walls or fences, yet a man born on one side of a line upon a map might be forced to carry heavy burdens like an animal, while with a different accident of birth the same man might be blessed to ride a horse. Ideas, it seemed, were the most substantial thing in the universe.

Ideas, not laws? After all, borders are ultimately a result of treaties and agreements. But if they exist instead as “ideas” might not someone else have a different idea upon which he may act?

Apparently that point is one Lost Mission explores. The main character, Lupe, believes she is led by God to go to the US to preach the gospel to the pagans who glorify money and self. Her first step is to pack up and start out across the border illegally.

Later in the story one of the characters becomes a modern Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor because he sees greed and a lack of compassion and hypocrisy in church-goers. So the question develops: is it ever right to do wrong?

I couldn’t help thinking about Corrie ten Boom hiding Jews during World War II. To do this, she and her underground group falsified identity papers and stole food ration cards and lied to the authorities. Was this not the same as Rahab lying to protect the two Israelite spies in Jericho before God’s people marched into the Promised Land?

Do these kinds of things fall under the category of obeying God rather than Man? But where does “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21a) fit into this line of thinking? And what about this admonition in I Peter:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.
– I Peter 2:13-14

I could say a lot more about the subject, but let me give a quick overview of my own thoughts. Scripture needs to be my guide. I have a clear mandate to submit to every human institution and Christ’s own example of doing so during the Roman empire when government was vile and corrupt. However, if these human institutions require me to do something that contradicts God’s commandments, I must disobey them in order to obey Him.

Clearly a person wishing to go to the US to preach the gospel has other options than illegal immigration. Someone confronted with greed and selfishness has other options than theft. Those, and situations like them, are not instances in which a Christian should do other than abide by the law. At least, that’s how I see it.

Check out what others on the blog tour have to say about this subject and about Lost Mission itself.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 10:12 am  Comments (11)  
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