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.

Is Christianity Religious?


So now we have a four-way tie for the January CSFF Top Blogger Award winner. Help! We need you to vote Thank you! 😀

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Religion by some definitions is a system of faith and worship, and by others, the belief in and worship of a superhuman power (a personal God or gods).

In a recent interview in The Paris Review, author Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, Home) seems to take the former view:

Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.

As I read that statement, I have the impression that Man invented religion as a way to understand life. If that’s the case, then is Christianity a true religion?

I mean, as I understand Christianity, God is the initiator. I would not have a framework that would include Him unless He had revealed Himself through His incarnate Son and through His inspired Word.

Sure, I could philosophize about good and evil, suffering, life and immortality, the origins of Man, and all the rest. But without God’s revelation, I would have no way of framing my relationship with God as Christianity lays it out.

In short, Man didn’t create Christianity. So if religion is a cultural construct, is Christianity actually a religion?

Is worship even a religious experience? I mean, as I understand worship of the God of the Bible, Man responds to an encounter with his Creator. The response can take a variety of forms, but the most common is falling face down in fear and awe.

But sacrifice certainly would have to be included in the mix. Except, for the Christian, God Himself is the sacrifice. He requires it, He became it. So my response is … gratitude, love, obedience. I’m not seeing a framework here—at least not one created by Man. Initiated by God, perhaps, but by definition that seems to put Christianity on a different plain than Robinson’s Religion.

Now, if by religion, someone means a belief in and worship of God, then yes, Christianity would qualify. In that definition there is no suggestion that Man initiated this interaction. So I suppose, to answer the question, Is Christianity religious, we have to know what a person understands religion to be.

Is it a framing mechanism? Or a relationship with the living God? The two aren’t close.

Published in: on February 5, 2009 at 1:54 pm  Comments (8)  
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Best Novel?


Don’t forget to vote for the January CSFF Top Blogger Award winner.

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When Marilynne Robinson wrote Gilead, I heard about that novel at every turn—first from other writers at FIF, then from editors and agents in writers’ conferences. And why wouldn’t I hear about it? After all, the book won the Pulitzer. Still, the readers who left reviews at Amazon, all 311 of them, only gave an average of four stars for the book.

Here’s one portion of a negative review:

So bad it’s offensive. Why is this “fiction”? It’s pages and pages of the main character (and I guess by extrension, the author) spouting his opinion on God and religion

Contrast that to this one:

What an amazing book! Quiet, thoughtful, slow-moving….but so thought provoking. Events unfold delicately, memories surface gently — there’s a wistfulness to this book

But here’s why I bring this up. While Gilead won the most prestigious literary award and readers wrangled over its subject matter and its merit as fiction, people were talking about it.

Lo and behold, I learned today that Christianity Today named Robinson’s HOME: A Novel (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) as the fiction book of 2009.

I did a little checking and discovered that HOME: A Novel came out last September, so it isn’t like it’s been around for a year already, but still, why am I not hearing about this book?

Is it really well written? Then why aren’t writing communities discussing it? What does it do well? What can it teach us?

One thing I found particularly interesting. In Publisher’s Weekly‘s starred review, they said

Robinson’s beautiful new novel, a companion piece to her Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead, is an elegant variation on the parable of the prodigal son’s return.

Could it be that this book offers a stronger statement of the Christian message that some found wanting in Gilead, given that so many Christians lauded the book as an example of Christian fiction outside the parameters of ECPA fiction?

Once again, I feel the prod to read Robinson. But I have to admit, when some readers comment on its slow-moving pace, or give the book one star and say in capital letters that it was boring … well, I ask myself why.

Why do well-written books have to be slow and boring? Meandering, some said, without a plot at all.

Of course, not all those 311 reviewers found those points objectionable. It’s just that, I would. I don’t like slow to the point of boring. I want a plot because I want a story. So Gilead stays on the bottom of my to-be-read pile, and I probably won’t be putting Home into the mix any time soon.

Published in: on February 3, 2009 at 2:57 pm  Comments (12)  
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