Cover Reveal – My Writing Instruction E-book


For some time now I’ve been working to put together a short e-book about writing fiction, based on my blog posts at this site and at my editing site: Rewrite, Reword, Rework. This is the first in a series of books I’ve entitled Power Elements Of Fiction.

I’m planning to release Power Elements Of Story Structure this week, but wanted to let you see the wonderful cover now which artist and author Rachel Marks designed for it.

PowerElementsOfStoryStructure1000

Watch here for details about when and where the book will be available.

Thinking About “Theme”



“The art of [including themes] is to infuse them into a dramatic story that compels on both levels: the dramatic and the thematic.”

So says a commenter to the StoryFix article, “The Thing About Theme – What Are You Trying to Say?” by guest blogger Jessica Flory. Interestingly there was no discussion about the problems of writing stories with a message.

How different the Christian writing community is. The discussion over the last few years has run the gamut — from those eschewing any message, claiming that saying something in fiction is propaganda, to those on the other end who think a long speech setting forth the plan of salvation should be in every novel called Christian.

I’ve written extensively on the subject of theme and have been gratified to see others address the topic too. But there still seems to be some misunderstanding. Some people believe that an overt message is automatically preachy. That’s not close to the dictionary definition:

having or revealing a tendency to give moral advice in a tedious or self-righteous way (Oxford English Dictionary).

What makes the theme of a novel seem tedious or self-righteous?

Tedious would be “same ol’, same ol’.” Self-righteous, I believe, would be the author spelling out the message to make sure the reader gets it. It’s an insult to the reader, and it violates the story.

Unfortunately, Christian fiction has become known for both those problems. Just last week I was bemoaning with a friend the tendency for Christian romance to tell the story, and retell the story, of a Christian girl falling in love with the Bad Boy, only to convert him in the end as they fall in love and begin their happy lives together.

That scenario suffers on two fronts. First, it has been done before … with some frequency. Nothing other than the salvation message comes through the story — nothing new for the reader familiar with salvation to think about. Secondly, stories with that basic premise may focus on spelling out how conversion “works” so that the reader gets it.

I’m not opposed to romance in fiction, and I’m not opposed to conversions. Both can work and they can work in the same story. However, to avoid being tedious, something different, interesting, unusual should be added. Or the expected should be turned on it’s keester. 😉

To avoid being self-righteous, the author must muzzle himself. He must also resist turning a character into his mouthpiece.

Here’s what writing instructor John Truby has to say about theme:

The theme is your moral vision, your view of how people should act in the world. But instead of making the characters a mouthpiece for a message, we will express the theme that is inherent in the story idea. And we’ll express the theme through the story structure so that it both surprises and moves the audience (from The Anatomy of Story).

On his web site, Mr. Truby addresses the approach one movie takes to theme:

The Constant Gardener shows us what happens when a film’s moral argument outweighs its story. The film has a serious thesis it wants to express concerning the plight of Africans and the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies that supply them with drugs. There’s nothing wrong with starting with a theme and creating a story from that. But it had better be a good story. [emphasis added]

Some people argue that many who read Christian fiction like overt Christian themes. That’s why they choose to read those novels. Overt is not at issue. Overt themes are not by definition tedious or self-righteous. Overt themes do not, by nature, cause readers to feel as if the author is talking to them about Christianity rather than telling them a story.

The classic example of stories with overt themes is C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series. No one can miss the good triumphing over evil with the king comes into Narnia, or forgiveness purchased with sacrifice, both of which are at the heart of The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. Though the themes are clear, I have never heard Lewis accused of being preachy.

In short, we Christians would do well to stop quibbling about whether or not stories should have themes. Yes, they should! But whether they are overt or subtle, they must be crafted well so that they don’t “overwhelm the story.”

Published in: on August 17, 2011 at 7:05 pm  Comments (7)  
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God In Contemporary Fiction, Another Take


Typically readers learn about characters, not by what the author says about them or how he describes them, but by what they do. Since God does not appear in our world as a corporeal being, it’s not easy for an author to show Him in action. I mean, how is the reader to know that the protagonist’s near miss on the freeway was God’s doing?

How do we know in real life? How do we know what God is “saying” to us or how He is leading us?

Often times it’s the accumulation of things — an open door here, a closed door there, a passage of Scripture, a specifically themed article followed by a sermon much like it, and so on. But those things don’t make for great fiction.

Neither does God coming in to save the day in answer to prayer, though He might do so in real life. In fiction it looks like authorial manipulation. The story seems contrived.

The truth is, life is contrived, more than we’d like to admit. God is sovereign, after all. Yet we humans, made in His image, have the freedom to choose. So what does that combination look like in fiction?

I’ve been playing around with different options for showing God in a contemporary story, and what I keep coming back to is showing Him through a relationship with the protagonist. The reader, then, not being able to see how God acts, can see how the person trusting in God acts.

I’m still not sure where the conflict should be, but I came across this quote on Facebook, posted by the C. S. Lewis Society of California:

Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys. – C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Besides making me want to reread the book, I saw a kernel of a story there. Not the demon’s involvement, but a protagonist still obeying in the face of events that look as if God has abandoned him.

The protagonist’s unyielding obedience, then, would serve to show us God — that He is worthy of that kind of trust, that kind of service. That His love matters more than whatever earthly stuff holding on to Him might cost.

I still think showing God truly, so that readers come away after reading the story knowing Him more, or at least being curious enough to want to know Him more, has to be some of the hardest writing a novelist can undertake.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced this is what sets Christian fiction apart from all other fiction.

Christians or non-Christians can write about troubled teens who hurt themselves or others. All writers can tell stories about angst-driven adults who have been disillusioned. Christians can show the world truly and sinful man’s nature in all its ugliness in the same way that non-Christians can.

Both can also show the moral thread that runs through men and women, making some determined to fight for justice and others choosing to live by the rules of their own making.

However, only Christians can include God in a story and have Him appear as He really is. Non-Christians can’t because they don’t know Him. Of course we Christians don’t know all there is to know about God, and our stories shouldn’t lead people to believe that we have Him tamed.

But neither should they make readers think God is unknowable or inaccessible or uninterested or absent.

Part of creating great art is addressing universal themes and telling the truth about them. Hitler had a distinct worldview but it was false. If he had been a talented painter or a great writer, he still would have been writing about that which was false. There is no beauty apart from truth.

Hence, today’s Christian novelists, should we wish to create artistic stories, must write about life in a way that unveils truth about far more than man and his behavior in the bedroom. We need to stop worrying about what we can and cannot write according to publishers’ strictures and put our shoulders to the task of writing what needs to be written, what only Christians can write — stories that tell the truth about God.

– – –

For earlier posts on the subject see “Realism In Fiction” and “When God Shows Up In Fiction.”

The discussion continues with “God In Fiction Via The Protagonist.”

When God Shows Up In Fiction


In “Realism In Fiction,” I pointed out that rarely, if ever, do writers advocating for realism in human characters indicate that there needs to be more realism in our representation of God and His work in the world.

I find this imbalance disquieting. For one thing, I think it takes little talent to put four-letter words in the mouth of a reprehensible character, something realist advocates say is necessary to make such characters believable. Use of language in that way is cheap and easy. In contrast, I think it takes an amazing amount of skill to make the invisible God appear in a novel as a present and active part of the story.

But more importantly, I am troubled that we seem to care more that humans are depicted accurately than we care whether or not God is depicted accurately.

Perhaps the difficulty of the task discourages some writers from trying. After all, if we ask, as C. S. Lewis did for Narnia, how would God show up in a world such as this, we see that He does so through His word, through the preaching of His word, through the Holy Spirit speaking to individuals in ways that are consistent with His word.

I suggest those are the ways that contemporary Christian fiction has shown God since its inception, but these are the very elements that earned Christian stories the “preachiness” label. I tend to think that execution was more at fault than the traditional means by which God relates to His people, but I don’t think I’m going to convince very many people.

Hence, if a novel shows a character listening to a sermon, the cry of “preachiness” is sure to follow. Same if the character reads a passage from the Bible or a friend shares a Biblical truth. In other words, our fear of falling under the condemnation of being preachy has nearly handcuffed Christian authors from showing in a story how God works in our world.

In addition, few writers seem willing to tackle the hard truths — the fictional Jim Elliots or Corrie ten Booms or Joni Eareckson Tadas or George Mullers. It’s easier to say God loves you when no one dies. But the truth is, people do die and God still loves the world.

Even more difficult would be the fictional Ananias and Sapphira who received a death sentence for their conspiratorial sin. How hard to show God’s wrath and judgment. Those aren’t twenty-first century user-friendly images of God. Can we pull off showing the things about God that seem to collide with what we want Him to be like?

When I write posts like this, I am so thankful that I write fantasy, because I have to say, I don’t know how I would show God in this world. I love showing Him in a unique way in fantasy. But in a contemporary story, it’s a whole lot harder, a much greater challenge.

I know a writer who is tackling a difficult story without softening the lens or putting a slight glow over God’s head. I haven’t read her manuscript, so I don’t know how it’s working out, but I commend her efforts.

Do readers want to think deeply about God, to moved past the glad-to-meet-you stage, even past the acquaintance stage? I think there are indications that make me think so, but even if not, I’d still say we need stories that make the attempt. That’s where realism really lies, and it’s a lot more important — eternally important — than whether or not we show a human character slugging back a beer.

– – –
See also “God In Contemporary Fiction, Another Take”

Published in: on July 12, 2011 at 6:23 pm  Comments (11)  
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If More Isn’t Better, What Is?


Last time I made a case for writers slowing down their writing rather than flooding the market with less-than-best novels. With the change of status of the e-book and the ease, as well as the lower cost, of publishing that format, authors may be tempted to increase how fast they put out books rather than to slow down. I think that would be a mistake.

Writers should continue to improve. How can they when they barely have time to get a story down and turned in on deadline, even as they put in hours promoting the previous book?

But how, exactly, can a writer improve?

Last time I mentioned that characters can improve with time. As a writer gets to know the characters, they become like real people and therefore behave on paper in realistic ways. Gone will be the lines of dialogue the author forces on them because readers need to know certain things. Instead conversation, thoughts, and actions will fit naturally because this particular character would say, think, and do these particular things.

But it’s a stretch to make characters unique. No two people are alike, and an author needs to work hard to make no two characters alike, in what they do, how they think, how they sound. In addition, no character should fit a mold. Just like an author should avoid cliched expressions, she must avoid cliched characters.

Along those lines, a writer aiming for better, not just more, should avoid cliched answers to the difficulties she puts her characters in. Finding an uncommon way of escape is a challenge on several levels. One is to find something that hasn’t been done to death already. The other is to foreshadow it properly so that the problem isn’t solved by some force or mechanism that appears conveniently at just the right moment when nobody (especially the reader) expected it or looked for it.

Besides believable plot points that are properly foreshadowed, the better plots are not convoluted. Once I had an editor call a synopsis I wrote “convoluted.” He was right. I hadn’t written the book yet and put the synopsis together based on ideas I had for the story. I knew where I wanted to go but not what all I wanted to happen on the way. I put in all the interesting things I considered. It was too much and of course as I began to develop the story, it was obvious to me which ideas didn’t fit.

Unfortunately, it seems like some books retain all the interesting ideas even if they don’t fit. Plots should not be hard to follow. They can have interesting twists, certainly, but the bottom line should be, the protagonist has an objective and a plan of action. So does the antagonist, and the two are on a collision course.

Most importantly, however, books should say something. Unless they are modeled on fables in which a stated moral is part of the story, the something a book says should be woven into the fabric through symbolism, character growth, plot developments, and resolution.

Such weaving takes time and is often a result of extensive revision.

I could go on and discuss character motivation and language and imagery and subplots and a host of other things that better stories have, but I think it’s probably time I put this particular rant back into its cage for a while. Let me end with a simple answer to the title question: If more isn’t better, what is? Creativity — and that takes time.

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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Endings


A couple interesting blog posts today have me thinking about endings. First Stuart Stockton over at Speculative Faith wrote “Can you find victory in defeat?” an article pondering whether or not a story needs to end with either complete triumph or complete failure. Might there not be some sort of mixed bag for our protagonist?

The second post was by Jonathan Rogers (author of The Charlatan’s Boy, the upcoming CSFF Blog Tour feature) about sad books—favorite sad books, no less.

As I am coming down the home stretch in my own writing, and work to pull things together in The Lore of Efrathah, I can’t help but take these thoughts into consideration.

Do we remember, even treasure, happy-ending books more so than sad, or is the reverse true? Perhaps, as Stuart suggests, we prefer endings that are some combination of mission accomplished and mission doomed. After all, isn’t that closer to real life?

But do we want our art to reflect our culture as is or our dreams of what we hope to become?

Perhaps readers are all different. Or readers on some days want a certain ending and on other days a different kind all together.

So I’m wondering. Is there a perfect ending? And if so, is it one that makes you cry, cringe, laugh, grimace, or hug the book to you and sigh.

Does the perfect end make you want to race to the book store, the library, or an on-line store to find another story by the same author? Or does the perfect end make you want to savor the book, turn to the author bio or the acknowledgments, or even the back cover copy—anything just to keep you in the book for a few moments longer.

Does the perfect ending make you want to hear from the main character again, or are you content to remember him/her as is? Does the perfect end haunt your dreams or suggest alternatives to your mind? Or is the perfect end perfect because it’s exactly how you would bring the story to its conclusion?

Is an ending perfect because it surprises? Or because it fulfills expectations?

Does the perfect end wrap up all the loose ends, or are a few danglers better?

I have LOTS of questions, my friends. Tell me what you think about the ending of books. This inquiring mind wants to know. 😉

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.

Making Characters Likable


When I get a chance, I’ll jump into the discussion about climate change, but I’m sagging off the topic to write about what’s on my mind now. I just finished an editing project and am back at work on my own writing. This is what I love, but I feel like I’m still learning.

This weekend I was once again thinking about the magic that happens when a reader takes to a character in a novel. For one, readers are forgiving of lots of other things—wordy descriptions, predictable outcomes, sketchy settings, plodding prose.

Mind you, I’m not advocating the idea that writers should concentrate on writing great characters so they can slide by in other areas. I’m just saying, when readers fall in love with a character, they will overlook other problems.

Another bit of the magic that occurs—readers don’t forget books when they love the character. They may even line up to get the next one, if the same character is the star.

But most importantly, I think, when readers love a character, they think about the character’s dilemma and heart aches and decisions and dangers and changes. In other words, they are engaged with the character in a way that makes them think about the larger issues.

The question is, how does a writer create characters like this? Over the years I’ve written on this subject quite a bit, but I think I stumbled on something I hadn’t thought of before, at least when writing female characters. (OK, I just saw this same “discovery” in a post I wrote three and a half years ago, so I guess this isn’t new at all. I just forgot it! 😳 )

I think a likable character will not only have strengths and weaknesses, be larger than life, be properly motivated, and have all the other necessary elements, but also will have vulnerability. A character readers love is a character they feel compassion for. Not pity. And not disdain.

So the character can’t feel sorry for herself or do stupid things because of the plight she’s in. She needs to be strong enough to keep going forward, but not so strong she seems to need no one else.

As I think about it, I belief Knife in R. J. Anderson’s wonderful Faery Rebels is an example of this kind of character. She was tough and resourceful and eager to be out in the world, but when she got there, she came face to face with things she didn’t have and people she didn’t want to lose. The further into the story, the more her vulnerability showed.

Anyway, now I have to think about whether or not this trait is something male protagonists need too, and if so, in what ways it differs from their female counterparts. Your thoughts?

Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 5:06 pm  Comments (4)  
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Learning Plateaus


We often hear about the “learning curve” but infrequently about the learning plateau. Educators understand that these leveling off places exist, and curriculum is often created with the plateaus of the “average” student in mind.

What I’m thinking about though, has to do with writers and our learning plateaus. It seems to me that some writers continue to grow from book to book. The characters are more realistic, the plot more engaging, the theme stronger even as it is more subtle.

Then there are writers who … well, frankly, they seem to be in ruts. One book is so very much like the novel before it. The characters seem interchangeable, the plot void of anything surprising. Why, I wonder, do these authors seem to climb hard, reach a plateau, and stop growing in their writing?

Here are my best guesses.

1) A schedule that doesn’t allow the person to spend time studying the craft or reading fiction as they once did. So many writers now seem to spend their time flying from rough draft to marketing event to edits to interviews and back to the next rough draft.

2) Adequate sales. I imagine it’s hard to think writing should improve when 50,000 people are buying an author’s books, less so if the sales top 100,000. Or more.

3) Fan mail. If readers are emailing an author to gush over their latest and greatest book, why would that writer think, “I have to do better”?

But here’s what I’m thinking. If a novel has a delightful character, a textured setting, an engaging plot with unpredictable twists, a timeless but subtle message, why wouldn’t that author “break out” and become a best seller?

Could it be that something is missing? That the author only thinks all those parts are in place?

Or maybe the author isn’t aiming for the best seller list. Maybe the author knows the message isn’t subtle or isn’t timeless. Maybe a predictable plot is just fine because the target audience keeps coming back for more.

But my question is, How will an author know how far he could reach if he settles on the plateau? How will he know how high his audience is willing to go with him unless he continues to climb?

Has the perfect book ever been written? I don’t think so. Name a book, and before long, someone will stand up and say why they didn’t particularly like it, though a majority of readers might say it was The Best Novel every.

I think, for example of The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, a book one blogger has recently raved about, a book so many at Faith in Fiction loved. I tried to read it. Started about three times. And the last time, I made it probably half way before putting it down. I don’t love it. Rather the book feels painful to me to read. It is not something I will ever finish, I think.

Is it because it’s about barnyard animals, a rooster in particular? I don’t think so. One of my all time favorites is about rabbits (Watership Down by Richard Adams).

The Book of the Dun Cow has appeal to some, obviously. For me, something is wrong. It’s too dark, too hopeless, too distancing, too … something.

But what if the author could write that story in a way that widened its appeal without watering down its existing strengths? Is that possible? And shouldn’t an author try?

Until the perfect novel has been written, shouldn’t we authors always be striving instead of settling?

Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 12:04 pm  Comments (4)  
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