Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sitting in the Hall Of Shame

In my mind, I have a story Hall Of Shame. And one of the contestants for “Worst Movie Ever” is a Christian drama made in 2011. 
It’s supposed to be about forgiveness and healing and God’s grace, and it has a very noble message. But unfortunately, the filmmakers broke several story “thou shalt nots”. 
Camera, typewriter, cell phone...
I hate it when Christian movies and books, because they are Christian and therefore clean and family-friendly and all things good, get away with cliche plots, bad story telling, poor quality, and sloppy researching. 
I will forgive many things in beginning filmmakers, especially poor quality. Although, in the age of the iPhone, quality is becoming more and more accessible. I will even, if it’s not too bad, keep my mouth shut and try to ignore cliche plots and blatant story-telling mistakes. 
 Oh look, they’re all in church listening to a sermon on forgiveness. How nice. And look who just walked in! The guy who needs forgiveness. Well now, isn’t that convenient. What do you bet the guy is going to forgive him?
After all, my family doesn't like it when I criticize a movie we’re watching during family movie night. They don’t really care how predictable the plot is. They just want to enjoy a nice movie with a good message.
But the particular thing that I find hard to forgive about this movie isn’t its predictable plot, unrealistic coincidences, or preachy dialogue. 
It’s the gross lack of research.
You see, one of the main plot points is a boy suffering the loss of his only good kidney due to trauma. Due to this unfortunate event, the boy must receive an emergency kidney transplant, or die of renal failure. And the unlikely match is one of the people the boy’s father has struggled to forgive.
Very sweet. 
There’s just one little problem. 
There is no such thing as an emergency kidney transplant. (I’m using emergency to mean “will die within a week without it.”) 
There’s this machine they invented back in 1943 called a dialyzer. It filters the blood, just like a kidney. They’re everywhere. Almost everyone knows or knows of someone who has been or is on dialysis, either because of total or partial kidney failure. While it wouldn’t keep someone alive forever, the dialysis machine would be perfectly capable of keeping someone alive while a donor was found.
These filmmakers had a boy dying of kidney failure when there was a machine just down the hall that would keep him alive for years. This is not something only a doctor would know. This is something a simple Google search on “kidney failure” would have given them the information on. It's hard to believe that in the entire cast and crew of people working on that movie, no one noticed this glaring error. 
Someone didn’t do the research. 
Don’t make someone’s Hall of Shame. Do your research. Be accurate. Know your subject. Otherwise, you discredit your entire work.

Monday, February 24, 2014


      Like journalists can take a perfectly good cause and make it sound like a terrorist takeover, the way you describe an event can make it sound ominous or encouraging:

      "It was a dark and foggy night, and a group of young gun enthusiasts were meeting in a old, musty-smelling shed in the middle of a desert filled with gun casings and empty shotgun shells. 
     "They gathered around a table in the dim light and discussed a pack laid out on the table. A few people sat on the falling apart benches and chairs, offering grim advice when needed. The chairs were dusty and a back-to-the-80’s orange and brown.
      "Once in a while truck lights would light up the dry, mud encrusted road and the door would creak open and a group member would slip inside, or a harried parent arrived to pick up their child.
       "The rusty, steel wood stove in the middle of the room warmed the room to a stuffy temperature and filled it with the smell of woodsmoke and dust.
      "Some call it the Youth Hunter Education Challenge. 
      "Many call it simply YHEC. Yes. YHEC. This unusual name represents a group of unique people who live and breathe guns and compasses."
       (Written by Beth Leavitt.)

       "The room was warm and bright. Light shone from the windows of the cabin out into the rugged country surrounding the gun club. Although the night was cold and foggy, the woodstove in the center of the room kept everyone comfortably warm. 
        "Inside, a group of young hunters gathered eagerly around the table, watching as thier coach dissected a hiking pack, showing them each item and how it would help them in the woods. Parents sat around on various chairs and benches, offering helpful comments and chuckling softly as they watched thier children’s expressions.
       "Although the furnishings were old, they were servicible, and the greens and oranges gave a retro feel to the browns and tans. However, the rows of eager young faces, excited to learn more about the responsibility and sport of hunting, were the real decoration in the room.
      "YHEC. Youth Hunter Education Challenge. A chance for the next generation to learn about the technicalities and delights of hunting."

      One makes YHEC sound disgusting and disturbing. The second makes it sound like a warm, educational family event. (As it is.) However, some of the furnishings at the gun club are 80's orange. :)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Musical Clues

In a movie, there is music during emotionally charged scenes. It’s a clue. “He’s worried. He’s sad. She’s crying because she’s happy.” 
Hear the music? It’s happy. Nothing bad is going to happen right now. 
Hear the music now? It’s ominous. Something bad is about to happen.

Books don’t have those musical clues. We have to use only words on a page to summon joy and sorrow and worry and every other emotion. We have to build story-lines and craft scenes and describe inner journeys in a way that makes the reader feel what we are feeling, what our characters are feeling. 

I like to be alone when I write. I like be alone because, to write those emotions, I have to feel them. And I don’t want to be distracted by self-consciousness about how dumb I look. 
I’m pretty sure I look really dumb. 
I can’t just decide to feel heartbroken inside and then write a scene in which a girl is weeping for her dead father. I don’t “feel heartbroken” that easily. 
But I have to become that girl before I can write about what she’s feeling. I have to feel what she feels. Without having ever really felt it.

Often, the first thing I do is find songs about heartbreak. And I don’t mean pop songs about how we are never ever getting back together. I mean songs where the music and the words and the way they’re sung combine to make me feel that sorrow and pain and loneliness. 

Then I act it out, and this is the part where I have to be alone. Preferably the only one home. At least with no one watching me. Because it looks weird for someone to be sitting at the computer with headphones in, curled up into the fetal position, running their hands over their head, whispering tragic song lyrics. I’m sure it looks weird.

No, really, I’m not crazy. I promise. I’m just a writer.

After I start writing, I usually don’t hear the music anymore. I’m wrapped up in the story and the emotions inside it with one part of me, and planning out what’s happening and correcting sentence structure with the other part. There’s nothing left over to hear music. 

But that musical introduction to the emotions of my scene are like a jumpstart. It’s inspiring. It reminds me of the emotions that I can portray. If I feel like crying, maybe people who read my story will cry. If I am thrilled and excited and pausing between sentences to jump up and down, maybe people who read my story will want to jump up and down as they read. Sometimes, music helps me feel like that. It’s the musical clue for the movie inside my head.

Monday, February 17, 2014

How Captain America Ruined Steve Rogers

There’s one thing I really don’t like about the movie Captain America

I don’t like that Steve Rogers went from being a small, weak, and ignored man to a Herculean and handsome man who was pursued by more girls than he wanted. 
The trouble with my objection is that it’s one of the main plot points of the movie. Steve Rogers was all heart and no strength or looks, until a magical/scientific serum granted him everything he was lacking. Then he became Captain America and was a great hero. That is the story of Captain America.

But imagine the story without the serum.
Imagine if somehow, through blood, sweat, tears and months of bootcamp, Steve Rogers finally managed to master the basic push-up, and, despite still being a ninety-pound shrimp with health problems, was shipped to France and ended up in that same battered camp, where he heard that his best friend was captured. Imagine if then, with all the courage in his tiny frame, he used his wits and determination and love for his friend to infiltrate the enemy base and free the prisoners. 
He wouldn’t have the strength, the muscles, the good looks, that heroes are supposed to have. But he would still have the bravery, the selflessness, the dedication that makes Captain America a hero.

In the movie, it seems that the woman of the story, while she admires Steve Rogers’ courage, doesn’t really fall in love with him until he steps from the machine, a foot and a half taller than before, with rippling muscles. Suddenly, he’s a perfect romantic lead and she’s head over three-inch-heels.
But imagine if that had never happened and she had simply realized that despite his physical weakness, Steve Rogers was more of a man than any six-foot-tall hunk with a smile. What if she had respected and admired his moral integrity and fallen in love him because he was a good man, and that mattered more than his looks?

Maybe that movie wouldn’t have been Captain America. But it would have been good. Instead of the story of a  character with what amounts to a handicap that is magically removed, it would be the story of a character with the same “handicap” who not only overcomes it and saves the lives of his comrades but, through courage and integrity, makes other people see past his weaknesses and appreciate him for who he really is. 

I think I would like that story better.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Tale of Two Covers

At the used book store, it was beautiful. A heavy book about two inches thick with a strong, hard cover. On the front, a Celtic knot in dark green embossed over a slightly lighter green intertwined and crossed itself in an endless weave. Silver, raised letters indicated the title and the author’s name. It was one of those books that begs to be handled, to be picked up and turned over, appreciated, no matter what its content. The back of the book was dark green and simple, a short summary the only marking. When opened, the pages were a creamy white, the paper soft. The words were clear and dark against the ivory background. The slight wear on the edge of the pages made them smooth against my fingers and the scuffs on the cover made it look like it had been used and loved. 
I would pick up a Twilight book if it looked like that. If only to reflect on the sad discrepancy between what it looked like and what it really is. 
I knew and liked the author of this particular book, so I not only picked it up but sat on the cold floor for half an hour, reading the first few chapters. The book felt like a masterpiece in my hands.
When it was time to go, I put the book back on the shelf. I could get it from the library.

So I did.

At the library, it was cheap-looking. Light and small, thick, but now the size of a common paperback. The covers were still hard, but they were light cardboard and the glue was visible around the inside edges. It was light blue faded into teal, with a border of what looked like silver crystal spikes around the front. The author’s name was bigger than the title, and embossed in bright, shiny red. The back was crowded with over-positive summaries and glowing reviews. Does anyone ever actually choose to read a book based on the “Amazing!…Brilliant!” written by some obscure newspaper on the back cover? On the front, instead of the spare complexity of the Celtic knot, there was a depiction of a bare chested man standing in a mist of blue. He was covered in tribal looking tattoos and standing over a sleeping, white haired man who appeared to be dead. Some sort of mist or water or spirit seemed to be emanating from his sternum. It looked like a tawdry spiritualist novel. 

It’s a good book. There are forests and ancient legends and wolves and a mysterious society and good battling the forces of evil. Mythology is tempered with Christian influences. Beauty and poetry dance with horror and mortal danger. 
But the cover of the copy from the library makes it embarrassing to be seen reading. Like if Pride and Prejudice was decked out to look like a slushy romance novel. It makes it necessary to explain to one’s entire family that the heart shaped border of pink roses around a close up picture of people kissing is not indicative of the content of the book. Or if the cover of a copy Shakespeare’s Macbeth looked like a Stephen King novel. 

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The atmosphere of the physical, material book doesn’t necessarily indicate what’s on the inside. But it does define what the first impression of the book is. So unless a book is sensationalist, over-eager, and cheap, it shouldn’t look like it is. 
Books should be beautiful. Especially the good ones.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Accuracies About Sleep

I recently spent three nights working at night, doing snow relocation/removal after a huge (for our area) snowstorm. I feel that I now have some experience in the area of lacking sleep, and I realized that I’ve had a couple misconceptions about what happens to people when they don’t get as much sleep as they need.
In one of my stories, I have a group of soldiers/agents who routinely experience hard work with very little sleep. I think I’ve misrepresented their behavior on such occasions several times. Here are a couple of do’s and do not's I have created for myself:

Do: show how people make mistakes when they’re tired. Lack of sleep makes your brain foggy. You miss things. You say things wrong. You make stupid mistakes. Even if someone has been trained to check and double check themselves when they’re tired, show them thinking through the process. Do not have them making accurate snap decisions when they’re tired. That’s unrealistic.

Don't: give people random amounts of time they’ve been up with little to no effects. I found a place where I flippantly announced that someone had been up for two days and was only beginning to be tired. Granted, the guy has been doing this sort of thing all his life. But no matter how good you are at coping when you’re tired, after two days without sleep, anyone is going to be tired. 

Do: make them get grumpy. Even normally good natured people get short tempered when they’re grumpy. Even if they know better and know how to stop themselves from getting in fights with their allies when they’re tired. They’re still going to be over-defensive and somewhat snappy.

Don't: make everyone be as emotionally controlled and reserved as they usually are. And if they’re normally emotionally open, make them even more so (wear safety goggles and a helmet if necessary) People are much more likely to start crying when they’re tired. That doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be drowning in tears. It does mean that if you take that one super controlled general who seems to be emotionally dead, give him 30 hours without sleep, let him sleep for half an hour, then wake him up again, give him 16 more hours without sleep and then have something upsetting happen, he might even go so far as to tear up. Maybe. Or get mad. But something is going to happen. If he’s that tired, he’s not going to just nod and move on like he does normally.
Also coffee does not work for everyone. 
And even a small amount of sleep can make a world of difference.

If I've made any stupid mistakes, sound tired, sound grumpy, or have ben unusually emotional in this post, you can guess why. :)
I love it when I realize that I can apply something in my life to a story I’m writing. Learning from life is fun!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Blank Page

            “The blank page is God's way of letting us know how hard it is to be God.” 
             G.K. Chesterton.

The blank page has been terrorizing helpless schoolchildren and innocent aspiring writers for centuries. There are times when everyone feels that they would rather “have written” than “write.” Of course, it’s not always like that. There are times that the words come quickly and eagerly, pushing into the brain faster than they can be written down, sounding coherent and beautiful without effort or editing. Another blank page to fill is joyful and easy and fun. 
But there are no peaks without valleys. And the valleys are first cousins to a high-powered vacuum cleaner. They suck.
That is when the blank page is a horrible thing. When you’d rather see a battalion of grotesque aliens emerge from the sky than try to write another word. When another cup of tea and a walk outside and your best friend’s best encouragement can’t get you past the trauma of beginning to write or continuing to write. When you’ve stared out the window and chewed on your nails and drummed your fingers for what feels like days, and you’re still not able to write that critical first sentence.
Or second sentence.
Or third sentence.
If you find yourself slammed into that bleak and insurmountable wall known as “writer’s block,” I sympathize. So does every other writer there has ever been. Ever. Even most non-writers have experienced this shattering and paralyzing lack of creativity. You are not alone.
Don’t give up, and don’t panic. This does not mean you will never write again. This does not mean you will never write anything good again. This does not even mean that you won’t get anything done today. A cup of tea or a walk outside or some helpful encouragement may be helpful, but they won’t fix it alone. The only that is 100% guaranteed to work is in your own head.
  You are a writer. Do you know the difference between writers and non-writers?
  Writers write.
  There are a lot of non-writers who want to write. There are a lot of non-writers who could write, and could write well. But they don’t have time or they tell themselves they’re not good enough or they don’t want it enough to learn how to do it better. And when they do try and they get the first taste of the terror of the blank page, they give up.
  All the talent and imagination and gifting in the world can’t be depended on. It will desert you when you need it most. 
In the face of writer’s block, what you need is determination, patience, and dedication. Do whatever it takes to find ideas, but keep working until you find one. Take a break and see if it helps, but come back. Don’t let yourself accept failure. 
  Romans 5:3-5 was not written for writers. But it is truth about life and it applies. Rejoice and glory in the tribulation of writer’s block, because this is teaching you patience. Patience enables you to stick it out when things get tough, and you gain experience. Experience gives you hope, because the more times you push through writer’s block and turn that blank page into lines of black letters forming words and sentences and paragraphs, the more you can look back and say, “I’ve been here before and if I could do it then, I can do it now.” Then turn forward and glory in the opportunity to conquer one more time.

Monday, February 3, 2014

An Active Choice

 In stories, characters can be either passive or active: 
An active character makes things happen. He has a plan and a goal and places to be. He initiates, produces, and completes. 
A passive character has things happen to him. He is caught up, dragged in, swept along. He may be a victim of circumstances or other people, or he may not even know what is going on. 

Often, characters change as the story goes on. Frodo, for example, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. He begins as a passive character, inheriting a strange and disturbing ring from his uncle. Then he is told by Gandalf that he needs to bring the ring to Rivendell. He didn’t ask for the ring, doesn’t want the ring, especially as he finds out more about it. He’s glad to go to Rivendell but he doesn’t fully understand why.
But it isn’t long before Frodo starts becoming an active character. When things don’t go according to plan he is forced to make executive decisions. The journey from The Shire to Rivendell changes him until, at the Council in Rivendell, he volunteers to take the Ring to the Cracks of Doom where it can be destroyed. This time he knows what he’s getting into. This time he makes an active choice.

A character can also go from active to passive. In Stephen Lawhead’s The Sword and The Flame, Quentin goes from an active character, busy with his family, being the king of Mensandor and building a Temple to the Most High God; to a discouraged and disheartened man struggling to deal with the death of a friend and the disappearance of his son. For a short time, he is a passive character, broken and and depressed, before he finds the strength to take action and fight against the evil that is threatening his kingdom.

Character development and change is one way  “active and passive” work in a story. Another way is how different characters react to the same circumstances. An aggressive and outgoing character might react to the death of his father by putting on his sword and seeking vengeance, or maybe just looking for a fight. His gentler, more introspective brother might retreat into grief and despair. 

Passive characters are not bad, but if they don’t find a purpose and a direction to go, the story will stagnate. For example, in the first draft of my story Moon Shine Red, my main character Ilysa was passive. She reacted to everything, never initiating or thinking for herself. She followed her older brother Isaiah through everything. She was a pair of eyes to see through, not a character in herself. 
When I rewrote the story, I realized that Ilysa, to be her own person and a stronger character, needed to make a different choice than her brother, and so, in the beginning of the book, when Isaiah joyfully accepts a new and brilliant life, Ilysa is skeptical and resentful. Although she remains a cautious and mostly passive character, her negative view of what is suddenly the most important thing in Isaiah’s life distinguishes her from him, allowing her to become a person in herself. As she passively allows things to happen to her, circumstances force her to take action and make a choice. 

Some things just happen, some things are made to happen. Between the two, they keep the story moving and force every character, whether they react passively or actively, to make choices that lead them into change and development.