Monday, March 31, 2014

The Oft Misunderstood Difference Between Thinking And Not Thinking



 I tend to burn things when I cook and take wrong turns and lose things in perfectly obvious places. This tendency is often attributed to "not thinking." I maintain that this is an inaccurate description of what's actually going on.

The other day, I was driving home from a neighboring town about 20 minutes away. I was driving our Camry, which due to harsh and repeated pushing of buttons, no longer has a working radio. When you’re driving in a car without a radio, you basically have two options. 
One is to look out the window at passing scenery. This works great in a new area or someplace with an interesting or beautiful landscape. However, in my case, I’ve driven that same road far too many times to be entertained by the view.
So I fell back on my second option: making my own noise. I do this a lot when I’m in the car. It can mean praying, it can mean singing, it often means talking to myself. 

Or I tell myself stories.
I don’t remember if I was actually talking out loud or not. It seemed real at the time. I was planning the detailed history of one of my characters.
This character, Seth, doesn’t know who his real parents are. And for the longest time, I didn’t know either. I knew where he grew up and how he thought and what his deepest fears and most precious dreams were. But I had no idea who his mother was or who his father was, or anything. And on this drive, I started figuring it out. Somehow Seth’s story got mixed up with the story of the rulers of the land. 

King Charles, after years of struggling to bring the young country into some sort of order, had abdicated his throne to live the rest of his life in seclusion, leaving the kingship to his son John. But John’s older half-sister, Charles’ illegitimate daughter Anne, had her brother killed in order to seize the throne. Meanwhile, Charles met a young noblewoman, Bessie, who lived in a city near the castle of his self-imposed exile. He ignored reports of what was going on in the land and focused on courting the girl.

At some point, maybe five minutes out of my hometown, I somehow “woke up” enough to notice that I was getting low on gas. Not enough to be a problem, but maybe enough that I should stop in town and get gas. I made a mental note and went back into my inner world of court intrigue.

Bessie was young, weak, and foolish enough to covet the position of queen, even if it was queen in exile. She would have all she wanted, be rich for life, and whether anyone cared or not, she would be the wife of a king. 
Only two things stood in her way.
 She had been seeing a young man in her city for years. They would be together, then fight, break up, and get back together again. And unbeknownst to anyone, Bessie had borne Mark a son.
Bessie had to get rid of both Mark and the young Seth in order to be available for the king. She found it easy to break up with Mark, but not so easy to find a home for a year-old baby. Finally, an old aunt, who cooked for a regiment of soldiers in a small town miles away, agreed to take him.
Seth lived with her for six months before she died. After that, he was raised by the regiment of soldiers, who trained him to be a spy and a soldier. And though they were good to him, they had no idea who his parents were.
Seth grew up to be a leader in the rebellion against Anne’s tyrannical rule. In the process, he saved the life of his half-sister, the daughter of Bessie and King Charles, Princess Grace. Maybe he’ll never know that Grace is his sister, or that he has any surviving family members...

Yes, dramatic. But it was fun. :)
By the time I got to this point in Seth’s story, I had driven past the gas station, through town, and was almost home. By the time I realized where I was and what I was actually, in real life, doing, it wasn’t worth turning around to get gas. So I just drove home.

This is why I tend to burn things when I cook and take wrong turns and lose things in perfectly obvious places. It’s not because I’m not thinking.
It’s because I am thinking. 
Just about other things. :)

Monday, March 24, 2014

More Than A Snapshot


When I write a story, it’s often a tiny snapshot of a person’s life. There are many things that may never be mentioned. How she was raised, or what he did when he grew up. Where he was born. How she died. 
And when the person is a fictional character, it may seem that those things don’t matter. The backstory of the sour man who owns the general store Clara works at may seem irrelevant. 
But it’s not. Whether it matters in the story or not, a person’s history is a part of them. What happened to Clara’s boss is important, and even more important is the way he reacted to the things that happened to him. How a person reacts to the uncontrollable things of life shapes who they are.
I can say the man is sour. I can say he’s a pessimist. I can say that no matter what happens, he sees the worst in everything. But just that snapshot of him as a character does not make him a person. (It makes him “Clara’s horrible boss.”)
He becomes a person when I give him a history.

He was the only son of Russian immigrants. He was born into poverty and famine. All of his early memories were of working alongside his parents, trying to make a living off that overworked farm from dawn ’til dusk. When he was ten, his family took a ship to America, the land of golden streets. The passage was long, cold and dark and on the ship, his mother died. When they got to America, the boy and his father waited at Ellis Island for two months, stuck within sight of the Statue of Liberty with her upraised torch and her promising inscription: “Give me your tired, your poor…”
America, when they finally reached it, was not a land of golden streets and endless fertile land. In the bustling, dirty city, they still struggled to survive. And through school and through getting a job at a store, through moving west and even through starting his own business, he carried the habit he had taught himself in those first hard years of his life. The world is a hard place, and bad things happen. Expecting the worst, first adopted as a defense against disappointment, became his defining characteristic. And although his store in the great West of America was successful and his family was comfortable, he never chose to change the way he had always thought. His wife was discontent, his children hated him. And the joy he had forgotten he ever wanted never came. 

It’s not the early loss of his mother and the destitute childhood that make this man’s story a sad one. It’s the fact that although an honest and hardworking man, he will never be happy. Because no matter how good life is, he has trained himself to not see the happiness in life. 
Character’s histories are important. It makes them people, men and women who were born somewhere and grew up somehow. But it is not the circumstances of their history that defines who they are. It is the way they choose to respond to those circumstances. 
Each man or woman, adult and child, makes that choice hundreds of times. Those choices build a person. 
A person with a story.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Showing, Telling, and Sex


They always tell you to “show, don’t tell.” Showing an event instead of merely telling about it makes your story real. It means that your readers see and hear and feel what you are writing about. If you just tell what happened: “Claire was disappointed,” your readers get the information, but there’s no emotional connection. When this sort of thing happens: “Lillian dropped her eyes and bit her lip. Henry hesitated a moment, watching her, then shook his head and walked out the door,” we can feel Lillian’s disappointment and Henry’s frustration. And we care much more than we did about Claire’s discomfort. 

 But there are limits. Graphic and explicit descriptions of violence or sex will put your book on the trash list. Bringing your readers too close to evil will leave them feeling so dirty that they’ll put down your book and never pick it up again. I know, I’ve done it. As a reader, I’ve walked away from some very well-written books because they described wickedness so vividly. Villains are important and fascinating, but I don’t want “a tour of their revolting world.” 

Evil is not the only thing that can be offensive. Sex, even though it’s something God-ordained, is a tricky subject, especially if your audience is young or conservative. 

A year or so ago I read a book that was very well written and I enjoyed a lot. One thing about it made me uncomfortable, however, and has kept me from recommending it to any of my friends. In one chapter, the main character and the young man she eventually marries are alone together, at night, in an isolated house. 
And it happens. 
I don’t know exactly how graphic the description of their “moment” was. I started getting uncomfortable with the descriptions of her feelings about one sentence into the paragraph, and skipped ahead to the next chapter. (The couple suffers the consequences of their unwise decision, but eventually gets married.)

Writing love scenes is hard. How do you not shy away from the subject but at the same time be considerate? How do you “show” enough but not too much? One extreme is to be sickeningly sensual, the other is to be disgustingly prim and prudish. 

In the conservative culture I grew up in, “too sensual” is extremely easy to be. Too easy. The funny thing is, Song of Solomon in the Bible is probably the most sensual thing I’ve ever read. Clearly, God does not fear human passion. 

This is what I think: Insinuation will take you miles. Sexual implications are everywhere. This can be annoying when you aren’t trying to imply something and people read it in anyway. However, when you are trying to imply something, it’s nice. You don’t have to describe in very much detail. You don’t have to go very far. Describe the kiss and let the screen go black. Make it clear what happens, but don’t give us the details.
Those of us who know where babies come from will know exactly what happened after that kiss. And those who don’t shouldn’t find out from you.

Don’t hide from sensuality, but don’t wallow in it either. Accept it without blushing and then close the bedroom door. Let your characters love. 
Privately. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Of the Sea and the Ocean

Imagine a small fishing village by the ocean.

Lighthouses and tides, sand in the streets, spray in the air. Boats that go out on the sea, fishermen and whale watchers and the Coast Guard. Storms and wind and rain that stings faces. Salty lips and hair that's wet with spray.

Piers and harbors, bays and coves. Little creeks running out of the forest and across the sand into the ocean. Sea shells. Beachcombers. Mussels and oysters, clams and crabs.



Breakers that crash like thunder, wind that cries like a foghorn. Stones rattling against each other, pushed and pulled by the riptide. Waves murmuring as they rush back from the beach.

Tourists and summer jobs, bandanas over salt and sun-bleached hair, short dresses, tans, and sand sticking to toes. Winter storms, gore-tex pants and coats with hoods.

Legends and buried treasure. Driftwood and shipwrecks.


Whales and seals and sea lions that bark instead of roar. Fish and sea anemones, starfish and hermit crabs.

Old men and old women, young men and young women, and the sea.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

National Joe Day


Americans love holidays. Americans have made up holidays for every single day of the year. They’re obsessed. Want proof? Today, March 13, is Popcorn Lover’s Day, Ear Muff Day, and Jewel Day. Also it is National Bubble Week. 
National…Bubble…Week. 

Popcorn Lovers Day was created in 2012. You’re supposed to eat popcorn on this day. I don’t want to eat popcorn on a specific day just because it’s Popcorn Lovers Day. I eat popcorn when I feel like eating popcorn and it’s usually not March 13. Who decided we were going to have a day where everyone was forced to eat popcorn? I think March 14 should be Popcorn Haters Day. To appreciate the suffering anyone who hates popcorn might have had to go through on March 13.

Ear Muff Day. Why are we celebrating the ear muff in March? I mean, here in Central Oregon this is the first week of spring weather we’ve had. It’s over fifty degrees and we’re out seizing the chance to wear shorts and t-shirts. Everyone’s trying not to even think about ear muffs, and other things like warm gloves and snow coats. If we must have Ear Muff Day, why not have it in December when people are still happy about winter and snowflakes? My biggest question, however, is why we must have an Ear Muff Day.

Jewel Day. They say they don’t know the origins of this holiday. I think it’s simple. Jewel Day was created by jewelers to boost sales in March, because of the dramatic difference in sales between February, the Month Of Valentine’s Day, and March, The Month Of Daylight Savings Time. Maybe buying jewelry is supposed to cheer everyone up after they had to wake up an hour early.

How are we supposed to know about these holidays? Is there a “Lame Holiday Publicity Association”? What kind of people come up with these things? “Oh my gosh, there is no assigned holiday for March 19th! Let’s make it…um…Poultry Day! Yeah!”

One weird holiday I can understand is National Joe Day, March 27th. Every “Joe” I’ve ever known would leap at the chance to have a holiday like this. They would probably say that you have to do something crazy and awesome on National Joe Day. 

Here are my instructions for National Joe Day:
1: Pick someone you know named Joe. It would probably be wise to choose a Joe that you know fairly well.
2: Acquire a coconut cream pie that you do not intend to eat.
3: Take the pie and hide behind a corner that Joe is going to walk by.
4: As he walks by, step out and mash the pie into Joe's face. A gentle push and twist is advised to spread the pie everywhere. Drag the pie down his front as it drops and while he is still motionless from shock.
5: Escape. Make sure your escape plan gets you out of the area.
6: Avoid Joe entirely for several days.
7: Be cautious around Joe for the rest of your life.

Eat popcorn, wear ear muffs and jewelry, and prepare for National Joe Day!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Speak. Act.


“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A few years ago, on an online forum, I participated in a number of discussions between pro-life and pro-choice writers. I only joined the discussion for a couple of months. The time and effort wasn’t worth it to continue giving the same arguments over and over again. I don’t think anyone was convinced of anything. Most of the people in the group held firmly to the view that they had entered the debate with. It was a battle of world-views which, as usual, no one seemed to win. 

Despite the lack of agreement or consensus, it wasn’t a waste of time. At least, not for me.
Despite the disintegration of many of the threads into personal attacks, despite the fact that no one changed their mind, despite the seeming futility of our position, those of us on that forum who argued for the lives of people who are too young to fight for their own lives did something.
"Whose work is it but your own
to open your eyes?"
George Macdonald

We spoke up. 
We said, “This is wrong.”

And even if no one listens, no one agrees, no one cares, to speak up and say that something is wrong is making a difference. If nothing else, it makes a difference to you. Whether your fight was effective does not matter as much as the fact that you fought for what was right.

If you believe something is wrong, and yet you do not speak, you do not act, you do not make a stand against evil, you are at best useless. 

Don’t be silent. Make your stand. Fight evil, even if it’s a losing battle. Even if, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you die for your beliefs and never get the chance to see victory.

If you're an Oregon resident, get involved with the petition currently being circulated to stop taxpayer funded abortion in our state. http://oregon2014.org/ (You can contact me to sign the petition or to get supplies to circulate it yourself, I have extra signature sheets and volunteer handbooks)
Get informed. Read the information on http://www.abort73.com/, an abortion information website intended to educate and inform people about what abortion is. 
Wear an Abort73 t-shirt. They're designed to make people curious and direct them to the website.
And be ready to give an answer when people ask you about it. 

If you believe there is an evil occurring every day in America and across the world, don't be silent.

Speak. 

Act.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Characters That Cuss


Oh, snap.

Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles.

H-E-double-hockey-sticks.

Characters that swear present rather a dilemma for Christian writers. Do we allow them First Amendment rights and let them say whatever they want? Or do we censor their profanity in order to remain family friendly and Christian? And if we compromise, where do we draw the line?

The case for censorship is intimidatingly godly and conservative. Profanity is of the world. The Bible prohibits swearing. We should think of hopeful and joyous things, be encouraging, be a light. And vile words, especially in print, are neither uplifting nor godly. 

That’s a hard to position to argue. I’m still going to argue it, and not just for the purpose of being devil’s advocate. (Yes, I just said “devil”)

Profanity is of the world, yes. So are tears, pain, and death. So are front porch swings and old wheelbarrows filled with summer rain. So is marriage. The world is what we live in. Life is beautiful and happy and delightful. And ugly and sad and painful. People speak from what is in their hearts. They tell the truth, encourage, and inspire. They lie, discourage, and use ugly words with meanings that are like a slap in the face. To exclude something from your life because it is “of the world” is to exclude a part of life. We are not of this world, it’s true. But we are in it. Breathing its air, drinking its water, eating its food. In close and unescapable contact with life on Earth.
The Bible prohibits taking the name of God in vain. The Bible also prohibits murder. It prohibits witchcraft. It prohibits unthankfulness and hating and fornication. My characters have committed all those sins. As Christians, we don’t avoid mentioning sin. We show the consequences, we make it clear that it’s wrong, but we do not exorcise it from our character’s lives.

This does not mean that I want to delve into the deepest darknesses of men and women. I don’t want to run from sin, afraid to write about it, but I don’t want to embrace it either. I don’t want to give a detailed account of fornication, or describe an ugly being in hideous detail, or use nasty swearing every three words. I don’t want to be in close contact with evil. And I don’t want people to feel violated when they read my writing.

So where’s the line? All I know is that for me, it’s somewhere between a PluggedIn review and a horror film. Somewhere between a sparkly Christmas miracle story and a Stephen King novel.

I want to write stories that show sin, but demonstrate redemption. I want characters that fall on their faces only to be picked up, showing grace. Some of them will refuse love and receive the consequences of their actions, showing justice. 

And where does this leave me with profanity? 
It depends. 
It depends on my intended audience. It depends on the particular words we’re talking about. It depends on the context and setting and character and why they’re using the word and what the scene says about them. 

I don’t have a final answer, even for myself. I used to avoid profanity in any circumstances. But then I wrote a scene where a character’s use of “hell” demonstrates everything he’s feeling at that moment. I left it there. Because that’s him. That’s what he said. He knew better, but in his rebellion, sorrow, and pain, he used the word anyway, and taking it out would sterilize the scene. In that particular place, it fits. But I can’t really explain why. 
Since then, I’ve used similar words in places where characters swear. I still avoid if I can, but if I can’t dodge it, I use the word. Because saying “heck” just doesn’t work.

And for a random fun fact, did you know that our English word “Hell” comes from the Norse word for their underworld and land of the dead: “Hel”? The fun part is that while hell is characterized by heat, thirst, and fire, the Hel of Norse legend was a land of freezing cold and ice. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Moral of the Story...


As Christians and writers, we want what we do to make a difference. We want what we do to mean something. We want to influence people. In that pursuit, there is a very common mistake that we tend to make. It’s easy. It’s understandable. It’s also one of the best ways to keep people from being affected by your story.

It’s the sacrifice of story to message.
The message behind a story is important. Each book, each movie, even each song, communicates a worldview. Your story will have a message whether you want it there or not.
Whether you make an effort to put it there or not.

Because of this, because of the unconscious slant that each story, no matter how trivial, casts upon the world, when someone writes a story that is specifically designed to transmit a message, it feels forced. And we can all tell.
From Aasop’s Fables to modern Christian movies, these stories have a moral, and it’s often summarized at the end in a mini-sermon. To make sure everyone gets it. Sometimes there is no sermon, but the entire story has a preachy feel to it, and people will walk away feeling like they’ve been condescended to. There can be a place for stories like this. Aasop’s Fables, for example, have been around for centuries, and people appreciate them for what they are: short stories that are supposed to illustrate a moral. 
But in most stories, the effort the storyteller is making to communicate a point backfires. Because when someone is focusing on the message their story has, they’re not focusing on the story itself. And that’s bad. Because then people don’t read your book for the story. They read it for the message. Which means that the only people who read your book will be those who already agree with the point you are making. You will not change anyone.

The best messages are those that are so real, so much a part of the story, so much an unconscious pouring out of the author’s worldview, that the story they are contained in is read by everyone, even those who disagree with the message that comes through. Like the Chronicles of Narnia, read across the world by people from all kinds of religions, even though it communicates a definite Christian worldview. Narnia is not popular because of its message. It’s popular because of its story. And that story becomes a vehicle for the Christianity of the writer to touch people who would never pick up a book because of it’s “Christian message.”


Write stories. Write stories from your heart, your life, pouring from the way you think. And those stories will have a message. If you want to make that message stronger, do it in the edits and rewrites. But when you write your story, focus on the story. Focus on the plot, on the characters. They are what will take your message to the world.