Friday, May 25, 2012

The Rules of Writing (And Why I Break Them)

Some things are set in stone, such as the Ten Commandments, taxes, and most statues. There are laws for most everything, laws that make things "work". The law of gravity keeps us on the ground.

As in everything, there are rules in fiction writing. Maybe you've heard of them. Here's some of the more important and (in)famous ones:

- Show, Don't Tell

- No mid-scene POV transitions

- Stay away from information dumps

- Stick to "said"

- Have conflict in every scene

- Don't bore yourself

They sound familiar, don't they? Those are some of the general rules that define "good writing". Good writing sticks to the rules, most of the time.

But as I'm continuing to write, I'm realizing something.

Rules can be broken.

I'm doing One Year Adventure Novel for the second time, as you already know, but this time, I'm breaking the rules. Instead of one POV, first person, and twelve chapters, I'm doing multiple POVs, third person, and twenty-four chapters.

Why am I allowed to do this? Because I've already followed the rules. I've mastered them, so to speak. That doesn't mean I've perfected them, of course, but I've proven that I can follow the rules and follow them well with my first OYAN novel, which was The War Horn.

Here's another general rule in writing: if you've mastered a rule, you can probably break it.

But only if you've mastered it. The reason we have rules is so we can write well. But once we're writing well, we can break the rules so we can write better.

Does that make sense? Let me break it down for you.

The purpose of Show, Don't Tell is to make us write better. Telling slows down our fiction, bores the reader, and shows the writer's voice, when the writer is to be invisible. Besides, showing a conflict about a man's old drinking habits is much preferable to "telling" the reader that the man used to have drinking habits.

BUT—if you can "tell" without doing those things, does that invalidate the rule? (There's a long and complicated discussion behind that question, so for the sake of brevity I won't go into it.)

Andrew Peterson breaks the "stay in POV" rule quite often in his Wingfeather Saga, for instance. Sometimes, at the end of his chapters, he puts things like, "If Janner hadn't been so worried, however, he might have noticed the Fang nearby" or some such. Completely not-allowed, of course, if you're strictly following the POV rule. But this actually helps the story, because it adds tension and suspense and doesn't slow down the story at all. Since the story is a saga written as if it were being told 'round a fire, that usage of POV is okay.

The Lord of the Rings is a fantastic epic, but it has all sorts of "bad writing" in it, according to our rules. Yet, if it hadn't broken our "rules" then it wouldn't be the epic it is today.

Another example would be adverbs. OYAN tells you to avoid adverbs, and for a good reason. But once I learned how to avoid adverbs, I started using adverbs again, because now I have learned how to use them correctly.

So what am I telling you? Well, I'm not telling you to go out and break the rules of writing. In most cases, the rules of writing apply. But there are exceptions.

At some point, however, you have to decide whether to follow a rule or break it. Once you've mastered the rule, however, you should have the wisdom to decide whether following a rule will help your writing or hurt it.

But even when you decide to stop blindly following all the rules simply because they're rules, don't throw them out. They're valuable, created by people with decades more experience than you (assuming that you're a fairly young writer), and their wisdom is much greater than yours.

However, if you're still a fairly new writer that struggles with writing "quality" prose, stick to the rules. They'll build you up and help you write good stuff. Wait 'til you have more experience to start making and breaking your own rules.

Jeff Gerke puts it simply: "Be teachable [about writing], except when you stop. And even when you stop being teachable, stay teachable."

So what do you think? What are some writing rules that can be broken in certain circumstances? Do you even agree that the rules of writing can be broken?

Let's talk.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Outlining vs. Non-Outlining

Writers are generally divided into two categories: those who outline and those who do not. I fondly call non-outliners "SOP" writers: we write from the seat of our pants. We usually have no plan, unless it's in our head. There are also outliners, however: those who use outlines to structure their stories.

Each type of writer often looks upon the other with suspicion. Old and grizzled outlining veterans sometimes claim that outlining is the better way. Equally grizzled SOP writers claim the opposite. Truth is, they're both a valid way of writing a novel. Different people prefer different things.

This post is something of an analysis of both, with my own opinions shamelessly inserted.

First off, outlining.

What makes it preferable to non-outlining?

First, it gives you a direction. Many SOP writers (myself included) can write themselves into a corner and have no idea where to go next. Outlining makes it so that you always know where you're going. This doesn't make you immune to the common writer's vices, such as procrastination and "writer's block", but it helps.

Outlining also gives you clarity. It's easier to make it clear to the reader where the story is going if you actually know where it's going.

It's also a huge help with foreshadowing. This is probably the greatest use of outlining for me. With outlining, you can foreshadow things that are going to happen later in the book because you actually know what's going to happen. SOP writers like me (that plan vaguely in their heads) can do this to a lesser extent, but for intricate detail work and shocking twists, outlining has no equal.

Outlining can help you with your speed. If you know where the story is going, it's possible to write faster. There are exceptions to this, of course. I did NaNoWriMo 2011 with no outline at all, and wrote over 45,000 words in nineteen days. (Needless to say, I think I burned myself out...) However, when writing by the seat of your pants, speed can sacrifice quality. There's quite a bit of plot revision I need to do on The Prophecy of Einarr, for instance.

This method also eliminates excess prose. Outlining often helps your story to get where it's supposed to go without wandering around too much. Some SOP writers struggle with thousands of words that don't need to be there. An example of this would be Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle. As much as some people love his books, the plot is almost nonexistent in some places.

All right, so those are the perks of outlining. How does SOP writing compare?

First, SOP writing provides a certain amount of freedom. SOP writers who try outlines often complain about how it "restricts" their writing. Restriction isn't bad, but many writers prefer freer prose. Anything can happen. Tolkien famously wrote, for instance, that he was as surprised as Frodo when Gandalf didn't return to the Shire.

SOP writing also can have unpredictable plot. Christopher Hopper, author of the White Lion Chronicles, writes that "if I don't know where things are heading, I'm confident that my readers won't either." This lends a certain amount of superiority over outlining, since it's easy to make an outlined novel predictable. You have to go back and foreshadow the plot twists, of course, but it is nonetheless a good way to keep things unpredictable.

In some ways, this kind of writing can also help keep things realistic. The plot of a novel is one big chain reaction. Everything happens because of something else that happened. Sticking to an outline can sometimes cause plot problems when the outline backfires. Something may happen in the outline that should cause something else, but doesn't.

At first glance, it looks as if outlining is far superior to SOP writing. After all, outlining gives you direction, clarity, speed, good foreshadowing, and keeps you from writing useless prose, while SOP writing keeps things unpredictable and is rather fun to write. The pros of outlining outnumber the pros of non-outlining.

However, here is where my analysis stops and my own opinion begins. Here's why I am a SOP writer:

I usually don't have to worry about clarity. I know where I'm going in my plot. I don't know it as good as an outliner, of course, but I know it well enough to write it. I also don't have to worry about excess prose. I naturally write straight-and-to-the-point prose that doesn't wander around...too much. I've already proven that even SOP writers can write with speed just as well as outliners.

That strikes out three of the pros of outlining. Now SOP writing and outlining are evenly matched: SOP writing provides unpredictability and freedom, while outlining provides direction and a chance to foreshadow things before you write them.

Here's what makes me a SOP writer, though. When I write outlines, I generally have to work very hard on them in order to make it so that it's not boring.

Those who read The War Horn may say otherwise, but The War Horn took an enormous amount of work to make it as good as it is today. (The War Horn is my only novel so far that was fully outlined.) By far, it was the hardest novel I had ever written, partially since it was a historical fiction story. With outlines, then, I lose unpredictability and I have to work harder. (Hard work isn't a bad thing, though. The War Horn did turn out pretty good!)

That makes SOP writing verrrrrry tempting. Not only is it easier (and rather fun for a character such as me), it provides a balance to my tendency to creating boring plot. That makes SOP writing a better option for me, as a writer. I can write more and write better if I write with no plan.

So that's why I'm a SOP writer.

And as a side note, there's a weird hybrid method that I used on The Book of Shaldu, which I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2010. I wrote the outline of the next chapter or two, and then wrote those chapters. It was like shining a flashlight down a twisting tunnel: I couldn't see the end, but I could see my next few steps. I never fully outlined to the end, actually. Most of the way through, I tossed out the outline and just wrote from the seat of my pants again.

That method allowed me to do NaNo at a speed that I can't achieve now: over 2,000 words an hour. I got the benefits of outlining—direction and speed—with the benefits of SOP writing: unpredictability and balance. You might try it sometime. I prefer the pure method of non-outlining now, but it might work for you!

In summary, outlining offers guidance, foreshadowing, and direction. If you can write up a good plot but you have a tendency to go on rabbit trails, outlining is the thing for you. On the other hand, you have fingers. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) On the other hand, seat of the pants writing offers unpredictability and balance to the novelist who has trouble coming up with great plots.

Of course, there are other reasons you might choose one or the other. Can you think of any?

So what about you all? What do you think? To outline, or not to outline, and why?

Join the discussion!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Creating Memorable Characters

How do you create memorable characters?

It's a question we all want answered. While creating depth and building the character is up to you, creating characters that aren't cardboard cutouts is actually quite simple. (Please note, however, that this post is not about creating characters with depth and meaning. This post is about a sub-division of character-building: making characters memorable. There's much more to character than this.)

In my own quest for memorable characters, I've encountered several ways you can help make your character "worthy of remembrance". One in particular stands out, however: the Defining Trait.

If you think of your favorite characters in the stories you've read, you can probably think of a defining trait right away. Gandalf is rather mysterious and sometimes grumpy. Tibber the Fibber (from Bryan Davis's "Dragons of Starlight") is, well, rather cracked.

The defining trait doesn't even have to be a "kind" of character, i.e. crazy or grumpy or playful or sharp-tongued. It could just be a way of saying things. Another example from Bryan Davis's books would be Sir Barlow, who loves puns, idioms, and pithy sayings. In one of my short stories, I have a character that is constantly saying that she "abhors" things. For example:

"No buts!" cried the Count. "No quotations! No repetitions! I abhor them."


"No statements!" said the Count. "No observances! No useless notations! I abhor them."

Another example of a defining trait can be found in the character of Danton Brownbarr in my short story, "The Reality Ring". (And as a side note, I just finished it today. It's about a hundred words longer than In Stasis. The consensus so far is that it's a good story, but not as good as In Stasis.)

Take a look at these two snippets:


"Director Brownbarr, sir!" The man burst into Brownbarr's office with the speed of a twentieth century cannonball. His hair was wild and his ASP badge—with his name, Jeremy Mothinghotch, just visible—was hanging on by a couple of threads from his shirt.

Danton Brownbarr, Director of the African Secret Police, glanced up from his desk.

"What is it, Mothinghotch?" he snapped. Brownbarr had only been here since eight in the morning, but he already knew that Mothinghotch had a knack for chaos and confusion, not to mention his barely-adequate form of the dress code. "This had better be good, or I'll have you charged with gross breach of conduct and strung from a street light by your toes."


"Halt the stream," Brownbarr said. "Vullerman hasn't been informed?"

"I thought you knew, sir—"

"Are you a blockhead, Mothinghotch, or do you simply have selective memory? I haven't been informed of anything on the Vullerman case yet. I was just transferred from the Ministry of Overseas Affairs."

"Sorry, sir. Mr. Vullerman hasn't been informed."

Brownbarr grunted. "So he's had four anonymous death threats and we also intercepted a hit man in his neighborhood last week—and we're still keeping it a secret?"

"It was the Director's orders, sir." Mothinghotch paused for a moment. "Well, the last director, that is. And how do you know so much about Vullerman's case when you said you haven't been informed?"

"I haven't been informed...officially. But I've worked with Vullerman before, so I keep myself updated."


Just from these two excerpts, you can get a pretty good idea of what kind of a guy Brownbarr is, even though you've only read a little bit about him. That's because he has a defining trait.

So to create a character that is memorable, the easiest and fastest way is to find some defining traits. However, make sure that the character is always "in character", so to speak. If the pessimistic character is commenting on how nice it is today, don't you think that would be a bit odd? In the same way, put yourself in the character's head and ask yourself what you would do if you were defined by those traits.

Now, a defining trait isn't all there is to creating memorable characters: things such as character-building, character change, and depth are up to you. But once you have a defining trait, you're on your way to creating a character that your reader will remember.

What about you? Are there any ways you can think of to build dynamic and memorable characters? Can you think of any good examples of memorable characters? Let us know!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Secular Stories and the Need for Christian Fiction

"I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller." —G. K. Chesterton

Have you ever finished a movie and felt completely frustrated with it? It's the kind of movie that makes you think, "I can't believe I just wasted two hours of my life on this."

I've done it far too many times. In fact, it's safe to say that very few movies affect me in a positive way.

What about a book? Have you ever put a book down in disgust and think that it wasn't worth the paper on which it was made?

You can check that one off your list, too.

Truth is, sometimes stories satisfy, and sometimes they don't. But what makes it so?

You may be able to guess by the title of this blog post, but I believe that the cause is rooted in Christian morality, or the lack thereof. There are some stories that make me feel dirty by the end, covered in the meaninglessness of the plot and exhausted in the immorality. And there are some books that make me feel clean and ready to embark on a new adventure: books that inspire me.

Here's the deal: the less morality you have in a story, the less the story satisfies. A story is not simply a mode of entertainment: it's a mode of refreshment, and a way of teaching things that could not otherwise have been taught. Stories have a way of slipping around the mental barriers of a person's mind and affecting them in ways a conversation could not. As one person put it, stories are the lies through which we tell truth.

I myself have been reading almost purely Christian fiction for several years. I haven't picked up a secular book since I last re-read Redwall a few months ago. Why? Because there's no point in reading a book that's meaningless.

God is the essence of every bit of morality. God is love. God is truth. God is life itself.

And so, in the secular world's failure to include God in story, morality is slowly being leeched out until nothing is left but fluff prose and special effects.

Because what happens when you take out morality? The hero isn't heroic. The story is dark and depressing. Depravity is everywhere.

And when you finish it, how does it affect you?

There is no middle ground. If a story does not have morality, it has immorality. And what happens when a culture feeds itself on story in book and movie form where morality is forsaken?

Take a look around. You can see it in today's culture. Divorce. Promiscuity. Violence. The popular movies and books reflect this.

Words have power. I've said it before, I know. But it's true. Words affect us. Harriet Beecher Stowe helped start the Civil War. John Locke, through his writing, molded America when it had just broken free of Britain. Darwin the silver-tongued wordsmith single-handedly took over the entire scientific world with his Origin of Species, convincing everyone that the theory of evolution was true.

See that power? That power, in one way or another, helped create today's society.

But what happens when morality meets story?

You have Tolkien, who practically started the fantasy genre of fiction with his epic The Lord of the Rings. Millions have read his tale and loved it. Tolkien himself spearheaded the cause of morality in fiction: fiction that cleansed, as he called it.

C. S. Lewis likewise touched people, but not adults: the next generation, the children, grew up with the Chronicles of Narnia.

You have Bryan Davis, who stepped out in faith to become a full-time writer—and has shown thousands the story he has to tell.

I mentioned Harriet Beecher Stowe earlier: because of her need to tell of the injustice of slavery, she wrote her book and shook the entire nation.

And so, Christian writer, you have a job. Yes, you. And me too. Our job is to be Christ in a world where immorality reigns. Darkness covers the world, so what do we do? We meet darkness with light.

Don't write meaningless fluff. Write something that builds the reader up. That shows them right and wrong and shows them the driving love of a Creator who died, and rose again.

Because what will happen when truly moral and God-fearing stories are read?

Things will change. One reader at a time.

The world NEEDS stories that will change them. The greatest story in the world—that of God, told in the Bible—has changed hundreds of millions of lives. Can we not, on a smaller scale, do the same?

There is a need in this secular world for Christian fiction, in whatever form it may take: with a theme, or a message, or a faith.

So stand up, writer. Don't be afraid. If God is for us, who can stand against?

Take up your pen. Write. Because the world needs your story.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Concerning Short Stories (and Other Random Things)

Greetings, blog followers!  It's been a while, hasn't it?  Summer (at least in America) is just about here, and in west Africa the rainy season has started.  Which makes it hard to get things dry, but at least we get great weather!

Yes, rain is great weather, especially after you've been eating dust for three months.

Progress is coming along slowly with my current novel, Tornado C, but I expect to start writing it in the next week or two, provided that this outline doesn't eat me.  (Outlines are vicious carnivores, I'm telling you.  At least for SOP writers.)

Recently, however, my writing has moved in a new direction.  I wrote a 6.5k short story that I called "In Stasis".  Why is this new?  Well, it's the first work of sci-fi I've written in over two years.  Fantasy is normally my home genre, but I've found that writing sci-fi is a welcome break.  It's a great genre to be writing in!  Since short stories are a relatively short commitment, they are a rather addictive way to dabble in other genres.

The protagonist of In Stasis is an elite agent called Will Vullerman, who is contacted by the government to undertake a secret mission to the off-limits and war-ravaged continent of America.  Right now, I'm working on a sequel to that story, tentatively titled "The Eternity Code".  These may be the first of many Will Vullerman short stories.  I'm hoping to release each story on Kindle for 99 cents: as they say, the best marketing is having a backlist of other titles.  The stories will hopefully appeal to a broader audience and draw in random people who find my stories while browsing the Kindle Store.

And hey, they're not too expensive, either. ;)

And, on a note of randomness, our family received a package from America yesterday.  (It appears to have been soaked in colorful stickers.)  Many fantastic things were contained within this package, so many things that for a while I thought that it might be bigger on the inside.  But it wasn't, unfortunately.

Among this awesomeness was twenty-four packets of Cheez-Its, which I hadn't tasted in six months.  (I'm in cheese heaven.)

But also included was an unbelievable amount of music albums.  There were four Thousand Foot Krutch albums alone, including their brand-new album "The End Is Where We Begin".  I put some of the albums from that package on my Kindle, and my playlist is totaling to almost 200 songs now.  We're so blessed to have such awesome friends!

And now TFK has taken the number one slot on my favorite bands list.  Mwahahaha.

So how have you all been in my absence?  Writing, I hope?  What are you working on now?

Oh, and how many of you are TFK fans? ;)

I'll be back again tomorrow with a scheduled post.  Au revior!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Some Story Fodder

As I write this, it's well after midnight. (I'm a night owl, if you didn't already guess.) It's beginning to rain again, and it's about as cold as West Africa gets. I think it's below seventy now. I'm shivering, anyway. I'll probably have to sleep with a sheet to stay warm. (We generally don't use any blankets here. Only sheets, when it gets cold on nights like tonight.)

Earlier, I had finished Robert Liparulo's Dreamhouse Kings series. (If you haven't read them, go and do so. Delicious thrills and adventure await you.) And I was working on a short story, some, too.

So I wrote a poem about it, as I'm wont to do. I found that, in writing the poem, I had made a comment on thoughts I didn't know I was thinking. Read it, and then I'll expand upon it.

Nights Like These

Rustling leaves, distant thunder booming
The moon hides in darkness, rain is looming
Through the window, cool air shivers
A taste of thrill turns into rivers.

The night is dark and clouds are groaning
The trees are cold and the wind is moaning
Inside, you catch the delicious breeze—
Stories were made for nights like these.

There are certain settings that seem to spark a writer's imagination, and tonight was one of them. There's just something electric in the air that makes us want to write it down. Sometimes we don't. And sometimes those things are different for each person. For instance, there are few things that inspire me like my home state of Kansas. I can't get enough of it—wheat fields, long pastures, old farmhouses, and whatnot.

But I think that some settings inspire on a more universal level.

Ooh, thunder...

So here's some food to fuel your story. This doesn't really serve any specific purpose, but it's good to get the imagination pumping every once and a while. That's when you get your best ideas.


Imagine you're on an abandoned street. It's cold. There's a lot of wind, buffeting you back and forth, whispering down the concrete sidewalk and murmuring in the grass. Enough wind that you wouldn't be able to hear if someone was walking nearby. But there's no moon, so when hearing fails you, sight won't do much either. All you can do is glance around you, but it's so dark that you wouldn't be able to see if someone was standing five feet away from you. Or watching you. It's the kind of night where every rustle is a footstep, and every creak is someone out to get you.

You shiver. Something moves in the darkness. The wind? An animal? Or something else?

What are you doing? Why are you there? IS there someone out to get you? And what are you going to do about it?

(*evil chuckle*)

I'm under the influence of Liparulo, anyway. I should probably go sleep it off. But it's kind of exciting (in a freaky way), jumping when doors creak open or when something bangs down the hall.

Yeah, I need to go to bed. ^_^

Oh, hurrah, it started raining again!

Don't you miss pointless and rambly posts by yours truly? (Yes, I know, rambly isn't a word. Your point is?) The world is better off without them—rambly posts—but sometimes I must ramble. It's in my blood.

All right, I'm really going to bed this time.

Good night, blog readers. May rain ever fall on your nightly roofs.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Three Things for Every Scene

What does it take to make a scene?

A "scene" is generally a section of story that takes place in one person's head and often takes up a short time frame. Scenes are the building blocks of chapters; chapters, the blocks of novels. And novels are the blocks of the story. Thus, without good scenes, you'll be hard-pressed to write a good novel.

So how do we write a good scene?

Recently, I've identified several things that can be found in all good scenes. While the list is far from exhaustive (or even set in stone), it may help you focus your scenes and write a compelling novel.

1) Conflict

Conflict is the most important part of story. In fact, it's the CORE of story. Without conflict, there ISN'T a story. Remove conflict, and the story is boring.

However, sometimes conflict is overlooked in scenes. For instance, take a look at some common scene types that lack conflict: backstory, traveling scenes, long description, and history. All of them (except traveling scenes) are to be avoided when writing fiction, mostly because such scenes are plain boring, and all of them lack conflict.

So in order to make each scene interesting, and to keep your reader reading, you need to have conflict.

Does that mean every scene needs to have a sword-fight? By no means! Conflict can be found in simple dialogue, for instance. Simple conversation is a back-and-forth conflict between one person and another. For instance, take a look at this conversation from The Prophecy of Einarr. ('s woefully rough and not edited whatsoever.)


"Doon shink abot it, young man," Sadai said. He swallowed another bite of steak. "Look at me—I've got a job during a war. Not bad. You, however—" Sadai poked Edon. "—are jobless and all the money you have in your pocket was supposed to be for a tent. Besides. It wouldn't be fair to poor Marshland."
"Same thing."
Edon exhaled. "I guess you're right. But what would I even do? How could I work and get money and live life inside stone walls when there's danger outside these walls, and everyone I know is somewhere out there?"
"Ffpeaking off walsh," Sadai said, biting off a piece of steak, "Be've got wok ovabere for young pupff wike you."
"Never speak with your mouth full, Sadai."
"Sorry," Sadai said. "But why talk when you can eat?"


That wasn't more than a few words back and forth, but it was interesting, wasn't it? There was conflict in the words, even if it wasn't a hostile kind of conflict.

But even with conflict to keep things interesting, a scene is incomplete. That leads me into my second point.

2) Change

Every scene needs a drive. Daniel Schwabauer puts it like this: every scene needs a change in values. Something has to change. If your entire scene was a conversation that meant just about nothing to the story, then it was useless. (In that excerpt from The Prophecy of Einarr, the conversation turns to something more relevant to the goal of the story, in which the reader learns something important and the main character decides on a course of action.)

Scenes need to, in some way or another, be related to and driven by the protagonist's story goal. If Tolkien had simply written a book about hobbit life, it would have been pretty boring, right? But the hobbit life detailed in The Fellowship of the Ring was necessary to set up the goal of the story: to destroy the Ring.

3) Character

By saying that every scene needs character, I don't mean that you should include characters in your scene. That's a no-brainer. But scenes should be used to SHOW character. In some way, the reader should learn to know your character better. In that dialogue from The Prophecy of Einarr, for instance, we learn that Sadai is easygoing (and fond of steak), while Edon is more serious and dissatisfied.

Even if the scene reaffirms something we've already learned about the character, it's important, because every little thing in a REAL person shows their character. Keeping your characters dynamic in every scene makes it so your characters feel real and three-dimensional.

In summary, there are three things you need for every scene: conflict, change, and character. Using conflict, show character and move the story toward the story goal.

Once you can do that, you'll be well on your way to keeping a reader's attention and writing a story that they can't put down.

So what do you think every scene needs?  Do you have any good examples?

(Oh, and just a note for those who stock up on useless order to write that scene, in which Sadai kept eating his steak, every time I had to write Sadai's dialogue I'd take a piece of crumpled paper, stick it in my mouth, and say his lines. Then I'd write down what it sounded like. Don't judge me: I was halfway through NaNoWriMo at the time, and if you've done NaNoWriMo, you'll understand...once you get that far, you'll do just about anything to lengthen your word count.)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What is Allegory?

Allegory is traditionally labeled as a retelling of the Bible. The Pilgrim's Progress comes to mind, and C. S. Lewis's Narnia books.

But far too often, allegory comes out predictable and preachy. (On the predictable part, I'm thinking of Chuck Black's Kingdom series. While I enjoyed them, I didn't love them because they were a blatant retelling of the Bible. You probably disagree, but it IS rather predictable, no?)

So what do we do? Christians who want to write Christian fiction have two choices: write allegory or write Christian fiction—that is, fiction with Christian characters. Most go for the latter, but I believe there's a power in allegory that today's writers have not completely harnessed.

My upcoming novel (codenamed Tornado C) is somewhat allegorical. But more and more, I'm rebelling against the traditional way of labeling allegory. Retelling another story isn't much more than copying. Too often, allegory comes out cliche and predictable.

So how can we write allegory and keep it unpredictable?

We need to change our definition of allegory. Writing that is deep and meaningful AND allegorical is hard to come by. Really, all the allegory I can think of that really works is Lewis's Narnia books.

And yet, Lewis didn't intentionally "copy" the Bible. He instead said that it was the story of Christ coming in another world and another time.

Therein lies the key, I think.

Allegory is not retelling a story: it's retelling a truth.

Can you see the difference? Retelling a story leads to a strict copy of the Bible: retelling a truth leaves room for speculation and truly original story.

Tornado C has something of a Christ-parallel in it. (Don't look at me like that.  I promise you, it's good.)  And yet, if you tried to formulate theology off of that parallel, it would come way off. Because the purpose of that parallel is NOT to retell Christ's story, but to retell self-sacrifice and show the importance of the voice of God in our lives.

And really, thinking of allegory in this way frees us. Trying to copy the Bible not only fails (because we're human), it harnesses us to the theology of the Bible; we HAVE to tell it in this way, otherwise our theme would be skewed. You can't have Christ coming in a sinless world if you're writing allegory; otherwise, the theology behind the book wouldn't work! If there's no sin to save us from, then that could translate into the real world and make people think that they don't need Christ!

And yet, that's what Hopper does in his White Lion Chronicles, because he didn't write traditional allegory. He retold the truth of a Savior, not the story of Christ.

This could transform the way we look at Christian fiction. It would free us to speculate and thus write truly original novels.

If you only remember one thing about this post, remember this: don't try to retell the STORY of the Bible, but instead show the TRUTH of the Bible. That's true allegory. And that's how we can write powerful, original Christian speculative fiction.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

To Begin a Novel

I'm preparing to begin my new work-in-progress, which I've codenamed Tornado C. (The actual novel has nothing to do with tornadoes.) I've especially spent a long time planning out the beginning.

But the question has to be asked: what does it take to begin a novel? How should it start out?

There are two ways to answer this: in the writing or in the revision. People like me write high-quality first drafts. Others write painfully rough drafts and edit them into perfection. However you write it, there are a few things you need to know about beginning a novel.

Novels need to start out at the place that begins the conflict of the entire novel. It's the first domino that falls, causing a chain effect until we reach the end of the novel, and there's no dominoes left standing. Daniel Schwabauer calls it "The Inciting Incident".

Once I have that worked out, I usually ask myself three questions. All of these questions need to be answered at one point or another, whether during the writing or during the revision.

1) How can I inform the reader of the main character's background without outright "telling" it?

Background is an important aspect to the story. We need to know who we're supposed to root for. If we don't know our main character, will we care if he breaks his neck?

Of course not. So we need to inform the reader who our main character is. But more importantly, we need to make the reader CARE about the protagonist.

BUT: we need to be very careful not to "tell". The background dump is one of the worst pits a writer could fall into. It slows down the story and alienates the reader, and kills the potential that the first scene might have had.

2) How can I hook the reader?

You don't have to have a murder scene right at the beginning to hook the reader. In fact, you only need one thing to get the reader interested in the story.

All beginnings have one thing in common: a question. If your reader is asking questions, then chances are, they'll want to keep reading. In Tornado C, for instance, the reader is asking questions like, "What did the protagonist do to be imprisoned? Why does everyone hate him? What's going on? What is this war that keeps cropping up?"

Withholding crucial information—such as the reason for my character's imprisionment—is a wonderful way to keep the reader turning the pages. However, the information must be told sometime, or the reader won't be happy. If my readers are wondering why there's a war going on, and I never tell them, question will eventually fizzle out and my reader will be left confused and rather angry.

3) How can I use the "inciting incident" to propel the reader into the rest of the novel?

Writing a fantastic first scene and then leaving the reader hanging is a big no-no. Your first scene must be part of the story unfolding. More than that, it should PROPEL the rest of the story. Like I said earlier, the beginning is the first domino. The first scene is the pebble that starts an avalanche. If you give the reader a promising novel in the first scene and then the first scene has nothing to do with the general plot, the reader feels cheated.

4) How can I connect the beginning to the end?

Jeff Gerke calls this method "circularity". If your beginning has nothing to do with your end, then it'll be pretty much meaningless. But connecting the beginning to the end is a powerful method to create emotion in your reader.

In The War Horn, I used this quite a bit. The final scene takes place in the same place as the first scene, at the same time. The place itself hadn't changed, but that makes my main character realize that HE was the one who had changed. In the last few paragraphs, I drew parallels from the beginning to the end that showed the character change that had happened within my protagonist.

From what I've heard from readers, this scene satisfied. It tied up the loose ends and gave the reader a chance to catch their breath and reflect on what had happened. And it moved them. The reader had gone in a full circle, and yet, things had changed, but in a good way, even though so many painful things had happened.

So, looking at the beginning scene, I always try to find a way to connect the end to the beginning. The beginning is the place where you sow the seeds of emotion that you'll reap at the end.

What sort of methods do you use in creating your beginning scene? Have you found anything in published novels that you find really works?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Review: Behemoth

Jim Thompson, chief game warden of the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya, has a major problem.  Three of his prized elephants have been gored to death in the past month.  The only clues left are mysterious tracks reportedly belong to a creature long thought extinct.  Thompson suddenly finds himself on a tumultuous adventure as he travels across the African continent, hoping to convince himself and the world that he is on the verge of an incredible discovery.

He is not alone.  On the other side of the world, Professor Stephen Gregory is embarking on an adventure of his own.  Forced to resign over his unpopular scientific beliefs, this once-distinguished professor gets the chance of a lifetime when he is offered an expedition into the heart of Africa in search of a creature that could prove his theories true once and for all. (From

Behemoth is a book that presents a compelling premise: what if dinosaurs still roamed the earth? What would change in the creation-evolution debate? What would be their response?

Because of this, I was eager to pick up this book. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to my expectations. Before I go into the reasons I disliked this book, however, there were some good points.

The research that went into this novel appeared to be fairly in-depth. At any rate, the writer knew what he was talking about when it came to the creation-evolution debate, and the possibility of dinosaur creatures in Africa.

Like I've already noted, the premise was interesting enough for me to pick up the book: it IS a good idea! Some of the creationist points the author raised were thought-provoking.

However, other good points are few and far between.

My biggest problem with this book was that it was a thinly disguised creationist tract. Sure, I'm a creationist myself, but dropping THREE lectures about creationism in one book is far too much. In fact, the creationist feel was so heavy that I wouldn't be surprised if the author wrote this book just to get a creationist point across.

That's the problem, I think. Many of the problems of this novel would be resolved if the writer had let the story tell itself instead of forcing it to go one way or another to suit his purposes. Instead, we're left with unrealistic plot turns and some "Wow, that's convenient" moments.

In the same vein, the creationists were, for the most part, portrayed as "the good guys" and the evolutionists were "the bad guys" who refused to look at evidence and called the creationists "zealots" all the time. I've looked into the debate myself, and there is evidence for both sides of the debate. The point of view from which this book was written was biased and simply unrealistic.

My second problem was the writing style. All of the characters sounded the same, and there were enough of them that I can't even remember any of their names while writing this review. That's the sign of poorly written characters: if your readers can't remember your characters, there's a problem. The evolutionists were all cut out of the same cardboard, and the creationists weren't much better. The writing quality itself was somewhere south of average.

Lastly, I expected the two main plot threads to combine somewhere near the end of the story, but they never did. It was somewhat irritating, but not much more than a minor point.

And, as a personal note, I felt that the female missionary (who became a tacked-on love interest), was hopelessly unrealistic, especially since I'm an MK (missionary kid) in Africa myself.

In summary, unless you can get it for free or very cheap, I don't recommend getting this book. It's simply not worth the effort.  Rated 6 out of 10.  Three stars. 

My thanks to Thomas Nelson for the free copy of this book, which they gave to me in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.