Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Villain

Among all of the characters in a novel, the villain, the antagonist, is one of the hardest to write. Sure, you can make a villain that's big, bad, and mean - but a villain with actual depth is rare.

This is something all writers struggle with, including myself. I don't have all the answers to the villain question; in this post, I'll share what I do know.

Villains are essential. Without a tangible villain, the story lacks balance. If a story portrays only good, it portrays only half of life; because life is a struggle between good and evil, between Christ and the forces of darkness.

The villain, therefore, is the embodiment of that evil, and usually exhibits one main evil trait. Hate, bitterness, immorality, revenge, greed, envy, murder, brutality; all are evil ideals that the villain might embrace. Usually, it's the opposite ideal of what your hero represents. The hero shows love; the villain shows hate. Etc.

All right, so it's easy enough to tack on a trait to your villain. But how do you give him depth, humanity, and a truly chilling presence?

That's what this post is about.

1) Don't make the mistake of making your villain single-minded. That is, don't make it to where he has just one negative ideal.

Villains, like all people, have many motivations. Aside from his main ideal, he has other desires and interests. A villain can combine hatred and revenge, greed and envy, murder and and brutality and bitterness; real villains are many-layered. They have more than one desire, and when those desires conflict, that's when we are shown the villain's true driving desires.

Edmond Dantes, in the movie The Count of Monte Cristo, is a very conflicted character. He's something of an anti-hero, which gives me a lot of fertile ground for proving my points. Nothing stands in the way of his revenge; not his wise mentor, not his money, not his former dependence on God, and not even his love. Revenge is what sustained him in prison. In one scene, he says something along the lines of, "Don't take away my hate. It's all I have."

In the same way, make your villain have one driving desire; but you have to prove that his desire really is what drives him. He has to want something so badly that he'll do anything to get it.

2) Make your character have some good in him.

The scary thing about villains is that we can see ourselves in them. The villain is who we will be if the protagonist doesn't win. The villain is mostly bad, just as the protagonist is mostly good. But the "mostly" part is what makes the struggle between the two so fascinating. To our horror, we find that, in some ways, we empathize with the villain, even as we hate him.

Give him some humanity; a tenderness that seems bizarre at first. Say one villain has a reluctance to kill priests, since a priest helped him and sheltered him as a child. Make it something that makes sense but conflicts with his evil ideals.

Even better, let what is bad in the villain come about because he did something good. Again, Edmond Dantes is an excellent example. He was an honest man who trusted everyone, even the people who betrayed him. That honesty proved to be his downfall. When he was sent to prison, however, he destroyed his trust and let revenge rule him.

3) Let us know what the villain is capable of.

If the villain doesn't come into the story until the end, then why will we fear him? But if we've seen his handiwork before the hero confronts the villain, we'll be a lot more frightened for our hero's safety. In my outline of Tornado C, I already have several instances in which the villain shows just how far he has fallen, and that makes him chilling.

Again, Dantes comes up as an example. (No, he's not a villain, but he has a lot of villainous traits up until the end.) Dantes will do anything to get revenge. When he escapes from his prison, Chateau d'If, he pulls the master of the prison with him off of a cliff. The master has tortured him for years, so...well, only one of them survives afterward. This shows how far Dantes will go, and creates a fear in us. "No, Dantes, don't do it!" we want to shout. "There's a better way! Let go of your revenge!" Every time he comes near one of his betrayers, we feel a shiver of fear, because we know the need for revenge that drives him.

This doesn't mean that you have to write something gory in order to make the villain scary. In fact, the worst fear is the fear of the unknown. Leave the details to the imagination; imagination is best at scaring itself.

4) Make him or her realistic.

In other words, not everyone is a mass-murderer. But everyone struggles with anger. Make the villain understandable, because we struggle with the same things. The difference is, the villain uses that evil and embraces it to elevate himself and his desires, rather than struggling against it.

The villain must have normal human needs as well. He needs love; but because he doesn't get it, he hates those who do. An inhuman villain becomes a supernatural villain who can wave his hand and do anything, regardless of morality and conscience. Like I've said before, a true villain is horrifying because he was once like us.

Now, before I finish this post, I have one more thing to say, and it's about anti-heroes.

I mention The Count of Monte Cristo quite a bit, and Dantes (the main character) is pretty much an anti-hero. That is, he's a hero without too many heroic qualities, at least in the middle of the movie.

Here's my advice: stay away from anti-heroes. If a hero isn't heroic, then why are we reading this story? If the tale is bad-versus-bad, why write it? Honestly, which of us has the wisdom to write a story that is steeped in evil?

The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the few stories that pulls off an anti-hero, mainly through good storytelling, superb characters, and a strong theme. It's very hard to write an anti-hero story well, at least for Christian writers. Why?

I believe that the purpose of the Christian story is to build up, to glorify God and retell the truths of the Bible. The problem is, anti-heroes make me feel dirty. It's not about good versus evil. In those stories, the character often hate themselves for their evil. I've read stories from young Christian writers that are, frankly, hopeless. That is, they're lacking the hope that Christianity offers. (There's a disturbing trend toward murderer protagonists, too.)

And if such stories do offer hope, they do it in a bad-guy-gets-saved-and-there's-a-happy-ending kind of way...which is pretty much unrealistic and cheesy.

Therefore, I cannot justify anti-heroes unless it is done as well as it was in The Count of Monte Cristo.

(SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE: In that movie, Dantes was redeemed in the end, and that's why it was satisfying and not degrading. He found that vengeance was the Lord's, not his. He found that revenge did nothing but waste his life. He returns to the faith that he had had before he was imprisoned.

(The final image we get from the movie was rather moving: a picture from the prison cell in which Dantes was tortured. He had scraped deep into the wall, through torture after torture, GOD WILL GIVE ME JUSTICE. And on that note, the movie ends.)

So what do you think about villains? How can we, as writers, create truly chilling but believable villains? What do you think about anti-heroes?

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Publishing: My Thoughts

It's somewhere in the back of our minds. All the time, we feel it. That maybe, someday, we'll complete this novel, revise it to perfection, and publish it.

Maybe you're writing the novel. Maybe you're revising it. Maybe you're looking to publish it. Or maybe you're just a writer trying to get better. Nevertheless, we always have that little dream that we'll get our story out there. It won't be a print-and-send-to-relatives tale, but a genuine published work of art.

That's why I wrote this post. This isn't a guide to success, but rather an analysis of where and how you should publish.

In a way, you could refer to this post as another in the teeming multitude of posts on what many of us call the Great Publishing Debate.

Because really, for the young writers, there's two options. You try the hard route of getting published traditionally, which requires rejections, queries, agents, and all of that jazz. Or you self-publish, which is increasingly becoming a viable do-it-yourself option. You could even do eBook-only, which just requires basic computer knowledge.

In a way, I might seem biased. After all, I already went the self-publishing route, right? The War Horn is already on the market for any reader who wants to check it out. But still, the debate goes on, and the forces are evenly matched. For the young, unpublished writer, it's a hard decision.

Why? Listen up and I'll tell you.

At first, self-publishing looks better. After all, you get tons of money (which is debatable), you do it yourself, and more importantly, you don't have to go through the lengthy process of actually getting noticed. Getting published traditionally looks like a lot of work!

Nevertheless, traditional publishing has several advantages. First, they have reach. They're trusted. They're well-known. They can reach audiences you can never get to on your own. Christian fiction authors Donita K. Paul and Wayne Thomas Batson have each sold over a quarter million copies of their books. That's a ton of readers!

Traditional publishers also have the advantage of bookstores, which, despite online retailers like Amazon, are still a fantastic source of advertising. Even if the books aren't bought, they're seen. Physical books on a physical shelf in a physical store seem somewhat more compelling. Some people I know buy their books primarily through bookstores.

Okay, now the publishing scene sways in favor of the traditional publishers. But there's one huge problem with traditional publishers: money.

Let me show you.

On, the average digital Christian fiction eBook costs ten dollars to buy.

Also on Amazon, my own eBook (The War Horn) costs three dollars to buy.

Okay, so traditional books are more expensive. But wait, there's more.

One Christian author once stated that he averages about fifty cents per book he sells. That's a twentieth of the list price.

When I sell one book on Amazon, I get about two dollars. That's seventy percent of the list price. So that author's book is three times more expensive than mine, but I would make four times as much money as he does per book. Those are tough statistics!

Using those stats, it also means that even if this guy sells four times as many books as I do, we'd be making the same amount of money. If I sell a hundred books, I'd get two hundred dollars. If a this author's book sells a hundred copies, he'd get fifty dollars.

That's a big difference, and now it looks like self-publishing is in the lead.

But he makes more money than I do. Why? Because he has a big following. How did he get that? Through traditional publishing.

And just to stir things up, a third paradigm is emerging: independent publishers with high royalty rates, unlike traditional publishers. Marcher Lord Press is a high-quality Christian speculative fiction publisher that releases tons of great books. If a book has Marcher Lord Press's name on it, I'd read it. Their name is almost synonymous with great Christian fiction.

Independent publishers are spreading, too. Scott Appleton is a Christian fantasy author who started Flaming Pen Press. It's published several great books thus far, such as J. R. Parker's Kestrel's Midnight Song and the soon-to-be-released Out of Darkness Rising by Gillian Adams. Another publisher to watch is the newly-launched Magpie Eclectic Press, which was started by Nichole White, who did the cover art for The War Horn.

This is the Great Publishing Debate, and it's highly confusing and controversial. It's constantly being changed by innovations in the market, such as Amazon's Kindle Select.

Now that you've seen it, here's my stance.

Marketing is a huge advantage. I've learned that for myself. The War Horn occasionally picks up a few sales, but without a sizable following or a big name behind it, its progress is slow. Unless you've written something that has an insanely awesome plot (and an equally good synopsis) that makes it as compelling as the newest thrillers from traditional publishers, chances are, you'll have a hard time attracting random people to your books.

Still, it can be done. I know a writer named Gregory Downs who has sold thousands of copies of his eBooks after self-publishing with KDP. Again, I know another Christian writer who put his eBook up as free for one day and had ten thousand downloads. Getting your book out there takes a lot of commitment, though.

My thoughts? I've self-published The War Horn, but I had several reasons for this. First, the book is just a bit longer than a hundred pages, hardly a publishable size. Second, it's a pretty normal historical fiction with an Arthurian twist. Not the most interesting genre.

I'm going to continue my self-publishing experiment with my science fiction short stories, but again, a collection of short stories is less-than-marketable. Novels are much better for publishers.

Once I've written a book that I consider good enough - I'm hoping that Tornado C will be "the one" - I'm going to test out the waters of traditional publishing. Who knows what'll happen? Marcher Lord Press now appears to be accepting YA, and AMG Publishers is also looking open. It's worth a try. Publishers can get you an audience, and once you have an audience, self-publishing suddenly looks good again.

My recommendation to you? Wait until your book is ready to think about publishing. But once you're ready, I'd suggest trying out traditional publishing first. It has the advantage of a wide market.

So what's your opinion on the publishing debate? What do you think about this whole thing? What are you planning to do once your novel is finished and ready to be taken to the world? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Some Thoughts on Revision

I've always prided myself in having high-quality prose. In my head, I knew that good books aren't written; they're rewritten. But still, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?

Thus, I've felt that I didn't need revision quite as much as other people. I thought I could create good books without too much editing. I mean, I do use revision quite a bit, but in the case of my Will Vullerman stories, I've done little to no revision and they turned out pretty well.

Was I wrong? Absolutely.

I received a critique of The Thirteenth Call the other day that was pretty critical of the story. To the critiquer's credit, he told me what was wrong with the story with fantastic politeness and respect and really did a great job. Still, it hurt a little bit. Wasn't the story "good enough"? If that story wasn't good, what was?

I think, in a way, that critique was a bit of a knock on the head from God. Learn from my experience, fellow writer: don't get so puffed up in the head that you don't see mistakes when you make them! I was feeling pretty good about myself up until then. But I'm not supposed to feel good about myself; I'm supposed to feel grateful to God that He has used me to write such stories. I need to hold my stories to a higher standard, and cut off Pride's head while I'm at it.

Now that I've had some time to mull it over, I realized my mistake: I thought that The Thirteenth Call was good enough not to revise, in addition to that silly thing called Pride.

Here's my advice: always look for places to better the story. Don't settle for "good enough". And most of all, don't think that great prose makes a great story. That was the downfall of The Thirteenth Call. What I needed to revise was my plot and character, not my prose.

Revision means looking critically at EVERYTHING in the novel, not just the prose. The pacing of the story was good, the prose was good, the dialogue was good; but that blinded me to the fact that a few of the characters were shallow and one-dimensional, and that there was very little emotional difficulty in the story.

Now that I'm finished with The Immortal Man (finished it yesterday at 8.5k), I plan to set my Will Vullerman stories on the shelf for a while, and then pull them out to revise later on. I'm planning on some pretty heavy-duty rewriting for The Thirteenth Call especially.

Take it from me, writer. Your story always needs revision, no matter how good you think it is after you finish it. Send it to people and they'll identify your flaws for you. But send it to more than one person, and don't rely on critique from your family. (I've found that their critiques often amount to, "It was good.")

And as a side note, wait 'til the story's done to revise. Otherwise, you'll get distracted.

You'll find that revision will make your story shine. It'll turn out so much better if you look at everything with a critical eye and try to find places to improve.

And a great story that's been polished is what's going to get your name out there, not a decent story with little revision.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What Is This Theme Stuff, Anyway?

What exactly is theme? Why does it matter? How do you even write it?

This is yet another of those rehashing-stuff-I've-mentioned-or-written-about-before posts. Yet every time you look at something, you get a new insight. An apple appears red at first; but then you can tell it's darker in some places and lighter in others. Then you get past the simple look and find that the inside isn't really red at all. And it tastes good, too.

My point is, theme is one of the most important parts of fiction for the Christian fiction writer, and must be studied, therefore, more than once. You get new stuff out of it with each fresh look.

What is theme?

Theme is simply the meaning in the story you write. This is not to be confused with the subcategory of theme, which I've nicknamed story-with-a-theme, partners to story-with-a-message and story-with-a-faith. (Rather confusing on my part, sorry.) In this post, however, theme simply means the meaning in a story and encompasses all three categories.

Now, theme is an essential part of every story. Without theme, a story is meaningless. It's fluff. It has no impact on your life. It's escapism. Not bad in itself, but why waste your time on a meaningless story when you could be doing something that's actually constructive?

Theme, however, is a big subject. There's a multitude of different ideas about how to do theme. I divide it into three aforementioned categories: theme (a "moral of the story"), message (a more concealed Christian theme, such as in allegories and Narnia), and faith (the kind of story in which faith in God is an integral part: Bryan Davis and Christopher Hopper's books are examples of this).

In this post, however, I'll address the action and abandon the analytics. (Alliteration. Hah!) Before you read much further, however, make sure you're in the right place. Your writing isn't yours, remember. It's God's. If you're trying to manufacture a theme without Him, and all truth is in Him, then are you really making a theme?

Now, there are many different opinions about writing theme. Writing genius Jeff Gerke, whom I respect quite a bit, suggests that story is king; you'll write a story and discover that you'll get a theme on the way. I disagree.

I am of the opinion that you need to find your theme to write it. I manage to work pretty well off the seat of my pants, but before I ever touch pen to paper, I know my theme.

How do you find your theme, then? What do you find in a theme? How does a theme work?

List time!

1) A theme must come integrally from the plot and characters. They all work together.

In my Will Vullerman short story, The Reality Ring, my character gets into a mess because he rather recklessly traps himself in an alternate reality. Why? Because he was a little bored with life. Running missions for the ASP was his life, and when that was taken away, he didn't have much left. The theme of the story was about Will rediscovering his purpose in life, and having a pretty rollicking adventure along the way. The story was tied to the theme, and vice versa.

This is why theme is often hard; because you're trying too hard. If you look closely, you'll find the theme was in there in the plot all along. All you need to do is find it and show the reader what it is. In battles, you'll find courage, heroism; in the quest, you'll discover perseverance, fortitude; in the long journey, friendship, fellowship, camaraderie; in the characters, redemption, love, and sacrifice. The themes are there, but like a diamond in the rock, you need to dig them out and make them shine.

2) A theme often involves character change.

As we saw in the above example, the theme is often found in a character change. In other words, my character learned something.

In The War Horn, my main character embarks on a quest, and the quest changes him. In the end, he can't be who he was anymore. He gives up himself and becomes a better person as a result, learning what freedom truly is. The theme drove the plot, so to speak. As Daniel Schwabauer puts it, a character changes when the cost of not changing becomes too high.

The theme quite often revolves around the character. Because in the character, we see ourselves. If we truly empathize with a character, it's because we understand him. When the character changes, we find that we can change too.

3) To show theme, thread it through the story.

Once you've discovered your theme, to make it most effective, you need to thread it through the story. Another of my Will Vullerman stories, In Stasis, had the theme of God's mercy woven throughout it. The ending was meaningful because I had foreshadowed it, so to speak, by introducing the theme in the beginning of the story. Again, in The Reality Ring, the theme was introduced from the very first page and tied up in the ending.

In The War Horn, my character repeatedly was given opportunities to truly see freedom as it must be, and not as he saw it. He failed each time, and each time the stakes grew higher. But by the end, the cost of not changing became too high, and he finally chose correctly. In that way, the theme was continued throughout the story, and finally resolved in the end. In fact, the last word of the book is free.

4) To help in showing theme, embody it in a symbol.

I first came up with the concept of a war horn after listening to an inspirational One Year Adventure Novel lecture called Symbols. In that lecture, Daniel Schwabauer explained that a theme or an ideal can be embodied in a symbol.

In The War Horn, the horn is the symbol of freedom, and also a reminder of my main character's lost father. At the climax of the story, rather than saying that my character chose freedom, I used the war horn to show my character's choice. (But for the full details of that theme, you'll have to read the book yourself!)

Symbols often make the reader dig for meaning. They create a feeling of satisfaction deep within the readers' souls that a simple statement can never do.

5) Reach out of the story and into real life.

The thing that makes a theme a theme is that it matters to us. The characters we love are the ones that spur us on. In a way, we say, "If he did it, so can I."

Thus, a theme shows us something that matters in actual life. In The Thirteenth Call, yet another Will Vullerman short story, Will comes to the conclusion that he can't do his mission alone. Time has run out and he has a slim chance of saving his friends' lives; and all the time he is haunted by the failure from his past. That's relevant to all of us, because we all have failures in our past that haunt our present, and we all need to know that there is Someone who is sovereign over it all.

Ultimately, our job is to point to the greatest Author of all. We reach out of our tale and show our reader that the God of this story is the God of their story. He's the Author of the saga of this world, and His gospel can be traced throughout the world's bloody history, the light in this otherwise dark tale. And He can take the darkness in each of us and transform us in His light.

So what do you think about theme? Are there any other ways you can think of to write theme? Can you think of any great themes in books you've read? Theme's one of my favorite subjects, after all. Let's talk.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thousand-Dollar Writing Advice

A blank screen, a blank page
And a blank mind as well;
If this life of mine's a stage
Where is inspiration's well?

—"Writer's Block?" (A recent poem of mine.)

Sometimes I think that the bane of a writer's existence is a fella named Procrastination. You'll remember him. He's shadowy, dark (at least since he lost his plastic raincoat), and makes smileys on his swords.

However, dramatizing Procrastination will do little-to-no-good if you're trying to get out of his grip. In fact, I'd say that by writing this post, I'm procrastinating. It's sad but true.

Here's a thousand-dollar piece of advice for ye olde writers: write. Always write. The more you write, the less you procrastinate. Sometimes you'll write junk, but the more you write, the less junky your junk writing will get. Don't procrastinate. Turn off the internet if you need to. If you really want a kick in the pants, do NaNoWriMo (and take it seriously).

Because you can't sit around and wait for inspiration to show up. You have to go looking for him if you're ever going to find him.

Obviously, I haven't yet mastered this piece of advice, which is one of the many reasons why I don't have a thousand dollars. Actually, I'm pretty much being a hypocrite by writing this post while I'm supposed to be working on the Immortal Man.

So my wise and pithy saying for today is, in essence: go and write.

There's not much more to it than that.

Have fun. I need to go work on my story. Feel free to give me a kick in the pants if I don't have two thousand words written by this time tomorrow.


I wrote a thousand words. Hurrah for not-procrastinating! ^_^ Here's a snippet from a character I really like, while he and my MC were playing word games:


"You're smart. Brave, maybe, if that means anything."

"Thanks." Will eyed the man's stun rod. "You're quick."

"Maybe that's not as flattering. You can't exchange a compliment with a compliment?"

"I haven't had an opportunity to find a redeeming trait."

A hoarse laugh erupted from the hooded man. "All too true. I doubt you'll find much to compliment in me."

Something about the man's voice unnerved Will. He tried to put on a more bold face. "You're calm and collected. Aloof and analytic. Is that part of your mysterious aura?"

"I dislike alliteration, if you don't mind."

Will answered with another question. "Do you ever let anyone see your face?"

The hooded man stopped. Will thought he saw the glitter of the man's eyes in the shadows. "Only when they're about to die."


I'm going to go now, but remember: always write. Keep writing. Don't stop for trivial things.

And watch out for Procrastination.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Writing Plans: What's Now and What's Next

Hullo, blog readers! Read on if you're of the curious sort. This post is entirely about my writing, so there's not much constructive about it. Still, it may prove to be interesting reading!

All right, so here's what's happening: in this post, I'm going to attempt to explain my current (and ambitious) writing plans. This is partially for your benefit and partially to organize my chaotic thoughts. You'll note that there are a lot of occurrences of "probably" and "hopefully". Most everything on this list is tentative, but that's the way writing works, right?

Okay, here goes!

Today is 10th of June. I have, max, until late August to concentrate completely on writing; August is when school will come back and I'll have to put writing in the backseat. So I have two and a half months, give or take, to focus on these projects. Afterward, my writing will probably be restricted to evenings and late nights.

So what's first up?

Foremost on my list is completing, revising, and publishing my Will Vullerman short stories. I'm 2k into The Immortal Man (and procrastinating), which is the last of the WV stories in the foreseeable future. Afterward, I'll revise them and then format them for Kindle. Since that's a fairly small project in comparison to the actual writing of the stories, I can probably multitask and combine my time with another project. (Once my revision is done, however, keep your eyes peeled for a Will Vullerman post; I'm planning on offering to send the stories to whoever wants to read them, first come first served.)

Next up is my newest novel, codename Tornado C. Work will begin as soon as I finish my outline, which will only take a couple of days or so once I set my mind to it.. I probably won't start writing in it, however, until The Immortal Man is finished.

The time required to write Tornado C is a mystery, however. I'm aiming for 50k+ words with twenty-four outlined chapters, but the story may take some unexpected turns or decide to be stubborn. We'll see. If I'm REALLY lucky, I'll have it finished by the end of the summer. Once it is finished, I'm hoping to submit it to the 2012 OYAN Novel Contest.

This is where my schedule begins to blur. However, here's what's most likely: I'll revisit The Prophecies. While one of the core concepts of the series is cliche and originality is sorely lacking, I can't stand leaving the story and the characters unfinished. And it's pretty good, other than that concept. The Prophecy of Einarr, for instance, has some of my best writing in it. It's an extremely fun series to write, too!

We'll see what I'll decide to do with the series, but I'll probably finish The Prophecy of Einarr sometime before November and then write book #3. (Actually, I have this sneaking suspicion that book #3 will be my 2012 NaNoNovel. After all, the previous two books were a result of NaNoWriMo, so I should probably follow the pattern!)

Somewhere along the line, I'd like to also revisit Revolution, a story I began some time ago. I love the concept, which is somewhat allegorical; and the style of writing is alluring. (It's highly narrative and dramatic with an emphasis on vivid description. A joy to write, but sometimes a pain to read.)

And if the Will Vullerman stories are well received with my readers, I'd like to write more of those, too. I've even got the first inklings for a grand-finale type ending to these sci-fi stories somewhere in the very distant future. Pun intended. (I've already started foreshadowing this ending in my current stories, though. Mwahahahaha!)

In ADDITION to this (almost done!), I'm also mulling over several other opportunities which may or may not work out. One of them is a nonfiction work. (Gasp!)

As you can see...I'm going to be really busy (as a writer) for the remainder of this year. :P We're looking at hundreds of thousands of words waiting to be written. Now that I look at it, it seems a lot more massive. But we'll see, eh?

However, having big plans leaves little room for procrastination. You guys need to keep me accountable, all right? As often as you can, you need to bother me to go and write.

So what are YOUR writing plans this summer? What are your summer plans in general? Anything particularly awesome coming up on the calendar? I love hearing from you all, so make sure and comment if you have something to say. :)

Friday, June 8, 2012

An Explanation of Why You Shouldn't Explain

Today I began to reread Donita K. Paul's DragonKeeper Chronicles, which were, two years ago, some of my favorite books. As I read, I'm was more and more distracted by writing problems that I had never noticed during my previous reads.

In addition to the little things, which I won't mention for the sake of ye olde Donita K. Paul fans, Paul's writing had one major issue. It explained. All the time.

Let me set you straight, writer. Don't explain. If you are explaining something in prose, you must stop immediately. Why? That's what this post is about, of course.

First and foremost...explaining is telling. Completely so. Remember the old saying? Show, don't tell.

And telling is evil. Don't tell, my friend.

Explanation stops the story. It's a halt in the action where the narrator comes in and lets the poor clueless reader in on the little details. More than that, it also makes the prose feel more "omniscient" rather than in-character.

"But hold on," you might say. "Doesn't the reader need to know this stuff that I'm explaining?"

Half the time? No. Here's a clip from Donita. K. Paul's Dragonspell to explain what I mean. (Pun intended.)


The land immediately surrounding the walls had been cleared of all vegetation except for close-cropped grass.

Dar whispered an explanation. "Fortresses, walled cities, all have these clearings around them. The sentinels need an unobstructed view of anyone approaching."


So what's the problem with this section?

While there's nothing wrong with a verbal explanation, this one feels forced for a reason. The author felt that the reader needed to know why there was a clearing, so she used one of the characters to explain. In most circumstances, verbal explanation is okay, but this nevertheless fortifies my point: this halted the action to give us an explanation we didn't even need. The reason why there's a clearing never has any bearing upon the story; so does it need to be explained? No.

Here's another:


Shimeran nodded. "Risto is away. The guards have been drinking brillum all day. My kinsmen will cause a diversion, and we may sneak in through the main gate without detection."

Kale wrinkled her nose at the mention of brillum. The ale smelled like skunkwater and stained like black bornut juice. The mariones used it to spray around their fields to keep insects from infecting their crops. Grawligs drank it. Evidently bisonbecks did too.


This one was an in-prose explanation. All telling. We can tell easily enough what brillum is simply from Shimeran's dialogue; we didn't need a lengthy interruption for the author to tell us what it is. This explanation, like the other one, didn't have any bearing on the story afterward. So was it needed? Nope.

The point was not to critique Donita K. Paul. She's a great author, and I really like her books. My point is, dear writer: don't explain.

Now, there are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes there are places where you can explain for the greater good of the novel. Explanations are not allowed because they slow things down and are generally unnecessary; but if they are necessary and actually speed things up, then they're acceptable. Observe a clip from The Thirteenth Call:


....Brownbarr had said that he was eager to debrief Will and thank him for his work. The message had been short, terse, and satisfactory. The only thing that marred it was the bad connection that had made Brownbarr's voice metallic and grainy. But, Will thought with a shrug, he was probably off in some exotic location doing ASP work and would fly back to debrief Will.


Most of this was explanation; however, it was necessary to "recap" what had gone on between the previous scene and the scene that followed. Also, the "metallic and grainy" has importance later on in the story and thus foreshadows.

However, take a look at this before you agree with me:


Will glanced down at his comm. "Did Brownbarr call you to come pick me up?"
"Was the connection bad?"
"Yes." Immanuel's eyes widened. "You mean that—"


(That was edited, by the way, for plot details. Can't be giving away all of my surprises, can I?)

It's show vs. tell all over again. The explanation told my information, but the dialogue showed it. Now, my explanation is still part of the story; not necessarily because the reader needed the information, but because it helped foreshadow something later in the story.

In summary: don't explain. Most of the time, the explanation isn't needed. But if it IS needed, do your best to find a way to "show" that information in another way. You'll find it's easier than you think.

What do you think about "explaining"? There are many other facets of this discussion; can you think of one?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Tapestry of Plot

I've described plot as a tapestry before, because it is. It's a big mess of intertwining plots and subplots that, with some rearranging, create something beautiful.

But like a tapestry, plot requires a lot of work. You can't sit down and type "Chapter 1" and then write an entire story without any rules or direction until you reach "the end". Sometimes that works, but most of the time it doesn't. What you have to do is weave your story into a coherent picture where every thread is where it's supposed to be. (Am I saying that you should outline? By no means. What I am saying is that the need to create a plot that works is universal to all writers.)

So how do we create a plot that makes sense and ties all the knots?

First, know your overall plot. Even SOP writers have to know where the story is going, to some degree. I usually know the beginning, the end, and spotty sections of the middle. I don't outline, but I do know my plot.

The plot must have some structure. In practice, pure seat-of-pants writing doesn't work. If your beginning has nothing to do with your end, you have a problem that needs fixing. Most writers find that structuring a novel with a definite beginning, middle, and end helps.

In most cases, everything that happens in the novel must be a result of what happens in the beginning, which is often called the Inciting Incident. OYAN requires a full outline, but it also requires you to know the dramatic turning points of the story: The Inciting Incident, Embracing Destiny, The Black Moment, and The Showdown. You may find it easy to just outline those sections and leave the rest to figure out as you go.

Here's a bit of advice from me: if you're writing in third person, stick with one or two main characters. That doesn't mean that you can't have other point-of-views. It does mean that the story is usually about the character telling it. Lord of the Rings is, arguably, about Frodo Baggins. The subplot of the main character should continue on to the end of the novel. If the beginning of the novel is about one person, and the end is about another, then do they really have any connection?

There's another aspect of plot that I think is crucial for every writer to grasp. Every major plot strand should have some kind of resolution. This is especially important with characters. There are a lot of characters in novels, but all of the "important" ones should have a resolution. That's a fun thread to play with: recurring characters give a sense of continuity and makes the novel feel less "random". If I introduce a character who has a name, I almost always come back to that character at some point, even if it's several novels later.

Like most writing rules, there are exceptions. In mysteries and suspense novels, for instance, there are purposeful "red herrings" that are meant to lead you away from the real direction of the plot and make it more unexpected.

Also, many small characters don't need to come back; the man at the gas station whom you ask for directions, the bored front desk lady at the local hotel, etc. However, sometimes small characters like these can help foreshadow something else. In The Thirteenth Call, the reader meets a character briefly—we don't even learn his name—that has significance later in the story.

Make sure that every strand makes sense and feels realistic. The first draft of The War Horn had a dramatic (or melodramatic) character change in a minor character that felt completely unrealistic. People don't change as easily as the novel supposed, so I changed that plot strand and tweaked it here and there for realism.

And lastly, use the plot to foreshadow something later in the story. Remember, the end must come out of the beginning. You can foreshadow almost anything: characters, character change, betrayals, plot, plot twists, danger, and even theme. (In The War Horn, the first inklings of the story's theme was introduced from the second page.) Use the little strands of plot to foreshadow something greater in the story, instead of leaving them loose.

In short: to create a plot that keeps things rolling, know and structure your plot, keep with the same characters, resolve plot strands, make sure the plot stays realistic, and while you're at it, use the plot to foreshadow too.

What do you think? What are some other methods or principles we can use to create a plot that works and doesn't wander around?

Let me know.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Regarding Synopses

Synopses is a word, right? ;)

I decided to write up all of my synopses for the Will Vullerman short stories, and revise the ones I already have.  I'd love it if you could give your opinions on the synopses.  Take a look!


In Stasis

An anomaly has been uncovered in war-torn North America.

Despite the international off-limits zone surrounding the continent, the government decides to send in Will Vullerman, an elite agent and the top operative of the ASP. But what he finds there, deep beneath the ground, is more than any of them bargained for.

The Reality Ring

Will Vullerman is suspended from the ASP, and he has no idea why.

Bored and restless, when an opportunity for excitement comes from a mysterious man, he takes it. What he doesn't know is that he's being pushed into the age-old conflict between America and the Middle East, with him in the middle. In order to survive, he has to escape from the Reality Ring and confront the man who claims to be his grandfather, or the world will again erupt in war.

The Thirteenth Call: Part One

They were a perfectly normal American family newly arrived in Europe.

But for the last six nights, at seven o'clock sharp, they've gotten the same phone call with the same threatening message. Will Vullerman is about to go on vacation, but when he's asked to help this family, he can't refuse. Will, however, isn't prepared for the sinister plot that's slowly tightening the noose around the Torreys. He has to find out who's calling, and why, before it's too late...before the thirteenth call.

The Thirteenth Call: Part Two

The mission grows darker, and the thirteenth call approaches. But everything is not as it seems.

Will Vullerman was supposed to be on vacation, but now he's on an unofficial mission to protect an American family. Will must confront the failures of his past in order to save this family, but time is running out, and the killer is drawing near. The fate of the thirteenth call will determine the fate of them all, unless Will can stop it.

The Immortal Man

What if man could achieve immortality? The cost may prove to be greater than anyone could imagine.

While on a mission to bust an illegal genetics facility, ASP agent Will Vullerman discovers that there's something behind the scenes that no one has noticed before. Someone has been giving the geneticists their illegal material, but no one knows who the mysterious donor is. Will discovers that the donor, a geneticist himself, has engineered the secret of immortality. Will has to stop the madman, but he must first enlist the help of what the geneticist has created: the immortal man.


The synopsis for The Immortal Man will likely undergo change, since I'm only a thousand words into it.   

So what do you think?  Are they intriguing?  If you were a random Kindle owner, would you pay 99 cents to read a story with one of the following synopses?  Do you have any advice about how I could improve the synopses?

Let me know.  And thanks!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Christianity in Christian Fiction

The Christianity in Christian Fiction

I've made numerous posts on Christian fiction before, and I apologize if it feels like I'm saying the same thing over and over. But really, something as important as the Christ in Christian fiction must, in some ways, be repeated with different words. The more you hear about it, the more sense it makes, so to speak.

This post is about a very narrow subject: how do we improve the Christianity in Christian fiction?

I think all of us, at one point or another, have compared ourselves to the greats of Christian fiction, such as C. S. Lewis. I've wondered myself, "How in the world can I write something with such depth of meaning?"

I can say that my prose is fairly good, my characters are decent, my plot is improving, my POV almost impeccable (that's the one thing I'm very good at, really) and my quality of writing in general is at least "good enough". But in my eyes, that's all meaningless without the depth that comes with Christian fiction.

Some authors manage to create this depth and touch on things that we know subconsciously but not mentally. One reason that I admire Chesterton so much is that he can put into words the things that we can't say ourselves, such as his chapter of Orthodoxy called "The Ethics of Elfland". The thing I dislike about my own writing is that's it's hard for me to put depth of meaning into my work.

This morning, however, I answered my own question. In the shower, no less.

So how do we improve the spiritual depth of our writing?

The secret lies not in improving our writing but improving our spirit. The way we cultivate meaning in our stories is to cultivate meaning in our lives. Lewis was a theologian long before he wrote Narnia.

In other words, Christ—and our pursuit of Him—must come before everything. Including writing. We must be willing to give up writing if that means we can glorify him better in another place. We must be willing to give up everything in this world in the hope of glorifying him more.

A. W. Tozer put well: "We are often hindered from giving up our treasures to the Lord out of fear for their safety; this is especially true when those treasures are our loved relatives and friends. But we need have no such fears. Our Lord came not to destroy but to save. Everything is safe which we commit to him, and nothing is really safe which is not so committed."

You may have heard that the best way to achieve good writing is to learn from good writing. If you're writing fantasy, read Tolkien. If you're doing detective stories or murder mysteries, read Sherlock Holmes or Chesterton. Read widely and you will write widely.

In the same way, to achieve good spiritual depth in our writing, we must read theology with fantasy. We must have Chesterton right beside Lawhead, Sproul up with Tolkien. Sure, I stay up late reading Christian thrillers, but I stay up late reading Tozer as well. I read The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction extensively, but I must read the Bible even more.

That's the balance we must have in order to write Christian fiction. There's a reason the "Christian" is before the "fiction", and it's not just a quirk of grammar. Our faith must come before our writing, and we must pursue God before we can pursue a writing career. If the option is to read the Bible for an hour or write for an hour, I don't care what kind of a deadline you have, the Bible comes first.

Any depth we write cannot be borrowed. If we write before we pray, I seriously doubt that we won't be creating another throwaway Christian novel with the "Christian" tacked on because of a set of beliefs we have.

But if we pray before we write, and we put God before anything else, our writing will change. Instead of milk, we'll have meat; instead of fluff, we'll have fire.

Instead of fiction that's Christian, we'll have Christian fiction.

And that's the way it should be.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Stories, Snickbuzzards, and Sanity: A Writerly Ramble

Greetings and hallucinations!

I haven't blogged in some time, so I figured I'd say SOMETHING on here. I'll subject you to a short update and then ramble for a bit. Do your best to finish the post: but if you can't, I don't blame you. ^_^

Firstly, my writing! Tornado C is coming along sloooowwwwlllyyyy. I'm still working on the outline. If I really stuck to it and got the outline done, I could be starting it this week, but other circumstances have temporarily supplanted it.

What circumstances? The further progression of my science fiction stories, which I just call "Will Vullerman" stories, after the protagonist. In addition to In Stasis and The Reality Ring, I've been working on a sci-fi/thriller/murder mystery sequel to the stories called The Thirteenth Call. Working synopsis is below:


They were a perfectly normal American family newly arrived in Europe. But for the last six nights, at seven o'clock sharp, they've gotten the same phone call with the same threatening message. Will Vullerman, asked by a friend to help this family, arrives on the scene. But he's not prepared for the sinister plot that's slowly tightening the noose around this family. He has to find out who's calling, and why, before it's too late...before the thirteenth call.


Plotwise, I'm really enjoying this story. Plenty of suspense and twists and turns, I can assure you. And my sisters have called it "scary" thus far, which is a new direction for me.

The Thirteenth Call has proved to be a fairly large task, however. The first two Will Vullerman stories were about 6.5k, and The Thirteenth Call is at 8.5k and is likely going to end up somewhere past ten thousand. For this reason, I'm splitting it into two parts. Part One is finished at 6.7k, and Part Two is progressing. I've been procrastinating a lot, though: I need to sit down and finish it!

And that's about it in the writing department. How's writing coming for you all? With school out, you ought to be writing more: and if you aren't, that's not good. If your writing habits have not increased with the onset of summer, I'll send Danton Brownbarr over to deal with you. ;)

What else? Well, Andrew Peterson is awesome, but he has been for some time now. Observe:


"What's a snickbuzzard?" Paddy asked.

"I don't know," Lennry said, "but they sound mean."

"Aye," Podo said. "They are. Terrible mean. Razor sharp beaks. Talons like daggers. And the worst part?"

"Yes, yes?" Lennry and Paddy said.

Podo sipped his bean brew and raised a bushy eyebrow. "Bellybutton."

—The Monster In The Hollows, Book Three of the Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson



On another note, I've been devouring Sherlock Holmes stories. I've read all three story collections and most of the novellas. They're awesome. I must admit, however, that I wished that Doyle really had ended the stories with Holmes's death. The way Memoirs ended was perfect, poetic, and utterly epic. Moriarty tops my top five villains list.

Chesterton quotes have been swirling around my head again. Sometimes history repeats itself: and in this case, when I reread Chesterton, I repeat quotes I've already said before. Here's some to chew on:

"I am the man who with utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before."

"The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand."

"As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its for arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound."

"The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason."

"We think the cat superior because we have (or most of us have) a particular philosophy to the effect that life is better than death. But if the mouse were a German pessimist mouse, he might not think that the cat had beaten him at all. He might think that he had beaten the cat by getting to the grave first. Or he might feel that he had actually inflicted a frightful punishment on the cat by keeping him alive."

"All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget."

—all from Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton

I love that last quote especially. :)

And also, we got a monkey. Yes, yes we did. You read that correctly:

We got a monkey.

His name is Bobby.

He's high maintenance.

BUT - all in all a fun pet.

He has orange eyes, brown-grey underfur with yellowy tips and a white nose. And his tail's longer than his body, which is a bit smaller than a full-grown cat. If he's on the ground, you can lean down and extend your arm, and he'll clamber up and make himself comfortable in the crook of your arm.

Bobby also enjoys relieving himself on your shirt, which is not so fun.

But you can't have everything. ^_^

How are you all doing? Any news worth telling me? Any good Christian speculative fiction books coming out soon? What do YOU think of monkeys?

Let me know. :)