Friday, June 28, 2013

Happy Endings

Fiction novels these days have mood swings.

As with a lot of other things in life (predestination and free will, for instance), people tend to swing one way or another on happy endings.  There are two mistakes novelists make when writing endings, and that's either to make it too happy or not happy enough.

This particular subject was brought to my attention by a person named Hana who commented on my post about fantasy cliches.  She wrote this:

" I, personally, adore writing teen fiction, so long as I never finish with the all too familiar 'happy ending.' Life has loose ends, odds that won't match up, people that end up alone, afraid, and without hope. You can't tie a story up with a pretty red bow and and call it a masterpiece. Often, things are left unfinished, words remain unsaid, and regret lingers in the air. If we are steering from cliche its not the subjects I stress to look out for, more-so the endings. "

I agree wholeheartedly that things aren't as easy as many books portray it to be. There needs to be grit. Too many novels make everything tie up in the end, easily and without cost. There needs to be cost, otherwise there won't be meaning. The world doesn't work like that.

But here is where I differ, very strongly.

I never have the excuse to write a completely realistic novel. As a writer, I have a vision of a sort of world that is different from our own, a better sort of world, the sort of world that is sanctified - even if we never get there.  But you cannot change the world unless you show what it could be, not what it already is.

Maybe fathers leaving their kids is realistic, but it's certainly something we want to change.  Maybe there's a story where the dad comes back - or never leaves at all.

Say somebody got lost in the wilderness. He's starving, he hasn't had water for hours. What good would it do to come up to him and describe to him his story, front-to-back, thirst and all? It would certainly be realistic. That is, after all, the way his life worked.

But say I sat down and told him a different story, one that was less realistic. Say I told him that if he had the strength to cross the wilderness, there was a lush oasis on the other side. Say that I told him that there was water there, and fruit he could eat, and a way to get back to civilization.

Realistic? Maybe not. But it gives him something a "sober realistic novel of to-day" (as Chesterton would say) never could. It gives him hope. It gives him vision. It gives him the motivation to change.

As a novelist, I'm not in the business of showing the world as it is. I'm in the business of changing the world into what it could be.

And, as a disclaimer, this involves showing the world as it is, but not stopping there.  The first three-quarters or Tornado C show the world as it is - the fantasy world, anyway.  But as things rise to a climax, that is where my story departs from our perception of what is "realistic".  My story has a happy ending.  Not one without pain or loss, but a happy ending.  Because even if unhappy endings are realistic, that's not what each of us wants in our own lives.

That doesn't mean I'm going to write perfect characters and completely happy endings and god-from-the-machine climaxes. But that does mean that I'll never write a book that is completely realistic - because realism is a portrait of depravity.

I'm not going to write a Brave New World. I'm going to write a Lord of the Rings.

What do you think?  Happy endings or not?  Do you agree with how I defined realism? Why?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Vision: OYAN Summer Workshop 2013

“All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.” —G. K. Chesterton

On Monday, the seventeenth of June, at four-thirty, I arrived at MidAmerica Nazarene University for the OYAN Summer Workshop.

And never have I had a week simultaneously so long and so short. It seems that so much had happened in so little time. There were so many people, so many people I knew already, so many people that I learned to know. It passed with the speed of Almost-Flash, and yet small instants here and there remain riveted in my memory like a vivid picture.

This is me, trying to articulate these chaotic memories and process them. I've done this before, and I'll probably do it again: I'm going to think on paper and let you in on what's going on in my mind. It's going to be confusing (especially all of the inside jokes), and it's going to be unorganized. But I sincerely hope that it interests those who didn't go to the Workshop and helps those who did.

If I could describe the Workshop in one word, it would be this: vision.

OYAN gave me a vision. Not just for my novel, but for OYAN itself, and especially for that brief glimpse that Mr. S gave us the last night, of hobbit holes, a Rivendell for writers, an impossible thing that he wanted to make possible. That's what vision is, like hope.

At the Workshop, I remembered that I had forgotten. I caught a glimpse, a vision, of what could be. That maybe we writers could actually make a difference telling stories. I knew this in my head, but at OYAN I saw it. I saw that vision, I saw the passion in others for storytelling, for Christ, for trying to change the world. We were an army of ordinary heroes.

I've never seen anything like it. Not even remotely. For the first time, I was among writers I actually knew, that actually did the things I did, liked the things I liked. The first time I went to a Workshop I only knew one person. This time I knew dozens before I went, and even more afterward.

One of my memories comes to mind from Monday, the very first day: I'm leaning far back in my seat and talking to all of the other people I'm sitting with in the lounge. Queen Jane is dozing and telling people she's “not asleep” every other word with her hilariously British accent, Eagles laughs even though half our jokes aren't funny, Sandy is sitting on the table because there aren't any chairs nearby, Gunstrav is grinning, my sisters laugh. I don't even remember what we were talking about, but it was after eleven o'clock and everything was funny.

And there was so much good about the Workshop. My critique group was wonderful and lively and so funny, and actually liked my novel. I got into a theological discussion with some friends (someone evidently playing telephone changed the word to “debate”) for several meals and had a great time of it—we talked on controversial topics from predestination to Mormonism to evolution and never got angry or heated at one another despite a wide range of opinions. Jill Williamson was fantastic (and knew my name!) and I had a wonderful mentoring session with her. Jeff Gerke was one of us—he even dressed in two different costumes! The fluffnark still lives and Jeff's new shirt is proof of it. Mrs. S was herself and that's all we could ever ask for.

It's hard to articulate to people how exactly the Workshop felt. Sure, people can understand having lots of fun and being geeky with other people, like what I just described above. That part is easy. But what a lot of people don't understand is the level of emotion and the depth of friendship that develops between people you spend all day with for four days in a row.

I've talked with a couple non-OYANers about the Workshop in the last few days. They asked how it went. I said it was incredible good and sad at the same time. Sad? How was it sad? That was what they asked. Really.

I'm not sure exactly how it could not be sad. I was sad since the second day. You see, the worst part about OYAN was that it had to end. As Mark Wilson said during one of his lectures, you can't stay in Rivendell forever. The Workshop was a wonderful place of teaching and people and laughing and singing, but it couldn't go on forever. In fact, it could only go on for four days: “a far too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable OYANers.”

The Workshop was our Rivendell. It was our place of rest and restoration on our long and hard journeys. It was a place of community, of love and grace and a lot of laughing. And we knew that once we left we had to go to Mordor.

But the Workshop wasn't just that. The Workshop wasn't the end: it was the end of the beginning. Rivendell was a place for rest, but it was also the launching pad for so many great things. And that's what the Workshop did: it launched us back into our lives to march on, through all of the dangers of life, to persevere and maybe even change the world. It gave us rest, spiritually: physically we stayed up way too late and got up way too early. But after you rest you have to work.

We had remembered that we had forgotten, but we couldn't forget again. We had seen a vision, I had seen a vision, and we couldn't just file that away.

So that was the Workshop, a terribly and terrifyingly wonderful gathering of men and Time Lords and elves and Ithilien Rangers and writers...ordinary heroes.

I want to pause for a moment to talk about something I mentioned earlier. It's about Mr. S's last lecture, the one where he talked about vision.

Mr. S had a vision. OYAN was a Rivendell for writers, but only for a few days out of the year. But what if it actually existed? What if we could create a real haven for writers, where we could come anytime for rest and healing and restoration? What if we could make...hobbit holes?

The extent of what Mr. S talked about is too large and scoping and wonderful for me to cover here, but I'll try to summarize.

He wanted to really and truly build a place here on Earth for writers, a permanent residence where smaller groups of people could come for workshops, or to simply stay and write. They would be hobbit holes, amplified ordinariness. They wouldn't just look like them, they would literally be hobbit holes, with real wood and round windows and doors and holes in the ground.

He wanted to really and truly build a library, and in his mind's eye it has a spiral staircase and a real growing and living tree, and a place entirely devoted to every book the OYANers have ever published.

He wanted to really and truly build a creative arts center, a place for graphic design and filmmaking and so many other things.

Mr. S showed us his vision. And there wasn't a person (that I know of) that wasn't deeply moved by it. (If you're an OYANer and you were there and you weren't deeply moved, then you're a Dalek.)

Now we're carrying that vision on with us, not only to change the world through our writing, but to help others to do so by creating a real, physical place where writers can go, a real Rivendell.

And really, it looks impossible. But Mr. S was undaunted. OYAN remains undaunted. Because God has done the impossible before. And you know what? You can't change the world unless you try. We can't say building hobbit holes is impossible until after we've done all we can.

And after the lecture, we met outside and we prayed with Mr. S, and we sang (I sang hardest when we sang “It Is Well With My Soul”), and we laughed, and we said goodbye, and it was hard. And people cried.

I cried.

I did. I really did.

Leaving people is hard. Especially when they're writers like you, and you've spent the last four days laughing and eating and talking and learning with them. Especially when you're going back to Africa and you don't know if you'll ever see any of these people again.

It was hard.

But it was worth it.

David Platt once said that all mission is separation. You can't be sent out unless you're leaving. It involves sacrifice. And each and every OYANer has been sent out, and we've been separated, but we're spreading our vision.

We have a vision to change the world for God, and we won't let it die out. It'll hurt, but it'll be worth it. We have a community utterly unique.  We're OYANers.

Ordinary heroes.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

On Breaking the Rules of Writing

As you ought to know, there are some rules to writing, and all of them are rules for a good reason. Most of the time, they exist to make your novel better.

However, there comes a point where following the rules may make you lose an opportunity to improve. I came to that point recently while working on Tornado C.

You see, in the novel, I have one main character and a semi-major character. I use both of their POVs. This arrangement has worked nicely so far to speed the plot along, especially when there's a bit of a lag in my main storyline.

However, there are three spots in my novel where I use two different point of views from the two normal ones, making four altogether. One is from the point of view of an old man (Ne'ram, if you've read the excerpt I posted a long while back), and the other two are third person omniscient.

Technically, that's bad writing, especially since the different POVs don't even occur for more than five hundred words. And third person omniscient POV is especially bad writing when the rest of the novel is in third person limited.

However, I wrote them anyway, because sometimes you have to break the rules to make your novel better.

Take the first omniscient scene. It is a few words of prose about an inscription my main character didn't notice. This helps the novel for two reasons. One, it heightens the sense of foreboding and foreshadows what is to come later. Second, it adds an “epic” and “narrative” scope to the novel.

The second omniscient scene has a similar purpose; it's simply a few words of description and dialogue between some very minor characters that would become relevant later on. More so than the previous scene, it foreshadows that something very bad is coming soon, heightening the suspense. And keeping the suspense high is crucial in keeping the reader's attention.

And the Ne'ram scene? Like the omniscient scenes, it adds to the dramatic impact of the story. It foreshadows something that is to come. Unlike the first scene, however, it has a definite emotional impact that would be missing if taken out. It gives the rest of that chapter the aftertaste of that emotive flavor, like adding salt to a burger.

While cutting these three scenes would make my writing more “mechanically sound” and uniform, I would do so at the cost of the dramatic impact of the story. It would be decreasing the suspense, making the scope of the novel smaller, and losing some of the reader's emotion—not good things.

Sure, they're just little scenes, but every word counts when you're writing a novel. So I'm leaving them in. We'll see what happens. If I can find a way to cut them and increase the impact of the story at the same time, then perhaps I will, but until then...they're staying.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

There are perks to writing short novels.

Such as, that you can actually remember what you've written so you don't contradict yourself in the middle.

And it's easier to stay interested in the plot.

And it's not repetitive.

And best of all, it doesn't take very long to write them.

Unfortunately I'm not writing a short novel. Stinks to be me. On the flip side, there is a certain amount of pride in seeing the word count grow higher and higher with each passing page. I'm sitting pretty at 70,660. (That means, by the way, that this is the longest work I've ever written, complete or incomplete.) I should write another chapter later, if I stop procrastinating and, more importantly, stop writing this blog post. Neither of which have happened so far.

On the flip side of the flip side, I just finished chapter sixteen (of twenty-four). I need to get to chapter twenty-two at least before the OYAN Workshop. (So far my pace is okay: I've finished four chapters in the last week. But they were short chapters.) I'll be lucky if I get to twenty, I think.

And while luck is at the job, maybe I could wake up at eight tomorrow and write till noon. I think that's simply a dream of a dream—but we'll see.

Also, I wish I had written more in my outline before starting my novel. When it's midnight and I'm all out of ideas, I need my outline to give me a little more than a vague sentence with an uncertain parenthesis or two. (A while back I looked ahead to chapter fifteen and was horrified to find a line of question marks in the middle of a paragraph.)

What about you lot? Writing much lately? Are any of you OYANers out there busy preparing for the SW yet? (Yeah, me neither.)

Oh, and have you read any good books? I just finished one. The Ravaged Realm by D. Barkley Briggs, which was excellent and reminiscent of Lawhead, except more character-driven and not quite as focused on the dusty-history-scholarly stuff, which is a good thing.

Ah, right. I'm supposed to be writing. Gotta fly.