Posted in Thoughts, Writings

A Published Book Does Not a Writer Make

Sunday afternoon, I started reading a new book. It was one I picked up in the children’s section at a library recently, and was based on the true story of a girl who was captured by Indians in the 1700s and chose to stay with them when given the chance to return to her original life. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to find my new favorite book, but it sounded interesting.

The introduction that gave some historical background was fine. But I only got three pages into the story before commenting to my mom about how badly written it was.

The book read like a middle school-aged kid’s homework assignment to write a story about a person they learned about in their history class. Maybe one that had been carefully edited by a grownup for grammar and such things, but still.

“The main character did this thing. When she was done, she also did this other thing. It was hard, because she felt sad.”

That’s… basically how the whole thing went. It was painful. There was zero emotion. You never once got into any character’s head at all or cared about what happened.

I suppose the publisher thought this was acceptable because it was educational and just for children? It was educational. I did learn some things. But all this does is teach kids that books and history and stories are super boring, which is a terrible message.

And people are getting paid for this?

 

Sunday night, I started reading the last chapter of a fan fiction. It was written using characters from the TV show Voltron, which IMDb summarizes as, “Five teenagers become the last line of defense for the galaxy in an intergalactic battle against the evil alien force led by King Zarkon.”

I have never actually watched this show, but a friend has told me lots about it and showed me two or three scattered episodes, so I have absorbed enough to be familiar with the main characters and interested in them. I suppose I’m a secondhand fan. So when said friend was exclaiming over this fan fiction, I was game to read it. And the main attraction was the last chapter, where the leader of the team had to rescue his crew after a spaceship crash.

Every. single. sentence. contained more emotion than the entire book I skimmed through earlier in the day. Every. one.

Sure, some of the prose could have been smoothed out, but it was all fixable stuff. The story structure was good. And I absolutely cared. A lot. I’m still processing some of the emotion from that story.

 

I couldn’t help comparing the two reading experiences. Having something published seems like the Ultimate Success for a writer. And it is a success. But it is not necessarily an accurate measurement of how skilled a writer you are.

Sometimes absolutely terrible books are published. Someone gets to see their book in print and get paid and receive recognition that they don’t deserve. Meanwhile, others write beautiful, moving stories that will never be read by more than a few people.

It’s not fair. But to those of us writers who have yet to publish anything, it can also look like hope.

Don’t let publication or lack thereof define your value as a writer.

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Posted in Thoughts, Writings

Alphabetical Writing Advice

Accountability. Maybe you can give yourself a deadline and hold yourself to it. Maybe a project like NaNoWriMo where a ton of people give themselves the same deadline would be good for you. Maybe you need to get a friend to periodically ask you how your writing is going.

Break your routine. Go somewhere different to write once in a while. A coffee shop. The library. The great outdoors. Some place where you don’t have to tune out your usual distractions.

Create bonus material. Maybe you write songs or poetry. Maybe you make graphics with relevant pictures and song lyrics (see example below). Maybe you draw your characters. These things might be just for you, even if you plan to publish what you’re writing, but they can help you stay involved in the story even when you don’t feel like writing.

Discuss your characters with others. One of the most motivating things is finding someone who shares your love of your characters and wants to know what happens to them.

Experiment with AUs. So you’re writing fantasy. But what if you change it up? What if your characters lived in the real world and had to file taxes? What if they were superheroes (or villains)? What if they were spies? Figuring out these things can help you get to know the nuances of your characters, and that can only help.

Fanfiction. Writing with characters and a setting you already know well is great practice.

Generators. You can find random generators for lots of things. I find them especially useful for naming characters or places. This website has a lot of different options.

Help someone else. Read their writing. Have a word war. Offer encouragement. It’ll be good for both of you.

Ignore advice that doesn’t make sense to you. People like to share things that work for them. But writing is a very personal activity. It’s okay if a method that works beautifully for someone else doesn’t do anything for you.

Just write. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just get something on paper. It might stink. But it can be edited. And it might give you the inspiration to go on and make something better.

Keep taking care of yourself. Food and water and cleanliness and healthy relationships are important and keep your brain functional. You kind of need your brain for writing.

Learn from what you write. What works? What doesn’t work? Can you figure out why?

Make a playlist of songs that remind you of your characters and your story. This is good for plotting and for putting you in the mood to write. Here’s one I made a while ago.

Notice what you love in books you read. Try that.

Observe people. Truth is stranger than fiction. You might get ideas.

Practice, practice, practice. (The video is only slightly relevant, but it makes me happy.)

Quit when you need to.

Research. Really. It can be intimidating, but once you get going, it can also be interesting and fun. And you might learn things that will give you ideas you never would have thought up on your own.

Set a timer. If you keep procrastinating, sometimes forcing yourself to focus for just five or ten minutes can get you into the swing of things. And if not, at least you have five or ten minutes worth of writing done.

Take a shower. Put your body on autopilot and let your imagination work its magic. Being clean is a nice bonus.

Use what you like. Write with pen or pencil, in a nice notebook or on scraps of paper, speak into a tape recorder, type on a computer or your phone… Whatever works.

Visit places your characters visit, if you can. It adds a fun new dimension to the writing experience.

Written? Kitten! gives you a picture of a kitten for every hundred words you write. Very inspiring.

Xerox everything. Make backups. Whether that’s physical copies or saving documents on flash drives or uploading them to the cloud. Lost writing is sad.

You are the expert on your story. People can give you lots of expert editing advice, and much of it is certainly worth considering and using, but in the end, the story exists in your head.

Zone out and tell yourself stories. When appropriate, of course. Probably not when you’re supposed to be helping customers at work or things like that…

Posted in Christianity, Life, Thoughts

The Patience of Job?

Confession: Job doesn’t seem very patient to me.

The first time I read the book for myself, I was highly disillusioned. I grew up learning that Job was this incredibly patient man through all the horrible things that happened to him, and here he spends the whole book complaining. It’s like people politely ignore everything Job says except one sentence: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”

I’m not exactly blaming Job. I’d have complained a lot in his place, too. But he’s not really what I expected. And since the first two definitions of “patient” in my Webster’s Dictionary are, “1 enduring pain, trouble, etc. without complaining; 2 calmly tolerating delay, confusion, etc.,” I think my confusion was justified.

Job is never described as patient in the book of Job. The description comes from James 5:11:

Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and full of tender mercy.

This is the King James Version, so that might be why this is the description that has stuck. However, it’s not the only way the word has been translated.

I checked the 58 English translations on biblegateway.com (it’s a very useful resource), and this is how translations of the word numbered:
Endurance – 21
Patience – 20
Perseverance – 5
Steadfastness – 4
Patient endurance – 4
Other – 4

While I’m not trying to say the translation “patient” is inaccurate (I’m no Greek scholar), I think the way we use the word in general conversation today is not quite the right picture of Job.

There’s a third definition in my Webster’s Dictionary that paints a better picture: “diligent; persevering.” It’s not that Job never complained. He wanted to die; he wished he had never been born; he protested over and over that he’d done nothing wrong, this was not fair. But he did determinedly cling to his faith in God and God’s ultimate goodness throughout all his questions and uncertainties and complaints.

The book of Job certainly addresses suffering, but not in the way we’re used to. Most books about suffering (at least in my experience) are written in retrospect. The author recounts how they have struggled and how they have learned and grown from the experience. This is valid and valuable; we are instructed to appreciate the growth and fruit suffering brings into our lives (James 1:2-41 Peter 1:3-9). But sometimes, when you’re reading such things while in the midst of suffering, it can be discouraging.

Yay, you’ve learned, you’re more mature now, that’s great for you. But I’m still stuck here in the middle of all this hurt. I’m a wreck. I can’t connect to your hopeful stories. I’m not seeing much new maturity in myself. This is no help.

One exception I can think of that I’ve read is C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. It was written when he was in the throes of losing his wife to cancer. It’s not some thoughtful reflection on those times. It’s full of thoughts and feelings untempered by the growth and maturity that came later. It contains statements about God that I know Lewis, during other seasons of his life, did not actually believe. It’s rather uncomfortable to read.

The book of Job is like that. It lets us see Job’s hurt and doubt as he experiences them, not in retrospect. That’s uncomfortable. And while God eventually steps in to remind Job, “Your power is less than nothing compared to mine. It’s time you reorient your perspective,” he lets Job do an awful lot of ranting first.

When we reduce Job’s story to one about a man who was Super-Duper-Never-Complaining-Patient when life was horrible, we do it a disservice. It’s so much more powerful than that. It’s an example of a persevering patience. At the end, it’s a jolting reorientation of perspective. And maybe part of the reason God put the uncomfortable middle section in the Bible is to remind us that those stuck-in-the-middle-of-hurt times are valid, too. God sees them. God listens. He does not immediately insist that you snap out of it into the maturity you’re supposed to be gaining. He can handle it.

He is patient.

Posted in Christianity, Thoughts

Who Can Stand When He Appears?

The book of Malachi consists of a satiric conversation where God says, “You’re doing this wrong thing,” the Israelites reply, “What are you talking about? We’re not doing that,” and God says, “YES, YOU ARE, LOOK AT THIS EXAMPLE, NOW STOP IT.”

In the middle of the book, we have this exchange:

You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?”
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
– Malachi 2:17-3:4

They wanted the God of justice, but that’s one of those, “Be careful what you wish for,” situations. The God of justice was coming, and it would not be a pretty picture. He would remove their impurities, putting them through fire and scrubbing them clean, because their righteousness was no match for his, and it needed to be.

Who can stand when he appears?

No one.

With its echoes of Isaiah 40, as quoted in Mark 1 (Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”), this sounds like a prophecy of the coming of Jesus. But we find similar ideas about the coming of the God of justice throughout the New Testament (such as in Romans 1:18-2:11, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3, and 2 Peter 3:1-13), so I think it’s fair to say that at least the concept applies both to Jesus’ first coming and his second.

The first coming is in the past. The second is the one we still have to worry about, and what are we supposed to do if no one can endure it when the God of justice comes?

After some more discussion of Israel’s sinfulness, the book of Malachi goes on to more fully answer the question about who can endure it:

Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.”
– Malachi 3:16-4:3

Who can stand when he appears?

The righteous who serve and fear him.

But being righteous is hard. Fallible humans fail over and over and over. And so Jesus came to do what we don’t and can’t, to be righteous, to let us be baptized into his life and death and resurrection and have his righteousness for our own if we so choose.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.
– 1 John 4:13-19

Who can stand when he appears?

Me.

Posted in Thoughts

Since It’s National Poetry Month…

Free verse poetry is not my thing, I say as I’m about to share some with you.

Usually I like my poetry to rhyme and have solid rhythm. But I often find something about Tyler Knott Gregson’s small, fluffy pieces appealing. Here are a few favorites from his book Chasers of the Light: Poems from the Typewriter Series.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Thoughts, Writings

You Don’t Have to Know Your Character’s Favorite Joke

When we were kids, my brother and I were notorious for our inability to choose favorite things. We would spend the day at the zoo, Mom and Dad would want to know what our favorite part was, and…

“I don’t know.”

It drove our parents crazy.

I can’t speak for my brother, but I know that at least on my part, it wasn’t stubbornness or anything like that. I genuinely did not know. I enjoyed lots of things about the day, and I couldn’t pick a favorite.

I do have favorites in some categories. Among others, I have a favorite color (purple), a favorite book (The Lord of the Rings), and a favorite math problem (7 x 3 = 21).

But I didn’t sit down one day with a list and assign myself these favorites. They developed gradually.

If you are a writer, you have probably seen lots of lists with titles like, “32 Things You Should Know About Your Character Before Writing”. It can be easy to start to think that if you don’t know your character’s favorite color, joke, pizza toppings, and pair of shoes, along with a whole bunch of things like their deepest fear and biggest regret, they’re not real enough and you can’t write about them.

But maybe you can.

Recently, I came across this on Pinterest:

I am definitely Writer B. It was quite freeing to see that there is apparently at least one other person out there who considers this a valid way to write.

Sometimes I found out about a character’s favorite things. I have a reformed villain who considers herself Extremely Sophisticated in Every Way who secretly loves eating Nutella straight out of the container with a spoon. Another character shares my love of the band Yellowcard, though we have different favorite albums (sometimes I make him come on road trips with me so we can jam, though he tends to refuse to wear his seat belt, and I don’t approve).

But usually these things develop gradually. Either in story context, or when I’m thinking about the character while doing other things, or the like. If I try to make up answers for a list, it feels like I’m trying to force things onto the character that never quite fit properly.

And really, you don’t actually need all these things. I haven’t yet found myself in a situation where I needed to know a character’s favorite joke (just watch, now that I said that, it will become absolutely vital for a story someday soon). Maybe your character loves jokes and goes around telling everyone their favorite. Maybe they’ll need to tell their favorite joke to save their life. Otherwise… You can probably get by without it.

I am a real person with depth, and I often couldn’t answer all the questions on these lists about myself. I figure that if that is the case, a character can feel real and have depth even if I can’t answer all the questions about them either.

If you’re the sort of person who loves these lists and finds them to be exactly what you need for developing characters, that’s excellent. Keep it up, chief, keep it up.

If not, if fully-formed characters just exist in your head but you couldn’t tell me their favorite joke to save your life or theirs, maybe you’re also a Writer B. Embrace it. It’s fun.

Posted in Life, Thoughts

Living on the Edge for Homebodies

We don’t all want to climb Mount Everest. Some of us need adventuresome friends around to occasionally drag us out of our comfy chairs where we’re snuggled in a blanket, drinking tea, happily reading about other people climbing Mount Everest.

But sometimes our adventuresome friends are busy when our lives need a little shaking up. What then? Where can we get that, “This is so different and dangerous,” feeling?

  • Eat spaghetti while wearing a white shirt.
  • Go to McDonald’s at 10 at night just to get out of the house. Or at least contemplate the possibility.
  • Sit in a different chair and gain a new perspective on your living room.
  • Try a new show on Netflix. Maybe even in some genre you don’t usually go for.
  • Knit while riding in the car. Especially with those dangerous double-pointed needles.
  • Rearrange your closet or kitchen or the like so you won’t be able to find anything for ages.
  • Paint your nails a very bright color. If you’re going to go out and don’t want people to see it, stick with your toenails and then wear socks and shoes.
  • If you want to be a little more daring, dye your hair. You can do it at home.
  • Find a recipe for something you’ve never made and get cooking.
  • Build a fort with blankets and pillows and maybe your dining room table. Spend the day in it.
  • Listen to some different music than your usual.
  • Mix up outfits. You know the shirt and pants you always wear together because the first time you wore the shirt you wore those pants with it? Find a different pair of pants.
  • Similarly, go to a restaurant where you always get the same thing and order something you’ve never tried.
  • Take down your knick-knacks and replace them with some that you’ve been storing because you don’t have room to display them all.
  • Download a new game on your phone.
  • Go for a drive and get lost, but take a GPS so you can find your way home again when you’ve had your fill of adventure. Make sure you have enough gas.
  • Order takeout from the other Chinese restaurant. Because there’s always some other Chinese restaurant.