Deep POV: Confessions of a Christian Writer

The ramblings of an emergent-realistic-edgy-working-for-God-and-the-pay-isn’t-that-great-sometimes-confused-christian-fiction writer (uh, that would be me).

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Critique Groups

A critique group can be a wonderful tool for a writer. I've belonged to many on-line groups, some good, some some not so good, some awful. I think one of the most important components of such a group is that you match yourself with people whom you respect, people who are at your level of commitment (be it casual, involved, or intense), and people who are at your level of development as a writer. Some writers, I know, wouldn't agree. They like to mentor younger writers and I think that's admirable. I've done it myself. But when it comes to a serious critique, I want someone who understands where I am as a writer because they are (roughly) at the same place. That way, we don't spend time going over the same territory we've been over many times before. I don't have to explain to them why they should avoid passive writing (or tell them what that means). I can assume they've already understand writing no-nos like the overuse of adverbs and adjectives. I know they understand what "head hopping" is and can stay in one POV throughout. And so on.

In some ways, though, as helpful as I believe a critique group can be, I find them a bit frustrating because they don't reflect "real life" reading. Your crit partner reads a chapter a week, if you're lucky enough to have a group that productive (I am!). While that is a blessing, it also means that your partners have spent six weeks reading six chapters. Something you mentioned in chapter one, which would be remembered by a normal reader who might read six chapters in an hour or two, isn't remembered by a crit partner. Try as they may (and since I am a crit partner, believe me, I do try!), your partners can't keep track of everything that happens as your novel unfolds over several months worth of reading. So, invariably, some things are lost. As a result, you get asked questions that I don't think the average reader would ask and, if you're like me, you end up backtracking just to make sure you really did talk about that already in chapter one!

The alternative, of course, would be to read the whole work once it's done. I've had readers do that, but they were people from my church who agreed to take the manuscript and tell me what they thought. In other words, they weren't writers. Most writers are knee-deep in their own work and don't have time to read a four-hundred page novel. Recently, someone on a Christian writers site proposed such a group, but he didn't get much of a response. Too bad.

Monday, August 23, 2004

New Way to Read the Bible

There's a great article in Fuse Magazine, a wonderful, literate on-line publication that deals with faith and the arts. Robin Parrish interviews Rob Lacey, whose book The Word on the Street has just been published by Zondervan. It's a book about the Bible, but it's not a paraphrase nor is it a study guide. I haven't read it yet, but from what I gather, Mr. Lacey used his creativity to re-tell some of the biblical stories in a way that engages the reader. Not all the stories though he does apparently tie those less-interesting parts into the book somehow. It sounds fascinating. The thing that interested me the most is that he talks about storytelling and how important it was/is. He says that in our churches we tend to model ourselves more like the apostle Paul, who explained things, than Jesus who told stories (although he explained things too). The didactic approach, Lacey says, is sometimes a turn off to people in church and elsewhere, which I think is true.

That's why I like novel writing. It gives me the opportunity to tell stories. If, as Lacey says, God chooses to speak to someone through that story, I'm delighted. But I don't tell the story in order to preach. One thing I really don't like is novels where the protag suddenly begins a "sermon," whether she's in a pulpit on not! If you want to tell someone some "deep truth," write non-fiction.

In order to read the interview, you need to sign up with Fuse, but it's free and if you're at all interested in the arts, you'll enjoy the magazine immensely.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Omniscient POV

My crit partner, Diane Reese, is a lot smarter than I am. She's also (*sigh*) half my age. She said something recently that I thought was a real insight, maybe just for me, but I'm passing it along anyway. We were talking about the popularity of first-person point of view (POV). I am not fond of the technique because it seems so limiting to me, not to mention challenging. Seasoned writers often caution beginners not to use first-person POV and, even though I am not a beginner, I still wouldn't use it. I like third-person multiple POVs because it lets the writer view things through many different sets of eyes. I think it's fun to tell the reader something through another POV, something that POV character doesn't understand. Anyway, Diane said that she thought the reason so many people use first-person POV is because you can, in effect, write in omniscient POV. For those of you who aren't writers, omniscient POV is out of style and you are never supposed to use it. It’s narrative, pure and simple. Sitting around a campfire, telling a story. Except in 2004, we get our stories from the TV, film, or on-line; we don’t have the patience for a lengthy recital anymore. Or so they say. Lewis used it, Tolstoy, Dickens, etc., but nowadays unless you have a unique and compelling tale to tell, you are supposed to stay away from third-person omniscient POV. But in first-person, you're doing a lot of telling and it really is omniscient, isn't it? After all, you're writing from one person's POV, so he's the god of that story.

A few good examples I've read lately: Life of Pi. The Heartbreaker. My Name is Asher Lev

Friday, August 20, 2004

Violence, Profanity and Nudity - A Dialogue- Part 4 - Christianity Today

This is the final part of David Taylor's four part article. I know you won't want to miss this one because of the title!

Commentaries: Violence, Profanity and Nudity - A Dialogue - Part 4 - Christianity Today Movies

In Defense of Mere Entertainment - Part 3 - Christianity Today

This one's fun. Is God okay with us watching movies or TV, reading books or comics just to veg out? To relax? Or is that some horrible sin?

Commentaries: In Defense of Mere Entertainment - Part 3 - Christianity Today Movies

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

My grandchildren, Morgan and Noah, at Disneyland. Can you tell by their glowing faces? Posted by Hello

Sunday, August 15, 2004

So, You Want to Write, Do You?

Here's another article I wrote for the May 2003 issue of One Write Way, the newsletter of American Christian Writers of Ventura County.

It’s been bothering you for a long time now. Years, maybe. You love to write. For that matter, you love to read, too, and sometimes when you do, you find yourself thinking, “I could do better than that.” You’ve scribbled in your journal or composed inspiring messages to friends; you do small devotionals that bless people; you’ve written letters to the editor and they’ve been published; you’ve taken some steps in the right direction, but you’re still not sure you can call yourself a writer. You want to go further. How do you get that forward momentum? Even more important, how to you keep it?

Commit to a Specific Period of Writing. It doesn’t have to be every day. It could be three times a week or on the weekends or fifteen minutes every night. The point is to write, to be working on the gift God has given you. And when you do this, get the support of your family. Tell them what you’re doing and ask them to not interrupt you during that period. Then obey your own rule: don’t answer the phone, an e-mail or your door if someone knocks. Unless you smell smoke, be unavailable!

Commit to a Specific Amount of Writing. Promise yourself you’ll write for a specified period. It could be time: “I’ll write for twenty minutes.” It could be pages. “One-half hour every day!” Most effective, though, is number of words. Figure out what you’re comfortable with, then set it as a goal. “I’ll write 250 words every day.”

Find a Specific Place to Write. Your bedroom. A spare room in the house. The basement. In the library. Even at Starbucks. Set up a specific area that’s yours even if it means keeping everything in a box on a shelf or in a briefcase. Think of yourself as a professional.

Give Yourself Permission to Write Anything. A gifted writer and author of many books, Carol Gift Page, talks about three stages of writing: Pre-write, Free-write, and Re-Write. Pre-write is the period before you start; you dream and plan what needs to be said. Free-Write is just as it implies: you give yourself permission to write. You don’t edit. You don’t judge. You ask that critic looking over your shoulder to take a coffee break. You simply write. If you’re at the keyboard and have to close your eyes to do this, please do so. And then, later, you re-write, i.e., you edit. The reason many writers never succeed in writing is because they refuse to take that middle step—they will not risk failure or anything short of perfection. Don’t be one of those writers. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Break Down What You Want to Do in Small, Easy-To-Manage Steps. You want to write the great American novel, but feel overwhelmed by the task? Break it down. Decide on your characters. Write descriptions of them. Interview them to find out what they’re like. Look for pictures of them in magazines. Begin to outline your plot and see if a theme emerges. Read a book like, “The Complete Guide to Writing and Selling the Christian Novel” by Penelope Stokes. If you’ve never written fiction before, try writing something a little less intimidating—how about a short story? The same idea applies to any form of writing.

Create Goals and Actions Steps. Begin to lay out the small steps listed above. How much time will you need for each step? Put it on a calendar or write it up in a list. Become accountable to yourself. Even better, become accountable to someone else. A spouse or a friend. Create expectations for yourself and then, each time you enter your workspace during your specified writing time, check off what you’re able to accomplish.

Pray. Most importantly, take it to the Lord! Ask Him to help you with every step—to give you the strength and the courage to walk down the path He’s laid out for you. Rely on His strength. Remember, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” (Philippians 4:13) is much more than just words on a page. It’s true … a truth for you to remember every time doubt creeps in.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

SOTP or Not?

A debate goes on within the writing community (Christian and non-Christian) as to the "correct" way to write a novel. Do you do it spontaneously, sitting down in front of your keyboard and letting the Holy Spirit (or Muse, if you will) simply carry you as the story unfolds? Or do you plot everything before hand, using Excel spreadsheets, character worksheets, graphs, charts, complicated writers' software, etc. to plan out every last detail of your book?

They call the first group SOTP (Seat of the Pants) writers and the second group, well ... organized? Actually, either way is the right way as long as it works for you. I wrote my first novel after doing some character plotting and minimal initial plotting. I made it through, but really ended up with a mess toward the end because I had no idea where I was going. For me, the go-with-the-flow didn't work all that well.

However, I don't subscribe to the plot-out-every-last-detail either. Robert McKee, in his superb book Story, tells screenplay writers to think through in excruciating detail every scene before one word is written. I couldn't do that. I use a method taken from Randall Ingermanson called the Snowflake Method, but (as he suggests) modify it for my own use. So I do character studies and search for pictures of my characters (Here’s a tip: use on-line photography sites that offer head-shot services for great pictures of real people, like this one). I know what my major plot points will be. I even (on the novel I'm writing now) laid out scenes in a spreadsheet. But it's done loosely, with the knowledge that it will (and does) change along the way. For me, that works beautifully because it gives me the structure I need to set up the novel without killing all the spontaneity. Each writer, though, has to find her own balance.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

The Honest-to-God Truth about Movies - Part 2 - Christianity Today

This is Part 2 of W. David O. Taylor's article in Christianity Today. He's talking about an issue that's dear to my heart: being real in Christian movies. Rather than presenting a sanitized version of life (i.e., minus the mess and heartbreak), he's advocating honesty. I'd like to see this concept applied to a greater degree in Christian (read: CBA) fiction. I am not against the books that present Christian life in a somewhat (for me) unrealistic picture. I support the right of people to read books for escape or pleasure, the kind of reading you to to "get away from it all." However, I'd like to see the other kind of writing represented to a greater degree.

Commentaries: The Honest-to-God Truth about Movies - Christianity Today Movies

Monday, August 02, 2004

Commentaries: What Is a Good Christian Movie, Anyway? (Part 1) - Christianity Today Movies

Here Commentaries: What Is a Good Christian Movie, Anyway? (Part 1) - Christianity Today Movies begins a great series of articles on Christian movies, a discussion that parallels one taking place in the Christian writing community. Check it out!