Wednesday, October 31, 2007

How to Become a Bible Character, Part 2

By Timothy Fish timothyfish.net


Chapter One…continued

I went over to grab another slice of pizza. Every other pizza I had ever tasted came in at a far second to this pizza. I decided that God must really be good to put me in a position where even the pizza was great. Everything was working out right. Our senior pastor had made it clear that he thought I would make a good replacement for him when he retired. I was not sure when that would be, but since he was over eighty I did not figure it would be very long. I secretly made the decision to keep the things in my office to a minimum. That would make it easier to move my stuff into the larger office down the hall when the time came. I did not tell anyone about that because I did not want people to think that I was just sitting around waiting for when I could move up to Senior Pastor. It was not that there was anything wrong with my idea. I believe that it is biblical. Moses trained Joshua; Elijah trained Elisha; Jesus trained the apostles; Paul trained Timothy and Titus. There would times that I would wonder if I should train Neal and then expect him to take over the youth ministry when I moved on.

[Ah, here’s some narration. I can even see some humor trying to peek through the shroud of stuffiness your language (lack of contractions) throws over it.]

“So, what do you think?” Tiffany asked as she came up behind me.

“I think I am overwhelmed,” I said.

“We’ll do alright,” she said and scratched my back with her fingernails. “They are all good kids.”

[She must be his wife. For a second I was creeped out there. A lot of names came at me and I forgot Tiffany was even the one he came in with. Please do introduce her as his wife.]

With one word, Tiffany had said that I was not going into this thing alone. Sure, I had the title, for what little it was worth, but we would be doing the work together. To me, that is how a family is supposed to serve the Lord. It does not always work that way. I have seen some families where the man works in one ministry while the woman works in another. In other families, he serves in the ministry and she stays home with the kids. I think it would be better to remain single than to have a family that you only see when you pass each other in the halls at church. What would be the fun of having someone to talk to if you do not have anything in common?

[With the hours a pastor puts in, I understand he’s happy they work in the same ministry. I get what you’re saying, but be careful. Have him focus on the positive—the benefits of having his wife work at his side. Don’t say anything negative. Readers will often mistake your character’s opinions for your own. You seem to be saying that no one should get married if they aren’t going to work together. Like they can’t have anything in common outside of a job. In that case, they’ll dislike your character and you.

Our youth pastor’s wife is a stay-at-home mom. She’s by his side working with the youth when she can, but her main responsibility is to her 3 kids, all under the age of 4.

I’m a writer. My husband does construction maintenance. He’s laid back. I tend to worry. What we have in common is deep faith and a sense of humor. (See, you managed to offend me, and I’m here to help! :o)]

“Yes, they are good kids, but I didn’t realize that there would be so many of them,” I said.

“These are only part of them. Maybe your predecessor wasn’t as bad as what some people seem to think.”

“That could be,” I said. “Or it could be that kids like Neal have had a major influence.”

I do not know how much influence Neal had with the man who worked with the youth before me, but he had a tremendous impact on my own efforts to lead the youth ministry. As an associate pastor, [Finally, a job title. We need this info sooner.] I had other responsibilities as well, so there was a temptation to let the youth ministry slide some. Sometimes, I did not even notice that I was letting it happen, but Neal did. I could always tell when he did not think I was doing enough.

[Wait a minute; I was at a pizza party in someone’s house. Now I don’t know where I am, or how much time has passed. Other than meeting Neal, did anything happen at that party? Finish up that scene, then move on, with an obvious transition.]

“We should go on a float trip this summer,” he might say.

“We’ll see,” I would say. “It takes money to do that kind of stuff.”

“Most of us have money we can pay,” he would say.

“Let me think about it.”

“Isn’t there a big youth meeting coming up?” he once asked.

“Yes, there is,” I said, remembering that I had promised to take the youth group.

“When do we have to have our paperwork in?” he asked.

“Not for a while,” I said and then went back to my office and discovered that it would have to be in a lot sooner than I had thought. After that, I was more careful about keeping everything organized. He never told me directly that he thought I was falling down on the job. I just felt it at times.

[That little bit of remembered dialog might sound better in summary. The “might say” “would say” gets a little tedious. Try something more along the lines of: Neal often made activity suggestions, such as a summer float trip. All I could think of is the money it would take, until Neal reminded me the teens had their own money to spend. Or he’d nudge me into remembering the teens had permission slips that should be due.]

It was a few weeks after I started working with the youth that Neal walked into my office and I panicked as I tried to think of what I had forgotten. It was right after school let out for the day, so I assumed that he had dropped by the church on his way home.

“Brother Wayne, have you got a few minutes?” he asked me, calling me by my first name rather than my last. [If someone introduces him by full name earlier, you won’t need that explanation.]

“Sure, what is on your mind?” I asked and swiveled my chair so that I could face him rather than look at the sermon notes on my computer screen.

Neal did not answer immediately. He took a seat in front of my desk. He sat there for a few moments while I waited.

“I want to do something important,” he said.

Finally something I can help him with, I thought. “Would you like to teach the high school Sunday school class this Sunday?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “I mean, I will if you want me to, but that isn’t what I mean.”

“Maybe you had better explain it to me,” I said.

“I’m not sure if I know how to explain it,” he said.

“Give it a shot. I’m sure you can muddle through it.”

[Telling the kid he can muddle through isn’t exactly going to be a confidence booster. Unless you’re trying to show this pastor fumbling.]

“You know how in the Bible it tells about all these different individuals who did something that no one else would do and it made a difference? I want to do something like that.”

“I don’t follow you,” I told him. He was clearly thinking about something different than I was. I was concerned about a sermon for Sunday night and a lesson for Sunday morning. Tiffany and I had an appointment to visit a church member that evening. I had just heard that a couple of church members were talking about getting a divorce and here was Neal talking about who knows what. I could not figure out what could be more important than teaching a class or sharing the gospel with others and I had seen him do both of those.

“I want to be a Bible character, you know, like Moses. He led the people out of Egypt and it completely changed history.”

“You want to be Moses? A Bible character?” I asked. He was not making sense and the last I had checked, God was not calling any more people to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt.

“I don’t want to be Moses,” Neal said. “I want to be like Moses.” [Again, give us some body movements, expressions. Not only to avoid “said” once in a while, but to flesh out the dialog, add emotion, and give us something to picture—something to anchor us in the scene. Neal doesn’t quite know how to say what he’s trying to say. How is that frustration echoed in his body language? Does he fidget? Is he making eye contact, or avoiding it?

The pastor doesn’t understand. What does that do to his body language? Maybe he’s leaning forward, trying to catch something the boy isn’t saying.]

“You want to be like Moses?” I asked. Once more, I could not make sense of what he was saying. The only thing I could do was echo him.

“Not just Moses. Sampson, Gideon, Nehemiah, Esther, any of them. Like Joshua. He stood up and told people that he and his house were going to serve the Lord. Don’t you think that made a difference when he did that?”

“Yes, I am sure it did,” I said.

“That’s what I want,” he said. “I want to be the one who makes a difference.”

“You are already making a difference,” I said. “You are the most dedicated teenager I know. You may not see the results of what you are doing now, but someday all of these seeds you are planting will take root and produce fruit.”

“I’ve heard all of the clich├ęs before,” he said. He was visibly growing impatient [show us this—how so?] with me because I could not understand. “The guy who mows the yard is told that someone might have been saved that wouldn’t have come to church if the grass hadn’t been mowed. The lady that cleans the restroom is told that people might stop coming if the restrooms smell bad, so she has a part in people being saved.”

“I don’t remember telling anyone that, but I would agree with that statement,” I said.

“Is it really true?” he asked.

“Of course it is,” I said.

“Then why is it that we keep doing all this busywork, the grass gets mowed, the building cleaned, the classes taught, the sick visited and the number of baptisms keeps going down?”

“Maybe some churches are not doing their part,” I suggested. “Baptisms at this church have increased some since last year.”

“Three or four,” Neal said. He had seen the same numbers I had. “That is hardly worth bragging about.”

“Any increase is good,” I reminded him.

“Why do we have to settle for just a small increase? Isn’t God big enough to give us more than that?”

“All I can say is that we need to pray and expect more from God.”

“I don’t want to just pray. I want to be right in the middle of it. I want to be the one he uses.”

“You want to be the one who turns the tide,” I said. I was finally beginning to understand him.

“Exactly!” he said. “I want to be the one who does that one thing that everyone looks back at and says ‘that is where it all started.’”

***


(There’s really no good place to divide this section, so I'll just have to interrupt this conversation. Until Friday.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

How to Become a Bible Character

By Timothy Fish (timothyfish.net)

(Reminder: blue = my comments and additions; red = parts that could be deleted)

Chapter One

As we walked into the large room, the heavenly scent of garlic, pizza and the body odor of a young man, who had not yet learned the finer points of cleanliness, greeted us.

“And you were worried about the pizza,” Tiffany said. “If it tastes half as good as it smells then it will be great.” [I’m stuck on the body odor, and she thinks everything smells great? :o)]

“I wasn’t sure what we would end up with,” I said. [His statement was already made obvious by what Tiffany said.]

One hundred twelve eager eyes watched us as we came through the door. Most were those of members of the youth group. I imagined what was going through their heads. Are these people all right or are they a couple of idiots? I recognized some of the faces already, but I knew few of the names.

[Start with some sort of introduction to your main character. The details of who he is and why he’s there can be revealed slowly, so you don’t start with an information dump. But you should at least start with an emotion. Is he nervous? Does he really want to be there? Give us some of his thoughts right off the bat so we can sympathize with the guy.]

“Let’s have prayer and then we will eat,” I said to the group before I asked the blessing on the food. I had not prepared a speech and I could tell that they did not want to hear one. They rushed to the pizza as soon as I said, “amen.”

[This paragraph is almost a “reaction before the action” type of setup. He says he’s just going to pray, then they can eat, so they already know he won’t make a speech by the time your character says he could tell they didn’t want a speech. You’re also losing an opportunity for a little emotion. Try something like this:

I cleared my throat and the room fell into an expectant hush. The parents eyed me with interest, the teens, a hint of dread. I cleared my throat a second time and resisted the urge to tug at my collar. I hadn’t prepared a speech. Should I have prepared a speech? “Let’s have prayer and then we’ll eat.” The teens’ expressions cleared, and as soon as I said “amen” they rushed to the pizza.]

After most of the kids had gotten their pizza, I went and got a slice.

“So, what do you think?” Ellen Dawson asked me.

“It is very good,” I said. “I think it is the best pizza I have ever tasted.” [Real people use contractions. If you’ve been taught it’s not proper to use contractions in writing, you were taught wrong. If you don’t use them, what you end up with is very formal, stuffy characters your readers will have a hard time warming up to.]

“Thank you,” she said, “But pizza is easy. I you ever need food for anything, be sure to let me know.”

[The beginning is rushed. He steps into a room, whispers to his wife, and says “Let’s pray.” It needs a bit more, including a couple of character introductions. It’s not clear who Tiffany is, and who is Ellen Dawson? Is this her house? From this exchange, she could be the caterer.

And this is much more than a pizza party. It’s his introduction to the teens and parents he’ll be working with. But if you don’t go deeper into his head, it looks like the pizza is the most important thing in the scene.]

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said.

“Have you met everyone yet?” someone asked. I turned around to see one of the older teenagers standing there.

“No,” I said. “I think you introduced yourself before, but I don’t remember your name.”

[You know enough to avoid dialog tags like, “she moaned” “he grunted” or “she laughed.” Said is usually invisible, so it’s the best choice when a tag is needed. But a tag isn’t needed when you have an action beat. A page full of “said” after every bit of dialog is no longer invisible.

The above could be reformatted to lose one said:

“Have you met everyone yet?” someone asked.

I turned around to see one of the older teenagers standing there. “No. I think you…”]

“I’m Neal Watts,” he said. “Let me tell you who everyone is.”

He took a couple of steps toward one of the tables and put his hand on the shoulder of a boy who was getting another slice of pizza.

“This is Kyle,” he said. “He is a freshman. That is his brother, Kevin, over there. Cy and Debra Brown are their parents. [This is a spot where we need less introduction. It’s doing nothing but overwhelming your reader with names. Start with the Kelly introduction that follows, and keep the rest as you have it, a summary of the intros.] Next to Kevin is Kelly. She is going to be an actor.”

“Only in my dreams,” she said when she heard him say that. [Unnecessary. She wouldn’t have responded that way if she hadn’t heard him. And here’s where you could avoid another “said”: Kelly flushed pink and rolled her eyes. “Only in my dreams.”]

“Her mother doesn’t like the idea, but I know she will be in Hollywood some day.” His comment brought a smile to Kelly’s face.

Neal went all the way around the room, telling me each name and something about each kid. He seemed to know how to say just the right thing to make them smile. Just as Kelly had smiled when he mentioned her dream to be an actor, many of the other kids smiled when Neal mentioned other things about them. [That part seems repetitive.]

Every group has a leader. In the youth group at First Baptist, that leader was Neal Watts. I do not think he sought to be the group leader, but he came to it naturally. He was the epitome of the popular kid. He was good looking, the quarterback of the football team and he had good grades. People might have liked him for those reasons, but what really made him popular was that he treated everyone with dignity and respect. The other kids liked him because they felt as if he liked them. I am certain that he liked them very much. He enjoyed being around them and he cared for their well-being. He even told me about some of his concerns for them.

[He knows an awful lot about Neal all of a sudden. This type of info requires a different beginning. One where it’s clear the narrator, your protagonist, is telling this story long after it’s happened. “I first met Neal Watts the night of the pizza party.” Then when you get to a paragraph like that above, you have the option of saying, “Later I would learn that Neal was *detail, detail, detail* But even on that first night I could tell he was a natural leader.” Some readers find this sort of narrator intrusion distracting, but if done with lightness and personality, you can get away with it.

The only other option is not to jump ahead of the scene. Only reveal what he learns that night. You’ve done a good job of showing Neal’s charm. It’s obvious the other kids like him. You can leave it at that.

And the way that paragraph ends concerns me and seems out of character. Is Neal standing there—in ear shot of the entire youth group—telling this guy what concerns him about his friends? That’s rude. And a good way to quickly burn out a new youth minister. He gets all their baggage handed to him up front? :o) I’m sure that’s not what you meant to imply.]

“The one in particular that I am really concerned about…,” I heard Neal say as he reached the end of telling me all about the youth group. His [Neal’s] tone made me pay special attention. If I forgot all of the rest, I needed to remember this one person.

“I have a friend that lives across the street from me,” Neal said. “I know he isn’t saved and I have shared the gospel with him several times. He just doesn’t want anything to do with it.”

“What is his name?” I asked.

“Ben Hartline,” he said.

“Hey, Sara, Neal is talking about your boyfriend again!” one of the teenagers yelled across the room. This particular teenager had been standing near us and had heard part of the conversation. I had been about to tell Neal that I would be praying for Ben.

“Shut your mouth, Shawn!” a girl sitting at the same table as my wife yelled back across the room. “Do you want me to shut it for you?”

“Sara!” Ellen Dawson said to get the girl’s attention and gave her a look that only a mother would give a child.

“I’m sorry, Shawn,” the girl said in response to her mother’s look. “Will you forgive me?” She asked. I doubted the sincerity of her words.

“Sara Dawson?” I asked Neal to confirm what I guessed to be true.

“Yes,” he said.

“Hey, that is a family that I can remember,” I said. “Sara is Ellen’s daughter and Mark is Ellen’s husband and they named their baby Mark also.”

“There you go,” Neal said. “You know, she really could make Shawn shut up, if she wanted to. She got into a fight with Ben, a couple of years ago, when she was in the sixth grade. He is still afraid of her and he is a big guy. You should ask her or Kyle about it sometime.”

“Kyle?” I asked.

“Kyle Brown,” Neal said and pointed to another teenager.

[Things dissolve into small talk after the boyfriend comment. If none of that is important for the reader to know, consider letting it go. The scene needs to focus more on your main character’s emotions and thoughts. It needs a better balance. The scale is very heavy on the side of dialog right now, versus narration.]

“It is going to take me a while to learn everyone’s name,” I said.

“If you need my help, just ask,” Neal said as some of his friends pulled him away to talk. He did not finish telling me about Ben that night.

***

I’m ending it here for today. I have so many comments inserted, I’m breaking this one into three parts. See you Wednesday.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Next week...

I'll be back to critiquing. Yeah!

I'll have a couple more excerpts from Deb Kinnard that you won't want to miss. Plus more. Thanks for your patience, and stay tuned.

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My interview

Richard Mabry interviewed me last week, and today that interview is posted on his blog, Random Jottings. If you're curious as to why I set myself a goal of finishing a novel in six months, you can go there to find out how long it took me to write my first book.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Hanging in

When I started this, I knew I wouldn't do very well at sustaining a regular blog. I just don't have that much fresh creativity. Without critiques, I'm at a loss for what to do with this space.

It echoes. That scares me.

Once I have my rough draft done, I'll be able to shift more of my focus here and maybe come up with some writing articles or something interesting. And I should be done with my rough draft at the end of the month. That's the goal, anyway.

In November this blog will be a stop on a couple of blog tours. More details as the dates approach. And I'm still hopeful the critique requests will start coming in again. I'm offering a free service for crying out loud. People like free.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Imagination

As writers, I have to believe we have a bigger share of imagination than the average person. Other careers perhaps require just as much imagination, but no one else can turn dreams into reality quite so easily--at least reality on paper.

My imagination nearly ruined my early school career.

Through seventh grade I was sent to a private Christian school. After second grade, it just wasn't the right place for me. This particular school used a curriculum in which, once I knew how to read, I basically had to be self taught.

While sitting in a little cubicle.

The adults there didn't even bear the name "teacher", but they were there to answer questions if we got stuck or didn't understand the directions in our booklets.

This system works for students who are self motivated, who have the desire to learn. Who aren't burdened with an overly large imagination. It's like putting your child in his room with six hours of homework to do. Read the text, answer the questions, read the directions, do the math. Certain children would get their work done. Others would do about an hour's worth of work in that six hours.

That was me. And imagination was the culprit.

I'm not trying to be down on the school I went to. I'm a firm believer in Christian education for a variety of reasons. But I think the ideal happens in larger cities where they're able to also give the children a real classroom experience. When I switched to public school in 8th grade--and teachers who taught--my mediocre scholastic ability thrived.

Anyway, back to imagination. When faced with hours and hours of reading writing my answers, I wanted to be doing anything else. A little rivet I found became my pet--complete with a corral made from a ruler and two erasers. An unpopped kernel of corn, a baby named Poppy. Poppy slept on a Kleenex bed in my pencil box. My pet and my baby had all sorts of adventures. The most normal thing I did was to hide a notebook under my workbook and draw.

The school used a demerit system and my demerits were always for "wasting time." I'd have most of my work to take home with me. Imagine how well I did trying to finish it in my room--with actual toys to play with and not just a rivet and an unpopped kernel.

Now I can put my imagination to work for good. Back then I did so little schoolwork in a day, the principle and his wife--my nemesis in those days, giver of all the demerits--thought I was stupid or slow or had a learning disability. I would so like to send her a published book someday and say, "See! This is why I didn't do my work. My imagination was calling to me all hours of the day!"

The purpose of that story was to lead to the question: In what way has your imagination ever gotten you into trouble?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Consensus...too soon to worry

I'm reassured by the answers I got to Wednesday's post. The consensus was basically that branding won't become an issue until I've got several published novels under my belt. People have to know my name before they start to wonder what they can expect from me.

Brilliant bit of reasoning, don't you think?

What made me doubt this is that publishers seem to have earlier expectations from writers these days--such as endorsements. Thankfully, I haven't been asked to provide endorsements. But some unpublished writers have. And this is something writers didn't used to have to think about until they had a contract and a manuscript that was ready to go to print.

And when I think about it, if historical could be a brand in itself...well, that's an awfully wide brand. I've written a novel set in Bible times, the Elizabethan age, and now I'm working on WWII. You can't get any more spread apart than that. If my next is contemporary, that's only a leap forward of sixty-some years.

So anyway, I'm assured that while I'm still in the process of finding my voice, I can write whatever I want. Up to this point, the stories that have found me have been set in the past. And in the near future, I'll continue to let story lead the way.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Branding

Author branding is a very good thing. It's helpful when it comes to marketing and building a readership. Readers want to know what they can expect from an author.

But how far should branding go? If I start out writing historicals and become known for that, does that mean I'm stuck forever writing historical fiction?

There's so much research involved in historical writing that I have to feel passionate about my story before I'll tackle it. Yes, there's research involved in every genre, but contemporary authors only have to research certain elements of their story. Historical involves researching everything--what they wore and ate, how they talked. Details of daily life.

I enjoy research up to a point, but it's time consuming. If I were to set another book in the time period I already researched, that would help. But so far, I don't see that happening.

And after my current WIP, I have no more ideas for historicals. Yes, I only recently started this WIP, but I'd like to have an inkling what I'll do next. The only idea that's coming to me is contemporary.

So how limiting should branding be? Once I'm published, what can readers expect from me? Adventure, an element of romance, an element of peril.

Story is the key. Setting--the where and when--plays a big part in influencing the story. But it's the lives of the characters--their desires, goals and obstacles--that drive a story and keep the readers turning pages.

I don't think there's a clear answer. Branding has been discussed on other blogs, but it's an issue that's on my mind right now. An interview with Lena Nelson Dooley triggered me to post the topic today, but I was already thinking about it.

If I get some interesting comments, I'll continue the discussion another day.

By the way, I did take that week off from my WIP my instincts told me I needed. Now the words are coming again. I'm behind my goal, but not sweating it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Update

I should say something here. This is a blog after all.

Saturday I pushed myself hard and got back on track with my word count--25,000 words written in one month. And I wrote my 1,250 Monday. Then yesterday I hit a wall again. Absolutely nothing came to me. What do you do when this happens?

My normal response would be to walk away from it for a while. Leave it sit for a week. After a break, inspiration usually strikes again. Or at least after giving my brain a rest, I'm ready to push through the block again. But this time I have a goal. If I leave it for a week, I'll fall over 6,000 words behind. Besides, this idea has been stewing for so long, I don't think leaving it alone would help this time.

All the big events are written. What's left is the daily conflict that will connect the dots and drive the story forward. The kind of thing more research won't help me with. It's about relationships and inner turmoil. The story between the lines of history--the fictionalized part.

Any advice? Sympathy?