Monday, November 12, 2018

Armistice Day--Remembering True Heroes

My friend John Hemminger with his P-47
“Pay attention!”
            Steve Kelley, sportswriter for the Seattle Times, recently recollected the advice his father used to give him when they sat together watching the Philadelphia Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium. “Pay attention,” his dad would say when Willie Mays came to bat. “You’re watching greatness. You don’t want to forget this.”
I remember sitting on “Tightwad Hill” with my uncle watching the farm club Tacoma Twins, cheering wildly as I peered through the binoculars. Next day after school, I’d grab my bat and try my best to imitate the swing of those heavy-hitter wannabes. For the record, no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t wired for baseball greatness. “You can’t put in what the Lord’s left out,” quipped the trainer in the classic film, Chariots of Fire. When I would come to bat at neighborhood games, on queue the outfield moved in, or just squatted down and waited until I finished flailing the air. Through all this, however, I have figured out something important: I pay attention to men I think are great, and I desperately try to be like them. And so do you. 
Kelley’s dad was right about one thing: you don’t want to forget greatness. We must sit up and “pay attention” to real greatness. But what makes someone worthy of this attention? What makes someone truly great, a worthy hero, someone you should never forget, someone you should hold in the highest regard, someone you should imitate?

All men honor heroes
“Any nation that does not honor its heroes,” said Abraham Lincoln, “will not long endure.” In an age when debunking heroes has become as American as apple pie and hot dogs, an age of flag-burning ingratitude, of pompous disdain for the past, an age that chants “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture’s got to go,” we should cringe at Lincoln’s prophetic words. Maybe we’ve come too close. Maybe we’re there already. Maybe we are a people that mock at real heroes and, in their place, are now bowing down before the real villains.
Nineteenth-century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle wrote that “Hero-worship cannot cease till man himself ceases.” In the fifth century, Augustine referred to men as homo adorans, man made to adore, to worship, to venerate heroes. Thus, kings and generals are followed by their adoring armies even into the jaws of death. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” cried Shakespeare’s Henry V as he rallied his men before the battered walls of Harfleur, “or close the wall up with our English dead!”  In the 1st century BC, Julius Caesar was so adored by his legions that they were prepared to cross the Rubicon and march in defiance against Rome and Pompey. Or the young Alexander the Great motivating thousands to fight and die so that he might spread Greek culture and language--and rule the world in the bargain.
The literature of Western Civilization is the fascinating saga of great achievement, an enduring celebration of heroes. Great poetry praises the deeds of heroes, real or imagined, from the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, to the bloody triumphs of Beowulf, to the dragon-slaying Red Cross Knight of Edmund Spenser’s epic allegory, to the 600 courageous men of Tennyson’s Light Brigade, even to the humble heroics of Tolkien’s mythical Frodo the Hobbit--it all fires the blood and fascinates the imagination.
One thing is overwhelmingly clear: You and I were made to adore heroes. We pay attention with all our being to great men.

Beware of false heroes
This ingrained tendency to adore heroes, however, poses particular challenges for young men growing up in a culture inundated by glitzy, muscle-bound icons of popular culture and the sports arena. Pop culture particularly plays on your love of heroes. It could not survive without it. The icons of entertainment demand your worship. They live and die for it. So it has always been.
Many historians argue that the history of the world is the history of men following heroes. It would be just as accurate to say that the history of the world is the history of young men blindly following the wrong heroes, following unworthy examples, whose vices are tragically compounded in their fawning worshipers.
So who are your heroes? In today’s reading, Paul urges the Philippian Christians to “Join with others in following my example,” that is to say, follow the right men, set up heroes for yourself and be like them. Speak as they speak; do as they do. The Bible often speaks this way. Twenty-eight times we are told to imitate others, often to follow Christ the Captain of our salvation, but fully seventeen of those times we are commanded to follow others, like Paul, who have been transformed by the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ and have been enabled by that same power to heroically follow Christ.
 Paul, here, is in earnest. This is no casual advice, take it or leave it. No. He reminds us, “I have often told you before and now say again even with tears.” Why with tears? Why so earnest? Because “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” Because an earthly hero has his “mind on earthly things.” And the young man who chooses to follow worldly heroes, to applaud at their entertainments, to listen to their music, to cheer at their achievement, to spend his money on their products, to paper the walls of his bedroom with their posters, that young man should not be surprised if he follows those heroes right into the jaws of hell. From this, you and I are duty bound to draw the line in the sand. This is no trivial matter. Don’t follow the enemies of the cross of Christ. “Their destiny,” Paul declares without equivocation, “is destruction.” And so will yours prove to be if you follow them.
Moreover, the more impressed you are by the status and achievement of unbelievers, by their sophisticated good looks, by their clothes, their shoes, by their posture, their swagger, by their prowess in sports, by their associations, their way of speaking, by their money and fancy cars, lavish houses, planes, and yachts, the more you are moved by these things the less you will be able to separate out their vices. Soon they won’t seem like vices at all. At the last their vices will be yours. Know that their end will be yours as well. Fully expect to become like those you adore.  
“We are all creatures of imitation,” wrote nineteenth-century Anglican bishop J. C. Ryle. “Precept may teach us, but it is example that draws us.” And since those examples can draw us from both directions, you must beware of the tendency to go easy on the parts of your sports or music heroes’ lives that you know are sinful.
Do you honestly think that you will be unaffected by the foul language, the unfaithful living, the hostility to truth, or the swaggering arrogance of your worldly heroes? I doubt it. And the more impressed you are with their achievement the more likely you are to embrace other elements of their lifestyle.
Don’t expect to see it coming like a tidal wave. It all happens gradually. Rarely does a young man, like yourself, who is growing up in a Christian home, rarely does he plunge headlong into sin with his back against all he has been taught. Generally, it happens little by little, one single, what’s-the-big-deal step at a time. “The road to hell,” observed C. S. Lewis, “is a gradual one.”
The best way to avoid the gradual road to hell, is to cultivate honor for and imitation of truly worthy heroes. Here’s one of mine.

Fight to the death
            I’ve thought a good deal lately about one of my heroes. P-47 World War II fighter pilot, John Hemminger lived with his wife and three children on American Lake, a five-minute bicycle ride from my childhood home. I was the neighbor kid who always hung around in the summer, fishing, swimming, and doing wood-working projects in the basement. Along with the stray dogs that attached themselves to kind-hearted Mr. Hemminger, I too adopted the Hemminger family as my own.
My mother’s rule was that I couldn’t go swimming unless the thermometer read seventy degrees. I soon figured out how to nudge it up with the hair dryer, and then I’d hop on my bike and off to the Hemmingers. I always tried to time things so I could sit down for the usual lunch fare of grilled cheese sandwiches, soup, Gravenstien apple sauce, dilly beans, and smoked salmon. Nobody did homemade applesauce like Edna Hemminger, and nobody did salmon like John Hemminger.
John Hemminger was a man of deeds and not words, and so I rarely heard him speak about the war, and never about his role in it. I was forced to piece things together from pictures and from stories others told about his role in that great conflict.
“The greatest catastrophe in history,” Stephen Ambrose called World War II and “the most costly war of all time.” In April, 1945, 300,000 Americans attacked the Japanese island of Okinawa, while the US Navy was pounded by 350 kamikaze planes. We lost thirty-six ships. In human life, the casualties were beyond staggering: 49,200 men in one battle. The Japanese lost 112,129 human lives at Okinawa. Still they fought on.
Germany surrendered in May, but by summer, it appeared that Japan would fight on until there was not a Japanese soldier who remained alive. A full-scale Allied invasion of Japan seemed the only option, but it was an invasion that would have cost 1,000,000 American soldiers their lives. President Truman opted to drop two atomic bombs on Japan in hopes of breaking the enemy’s will to fight to extermination. It was as if the entire nation had become kamikaze flyers.
Fighter pilot greatness
In 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America joined the war, and can-do men like John Hemminger were desperately needed to fight. He said goodbye to his childhood sweetheart, Edna Mae Firch, and joined up.
The picture I will always have in my mind of him is of a quiet young man in a leather bomber jacket, a shy, boyish grin stretching across his handsome features, posing with his beloved P-47, affectionately dubbed Edna Mae. Though called on to do highly dangerous and daring feats, there was no hint of the cocky, swaggering dog fighter in his looks or carriage.
John Hemminger loved machines. I can only begin to imagine his fascination at first sight of his P-47’s Pratt and Whitney, eighteen cylinder, 2,800 horsepower engine, or the heart-pounding thrill when he first accelerated into the heavens at his plane’s maximum speed of 433 mph.
He was a gentle, peace-loving man, so I particularly wonder what his first thoughts were when he laid eyes on the eight 12.7mm Browning machine guns bristling from the wings of his P-47, a machine engineered for killing. One thing I’m sure of: there was no better cared for fighter plane than his, and likely none more skillfully used for its designed purpose.
John Hemminger was credited with the last P-47 kill of the war. By some accounts, he and the Japanese pilot were slugging it out somewhere over the blue waters of the Pacific, September 2, 1945, while American top brass accepted the Japanese unconditional surrender on board the USS Missouri. The facts are unclear, because John Hemminger rarely spoke about the war, and boasting was something he never did.
What is clear is that John Hemminger, along with a generation of Americans, was a humble servant hero who did his duty, and then, unlike many with whom he fought, he returned home. Bidding farewell to his P-47 Edna Mae, he married his beloved Edna Mae, raised his family, and lived a long, seemingly insignificant, life. John Hemminger and his dear wife were not bombastic about their faith in Christ, but few people have more consistently lived out the Lord’s injunction to love their neighbor as themselves. Consequently, their home was a quiet, contented one, filled with stability and service.
In the world’s eyes, after the war John Hemminger lived an ordinary life, some might have called it boring. But not so to the dozens of missionaries he supported and took fishing when they were home, and whose decrepit cars he repaired, rebuilt, or replaced, often at his own expense. And all done hush-hush, so no one would give him credit for his latest acts of generosity.

True greatness
Jesus told his disciples, if they wanted to be great, to become servants. He didn’t say to become great baseball players, or inventors, or CEOs, or powerful politicians, or celebrity pastors, or best-selling authors—or even fighter pilots. “Whoever wants to become great,” Jesus said, “must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). If you want to be great you too, must be a servant. John and Edna Hemminger were great Christians, because they were transformed into great servants by the ultimate Servant of servants, Jesus Christ.
My hero John Hemminger died of Parkinson’s Disease, December 27, 2006. His wife Edna Mae suffered for decades with Multiple Sclerosis before her home going. But I never heard either of them complain. They bore their trials with patience—even with smiles. Nor did I ever hear either of them speak critical words about others. I think they were simply too busy, in Christ’s name and by his grace, loving and serving their neighbors. Pay attention, young man. This is true greatness.
You probably don’t need to travel to faraway places to get to know and honor servant heroes. I suspect that in your church, neighborhood, and extended family there are several John and Edna Mae Hemmingers. Folks like them help unmask the masquerade of what passes for greatness among modern celebrities. Pop icons and all their vain-glorious glitter look pretty irrelevant next to great people like these--but only if you train your eye and your affections to know and honor genuine greatness.

Glitz or glory
Let’s face it. It’s far easier to talk about being impressed with servant greatness than it is to actually be so. I wonder if the normalization of sin is not the reason. “Worldliness is what makes sin look normal,” wrote David Wells, “and righteousness look odd.” Hence, venerating worldly heroes sets us up to begin feeling that humble, holy living is pretty out of touch, not much fun, certainly not cool.
Here again, you must pay attention. When you honor heroes who live worldly lives, you should expect to gradually become more impressed with their worldliness. Meanwhile, your worldly hero’s lifestyle will increasingly seem to be the normal way of things. And since no one wants to be odd, everyone wants to think of himself as a normal guy, so gradually you will wink at their vices, embrace their values, and imitate their ways. Finally, Paul’s point in Philippians 3:17-21 is that if you do this, when the dust settles, you will share in their destruction.
Puritan Jeremy Taylor described the incremental decline that a young man should expect to pass through if he forges friendships with worldly heroes and their sin. “First it startles him, then it becomes pleasing, then easy, then delightful, then frequent, then habitual, then confirmed, then the man is impenitent, then obstinate, then resolves never to repent, and finally he is damned.”
On the Judgment Day, all that worldly glitz, all that superficially impressive lifestyle will be unmasked. And if you have been duped by a false hero, by one whose “mind is on earthly things,” it will be far too late to halt the cycle of decline. You must do it now.
Join with others in following the example of great Christians—like John and Edna Mae Hemminger. The Bible is full of them, and so is church history. Pay attention to them.
Throw in your lot with the truly greats. Know your citizenship. Paul says it is “in heaven.” Know that most of the world’s heroes are frauds. Their power, their prestige, their wealth, is all borrowed and will someday be swept away with them. “Their destiny is destruction.” No real man would throw in his lot with losers like that.
You, young man of God, were predestined for a glorious body, transformed by the infinite power of the Lord Jesus Christ. Make him your ultimate hero, honor those who honor him, and resolve that he will have no worldly rival.
Learn more about my 20th Century books, War in the Wasteland (WWI) and The Resistance (WWII), both a significant CS Lewis historical  

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Happy writers! Join me for the next OCWMC in Oxford
Our writing group Inkblots has been hitting and missing, what with my travel schedule and everyone else's busy lives too. But here we are.

Sydney leads off with a continuation of her previous reading. Seeking more mystery, dream-like, not a good guy or bad guy, reacting character. She wonders if she should rewrite from another character's perspective. Haldor, archbishop, abbot. There is a great deal of mysterious feel to this, intrigue. Character reluctant to turn when another person enters the public house. There is a tortured memory of someone recently dying. Sydney's narrative is intensely intriguing, weighty, epic-feeling,  maybe even dark. Asmon arrests in the name of the king. Evocative description that seems very much to matter, not merely dangling description as an end in itself, but then again, I find myself drawn in by the description but not sure what is happening to whom. What she describes in the trees and the forest, the prison, the cathedral, the plain--all seems to be painting the world that encircles her characters. There is also a lyric character to Sydney's writing, prose that reads almost like poetry. I do think that the movement of characters and what concerns them, what they are doing, is almost subsumed in the rich, vivid, layered description of the cathedral. It does seem like the atmosphere, the mystery is almost more important than your characters. Haldor sees his mother's grave again. We're done here, seemed to me to be out of step with the high-register verbiage of the rest of the narrative, too informal, modern-world. The stabbing scene came out of context to my ear. I was not quite clear what was happening, though I was caught up in the narrative so remained intrigued.

Cheyenne has read this manuscript on the page and felt that it was much clearer when reading than when just listening. We seemed to agree that she should stick with Haldor's perspective.

Cheyenne decided to reread the same chapter that she read last time she was with us, a very good idea. She hired an editor, who asked her if she was willing to put in lots of hours in rewriting and revision. A good question. That's just good writing: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Sci-fi, sort of medieval Japan-esque setting. Her editor read both versions and encouraged Cheyenne to press on. First-person pov, interacting with Amanda. Juliette is our main character. I thought the description of the sun dappled on the ground was going to be a pleasant description, but then you began to describe excessive heat, discomfort. Several of your throw-away comments didn't work to my ear, not sure what you were accomplishing with them. Character development? Transitional material? I found the terror, fear for her life, death imminent, falling (but I was not sure what had gone wrong, what was happening that made her fear imminent death), was abrupt, especially after the casual tone of the earlier part of the chapter. Good skydiving metaphor. Falling... And she left us mid-fall.

John felt the falling through the roots was abrupt, confusing. Sydney commented that the story reminded her of Aslan saying that people always get what they want but they don't always like it.

Argh, I had to run pick up my daughter, so stepped out and missed some of the critique. John read from Saving Grace and received valuable help from the others.

I read from the second half of The Resistance.

Five Inkblots gathered in the Scriptorium this evening, beautiful sunset over the ridge, cows mooing, goats bawling, over the fence..

I was voted to read off first, not my usual. I read from the most recent finished chapter in The Resistance.

Rachel Ng reads from her 1940s era yarn. Rachel was concerned about too much dialog, her longest passage of all dialog ever written. I think it worked very well. It was so rooted in clothing, visual for the reader. Were there peticoats in the 40s? Celia is a paperdoll, someone you cannot touch. Rachel Haas and Alisa made far more comments, maybe because they are women and understand. We discussed how this passage appeals more to women than to men readers. That's okay but important for a writer to know. These are realities, like them or not, call them sexist or not, but male readers are a different kettle of fish. As the French say, vive la differance ! Rachel thinks of herself as a mole, burrowing through the holes of human emotion (her words). Rachel likes to write about Russian things, but claims she does not set out to do so. No Moscow DNA in her gene pool, not a drop.

Alisa asked us to pray that she will finish The Emblem this fall. 

Be Merciful to Readers and Kill Those Adverbs (do it aggressively, ruthlessly, mercilessly)--INKBLOTS

What are your favorite Twain-isms?
Sunday evening we had 78 people crammed into the Scriptorium for Reformation Then & Now, but this quiet evening for 'Blots we had six brave souls, fearless against the oncoming winter weather, dashing out in a lull of still benign autumn temperatures and little rain. John brought some vin du turpentine pays du tar concocted by a friend (I'd go with former friend, stuff'll embalm your innards).

Heroically (argh! an adverb creepingly elbowing in) launching in, Rachel Ng led off with her post WWII, Red Scare era yarn underway. Chapter two ten years later, the opening chapter being during the war when the couple first met. Rachel's command of words, and the images they conjure up, is delightful, and her oral reading has so much verve and energy. Dangled limply... isn't dangling by definition limply? Kill the adverb. Clever the way you use the German photographer in this post-war yarn. We asked Bob (since he would have lived through all that) how a German would be treated in the post-war era. He felt that this was Rachel writing in a more mature fashion, far fewer adjectives. He could close his eyes and see her bustling about her days work. Every word must have work to do for good writers. Do you need D-&@# several times in imperative sequence? What is your objective in doing so? I've been featuring the theme of how Christian writers portray evil and use language in their writing on my podcast The Scriptorium. In my writing, I have decided not to swear, or use excessive vulgar language, and certainly not to take the Lord's name in vain (there was at least one place where most would consider the language taking the Lord's name in vain). Poached from the post along with his two Pulitzers--you had fun with that alliteration.

John rereads the last chapter of Saving Grace, after multiple rewrites. The three keys to good writing are rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. There is a labor and delivery scene in this chapter, a difficult activity for a man to write about. We talked about using a visual icon at heads of chapters. More often seen in YA fiction than in an adult audience book. Consensus was that we like the changes John has read, especially adding Amazing Grace stanza. Very fitting.

Cheyenne read next from her dystopian Japanese-esque story. She uses Japanese names. Be careful with these, especially if they are difficult for readers to pronounce. You might try abbreviated versions of more complex names. You don't want to derail your reader every time they come across a difficult name. Another thought on names, avoid using names that begin with the same letter, also introducing confusion for readers as they get farther into the book and skim when they come to attributions. Vary first letters as a courtesy to your reader and to maintain forward, uninterrupted pace. Without over writing, you might consider describing with a simile how Japanese people's heads bob as they talk to you. Why didn't she need to answer. I feel like the money exchange and the employment needs more showing. The non verbals are cryptic and too hasty for the reader to get, but avoid overwriting it as you flesh it out. For example, your protagonist figures out he was more interested in an employee, but we don't see how she came to that conclusion. Show her sarcastic attitude with body language, facial expression, gesture. Was a little muted--just muted. Show them chewing and swallowing and spearing meat with their chopsticks, silence revealing except for grunts of satisfaction, pleasure, lips smacking, chopsticks clicking and scraping on bowls. What to describe with more development and what to state and move on. What is essential to character (especially protagonist) development and moves the plot forward needs more description.

Sydney rewrote the same chapter she read last 'Blots but changed to first person point of view. My first impression is that first person his more vigorous, immediate, and evocative. Sydney reads so well, with intensity, clarity, inflecting appropriately for the narrative and the dialogue. Though so far there is little dialogue.When this is picked up by a giddy publisher someday, Sydney needs to do author-read audio book version. The comparison of his mother's death and Christ's death long before. The thing that first person does for you so effectively is it fixes the concern we expressed last time you read. Description took over and your character was subsumed and subordinate to the description. Not anymore. And it's because you are seeing everything from the point of view of your protagonist. Cheyenne pointed out that there was less hearing and smelling. 

I read my final chapter in THE RESISTANCE, imminently forthcoming, off to press tomorrow. It was the second writing of the last chapter, the first version longer and tying up more loose ends--too many. This leaves the reader wanting more, I feel. It is romantic but I hope not mushy. You can pre-order at a special rate at

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Best Writers Seek Perspective From Other Writers--Inkblots

WWII French Resistance, downed B-17 flyer, SOE agent
Chit-chatted together, glad to be in the clean air of the Scriptorium, breath of fresh air from the BC smoke clogging lungs and breathing passageways throughout the region.

Inkblots this evening was an enactment of the importance of having other serious writers listen and critique what we are writing. I am a firm believer that every good writer needs this and will take pains to seek it out. That's what we did this evening. It cerainly helped me.

Rachel leads off with more cheese. Do we have a working title for this yarn? I gain weight listening to Rachel read this work in progress. I do hope when it is published (and the sooner the better) that Rachel Ng will immediately do an author-read audio book. This is evocative of a bustling kitchen in a high-cuisine restaurant in Russia. "I'm not a man for paperwork." Love this evasion. Makorov in hand. Can we hear rounds being chambered? Bob commented that to his ear there seemed to be too many adjectives in the opening paragraph. We had Rachel reread it. I liked it, but we do have to be careful of over modifying. Concrete nouns and active verbs, the stock and store of good writers. You might try dividing the compound complex sentence into two sentences. Rachel wanted to overwhelm the senses with the opening paragraph.

Alisa had a tough editor who she asked to help her with racial perspective that Alisa did not have, She will read The Emblem, set at the Brick Tavern, the oldest bar in Washington State. She warns us that there are many things going on in this scene. Too much? She warned us that there is swearing and they had prostitutes in Roslyn, Washington in 1930s mining frontier town. Not interested in the indulgences she might have to offer him. He had a wife and several kids back in Seattle. Be specific. How many kids, boys or girls? He recollects some specific thing about them. The son's illness is an important detail. They're beyond my pay. Could you say this in a more colloquial fashion? Doctor tests, they costs money, don't they? At the front of the Brick. Weather-worn miner who should not have come up from the underground today. Can you expand the tactile and sensory context? What does it smell like in the bar? Sound like? Is there music, oddly grinding out its merry tune while the brawl is underway? Slamming a beer mug onto the Douglas fir countertop. Alisa went to the pioneer picnic and learned that negroes in 1930 went to a different tavern. A friend thinks she needs to include backstory from the 1880s strike. We talked about ways to do this without losing the flow of the story. Create a narrator character who loves telling stories, and his good at it. Then flashback from their retelling of the past events.

French Cousins, John reads from his children's stories for his grandkids who have French cousins, his daughter having married a French pastor. This is a grandfather's labor of love, charming, nostalgic, a delightful read. Creative non-fiction genre. Very handsome indeed. Can you give this more specific visual substance so the reader can conclude that they're very handsome indeed. It seems like you jump from the south of France to Switzerland too quickly. Is it possible to create episodes in both so you don't have to describe France then switch to Switzerland. And honk her horn, is active voice, whereas, the horn would honk, is passive voice. Your writing will be more vigorous if you primarily write in active voice. Good description of cathedral and night sky. I feel like I'm hearing some late attribution; be sure the reader knows who is speaking early on in what they are saying; otherwise, the attribution is less helpful. Best way to do this is to break quotations early with a mid-sentence attribution. Amsterdam, a small town? This reads like a warm children's travel adventure. John does a good job of writing from the perspective of the children.

Bob reads from the second book in his Sinbad series. Last reading his protagonist is in India for the tenth anniversary of his coronation. This is a bridge chapter, the next having more adventure and potential danger. Bob writes from first person, Sinbad. Bob addresses the dear reader. Is there a better way to do this? Or is this Bob's voice and method, like CS Lewis does in Narnia, oral story telling genre? Bob claims to be lazy and that's why he likes writing journey stories. The yarn can unfold as it unfolds. I'm looking forward to this book in print. Read The Crescent and the Cross for the first installment. Adventures on the high seas await!

I read chapter nine of The Resistance (working title). I'm working on chapter twenty three now and feel like I have good forward momentum, though always far too many interruptions (cows on the loose, guests arriving, my not-so-latent ADHD, you name it). Chapter nine is a shift from French Resistance Normandy, downed flyers trying to stay one step ahead of the Waffen SS hunting them down, to 1 Dorset Square London where 1000s of SOE agents trained to go behind enemy lines and work alongside the French Resistance. I enjoyed creating this chapter. Maybe I should post it for a sneek preview.

Deep discounts on my next Oxford Creative Writing Master Class spring and summer 2019. Space is very limited. You will not regret going. But don't take my word for it. "I loved every minute of it! I learned more about writing and history than I ever could have expected. You gave me literary tools which I am already using and will continue to use. It was a wonderful tour, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!" (Cheyanne). Check it out at

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Anatomy of Fiction: Overturn the status quo (Inkblots)

Create round characters with real problems,
like readers have
Seven of us for Inkblots this fine warm summer evening in the Scriptorium, cattle lowing in the background.

I led off reading from Augustine about how our love of our own opinions bars us from accurately interpreting a text: "For if he takes up rashly a meaning which the author who he is reading did not intend, he often falls in with other statements which he cannot harmonize with this meaning. And if he admits that these statements are true and certain, then it follows that the meaning he had put upon the former passage cannot be the true one; and so it comes to pass, one can hardly tell how, that, out of love for his own opinion, he begins to feel more angry with Scripture than he is with himself. And if he should once permit that evil to creep in, it will utterly destroy him.” – Ch. 37, Book 1 

Bob leads off reading from his second adventure of Sinbad and Silassie, the first volume, in print, The Crescent and the Cross (a very good book, I might add, having had the privilege of reading it at verious stages of its creation). This yarn will feature a Christian critique of Hinduism, whereas the first volume exposed the fallacies of Islam. This is a sailing yarn, a journey story genre book, delightful, with an obvious Christian perspective, no apologies. Bob writes in first person, almost journal like in its tone, to my ear. Bob has obviously done a great deal of research on Middle Eastern religions and culture and history, though the tales are what I would call historical fantasy, Jules Vern step aside. The opening scene begins in the midst of what appears to be martyrdom, then flashback for much of the story. Rachel commented on Bob's evocative description of the sea and ships. I agree it was solid and appealed to multiple senses. Cheyenne chimed in on Bob's reading: loved description of the sea and boat, felt like I was right there; there were parts that seemed a bit choppy, maybe hard to follow for a younger reader, but loved ending of chapter. This is the opening chapter of a new book. Bob uses semicolons as opposed to comma conjunction structure. Cheyenne felt like it was jumpy.

I read my furthest in chapter (at Bob's suggestion for me to read my least refined chapter) and received some very helpful critique and suggestions from 'Blots. I particularly appreciate Alisa and John reading the whole thing (as far as I've gotten) and offering valuable perspective before this evening. I'm looking forward to absorbing the critique and recasting and rewriting tomorrow morning. Thank you! I wrote a while back that I was having significant trouble with this manuscript. I was. But I took my own advice and kept reading, writing, rewriting, rewriting (did I mention rewriting?).

Alisa tells us about The Emblem, an interracial love story set in the 1930s. She was invited to Roslyn's interracial picnic, but doesn't want to crash someone else's party. But they invited her so we all seemed to agree she should go, and eat! She is struggling with sorting out the historical accuracy of the sources. There are inconsistencies in the history. Should she go to the picnic? This is research with integrity, made all the better by the fact that Alisa isn't finally doing it just for research to make a good book. "It's not about me anyway; its about telling a good story." And writing a good story means getting it right, getting it the best that she can. Alisa feels that she is torn by having drafted the book eight years ago, first draft, and then the heightened racial tensions of the moment. Write for what is timeless and enduring, not shaped by the priorities of the moment. That's not a call to be careless about racial issues, by no means. But to have a perspective that rises above transient verbiage and ideas, popular spin and opinion filtering and dictating how we are to think (unless we want to have hateful vitriol hurled at us for not being in lockstep with the current narrative). Write what is timeless, characters that rise above it all. Oppressed, downtrodden, abused, but who find grace and true strength, and who are able to look for ways to love their neighbors through the pain and deprivation.

Cheynne has pulled up a manuscript from her trip to Japan a few years ago and is reworking things. She is getting help from an editor. First chapter. Dystopian fantasy fiction base loosely on things she experienced in Japan. The forest stretched... around me. We have a character to care about in the opening line. Amanda is the main character? Juliette, is she the main character? Roots sprawling into the air instead of into the ground, not dying, but thriving roots. Very good description of falling. Can you give us sounds, feels, smells, more senses involved as she was falling? Back to the roots like Medusa's hair. I, so your are writing in first person, but who is the first person perspecive? Amanda, or Julliette? I could have missed this, but I am not clear from whose perspective I'm experiencing the irreality. Maybe I missed it. I realize it is dystopian so there is the dream-like, hazy, ethearial atmosphere, but I think you will need to give your reader a normal, a status quo, a hard reality from which the dystopian irreality can be compared. You do a good job of visual description. Can you beef up other senses, smells, sounds, tastes, from the old west town you describe otherwise so well. Can you give us a clearer problem for the main character? What does she want but can't have? What is she afraid of most? Where is she going?

John suggested more dialogue and Alisa agreed. The first chapter is where you need to set the hook, says John, questions to be asked, make it more intriguing. I would strongly suggest that there be a status quo, a beginning epsposition of the normal, then an enciting moment, that launches forward the rising action, the protagonist trying to solve the problem. I'm not hearing at this reading, granted it is a fairly brief reading, a rooted normal that gets changed by some force acting against the protagonist, who then has to try and solve the problem, hence the plot to follow.

Great time this evening, iron sharpening iron. I was benefited by hearing the readings and the critiques of fellow 'Blots. I've got work to do and will get at it in the morning. I will post after this post tomorrow, a sample chapter from La Resistance. Promise!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Scoffing, Raging (and sometimes writing) Against the Lord--Inkblots

Rachel Ng's cheese yarn continues to charm
We talked about independent publishing and traditional publishing, John Erickson and Hank the Cow Dog being one of the greatest examples of successful independent publishing (Maverick Press, and Hank have sold millions and counting). Sell directly to your consumer, live stream, blog, be a personal face on social media--the advice I was given by a marketing exec down in Nashville last fall. We also talked about classic films, Casablanca, for example, play it again Sam. I need to rewatch this movie.

Alisa exhibited at the Arts Festival last week, with sixteen other authors, They put her next to a male author whose genre was different from Alisa's (she asked the organizers if they would put her next to an author who would not necessarily be a competitor for her book). One of the author's a sculptor, has sold 7,000 books. How did he do this? Alisa is smarting from a devistating critique of her forthcoming The Emblem. This is hard. Patrick asked if it was more a critique of her racially or politically, socially, or stylistically as a writer? It is always important to sort out the substance of a critique, and a critic. It is almost impossible for any of us to entirely put aside our other preconceptions and simply critique the story on its own merits, the author on her own merits. Patrick offered the idea of taking an idea and personifying the thing in a character. This can transform a flat character into a more round one, idyosincracies, mannerisms, a wacky or painfully introverted individual. Rachel H encouraged Alisa to ask herself what particular reason did she choose this particular editor. What does she have to offer in improving the manuscript, her particular niche, what is it? This editor's role was to give you a racial perspective that you did not have. Take here critiques in this area. Only in other areas as they overlap with other credible critiques you have received. 

Bob is editing and formatting another author's book for money at present, more money than he's made in book sales this last year. He's enjoying the process and finding the copy editing challenging and fun. Is he getting any writing ideas for his own writing? His editing is reenforcing theories of writing that he already has.

Rachel Ng introduces us to her writing challenges, being an introvert, creating characters who are introverts and others who are not. This is a continuation of the cheese epic. Rachel's writing always makes me intensely hungry. I love cheese! I love her description of the old army jacket, details, that show us she has done her homework, but, more than  that, they draw us into the character wearing the old jacket. Rachel paused, wondering if she is writing as if it were a cookbook. We chimed in for her to knock it off and get back to reading the story (I think she got the message). If it makes the reader salivate it's probably working. If it is driving the plot forward, deliniating the character more precisely and intentionally. I mention that the best characters want something but can't have it. The story is them trying to get it. That's reductionist, but makes the point. Life in a broken world is very much like this. So I would advise Rachel to ask herself what her protagonist wants and to what lengths is she willing to go to get it? Fleshing that out will shape the plot. Patrick suggested that Rachel fine tune who the character or characters are, whose point of view are we supposed to see the world from? Whose eyes are we seeing the world through? We discussed how many current popular writers use multiple perspectives, however, there is always and must always be a dominant perspective. Readers who are unclear about who to care about usually don't finish the book.

From here we devolved into reminiscences from the past (several 'Blots are former students); what hilarity! And what a substantive and important discussion ensued. Rachel H commented that finally at the end of the day, Christian wives want to follow and submit to husbands who are intentionally growing in Christ-likeness. Bob commented that as a man with daughters who are now married, but he counselled them to turn and run if a man is touting male headship more heavily than men loving their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her. Patrick and others in the room were involved in a facebook exchange this week that became heated and accusatory, as so often is the case with the flat medium of social media. We then progressed, or was it digressed, to critiques of a particular church that almost all of us have experience with. I, for one, think this is a healthy discussion, especially when we can have it face to face, as fellow image bearers of God, human beings who have been loved by God. Male, female, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, slave, free; all one in Christ, who are in Christ, washed by his blood, justified, and being sanctified by the free discriminating grace (I'm using the term in the biblical sense; the grace of the gospel is eternally, gloriously, and graciously discriminating, or I would never be a grateful recipient thereof), and who love his holy Word.

Reading Psalm 1 and 2 this morning I was struck afresh at just how odd the Bible sounds in the midst of the ragings of the moment. And, as always, reading the Word of God recalibrated my thinking, regrounded me, gave me clearer perspective in the midst of the ragings against God's will and way now; it's nothing new. Scoffing at God's ways has a long and infamous history. And so does capitulation to those who have taken counsel together against the Lord and his Annointed, Jesus. Israel did it in acient times, and the Church has often done it in the past. But knowing all this, shouldn't I be on guard, shouldn't I know that the world hates God and his ways, and that this hatred creeps into the Church? I think so. God help me as I write. "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wickednor stands in the way of sinnersnor sits in  
the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORDand on his law he meditates day and night... Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Annointed..." 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What to do when getting trounsed, pummeled, beaten to a pulp by your manuscript? INKBLOTS

That's me on the left getting hammered by my writing
Inkblots joke of the evening: "I prefer steak jokes, but they're a medium that's rarely well done." Thank you Patrick. Pass the HP sauce. This evening in the Scriptorium we have six writers, five regulars and one of my Oxford Creative Writing Master Class authors, here for a writing retreat at our lodgings for the week. John brought a bottle of Writer's Block red blend, which I'm really nervous about drinking. What if it's contaminated and I get it? We chatted and bantered longer than usual, in part, because we haven't been together for a while.

Rachel is the designated reader for John since some people commented on John's oral reading sounding like Eeyore was at the mic. John's last chapter where his protagonist is giving birth. Rachel had commented on John's deficiencies in writing a birthing scene when he had never been in the room when any of his kids were born (John was fathering in an era when fathers were banned from birthing rooms, so was Bob). Write what you know, and if you don't know it, research, research, research until you do. "Let me give you a quick check," is, to my ear, overwriting for how a doctor or labor and delivery nurse would speak during hard contractions. "Let's check." Seems like it might be more realistic. Or let me check. She called, she rubbed my back but these were two different females. Clarify pronouns. My heart began to quicken. My heart beat faster. Be concise; four words are better than five, almost always. You have the new mother quoting a Bible verse. Is that consistent with her character and new experience as a young Christian? Can the nurse quote the verse or someone else? The doctor would not hold up a needle and thread for the mother to see, especially a first time mom; doctors try to conceal needles from patients. Patrick felt like this was a significant improvement over the previous versions of this final chapter. Some repetition of words, panting, for example. More description of what a new born baby looks like and the effect it has on the mother. I remember being there and participating in the birth of all six of my children, and the overwhelming emotion, speechless, but felt I must speak, tears of wonder, joy expressed in that mysterious inner swelling that makes you feel you will burst. Anxiety about the baby being healthy? And vigilance in case something happens to the baby.

Patrick is up next. He feels overwhelmed at the moment with what to do next, how to get to the next place with his writing. He feels that culturally the church is tending to reduce the gospel down to an altruistic abstraction. So he has written speculative fiction that confronts and exposes social disorder that results from the socializing of the gospel. And now Patrick is working on a short non-fiction book that concisely lays out his concerns about the social gospel trending in the church. This chapter is on legalism, overly zealous emphasis on obedience especially with minute details of obedience. Altruism promises that true and authentic Christianity will fall off the road on either side of the ditch. He is more concerned with conservatives who don't but should have answers, than with liberal progressive Christianity, so called.

Two things I would suggest with this book idea. Until you are a recognized authority (I'm not saying this as an insult but as a simple fact about most of us and most people in the church) you need to demonstrate that you know what those who are recognized as authorities, dead and alive, have written and spoken about on this topic. Give your reader confidence in your research. The second thing I would urge you to consider is to take a less theoretical approach. Take Jesus' approach, which is to illustrate with a specific story example, a case study, or a practical demonstration in a role played story, then interpret in your non-fiction prose. Another method which I would recommend in this piece, is for you to use yourself as an example of these two errors. How have you found them in yourself?

Lastly I wonder about some of the verbiage Patrick used in this excerpt. Is it more obedience not less? Isn't the dialectic here that their minute obedience is externally motivated by pride and a mistaken sense that they can win God's favor by good works, but their hearts are not right. Jesus is exposing that their hearts are not right, not that they need more obedience. They needed true and right obedience, not merely external conformity to a code of law. Hence his "whitewashed tombs metaphor." They don't need "more obedience, not less," more whitewash on the tomb. They need regeneration, quickening, a transformed heart, good works that spring from gratitude and love. Any other kind is "filthy rags" in God's sight. They don't need more self-righteousness, more filthy rags. The hottest spots in hell will be for the "righteous," so called, the ones Jesus did not come to save. He came to seek and to save the lost, those who have despaired in their righteousness, their efforts, their "obedience," their good works. True biblical good works, sanctification, obedience, is of another kind altogether. Just adding more of the old kind, the legalistic self-righteousness kind, only furthers condemnation. Clarify terms like grace, obedience, good works. This is where the literature will help you and citing it will help your potential reader immensely.

Avrie, visiting from Houston, is reading a short story (a portion thereof), for middle grade readers. Setting in an eccentric bookshop. Characters are not human; they're characters from the books on the shelves in the bookshop. Contemporary fantasy genre. Not zombies though. Strange Tales. I like how you don't need much attribution, and it is clear to the listener reader who is speaking. Very fluid dialogue. I also like how the books and bookshelves seem to be reacting to the humans and jump into laps. Paper cuts are intentional, given by books that are too full of themselves, like textbooks. Authors are dangerous. We don't need the authors. They're a bad lot most of them.

Love the names, Alias, Read,  Novelette, Peter Strange... Gluten free café. Board of characters will be furious. How does the bookstore smell? One of the charms of bookshops is their smell, old leather, paper, a bit of dust, a pinch of binding glue. You get the idea. Can you describe what your characters look like? How do the characters exist? The characters are like actors that authors hire to be in their books, but the characters actually influence the story more than the author knows. It's all reversed. The characters employ the authors. Bob observed that this story is platonic, in the sense that the characters are derived from virtues or vices maybe. Its a very intriguing and though it is not clear to us where you are going, we are drawn in, fascinated, and want to hear more.

Then 'Blots did what 'Blots often does, revert to an excurses that sort of took over (and lasted well past 10:pm), but was stimulating, relevant, and left us all chewing, swallowing, and digesting the evening spent together.

I didn't bother reading from my WW II French Resistance yarn. It would have been unkind. I care about my fellow 'Blots too much to inflict it on them. The characters are dominating the ring. I feel like I'm wrestling wholly on the defensive, cornered, against the ropes. Writing this book right now is like sparring, gloves-off MMA fashion, and I'm getting pounded, head spinning, vision clouding over, on the verge of plummeting face down, never to rise again. Jeering and mocking me from its corner, the manuscript and it's thugs have clearly won the opening rounds, and I'm swollen-eyed and bloodied. And that's all before a glass of Writer's Block red blend. So what do I do? I go back to the gym and work on my fitness, more jumping rope, more cardio, more strength fitness, and do my level best to master that left punch to the jaw. I'm going to beat this thing, show it who's boss, lay it flat on the mat--a grandiose-sounding triumph, of which there is not a shred of evidence at the moment. I'll post another chapter on this blog. That way you can weep with he who weeps. And then unsubscribe and follow a living author who still has a pulse.