Friday, February 28, 2014

INKBLOTS--Amazingly stimulating critique and discussion

How to write like a big shot

INKBLOTS—Amitage red and Red Rock for our libation tonight and six gents sitting down to fellowship, discuss literature, read what we’re working on, and do a good bit of laughing for good measure.

As I listen to the perspective and perceptions of my fellow Inkblots I am reminded again of just how important a writing group like this is. I can’t fully describe what I’m hearing and the benefit to my own writing. Moments like this make me wonder how I’ve ever managed to write anything worth reading without these gentlemen—and friends. Sounds a bit sappy maybe, but I’m telling you what is really going on in this room right now...

David (who has been working swing shift for a year and has just rejoined us—welcome back) reads the first chapter of another speculative fiction novel he is working on. The protagonist is trying to work up his nerve to propose to his girlfriend, but is so stressed he is almost physically ill. The protagonist is an assassin. The irony of a man being a trained killer for his day job but who is about to throw up with anxiety about proposing… or did I miss something? She figures out that he’s going to propose to her. The plethora of names when they meet Steven the assassin stalking them is confusing to me. Maybe clarified by larger context. Who are we supposed to care about in this conflict, Steven? But we were inside Bruce’s and Alexis’s head and then they were gone, one killed and the other hauled off in the car. Patrick thought that D used the phrase ‘Big Boy’ too much, and the switching of point of view is confusing. Does D give away what the assassin is doing following the couple by switching perspectives? Alan suggested that the tension could be increased by having the couple get to their favorite high cliff vista and then the struggle comes on the brink of the cliff, more threat, more potential danger, increase the tension. Patrick reminded us of Alfred Hitchcock’s method in one of his old films where it opens with a dude rigging a bomb in the trunk of a car and then it cuts to the young couple driving the car for quite awhile, the viewer going nuts with suspense. Dramatic irony creates this. The reader knowing more than the characters. Increase tension by including other hikers on the trail, the threat of discovery heightened.

Alan is shelving his Irish epic poem and his early church novel—we all protested! These were fascinating. But Alan said the research was too extensive and his time prolonged it so that it was too difficult to write the story while working, being a dentist, day job intrudes again. Alan is using a typewriter, yes, you heard me, a typewriter; you know, the mechanical thing you see in museums. His argument is that he finds the physical process of composing on the computer is so limitless, he finds himself on all kinds of possible rabbit trails that he would not have followed if he was on a typewriting, so he is. This is Cascadia, about David Douglas the botanist who named the Douglas fir and the Cascade Mountains, for all the cascading waterfalls. This is charming regional material, over-looming mountain, Tahoma dominating all the coastal cities, Seattle, etc. Alan is reading from a piece of what is called paper, you know, flat white pulpy stuff harvested from trees, often with lines and little black squiggles, paper and real typed letters from a typewriter. This is not a chapter one, but a preface, setting the stage for the yarn to follow. Alpine setting ... Is this sort of a Pacific Northwest Wind in the Willows, animals with human characteristics? This is a journey tale. Alan is going to use Chinook Jargon but esque so that it can be understood by the English reader. I suggest taking the fantastic description of the preface but integrating into the point of view of a bard ... who is receiving the effects of the environment around them and telling back-story and history to young... listeners. Alan suggest having his raven be the omniscient vantage point for them, he flies, and can give them perspective these little creatures cannot have.

Patrick says he needs to rewrite everything he’s ever written (that’s what I call humility; maybe we would all be better off if we felt like this more often, then again, I would probably never get anything written if I didn’t delude myself into thinking it’s great stuff, ugh). We move from Adam and St-eve. This is a different tack. Non-fiction, The Little Book of Legalism (I suggested, the Idiot’s Guide to Legalism, which doesn’t quite work, because it suggests that getting our minds, wills, and motivations around this intriguing thing called legalism is actually difficult, which it isn’t, if history teaches us anything about the church in every age—my thoughts). Gospel centered story—Christ’s mercy, atoning sacrifice and imputed righteousness--is the only solution, but we revert to legalisms every time. It’s way easier. Patrick nails it. Legalism is not ambitious obedience, but is actually a form of rebellion, perhaps the most ubiquitous form. Legalism is bad enough, but the fight against legalism itself can easily become navel gazing, yet another side door into… legalism. Legalism is self-righteousness, a vice that presents itself as a virtue—a great line, step aside Tim Keller! Legalism is the darkest and deadliest sin, the worst and most sinister of sins. It inoculates the heart against all the cures, true repentance… Patrick, you are on to something here, big time. Something very important. Keep writing. Use your voice to expose this “devil with a smiling cheek” (The Bard).

We moved, naturally, into a discussion of legalism, how earnest Christians who really care about life lived God’s way, a Christian world view, a morally upright culture, about raising our children to live God’s way, a political system reflective of God’s will and way, are in great peril of skirting around grace and the gospel and setting up lists of dos and don’ts for all practical purposes, what our children see—and revolt against. The pendulum can swing to the next generation thinking they can do anything and presume on “grace” to cover it all.

Dougie Mac reads his Vietnam War yarn. If there’s no other benefit to any of us in INKBLOTS it’s the fascinating range of compounded historical research represented and shared in this sitting room right at this moment. Can you show us the detail of his wave at the bus driver more carefully? I missed the nuance that I could feel was almost there but not quite (for me). When he sees the turkey across the road and has a moment of thinking about the war and what might happen to him, could you have him reflect on this slightly more, not too much, but I feel like you might have missed an opportunity there. Your dialogue has become so fluid, I can hear it and feel it. Seriously, D Mac, I am so drawn into this dialogue, colloquial to a fault. Golf not violent enough. Football’s the thing. You do a good job of exposing the transition from the activities of high school, band playing the sousaphone, and war around the corner, M16 in hand, Viet Cong and AK-47s in the jungle on every side. I don’t listen to it don’t mean I don’t listen to it.  Alan felt like when D Mac started bringing God into the dialogue he blew the candle out, lost the authenticity; it stood out as if it was obligatory to include it but was not fitting with the characters as he had developed them. Patrick feels like he missed an opportunity by not including a girl interest, either his buddies accuse him of liking a girl or he admits to going hippie to hook up with a certain girl.

As I listen to the perspective and perceptions of my fellow Inkblots I am reminded again of just how important a writing group like this is. I can’t really fully describe what I’m hearing and the benefit to my own writing. Moments like this make me wonder how I’ve ever managed to write anything worth reading without these gentlemen—and friends. Sounds a bit sappy maybe, but I’m telling you what is really going on in this room right now.

John reads where he left off on a really critical episode in his Russian tale. There is a girl in immediate peril from lecherous soldiers, and just as we are certain she is going to violated, their captain intrudes and defends the woman and stops his men, ordering them to feed her and treat her with respect, not as an animal, or as if they were animals. Is Missy what they would call her? What does cheap vodka smell like? I don’t drink vodka so I’m asking a real question, though it may not be a big deal at all. Her thanking them seemed out of place; I wonder if she would not be still so terrified of these soldiers, now drunk, that she would be speechless. Her breath like a man under a heavy burden does not work so well, I think. Similes need more disconnect to work; try a cornered animal on the hunt, you fill in the type of animal. This is a good escape moment, but I think it needs an increment where the reader wonders if she will get away. First person but you move to third person narration. I’m not sure that works, it breaks the authenticity. How could they be more Russian, what they eat, could it be more Russian, and other cultural connections, singing, drinking songs that are Russian, and dancing a unique Russian way. These soldiers are too generic. Don’t miss the opportunity of creating genuine ethnic distinctions and don’t miss making these men as different from each other, unique characters, maybe one is reluctant to chase the girl and brings up their wives at home, their daughters. The other poo-poos and could care less about his wife or this girl; all he cares about is his urges, while his comrade has some degree of conscience. We learn that his wife is dead, but he has three daughters, one about the age of the girl prisoner. Make it real—desire and restraint, wanting but what about the eye of God.  

Saturday, February 22, 2014

DUNCAN'S WAR--the movie: " embarrassment of riches"!

Art Director James Chung sees Duncan this way
The script for DUNCAN'S WAR is " embarrassment of riches," wrote an independent professional script reader for

The producer Phillip Moses submitted the script to two different independent film script reading services for evaluation. 90% of scripts get rejected off the top; 8% get "Consider" and 2% receive "Recommend," the highest ranking they give, which means they think it's a story and script that is ready to be made into a successful movie.

One professional reader gave DUNCAN'S WAR a "Consider," and said this (among other positive things) about it  "There is a lot to like in this script and the historical aspects are very compelling."

The other professional reader (they read independent of each other and without collaboration) gave it an overwhelming "Recommend," and said this about it, "The script combined the two powerful thematic elements of resistance against authority and holding true to one’s faith. Either one would have been sufficient; having two is an embarrassment of riches."

Phillip Moses the producer is a tireless advocate for DUNCAN'S WAR becoming a movie, a really good one. He has recently discovered (or been discovered by) an Australian production company that is enthusiastic about the movie and wants to host filming it and the entire production in Australia. We'll have to follow that one and see how it plays out.

Janie Cheaney WORLD Magazine columnist is doing another interview with me on (previous ones can be heard at this one on DUNCAN'S WAR the movie. You can go to their site(s) and follow that interview and like and comment. 

Tour Duncan's Scotland with us June 24-July 4, 2014 for the KNOX @ 500 tour--but hurry. Space is limited and registration closes very soon! 

Reader Jeremiah Lofthus at his own initiative created this movie trailer for DUNCAN'S WAR the movie--thanks Jeremiah!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Inkblots: Vietnam, Russia, Zombies, and Indian War

Original Native Puget Sound residents
INKBLOTS, four of us tonight. We all expressed gratitude to be back together again and talked about getting together again in two weeks, twice a month instead of once. John shared about the PMWA Writers Resource ( that one of our remote 'Blots in Spokane area (Alisa, a former student of mine) discovered. Worth checking out, maybe, maybe-ish, maybe-ish-ness, maybe-ish-nessification.

Patrick shared more about using Kickstarter to fund self-publishing a book or album or whatever. He's jazzed about this and his enthusiasm is contagious.

Dougie Mac leads off reading from his Vietnam War novel. He expressed what I so often feel, the research is fascinating, stimulating, and a blast.  I totally agree with that. This yarn starts with two brothers from Georgia (former SS guy from Karl story from WWII, and the parallel story is two Vietnamese brothers, rising to a confrontation during the war. DM reads an episode in the swamp near their home in GA, cypress trees and spanish moss trailing into the water. I like the dead and dying trees from the flooding described as skeletons. Beaver warning against danger with a splash from its tale. Alligator on the beach, threat, foreshadowing of coming danger later in the war. I love the stare down with the alligator and the boy winning, the 'gater disappearing without a wake into the swamp. Well done thoughts on absolutes in engineering, and longing for everyone to work within the boundaries of the absolutes. It could have been overwritten and preachy but I feel like you kept good control and avoided falling into superficiality. Convincing and well written. Shooting the deer, reading all the signs, self talk about wanting her boyfriend not her, flicking tail, she knows something isn't quite right, clearly DM has been there bow hunting for white tale in Eastern Washington. I wonder if your references to Lewis and Merton might work better if they were kept anonymous, described and strongly hinted at but not quite so obvious. Just my initial impression on this part. Patrick comments about using an inclusio like musicians will resolve the concerto where it began. I suggested considering an opening chapter that created war tension and suspense, on the flight into Vietnam, seeing conflict from the air, a fire, smoke, troop movements even. Then second chapter goes to back story leading up to deployment. Also suggested creating more uniqueness to each of the brothers' voices, always a good plan to create individual unique characters.

John reads next, from his Russian novel. Origins of the governess, since there was some push back on authenticity. She could be a daughter of a diplomat. She could have been a French Huguenot immigrant. The governess terrified as her home is under fire, Nina has been hit and is dead. And Tamara is dead too. The governess is sick, weeping, then realizes she is in imminent danger as the troops advanced and would be upon her any moment. She is accosted by two soldiers who attack her to violate her. It is a disturbing scene and the chapter ends. The next chapter, the two rapists are interrupted by their commander and ordered to leave the girl alone. DM suggested a varied verbiage to avoid using the same words. The ideas for this came from a lengthy conversation with a Russian woman at work who just started spilling her family's history. Intriguing yarn. Keep going on this.

Patrick reads next a sci-fi short story he has been working on. Protagonist volunteers for suicide mission implied but not explicitly stated. Marines securing an area so they can evacuate civilians, and the soldiers know they are going to die in this operation. An explosion takes out some of Captain Su's unit has a flashback dream recalling his family and the family dog who seems pretty vicious, bites him for attention. His father counsels his son in the meaning of life, understanding purpose, repeating a mantra from his father's counsel. He awakens a prisoner. Interrogated. Patrick's characters though fantastic seem very real, and their speaking is intentionally odd, cold inhuman way of speaking implies robotic voices to my ear, well done.  Original sin, religion a pretext to meddle with nature of who we are. Mormons. Zombies attempting to convince the captain to embrace their scheme, they wanted him as a male specimen for their breeding plan to raise their kind of food. They offer him a good life, women to breed with, working for the Zombies, all will be well. The reader is forced to grapple with the offer, given the terminal situation he finds himself in. Patrick chose not to go inside Captain Su's head and show him grappling with the moral implicattions of the Zombies' offer. Let the reader do the grappling.

I read from my Puget Sound Indian War novel The Noble Savage, now in third person. Last time these guys urged me to write in first person, but some of the reasons they gave made me want to write in third this time. One fellow who had read Duncan's War recently made his case for me writing in first person because it worked so well in that book... which was in third person. Hence, I launched in using third person for this book. Here's a sample from chapter three, Charlie Salitat and William Tidd:

“White man walking in forest,” said Charlie, moments later, “loud like ox cart. White man on horseback, loud like railroad train.”
“Stalking me back there like you was, you was making heaps of racket yourself,” said William, falling in beside Charlie and his speckled pony. “And how do you know what a railroad train sounds like anyway? There’s no railroad anywhere near here.”
“Yet,” said Charlie. “No railroad yet, but I hear stories from James McAllister, other settlers too. Railroad train make big blast, chug-chug, clatter-clatter, screech-screech, like Hudson Bay steam ship Beaver using loud engine not whispering sails. Railroad make more big noise—clatter-clang, clatter-clang. Noclas tell me about railroad trains coming west. Soon will be here. More white people. No peace, no quiet then.”
Charlie was being Indian, so William decided it was time to change the subject. “How does an Indian know where the beaver will be?” he asked.
“Steam ship, Beaver?” asked Charlie. “Clatter, hiss, clatter, bang.”
“Ah, no, Charlie,” said William. “Beaver, the real kind, you know, big teeth, thick fur, flappy tail? Beaver beaver. How do you know where to find them?”
Charlie narrowed his eyes at William and brought his horse so close their knees jostled against each other. He lowered his voice, as if to keep the mysteries of trapping from the ears of an eavesdropping beaver...

Friday, February 7, 2014

3-Star Generals Pass The Flag at JLBM

I think the most cynical critic of our military would have been impressed by the order and discipline of the change off command ceremony yesterday at Joint Base Lewis McChord near my home in Tacoma, Washington. My friend Chaplain Will Anderson leaned over to me at one point and said, "I don't think I've ever seen so many colonels in one place." For me that would include generals and other dignitaries, including a Medal of Honor recipient. 

I was impressed reading the names on the backs of all the hats in front of me, at just how diverse America and our military is. Names that represent every flavor, from Scandinavians, Germans, Koreans, French, Scots, to other Asians, Samoans, and soldiers whose names clearly have their origins in the Middle East. The ceremony gets its traditions, including the bugle signals, presenting of the colors, from more than one hundred and fifty years ago. There is definitely a liturgy to everything we witnessed. 

Afterward we chatted with an Apache helicopter pilot, soon to deploy to Afghanistan in Will's unit. Gazing at a $35,000,000 machine bristling with weaponry that made my teeth chatter (or was that partly from the cold weather, it was 14 this morning in the temperate Puget Sound region with a light dusting of snowfall here at sea level), I asked the pilot if he was anxious about being in combat. His reply, "I hope they shoot at me when I'm flying this thing. That means I get to shoot back." Later I asked the chaplain about pilots and about the condition of this pilot's soul. "Cocky, fearless, and lost as a goose," he replied. 

Pray for our chaplains as they minister the gospel to their needy parishes, and pray for our troops, safety under fire, yes, but for their souls, for them to be enlisted in the ranks of Christ's army, and taking the words of His liturgy on their lips and from their hearts.