Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Vastly Immeasurable Value of Few Words--Inkblots

Oxford Creative Writing Master Class nearly filled for April!
Five Blots this chilly evening (with more snow predicted for the morning), and chatting about final editing, dangers of "find and replace all" (beware, something will always glitch), better to find next and inspect carefully; make the Word program do what you want it to do rather than be the patsy of grit (sand). John is in final editing on Saving Grace, a labor of love for some years, great cover art, the final push to publication, and a real book in hand, more important thematically now than ever. John has said over the years of writing this book and learning his craft in the process, that if one abortion-minded young woman reads it and does not consent to killing her baby in the womb, he will be happy. May it have this effect on many. There's a lesson in this about how a writer measures success. 

I want to briefly distill the important elements of good writing that we explored and honed this evening (below are pasted notes more relevant to the specific writers who penned the words). Cheyenne is entering a UK unpublished novel contest and must write a 350 word synopsis as part of her entry process (you can read her first draft below). In a synopsis, be concise, every word must have work to do. Avoid proliferation of names, especially if there could be any confusion. Keep the main character and the main plot in the forefront. A synopsis is often the debut of a writer's ability to a publisher, contest judges, potential distributor, and reader, hence, one must spend careful time writing, rewriting, revising a good synopsis. Rules that are important in your manuscript are equally, or, if possible, more important in a synopsis: Show don't tell. Avoid vague language. Be concise. Use action verbs. Diagram your entire plot on an anatomy of fiction timeline (status quo, inciting moment, rising action, etc.). Try writing your synopsis in sonnet form, fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. This will do many things for your writing, but it will certainly force you to be brief and to choose words that are loaded with meaning and purpose. 

Next, we discussed when to end a chapter or episode. Hannah wrote a frightening ending to an episode, but added a touch more than was needed. Keep your reader in suspense. End a chapter with the protagonist uncertain, off balance, teetering. Don't stabilize the situation or character at the end of a chapter (there are exception to this). Generally, if a chapter begins in stability and certainty, it must end in uncertainty. If the episode begins with uncertainty, it should end with something else, either more uncertainty, or a interlude of certainty (or perceived certainty).

We also discussed shifting points of view within a chapter, when there is no obvious break. This can throw readers off balance, confuse them, lift them out of verisimilitude; it is so unlike the way we experience reality. If the shift in point of view is necessary (they are not always necessary), then signal your reader that the shift is happening with a chapter break, or an internal division of some kind, extra space, *** in that space (which I used to use but don't really like anymore), or, as Daniel Silva does from time to time, create an internal chapter break with space and a drop-cap first letter to the new point of view. I return to caution with shifting points of view. It is not for the novice and can have perilous results. There is a reason for the rule to stick with one point of view, your protagonist's. Break it to your peril. 

I concluded with a brief word about the non-fiction book I'm beginning. I’m calling it tentatively God Sings, comparing and contrasting how God and his people sing in the Bible (there’s tons of this) with how we are attempting to do so in the glare and glitter of an entertainment ethos. More coming on that front, God willing.

Register today for the final spots available in my writing intensive literary tour of middle England, Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, April 2-9. "The Oxford Creative Writing Master Class was above and beyond my wildest dreams. I learned so much about writing, history, theology. OCWMC has truly changed my life," so said one of my recent OCWMC grads. Check it out today, but do not delay, or email me at 

Desperate for adventure, or anything to distill the monotony of her life, JULIET [why caps?] goes hiking, and finds a sprawling, upside-down tree. [Can you make us hear the chomp?] It swallows, transporting her, and she wakes in a different [sounds too vague, bland] place where she arrives at the town of [I wouldn't use the name in the synopsis] Umi no Machi: a Japanesque town with a medieval [can you use more specific language? what makes her feel like it's medieval?] feel. 
[keep us in Juliet's point of view] There, a woman named DAYNA warns of impending doom [specific kind of doom? Sun will die... invading army...], but the townspeople pay no heed. Raiders attack in the night, but Juliet evades their clutches. She, Dayna, and the UNKNOWN begin a quest to rescue the townspeople.
While on the trail, Juliet slips up [slips up how?], causing Dayna to demands answers concerning Juliet’s past. 
[under cover of darkness] Finally, they catch up to the raiders and rescue the townspeople under the cover of darkness, but Juliet is ambushed and captured. The Unknown [is he called this or his name?] rescues her, and she learns his name—ADNAN. 
During an attempt for Juliet to return home, the three are taken prisoner and led to TRISTAN, who forces them to help in his uprising against KING JAIIN. 
They are separated during an attack. Seeking refuge, Juliet meets HANIEL and MARI, two of Tristan’s trusted rebels. She embroils herself within the uprising, while dealing with conflicting feelings concerning Tristan, the uprising, and all the secrets surrounding her. 
Aware of how she is looked upon by the rebels, Juliet accuses Tristan of using her, and he agrees to let her leave on a foray with Haniel, but the king’s men take her. She escapes and, on foot, makes it back safely on the verge of collapse. 
Juliet urges Mari to go be with her niece [too many people in this sentence] who is expecting a baby, and soon after realizes Tristan cares for her [which her?]. Without Adnan to counsel her, Juliet decides to commit to the uprising, but when Tristan asks to court her for the sake of his people, who see her superstitiously as the Otherworlder, she turns him down. 

Juliet and Haniel leave to warn his and Mari’s village of wandering raiders, but they’re too late; everyone is dead and there are no survivors. Angry at what she has seen, Juliet agrees to fight with Tristan, and agrees to his courtship proposal.

In general, I would strongly suggest that you kill names, tighten prose, ramp up the dilemma that Juliet finds herself in with Tristan making advances. Draw the anatomy of fiction and place each episode of rising action on the diagram. This will clean the story arc in your own mind and help with writing the synopsis. Additionally, you could write the whole plot in iambic pentameter 140 syllables, a sonnet. This forces you to choose your words careful, each having important work to do.

Hannah read next, a romp in the forest. “Mommy, look at the flowers!” Charlotte ran off the trail and darted over to a cluster of small pink flowers surrounding the base of a nearby [what kind of tree?] tree. Amber stopped and slipped her backpack off her shoulders to dig around in it for the book she’d brought to identify plants with.
As she thumbed through the pages, she occasionally glanced up to watch her daughter. Another few pages and she stopped.
“Hey, Charlotte, those are-” Amber froze when she looked up and didn’t see her. She turned around in a circle. “Charlotte?”
No answer, except for the wind rustling the firs and cedars around her. “Charlotte, answer me,” Amber said, moving further up the path. “Charlotte!”
She checked behind a rhododendron shrub. Nothing. Her stomach twisted.
Could the Woodsman have gotten her?
Amber shook her head at the sudden thought. “It’s just a fairytale,” she told herself, her steps and heartbeat quickening. “Charlotte!”
She wasn’t behind the huckleberry bushes either. Amber didn’t bother to pause even for a second to grab the backpack as panic propelled her off the path.
Her prayers became more desperate as time passed quicker than she wanted. When sunset came, there was still no sign of the curly-haired little girl.
Amber tried to force herself to continue despite her legs feeling like jelly and the fact she didn't know where she was.
But one more step and she stumbled onto her hands and knees. Her shoulders heaved as hot tears dripped down her nose onto the dirt.
She remained that way for another few [be specific on time] minutes.
A rustle in the bushes startled her and she sat up, wiping at her red-rimmed eyes as a sliver of hope ignited. “Charlotte?”
A doe and her fawn appeared, and her shoulders slumped. The animals seemed to regard her for a moment, then turned and walked away.
Amber’s throat tightened, her eyes refilling with tears. A sudden squeal startled her and her head turned.
Another squeal. Amber scrambled to her feet and rushed forward in the direction she thought it had come from. She batted at branches which tugged at her clothes and hopped over moss-covered logs. Her ears picked up more squeals. If they came from Charlotte, it sounded like she was happy.
           The trees became sparse, eventually ending at the edge of a small [small is not a helpful adjective here] slope leading down to a meadow full of [specific] wildflowers.
Among them was Charlotte, running to and fro, picking as many as she could. Amber nearly collapsed from relief. She opened her mouth to call, but was stopped short not just by the sight of her daughter running up to a newfound companion, but that person’s appearance as well.
Her eyes darted from the gas mask to the trench coat to the work boots and back to the mask.
Charlotte had found the Woodsman...or had the Woodsman found her? [leave off this final line and end the chapter]
Dave reads next. Rewriting older manuscript.
Steven laughed out loud inside his car as he watched [could you name him so the pov shift is more natural down the page?] his prey walk into the jewelry store. This is going to be more fun than I thought. I get rid of this big ugly guy, then take his girlfriend as the spoils. He wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. He hated humidity, and here he was stuck in a small car in Knoxville. Even in the middle of October, the humidity was still bad until late afternoon. He looked back at the store, the big guy was still in there standing at the counter yakking with the clerk. Come on, how long does it take to pick out a stupid ring? He turned the key in the ignition and turned the air conditioning on full blast. Steven re-checked his guns. He wanted to be sure there was plenty of tranquilizer darts for the girl. From what he’d been told, she was a feisty one and he didn’t want to deal with fighting her after possibly having to fight the big guy. A slight glint caught his eye. The first target was on the move. He came walking out of the store with a smile on his face and a small bag in his hand. Ugh. This guy’s got it real bad. Steven slipped the car into gear and followed him up S. Central street. He let out a groan when his target turned into a diner just a couple blocks later. He pulled the car over and left the engine running. Five minutes went by and Steven started banging his head on the steering wheel. He picked up his guns for the third time and started to get out when they both came bouncing out the door. Finally! He watched with baited breath as they walked down to a Suburban parked on the street. He smiled as he saw them climb in and pull into the light Thursday afternoon traffic. With shaking hands, he pulled out a few car lengths behind them. [these shifts in pov can be moments where readers get confused, and confused readers usually stop reading] Bruce swerved a little as he pulled into traffic, making Alexis laugh. “What’s up? Your arm still not healed up all the way?” “Nah, it’s fine, my hand just slipped a little.” He smiled sheepishly as he rubbed his left arm. It was still a little weak after being in a cast for six weeks.
...“Alrighty, I won’t be long.[this should be a coma]” S[this should be lower case s] he said as she walked away. Attributions are not capitalized. ...“Hmmm. Must have been a S[no cap]quirrel or something[coma and lower case s].” Said Bruce.
...Just a few minutes [Moments later--be concise] later, they were all [a]lone in their favorite spot, right next to the lake. The sun broke through the morning overcast and warmed them up a little as they set up their [little twice in same sentence--find a better adjective] little picnic.
I felt like the proposal scene was stalling a bit, then the brother assassin appeared. John suggested changing the girl's name so it wouldn't make readers think of chatting with cutting edge technology. Gunfire would have been heard by other hikers on the trail. Silencers maybe?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Snow and the Best Laid Schemes of Mice and Men

I took this after sitting on the tarmac for two hours
Most of us keep our composure just fine--as long as things are going just fine. We plan things out and have this odd expectation that the million-and-one variables (and people) out there will simply comply, fall in line with out plans, do as we have ordained. You know, "My will, not thine, O Lord, however foolish it be." We do this--we?--I do this almost everyday. Even when my declared theology shouts otherwise in my ear.

I was musing on this from sunny Central Valley Fresno California this past weekend where I was keynote at the Christian Writers Seminar hosted by Fresno Pacific University. Between my two plenary addresses, a TV interview on the importance of teaching history to our children, two Sunday morning messages on 7 Biblical Reasons Every Christian Ought to be a History Geek, and an evening exhortation on Psalm 46--I kept watching the weather in Snowmageddon Puget Sound. My wife was reporting to me about the 18" of snow that had dumped on our farm, how pretty it looked, but how much more work it was to keep all the animals fed, watered, and warm. She had not even tried to drive down our steep driveway onto the icy roads. Schools were all closed, as were many roads. Trees snapped under the weight of the snow and ice. Power lines were down throughout the region. Law enforcement urged people to stay home, do not drive unless it is an emergency.

As I boarded the Alaska flight (bumped up to first class), the pilot told us that SeaTac Airport was covered in compact snow and ice and more snow was falling. The flight attendant mouthed to us to be prepared to land in Portland since she thought there was no way he would try to land in the middle of a winter storm. Who would do that? He did, expertly, one of the smoothest landings ever. Then we sat on the plane for two hours, just sat, waiting for a gate to open. And sat some more. As it would turn out, that was the simplest part of the next twenty hours for me.

Ordinarily the shuttle from the park and ride near our little farm to the airport took one hour. This was not ordinarily. The shuttle never showed up. So I took public transport to Tacoma, but many routes were closed, so had to detour to get the connection that would link to bus 100, the Narrows Bridge, and homeward. Bus 100 never showed up. I was dressed for seventy degree CA weather. It was dark and cold. My finger was shaking so much I was having trouble texting. And my phone had 6% battery. Then 5%. Then 4%. There were no Lyft cabs moving anywhere. Finally spent the night on my son and daughter-in-laws couch; I'm several inches longer than that couch.

In the morning, my daughter-in-law dropped me at the bus 100 stop again. I waited, in the cold, chatting with an older woman who was waiting in the cold for the same bus across the Narrows to the Peninsula and home. It never came, again. I checked my Lyft app. There were only three brave drivers crawling the city streets. But I had a 50% discount special on weekday Lyft rides. So off we went.

Meanwhile, my adult son was plowing our steep downhill driveway so he could take my tractor down the road and plow his steep uphill driveway and get his truck out and pick me up. The valve stem on one of the tractor tires sheered off. Another part broke in the cold. I'm drinking London Fog Lattes at Cutter's Point Coffee in Gig Harbor, wondering if I was ever going to get home. My wife reported that in all the flurry to dig out of the snow, a gate was left open and the cows were out belly deep romping in the white stuff, two dogs nipping at their heels. Somehow along the way I had forgotten to eat anything.

Robbie Burns was right. The best laid schemes of mice and men often do go awry. The writer of Proverbs put it better still: "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps" (16:9). Looking back, there were so many components of this adventure over which I had no control. The plane, the weather, the shuttle, the transit cancellations. I was powerless to change any of these things. But my God is sovereign and all powerful, and he presided over all, the minutest detail--sparrows falling, hair falling from ones head--precise orchestration of all things for his ultimate glory and his expansive kindness to his children. What a marvel.

After confessing my sins of frustration, I now meditate with Horatius Bonar on the mysterious and wonderful ways of our Sovereign Lord.

  1. Thy way, not mine, O Lord,
    However dark (or cold, or snowy, or disrupted) it be;
    Lead me by Thine own hand,
    Choose out the path for me.
  2. Smooth let it be or rough,
    It will be still the best;
    Winding or straight, it leads
    Right onward to Thy rest.
  3. I dare not choose my lot;
    I would not, if I might;
    Choose Thou for me, my God,
    So shall I walk aright.
  4. Take Thou my cup, and it
    With joy or sorrow fill,
    As best to Thee may seem;
    Choose Thou my good and ill.
  5. Choose Thou for me my friends,
    My sickness or my health;
    Choose Thou my cares for me,
    My poverty or wealth.
  6. The kingdom that I seek
    Is Thine: so let the way
    That leads to it be Thine,
    Else I must surely stray.
  7. Not mine, not mine the choice
    In things or great or small;
    Be Thou my guide, my strength
    My wisdom, and my all.
  8. (Horatius Bonar, 1857)