I've moved to another two blogs, one on writing, and one on general stuff like this one. Please come visit! MY NEW BLOGS:

Monday, October 24, 2011

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Old Bio

I'm a skeptic who came to faith through studying the historic circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus. My first novel, released January 2009, is an adventure about a small military team that travels back in time to film the theft of Jesus' body from the tomb. It will hopefully challenge you no matter what your beliefs!

This blog is an eclectic, hopefully thought-provoking and winsome mix of writing, religion, science, and other subjects as they catch my fancy. I'm eager for you to join in!

Check out my website at

Monday, June 20, 2011

Motivation Reaction Units (MRUs)

Dwight Swain first described these. MRUs are the smallest units by which a story is told, and when these are consistently used correctly your story will powerfully draw in the reader.

There are two parts of the MRU, the stimulus (cause) and the response (effect), that string together to form a narrative.

The stimulus is external to your character. In other words, it is something occurring in the environment that could be seen, heard and/or touched by any character in that location. It should be significant to your POV character so that he will feel he needs to respond. Some examples of a stimulus might be a dog breaking its leash and viciously growling as it runs toward the POV character, the hard-won note with secret information fluttering from the POV character’s pocket, or the POV character’s love interest whom he thought hated him unexpectedly kissing him.
The POV character is not written as the subject of the stimulus because this distances the reader from your character. In other words, you would say, “The drawer pinched Sharon’s finger,” not “Sharon felt the drawer pinch her finger.”

The response describes your character’s reaction to the stimulus, and must occur after the stimulus. In other words, you wouldn’t say, “Sharon yelped and pulled her hand away after the drawer pinched her finger” because this is out of order. First Sharon feels the pinch, then she reacts. This may sound obvious, but it happens more frequently than you might expect. Although the reader may not identify the reversed order, he will feel like something is off.

The response has four components that must always be in the correct order. These components are: emotion or sensation, reflex action, rational action, and speech. For example:

A loud crack ripped through the canyon. (stimulus) Jack started (emotion/sensation) then looked up in the direction of the sound. (reflex) The careening boulder was almost on him and he grabbed the bush to pull himself out of the way. (rational action) “Too close,” he said. (speech)

The boulder thumped where he had stood a moment before.(stimulus) He felt the ground vibrate (emotion/sensation) and shivered. (reflex) He hadn’t escaped yet. (rational action)

“Ryan, we’ve got to get out of here now!”(speech)

Most of the time you will not use all four of these response components. When you use fewer than four, just make sure that the ones you do use are in the correct order.

When do you use all of these reaction components at once? Since these components intensify the reader experience, you use all four when you want to increase tension or else to highlight something important.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Air Force One

While cleaning out the basement, I found a VCR of Air Force One. This movie came out in 1997, a handful of years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Here's a quick synopsis of the story:

The President, James Marshall (played by Harrison Ford), over enormous political pressure has coordinated the capture of the dangerous dictator of Kazakhstan. Ivan Radek is waging a civil war with the newly liberated Russian bloc countries and has nuclear weapons. In Moscow Marshall states a new, strong, "no tolerance" policy of the USA for any terrorists because "it's the right thing to do."

On the way home, a pro-Radek team of terrorists hijacks Air Force One and herds the hostages into a locked conference room, demanding the release of Radek. Marshall escapes capture and sabotages many aspects of the terrorists' plans, including the parachuting release of most of the hostages.

Marshall eventually defeats the terrorists, but since the pilots are all dead must now fly the damaged plane with low fuel out of the enemy region before another attack by air commences...


Let me say first that this is a violent movie, so watch it at your own risk. However the violence is not gratuitous but represents a realistic portrayal of how terrorists might deal with their mission, which I find instructive and a good reminder of what "bad" people are willing to do to get their way. It raises some thoughts: how might I behave in that situation? Would I be able to stand up to that evil?

It was refreshing to watch such a positive portrayal of strength and goodness in the United States and with the military. I've missed that. Marshall, we're told, is a Medal of Honor Winner and "flew more rescue missions in Vietnam" than anyone else under a high-ranking officer's command. Marshall was brave. Marshall was strong. Marshall held to the good despite enormous pressure to bow to the easy.

The military pilots and others who assisted with the rescue showed amazing feats of training, discipline, and selfless courage. Glenn Close, who played Vice President Catherine Bennett, was another strong leader. There were many heroic acts from the nameless characters -- the secret service men and other staff who stood in gunfire to guard safe passage for Marshall and others, others confronting and fighting the terrorists to protect the hostages. It was inspiring.

Wow, wow, wow. It seems lately that there is so much negativism and corruption permeating our country, leading to fear and despair in the American people.

James Marshall, where are you?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

E-Book Contest

I just heard about a "Global E-Book" contest sponsored by Dan Poynter's organization. Entrance fee is $59 (discount for multiples) and deadline is June 30th. Categories include covers, multiple nonfiction topics, and multiple fiction topics. You can check it out at

I don't know any more. Investigation is key since $$ is involved. Good luck if you enter!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Amazon Kindle and Print Sales

Amazon recently compiled sales data from the first five months of 2011 of both printed and e-books to come up with its "Most Well-Read Cities in America." Here they are:

1. Cambridge, MA
2. Alexandria, VA
3. Berkeley, CA
4. Ann Arbor, MI
5. Boulder, CO
6. Miami, FL
7. Salt Lake City, UT
8. Gainesville, FL
9. Seattle, WA
10. Arlington, VA
11. Knoxville, TN
12. Orlando, FL
13. Pittsburgh, PA
14. Washington, DC
15. Bellevue, WA
16. Columbia, SC
17. St. Louis, MO
18. Cincinnati, OH
19. Portland, OR
20. Atlanta, GA

It's interesting to note that there are some strong college cities in this list, including Cambridge MA. Cities, especially college cities, might be expected to have some good bookstores in the area. Unfortunately there are no figures comparing brick-and-mortar store sales to online store sales, but it's not hard to imagine that a creeping change of how books are sold and how people read is going on. Just this month at Amazon's yearly meeting, Jeff Bezos announced that Kindle books were outselling print books on Amazon. Is this a good thing?

I love my Kindle. I love being able to almost instantly have the new book I want to read -- instant gratification. At the same time, a) I can spend a lot of money if I'm not careful; and b) as wonderful as the Kindle is, the e-books still have disadvantages over DTBs (dead tree books). I can't share the book easily (although Amazon is instituting some sort of lending policy), and I wonder what would happen if my Kindle died. Well, my books are stored "in the cloud" but I'd still have to purchase another Kindle, and I'd lose my PDFs and other documents. DTBs also have problems, most notably that they take space to store.

One can't stand in the way of an oncoming train. What do you think of changes in publishing?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Definition of a Liberal

I don't know a better term to use. By "liberal" I mean a politician who believes the rules don't apply to him, but doesn't mind creating and imposing them on others. No disrespect intended to other politicians.

Here it is, the definition of a liberal:

Someone who doesn't mind what you do, as long as you're mandated to do it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I Just Won $2 Million Dollars! Ya think?

Honestly, how stupid do these people think I am? Here is yet another of these emails that tells me my dreams will come true if only I give some people in Africa or Eastern Europe all of my personal information before collecting an amazing prize. Ya think? I will give this email writer points for writing in better English than some of these emails.

I was so tempted to respond to this email with a "how stupid do you think I am?" comment, but figured they'd then know they had a live person at the other end. (Although they probably do already since the email didn't bounce). Nah, not worth it.

I read an interview with a con man a few years ago. He said that cons worked because the mark was convinced he might be able to get something for nothing. Scrupulously honest people weren't usually caught in the net.

There's no honesty question here with a "sweepstakes" though, simply skepticism. I don't believe in doing sweepstakes, and if I did I think I'd remember a $2M prize was offered for one. Puleeze.



We want to notify you that your Winner prize payment of US$2,000,000.00 has
been processed, packaged and forwarded to EE Security Service after your
inability to respond at all our notification. This was for security reasons
and all arrangement was made with the company Lawyer who assured us that they
will deliver your consignment package to your house with the company special
diplomatic Immunity with a cheaper rate, he stated that the assigned diplomats
will proceed to your country immediately the required legal obligation is met.

As am writing now, your package is with security department of the company
because we paid for keeping charges already, to this end all arrangement has
been concluded for the shipment as the company is waiting to hear from you
regarding the shipment with the reconfirmation of the below details. You have
to get in touch with them immediately by contacting below address:

E-mail address: ( blanked)
Contact Person: (Dr. Nana Pedro)
Also required are as follows..........
Your full names_________________
Your Current Address______________
Cell & Telephone numbers________________
Country of origin__________________________
A copy of your ID or Passport____________________

Please for your information, your consignment was on package number
XC653/518/U006M registered as Family Valuables. not as CASH for security
reasons, the said package is under SECURITY MONITORING UNIT. I will be waiting
to hear from you once the contact is made to the company for an update.

Thank You,
Mrs. Anita Claude
Payment Coordinator.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Sixth Day of the Sixth Month

Today is the 67th anniversary of D-Day, the Allies' first move to gain a foothold on the main European continent to push back the Nazis.

The invasion of fortified Normandy, France, had originally been planned for June 5, 1944, but because of weather was pushed off for a day. Air assault conducted soon after midnight softened the Nazi entrenchments of Normandy (bridges, road crossings, terrain features and such). The amphibious assault occurred soon after 6 am along five beaches: Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword, and Utah. Germans mowed down soldiers from high cliffs, yet the Allies persisted and were able to establish a beachhead from which they launched their counter-invasion of Europe. This was the largest one-day invasion ever, with more than 130,000 troops landed by the end of June 6.

I am humbled thinking about these brave young men going forward in the face of blinding artillery and seemingly certain death in order to free nations from the Nazis' grip. Anyone who has seen that opening scene of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan will have a hard time wiping those (realistically staged) images from his mind.

I am humbled thinking of all of the soldiers and civilians, throughout history, who have bravely and anonymously faced terrifying conditions and made wrenching choices in order to improve the lives of others. So much of what we enjoy in this country is due to these sacrifices.

It seems insufficient, but I just wish to say to these men and women, thank you.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The End of the World

About a month ago as I was driving on the Beltway, I saw a painted van warning of horrible events on May 21, and to turn to the Lord. And this morning, I just heard a representative of Harold Camping's Bible Institute on the radio who made the most outrageous predictions about "Judgment Day" on Saturday. This makes me angry -- yet another excuse for people to mock Christ.

What do you think of this?

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Ultimate Brownies

I'm getting close to deadlines for my book, but am still madly working. I hope to return to a regular blogging schedule soon. In the meantime, I thought I'd share these brownies with you which may be the best I've ever tasted. The secret is in using Dutch-processed cocoa, not the regular stuff. Hershey's makes a "special dark" blend that's pretty close; this looks like the regular cocoa but has a red slash on the label across the front. Sadly, I've noticed over the last 2-3 years that my regular sources of Dutch-processed cocoa have disappeared.

Enjoy, dear friends!


1 cup (2 sticks) butter, melted
2 cups sugar
2 tsp vanilla
4 eggs
3/4 cup (12 tablespoons) Dutch-processed cocoa
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
chocolate chips (5-6 oz)

Oven 350F. Grease 13x9x2 inch pan. Bake about 30-35 min, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.


1/4 cup (1/2 of one stick) butter, melted
6 T Dutch-processed cocoa
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
powdered sugar

Mix first four ingredients. Add about a cup of powdered sugar and a few tablespoons of milk. Keep alternating sugar and milk until consistency is correct. Be careful because a little milk goes a long way. Swirl on brownies, and sprinkle jimmies on top if desired.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Don't Be a Welfare Hydra

For those of you who don't know, I've done an in-depth study of story (novels and films) with the aim of articulating how stories can be put together. I've been fortunate enough to coach several writers to apply and refine my paradigm, and I think I'm onto something! This algorithm is scheduled to be released as a book THE STORY TEMPLATE at the end of June.

A main, and I mean really main, really big, problem that I keep running across while editing I've called the "One Darn Thing After Another" syndrome. But I've just found the icon for this that I think is perfect -- the Welfare Hydra!

First, take a look at this 3 minute clip. This scene is from 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, where Jason needs to kill the 7-headed Hydra in order to steal the golden fleece. The chick is Medea, a high priestess who's basically betrayed her people to help Jason, but we won't go into the whole ethics of Jason's quest here -- after all, this is high Greek mythology, so let's just watch it for fun:

This is an impressive movie with astounding special effects for 1963, and I enjoyed watching it on many levels. I first saw this movie a few years ago with my boy, when as a first grader he became interested in ancient warfare topics in general (as an aside, he impressed the heck out of his teacher by taking half an hour to explain the Pelopynesian War to the class. My daughter, though, is the Greek myth expert. But as a proud mom, I digress).

I feel a bit guilty being so critical here since the special effects technology WAS so primitive, but hey, this makes my point. In this clip, did you notice what the Welfare Hydra does?




Yes, the Hydra waves its heads a bit, hisses, and slithers on its floppy little belly. It even catches Jason in its tail at one point, but promptly lets him go and doesn't press the attack. You can almost hear the Hydra saying (in a squeaky voice) "I'm scary! I'm scary! See how scary I am?" At the end it bares its chest so Jason with his sword can conveniently stab its heart, at which it obligingly dies.

So what does this have to do with writing?

Simply this: in many of the stories that I critique, I find this same sort of "Welfare Hydra" mentality appearing, on both the macro and the micro levels. The writer describes exciting (or not so exciting) events that the protagonist wrestles through, but in the end, these events don't make any difference to the story. They don't push the story along.

The micro events just add word count. A character will find a chilled bottle of water, unscrew its tight cap, take a few sips of the cold liquid, then screw the lid back on and wipe her hands on her black summer-cloth-weight capris, feeling refreshed now. Excuse me? Does any of this detail really add to the story? Now, maybe if the character had arthritis, then her method of opening a bottle might give a little grace note to her character, but otherwise this is throwaway stuff.

So how might one push a story along? There are many techniques to do this, but the core principle is to consistently raise the stakes for the protagonist: put more in jeopardy, make it uncertain that the protagonist can accomplish a goal that is vital to him and for the long-term success for the story. Everything counts, including little actions. Who cares how the character opens a bottle of water? But if the character isn't sure that she will be able to sneak a sip of water to calm a cough before she has to make an announcement, it might become more interesting.

A good way to raise these questions is to write in a deep third person point of view. Many manuscripts I read are written in a superficial POV, where actions are captured as if on camera, and there is no insight into the character's thoughts. The penetrating POV is one of the great strengths of novel writing. (Films of course have music, camera angles, and other tricks that make them a different, yet also strong, medium).

Use your POV!

Here are two passages:


Sam ran down the hallway. It was long, and there were no windows. He picked up speed. The entrance was twenty feet away. (objective POV)



Sam couldn't see the intruder, but knew he must be close by. This was the hardest part to get out of the building: a long white tunnel, no windows.

Twenty feet. He might just have time. If only he could turn off these lights to race in the dark, but no time, no time.

And then he heard a footstep behind him...

(penetrating POV)


OK, it's a hokey example written off the top of my head, but you get the idea, I trust.

When you write, whether a paragraph or a scene or more, keep asking yourself, "Are my words a Welfare Hydra?" If they are, stab them through the heart.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Norman Geisler: If God, Why Evil?

5 stars: Fabulous and Rigorous, Highly Recommended

Geisler's book would not necessarily be the most comforting to read for those who are concurrently going through an emotionally trying time, since it maintains an objective presentation for the problem of evil. At the same time, it WOULD be helpful for those who wish to puzzle through these issues, and gives credible reasons for believing in God despite the existence of evil.

The ten chapters with topics that Geisler addresses are:

Three Views on Evil
The Nature of Evil
The Origin of Evil
The Persistence of Evil
The Purpose of Evil
The Avoidability of Evil
The Problem of Physical Evil
Miracles and Evil
The Problem of Eternal Evil (Hell)
What About Those Who Have Never Heard?

Geisler presents arguments for the existence of the Christian God: a separate being from his creation, who is all-knowing, all-loving, all-just, and all-powerful. He asks blunt questions: if this evil type of situation exists, how can God be there also?

Geisler sets up the arguments against God in a syllogistic format, stating the premises that lead to disbelieving that God exists, and then discusses why some of the premises may be faulty.

His arguments are elegant, with information that takes time to digest. Even so, the book is only about 175 pages, certainly not over-intimidating. Geisler also includes three appendices: Animal death before Adam, Evidence for the existence of God, and a Critique of The Shack, that are provocative.

As a Christian I found Geisler's arguments compelling. At the same time, while talking with atheists I find that straight logic is usually not sufficient to "prove" God's existence, although God's existence can be strongly supported. (Strongly supported enough that as a scientist and skeptic, I came to faith through studying the historic circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus). There is an emotional resistance to the Christian God's existence, probably because accepting His existence means bowing to Him as Lord, something many are reluctant to do.

Geisler's book is a concise and smart rendering of Christian arguments to answer the question: If God exists, why is there evil in the world? I wish I could have given this book more than five stars. Highly recommended.

I am grateful to Bethany House for providing a copy of this book for me to review. I was not bound to give a positive review, simply a review.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

New Book: The Story Template

I'm happy to announce that my new book, THE STORY TEMPLATE, is scheduled to be released in July. This book describes a hands-on process that someone can use to develop a complete, compelling story from a vague idea. I came up with this algorithm from story coaching a number of students, and it really works!

As far as I'm aware, this is the only book that gives a practical, clear process for someone to follow from beginning to end. I'm hopeful.

The book's chapter outline is:

1 - Introduction
2 - 4 Story Pillars, Logline
3 - Story World and Moral Story Pillars
4 - Plot Story Pillar
5 - Character Story Pillar
6 - The Story Template (explanation)
7 - Template – organizing your own
8 - Character template
9 - Characters and Subplots
10 - Comprehensive Template “Cheat Sheet”
11 - Synopsis
12 - Bubbles
13 - Story Boarding
14 - Beginnings
15 - Writing the Individual Scene
16 - Writing Techniques
17 - Editing and Criticism
18 - Submitting a ms

If I am a bit erratic in posting blogs in the next few months, I hope you understand! Deadlines are tough things, although useful.

Friday, April 15, 2011

April 15

April 15th seems like a jinxed day:

Abraham Lincoln died on this day in 1865 after being shot on Good Friday the night before by John Wilkes Booth. It was just 6 days after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. One wonders how our country's reconciliation between North and South might have gone differently if Lincoln instead of Andrew Johnson had overseen Reconstruction: Johnson weakened the fragile union by encouraging Southern rebels, denying freed slaves any rights, and breaking rich men to redistribute wealth.

The Titanic sank early in the morning on this day in 1912 after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean while steaming from Southampton England to New York City. 1517 people were lost; the Titanic carried a lifeboat capacity of less than half of its total 2223 persons on board. Only 706 people, 31.8% of the total, survived. Titanic was the most modern and luxurious ship built at the time, and was thought to be unsinkable.

And of course, April 15th is tax day. OK, I won't go there.


No, I'm not superstitious, and I remain full of hope even on this dark day.

Speaking of taxes, though, I will say this. I deeply resent this new "class warfare" that was so evident in Obama's speech on Wednesday about "The Rich" paying their "fair share" of taxes to diminish the deficit. (They already pay an amazing proportion, while many pay none). "The Rich" are not evil. For the most part, they have worked hard from moderate means to get where they are. Their activity fuels the economic engine in this country, both by the companies they own that produce jobs, and the goods and services they purchase that produce jobs.

We are ALL Americans, are we not? Even the Rich? I am so grateful to be in this country, where I and my children can aspire to be in this heady class. I hope these opportunities continue.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Lesson from Three Stories

A Lesson from Three Stories

There are three stories that are considered classics, and yet have always irritated me. Watching one of them this weekend, I think I understand why, and there's a lesson in them for improving one's writing. Here they are:

1. Tchaikovsky's ballet: The Nutcracker. Yes, I know this is a ballet and one goes for the dancing not the story, but I can't help being a curmudgeon. Very quickly, at a Christmas party Clara is given a nutcracker that her brother promptly breaks. After midnight Clara dreams she sees the mouse king and Nutcracker fighting -- through her heroic slipper-throwing she dispatches the mouse king and breaks the spell on her beloved Nutcracker, who is really a handsome prince (of course). The prince takes her to the Kingdom of the Sweets where he and Clara hold court over all the dancing subjects in the kingdom celebrating the prince's return and Clara's bravery. The End.

2. Alice in Wonderland (Disney's movie, 1951). Yes, I know Lewis Carroll wrote this novel as a veiled political commentary of Britain in 1865, but Disney’s movie makes no sense. I hated it even as a kid. Alice is bored, then sees a white rabbit with a watch and the nonsense begins. I basically learned from this movie not to eat or drink strange things lying around: Alice shrinks or grows tall, talks to disappearing cats, attends bizarre tea parties, rumbles with the Queen of Hearts ("Off with her head!") and basically has a confusing time of it before waking and realizing it was all a dream. The End.

3. The Wizard of Oz (Fleming's 1939 movie). Yes, I know this extravaganza broke a lot of ground, including the use of Technicolor and Judy Garland's song “Over the Rainbow,” had a fabulous set and cast of many, won many awards, and is considered a classic, but what can I say? I don’t like it. Dorothy on her way home from rescuing her dog is caught up in a tornado and dropped in the land of Oz. She's chased by the Wicked Witch of the West (love Margaret Hamilton), wears ruby slippers, and wanders through the country picking up assorted companions as she goes to find the Wizard of Oz so he can send her home. I'm still trying to figure out Dorothy’s line at the end that goes something like, "I learned that when I go looking for my heart's desire, I don't have to go farther than my own backyard, because if it isn't there, I never lost it in the first place." Huh?? The End.

Does anyone see what the common problem in these stories might be? Anyone? Anyone?

I think the reason these stories don't work well as stories is because they don't have a point. In all three, the main character goes on a journey, but comes back exactly the same as before. Well, Dorothy in Oz DOES have a character arc, but it's a trivial one: She basically learns that it's good to be home. This is like saying that the grass is green. Do I CARE about what happens to Clara, Alice, or Dorothy? Not really.

So, in light of this, how might one make a story gripping? How might one cause the reader or viewer to identify with the protagonist?

Answer: There must be an element within the protagonist with which your reader or viewer identifies. By this I'm not talking about statistical data (white male, 30s, lives in Chicago, day trader), but rather, what the protagonist desires in the story, the point through which the character arc traverses.

Let's do another example: Rocky, a classic film that I love love love! But wait a moment. I detest boxing; I can't stand the violence, crowds, yelling, smoke, blood, etc. I'm not an Italian man. I don't live in Philadelphia. I don't go to bars, or have friends who trash their houses with a baseball bat when they're angry. I don't punch raw meat. I do love dogs, so I could see myself running with Rocky’s Boxer, Budkins, but that's about it. Oh, and the music is great.

But surely this isn't enough to keep me watching. What I love about this movie is Rocky's determination to make something of himself: he doesn't want to be "just another bum from the neighborhood." Gee, I can definitely identify with this. I know that this is a hard thing to accomplish. I watch Rocky's heartbreaking struggle: he's pushed down at every turn, but somehow through a lucky break and some very hard work, he's able to claw himself up to prominence. He doesn't even win the final fight, but he knows that he has indeed become a Somebody through hard work and determination because he was able to “go the distance” with Apollo Creed.

Rocky's character arc parallels the course of triumph that I wish for my own life. He fights; I fight. He's knocked down; I'm knocked down. He makes progress; well, maybe I can make progress too. There's some hope.

The reader or viewer must care about your protagonist. To do this, there must be a deep abiding drive in your protagonist that your reader or viewer can identify with, and root for, and hope to see victorious. If your hero can do it, the reader or viewer thinks, then maybe so can I.


NOTE: this entry is reposted. A perceptive commenter remarked that all three of the stories I named (The Nutcracker, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz) were written in the 1800s or early 1900s, when fantasy types of stories were just beginning to emerge. She suggested that the story world in these stories was sufficiently entertaining for an audience not as sophisticated in terms of story type and development as we are today with mega-special effects and mind-twisting story worlds. Brilliant point, Gwen!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Tension in Fiction Writing, and the Individual Scene

There are both plot-driven and character-driven stories, but in my humble opinion they both need tension in order to move forward. Tension must be in every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence. Tension is the uncertainty of at least one issue in the story. For example, here is a conversation between character A and character B:

A: Do you like eggs for breakfast?

B: (answer #1) Yes.

B: (answer #2) My mom used to make eggs, soft boiled, you know, and she'd break them over toast so that the egg yolk would soak in.

B: (answer #3) Why is it any of your business?

Answer #1 stops the conversation, and the story. There are times when this answer might be appropriate -- say, to establish an abrupt interchange -- but in general, #2 or #3 might be a better choice. #2 opens up a chance to deepen character background in a natural way, and #3 suggests a brewing fight. My general rule for questions in writing, whether spoken or implied, is *never* to put down a direct answer.

When I write, I like to plan out the broad outlines of a chapter before I start in. I often end up changing it, mind you, but I at least start with a direction.

According to Jack Bickham in Elements of Writing Fiction: Scene and Structure, there are two units of story construction: a SCENE and a SEQUEL. Very roughly speaking, the scene follows the advancing plot, and the sequel describes the POV character's reaction to it. Bickham describes that all stories are beads of Scene-Sequel-Scene-Sequel, although many times the sequel can be pulled to speed up the action.

While I don't agree with everything he describes in his book, his thoughts on Scene/Sequel were quite helpful, and allowed me to develop a technique for planning each chapter. Here's my technique, for what it's worth:

At the top of the page, I'll copy in my little outline:


POV stands for the point of view character, in whose head I am writing from. Hmm, maybe I should write a blog on character viewpoint. Basically, since I prefer the 3rd person limited, everything is told from that character's perspective: what HE can see, what HE knows.

GOAL: what is the short-term goal that my POV character is trying to achieve within the next few pages? When writing the draft, I try to have the character actually state his goal clearly close to the beginning.

CONFLICT: what obstacles will stand in the way of this goal? Obstacles can be both EXTERNAL (other people, physical obstacles) and INTERNAL (fears, worries, lack of knowledge). I like to come up with at least 5 conflicts. Even though I can't always come up with 5, and even if I do come up with them I don't always incorporate them into the draft, they are still helpful to prevent writers block -- if I'm stuck I can always throw another problem at my poor POV character.

DISASTER: the scene should not end happily. Even if the POV character is successful with his goal at the beginning of the chapter, he should be in a worse situation at the end of the chapter. More questions are raised! The reader thinks, I'll read just one more chapter...


I also use sequels, the emotional reaction of the POV character, although less frequently. When I'm ready to write a sequel, I post this outline at the top:


EMOTION: refers to the POV character's emotional state immediately following the previous scene. Is he frightened, worried, angry, desperate?

THOUGHT: once he's had some emotion, he's able to logically evaluate the circumstances.

DECISION: the character is in a bad situation, and must decide what he is going to do.

ACTION: He begins to do what he decided.


There is no easy way to write, but doing this little bit of preplanning at least for me is quite helpful to prevent writers block. Often my scene shapes up differently than what I'd thought, but that's OK too -- I go with the flow.

So, how do you go about facing the computer screen every day?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Don't Waste Your Life

I don't remember who spoke at my high school graduation, but all these years later I do remember her opening line:

"You've already lived one quarter of your life."

This was powerful stuff for an eighteen year old. As I've thought back on her talk through the years, I am grateful that she pointed my attention to be careful, not to waste life, while I was still young.

Life IS very short, isn't it? When you're 18, it seems like it will last forever, but by the time you're 28 you've already made some pivotal decisions of the direction your life will go (marriage, career, family, location) and by the time you're 38 these decisions are even more entrenched. And so on. Yes, you can always alter your path, but it gets progressively harder.

And no matter what you do, the past years are already gone.

You feel the touch of the mortal hand: bodies age, people die, disappointments multiply, safeguards fail. Life is not limitless as it is when you're 18. More and more potentials become actualities as you build the legacy you will leave, stone by stone.

What legacy will you leave? Sweetness or bitter? Gratitude or anger? Emphasis on others or yourself?

You've heard this one before, but what would you do if you only had a day/week/month to live? Would you change your focus for these last hours or days, or would you more or less do what you're doing now? Do you think it's important if you'd change your focus? What is your guiding principle in life?

Will you choose to follow God? I believe this life is the only place you can freely make this decision, and also that this is the most important question of all.

Ponder these things. In the meantime, let me make the statement that the woman made to our high school class:


Make your life count. Build your legacy, whether it is to play with your children, be with your family, or do your job that will make life better for many. Design that computer program, start your dream business, paint your masterpiece. Love and bless others. Search for truth. Search for God.

Monday, April 4, 2011

DISC Personality Test

These personality theories are fun if taken with a grain of salt. The DISC personality test was developed from the work of Dr. William Marston by John Geier. It examines preferences of the person when dealing with other people and work environments.

There are four dimensions that can be set into a grid as follows (hoping my grid works):




The categories are:

* Dominance – relating to control, power and assertiveness. D people will quickly and aggressively find solutions to problems.

* Influence – relating to social situations and communication. I people tend to be emotional, and value the other person.

* Steadiness – relating to patience, persistence, and thoughtfulness. S people tend to be calm and predictable, and value routine.

* Conscientiousness – relating to structure and organization. C people tend to be detail-oriented and careful.

You can take a free online test to see where you fall HERE.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Small Things

Twice yesterday I was reminded of small actions people had done for me over the past year or so that were encouraging. As I reflect on the topic now while writing this blog entry, I can remember others.

I've been thinking: it's important to watch even the small things you do, because you don't know how they may affect others. Do all things well. Go the extra mile for the person who asks you for help, even if it seems little. You just don't know. The small actions that I smiled over today, might have seemed inconsequential but they weren't. They weren't.

I always loved this part of Paul's letter to the Philippians, when he thanks them for encouraging him in his ministry when no one else did. He calls these actions a fragrant offering.

Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:15-19)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wow. Just Wow.

As writers, we have probably all experienced negative responses to our work. Heck, not even writers, everyone gets criticisms from time to time. They can be true and helpful -- as the Bible says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another," (Proverbs 27:17) and "Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy." (Proverbs 27:6). Sometimes the criticism is motivated out of jealousy or misanthropy. Sometimes the criticizer is simply not qualified to give a good opinion.

Doesn't matter. IMHO the best way to respond to criticism, no matter what, is to say, "thank you." Period. Don't defend yourself, since you're not going to change someone's opinion anyway. Take the words back with you, and study them. Try to maintain an objective stance (it may take a little time to get there). If the words are pointing out something true, then internalize the message and learn from it. If the words aren't relevant, for whatever reason, then discard them.

This is difficult of course. I have learned that when someone criticizes my manuscript, often what they think is wrong isn't the problem (for example, it may not be a character issue but simply that I'm truncating an emotional scene), but there is SOMETHING there. When more than one person points to the same passage, I scrutinize it with a microscope. I am so grateful for the comments that people have given me to help improve my writing. Even the mean ones can be helpful.

With all this being said, check out this blog review and the comments after it. This just showcases how your defense of your work might appear to others. Wow. Just wow.

Jacqueline Howitt Part 2

PS I'm not trying to pile tsk tsk criticism onto this woman. She lost control -- we all do. Her novel (The Greek Seaman) was apparently based on something that really happened to her, she was upset, and now she is experiencing a flame war. I'm thinking she probably feels pretty bad this morning. Jacqueline, hang in there and I hope this experience is eventually helpful for you. Writing is tough, and you've GOT to listen to feedback and use it to make your work better, not become defensive. But also, you are not a failure as a human being.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Jefferson's Prescience

Jefferson had some amazing thoughts that saw the potential of some of the problems circling our government right now. As our country recklessly careens towards earthquake-type change in its reach into our lives, I will pray and ponder these thoughts. I hope you might also.


The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.


It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.


I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.


My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.


To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

China Market Store

I hope you forgive me for today's entry. A friend sent these photos to me of *mart* offerings in China. I am discombobulated.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Japan 2011

Looking at the apocalyptic wreckage in Japan, I can’t help thinking that this might be how God feels looking at the wreckage of sin in this world. To us the world looks orderly, with stately mountains and neat four-square streets in cities. God sees the human hearts, and He weeps.

Friday, March 18, 2011

I Won :-))))

I'm pleased to announce that A LEVER LONG ENOUGH won the Adventure category of the 2011 EPIC awards, out of a field of 10. EPIC stands for electronic publishing internet coalition. The list of winners is HERE.

Thanks everyone for your support!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Writing the Novel or Screenplay

I have a very simple trick to finish long writing projects such as a novel. When I use it, it's magic. When I don't use it, nothing gets done. Are you ready?

Two steps:

1. Determine a daily or weekly writing quota of WORDS PER DAY. (Not hours per day since you want results). 300 words per day might be a good place to start, but keep pushing this up as you get into the writing groove.

2. Make a chart, and put it on your refrigerator where you always see it. Every day, write down what you've done.

Doing these two steps is amazing, I promise.

I'm keeping this blog entry short because you shouldn't be on the internet anyway! Get back to work!

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Optimists Clubs of America

In many ways life is just too short to be lazy, shy, scared, mean, prideful, uncaring, angry, unloving and unloveable etc... so promise yourself the following:

~Promise Yourself~

To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.

To talk health, happiness, and prosperity to every person you meet.

To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.

To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.

To think only the best, to work only for the best, and expect only the best.

To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.

To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.

To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.

To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

~The Optimists Clubs of America~

Friday, March 11, 2011

Some of My Favorite Writing Books: A List for Fiction and Screenplays

I've been meaning to make a list of my all-time favorite writing books. It's going to take some time to really review and remember all of the books that have been excellent, but I thought I'd at least start on a few. Whether you do screenwriting or novel writing, I've found ALL of these books have been insightful. Also, if you have any favorites that you thought were helpful but I've missed them, please let me know.

Save the Cat! and its two sequels, by Blake Snyder

Snyder was a successful Hollywood screenwriter who sadly died in August 2009. He had developed a system for writing a story that is amazing; I just love what's he's done here. Snyder starts with a 15 point story progression, then breaks it out into 40 scenes that are ready to write for the screenplay.


The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

This is an intellectual book that needs to be worked through slowly with your story development notebook in the other hand. Truby sticks with the important through line of the story, and especially the all-important changes that MUST occur in your character in order to make the story gripping and resonant.


Writing the Fiction Synopsis by Pam McCutcheon

This book is hard to find, which I never understood because it's so on-target. McCutcheon breaks down writing the synopsis and gives many examples that will help guide you to write a decent synopsis. This book is also helpful if you're simply trying to work out what your story is about. If you want to purchase, I suggest you go to the publisher Gryphon Books for Writers at, since this book is outrageously expensive on amazon.


Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon

Another offering from Gryphon books for Writers at that gives clear instruction for the smaller units of fiction development. Randy Ingermanson and others also talk about the GMC -- a critical concept if you want to write well enough to become published. Again, buy this from the publisher rather than on amazon.


Break Into Fiction by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love

The book that goes along with the workshop taught by these two ladies, different chapters focus on different aspects of the story with templates and worksheets that give thought-provoking exercises to help develop your ideas.


Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

Maass is a successful literary agent who has deeply studied books that have "broken out" and grab readers. He includes challenging and thoughtful exercises to do once you have finished your first draft -- and believe me, you will NOT finish your next draft for a very long time, but it will become so strong you won't recognize it.


The Dramatic Writer's Companion by Will Dunne

This is an insightful book that puts forth many questions about your work, in different categories, that will help you shape and then refine it. At the end Dunne has a troubleshooting guide called "Fixing Common Script Problems" that gives clues and suggestions to help with bugaboos such as not enough conflict in a scene, or a passive main character.


The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield

Scofield looks at a unit of story construction, the scene, and discusses how to focus it so that it resonates. Step by step instructions, examples, and exercises really guide to write something effective.


Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

Randy is my hero, and I love everything he writes. Peter Economy is a professional writer, and together he and Randy have created something really helpful here. This book uses a number of Randy's techniques to develop a writing routine, design and finish a novel, and then create a book proposal and marketing plan. Here is inspiring and can-do advice especially for the newbie.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Carpe Diem

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.
---C. S. Lewis

We all imagine how life could be different, but until we start acting on our dreams, they just remain irrelevant. My dear friends, I ran across this quote today, and hope it will inspire you to reach for something hard. Take a small step every day towards your goal. You can do it!

Monday, March 7, 2011


This is pretty funny :-)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Heaven at the Pump

I chatted with a gentleman at the gas pump not long ago.

He seemed very happy, and we had an enjoyable few exchanges as we filled our respective vehicles -- a good thing, since the station was considered "cheap" at $3.15 a gallon, and I spent more than $40 to fill the tank.

At the end of our brief conversation, he gave me a tract that discussed heaven from a particular religious viewpoint, and expressed an eagerness for me to read it. Then he drove off and merrily waved as he pulled past me; I merrily waved back, but in my heart I whispered a prayer for him.

When I got home I read the tract. It described a beautiful paradise on earth, full of gardens and plentiful food and living space, bursting with health and peace, free of work or strife of any kind. Messiah would rule over this new world. Love would reign. The illustrations showed a park-like setting with happy families cuddling wild animals, and tamed lions and wolves resting next to sheep and deer.

It was very easy imagine.

And therein, for me, lies a problem. You see, I believe that God is infinitely greater than anything we can understand. When I think of the place that God's people will live after death, I remember the quote from Paul, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him." (1 Cor. 2:9).

Not long ago in my writing group, another gentleman read some excerpts from a book he is writing about heaven. Do you ever feel like a topic is following you around? He was interested to hear questions that either we, or other people, might have about an afterlife.

So I'm asking you, my dear friends, for him. What questions do you have? Is there a heaven? Does everyone go there? If not, who doesn't, and why not? Do we just cease to exist at death? Can we know what happens, or do we just have to guess?

What is heaven like? And does it matter what you believe?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How to Make Biscuits with a Five-Year-Old

I wrote this awhile ago, and just found it tucked away:

How to Make Biscuits with a Five-Year-Old

The recipe card for biscuits has four cuts in it. It’s bendy when I pick it up but it is precious, bearing the marks of a two-year-old’s scissors. Now my daughter is five, and we are going to make biscuits.

I steady her on the chair pulled up to the counter. The sifter is on the plate, ready to go. “First, we need two cups of flour,” I say to her.

Emily purses her lips in concentration as she pulls out the green measuring cup from the canister. The bit of flour on the bottom flies onto my shirt and the floor, but she doesn’t notice, so intent is she.

“Two cups,” I repeat.

She nods and digs the cup deep, deep into the flour. More flour flies, and I catch her hand gently. “Be careful, sweetie.”

Together we shake the extra flour off the top of the cup and dump it into the sifter. I brush together the flour on the counter.

“One more,” I say, and this time I keep my hand over Emily’s hand. It reminds me of a story I once heard about a child’s excitement when her artist father put his hand over hers to help her to sketch. Her father guiding … but she was the one sketching.

“Good job,” I say, and Emily smiles. “Now we need two teaspoons of baking powder.” I help her with the measuring spoons, and together we scoop out the white powder, take a knife to smooth off the top. The salt I pour into her hand, a half-teaspoon in a small mound. She dumps it over the sifter, stretching her hand like a small sea-plant extending.

“Are you ready to sift?”

This is Emily’s favorite part. “It’s snowing,” she says. The wire rubbing flour through the mesh makes a soft grating sound. We shake off the bit of flour left on the plate into the mixing bowl.

“My turn,” I say. I add a quarter cup of oil and a scant cup of milk, then mix the liquid into the flour until it’s smooth—I’ve learned the hard way that I need to do this first mix to avoid a real mess. A little more flour. Emily wants to mix and I hand her the fork, but she gives it back after a moment. The dough is too thick for her to turn.

“Time to knead it,” I say, and let her sprinkle a little flour onto the counter. We dump the dough out and I make one turn, two, until the dough is soft and elastic. Emily digs her fingers in; they are clumped and white, and she laughs.

When the dough is ready, I hand Emily the rolling pin. She leans too far over, and the dough is impossibly thin at one end, clumpy and bumpy at the other. I fold it and knead it over, and we roll the dough together, making it into a smooth sheet.

Now cutting the biscuits, her second favorite part. “Make them close together,” I say. “We don’t want to knead the dough more than we have to, or the biscuits will be tough.” But it’s all right, really, when we eat the biscuits later for dinner and they are tough. To Emily smiling proudly at her daddy, there is nothing better in the world to eat.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Domestically Yours

From two years ago...

My boy brought home from school a sweet poem for me. Although I don't usually permit myself to be sentimental, I admit to feeling a specially warm fuzzy glow reading this. Here 'tis:

How do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways.

Yelling, screaming, anxious kids still have a place in your van.
When I get home, chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven are waiting for me with an ice cold glass of milk.

You also take great care to make the house beautiful.
It always makes me happy, like a beautiful sunrise just smiling at the world.


I'm far from being super-mom, believe me, but things like this are wonderful reminders that it's important to take care of people -- they are what last. Deal gently with them. We are all fragile.

Since I'm thinking of it, here is my recipe for chocolate chip cookies. You'll note no eggs means little ones can taste the batter (if you worry about things like that):

1 1/4 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup oil
3/4 cup milk
2 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 1/2 cups oats (best to use is old-fashioned oatmeal, but quick is also OK)
chocolate chips

Mix sugars, oil, milk, and vanilla. Sift and add flour, baking soda, and salt. Add oats. Add chocolate chips. Drop by teaspoon onto greased baking pan (I actually cover a tray with foil instead of greasing the cookie sheet). Bake at 350 F for 8-10 minutes or until golden. (I think that time's right -- I just wait till they look ready).

Friday, February 25, 2011

What Are You Missing?


In Washington , DC , at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.

About 4 minutes later: The violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

At 6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

At 10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent - without exception - forced their children to move on quickly.

At 45 minutes: The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

After 1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.


No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities.

This experiment raised several questions:

*In a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?

*If so, do we stop to appreciate it?

*Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made, then how many other things are we missing as we rush through life?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dog for Sale

A guy is driving around the back woods of Montana and he sees a sign in front of a broken down shanty-style house: "Talking Dog For Sale." He rings the bell and the owner appears and tells him the dog is in the backyard.

The guy goes into the backyard and sees a nice looking Labrador retriever sitting there.

"You talk?" he asks.

"Yep," the Lab replies.

After the guy recovers from the shock of hearing a dog talk, he says "So, what's your story?"

The Lab looks up and says, "Well, I discovered that I could talk when I was pretty young. I wanted to help the government, so I told the CIA. In no time at all they had me jetting from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one figured a dog would be eavesdropping.

"I was one of their most valuable spies for eight years running. But the jetting around really tired me out, and I knew I wasn't getting any younger so I decided to settle down. I signed up for a job at the airport to do some undercover security, wandering near suspicious characters and listening in. I uncovered some incredible dealings and was awarded a batch of medals. I got married, had a mess of puppies, and now I'm just retired."

The guy is amazed. He goes back in and asks the owner what he wants for the dog.

"Ten dollars," the guy says.

"Ten dollars? This dog is amazing! Why on earth are you selling him so cheap?"

"Because he's a liar. He never did any of that."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Fallen by Sarah MacLachlan

This song came out in 2003, and I was struck hearing it at the time and again when I heard it recently. While it may be about love relationships, the lyrics also could refer to life in general, to things that we do that are costly in a bad way, and the scars that we must carry ever afterward.

My heart breaks when she sings, "There doesn't seem to be a way to be redeemed..."

No, not in ourselves. But isn't that the gospel, the good news that God will forgive us through Christ. Oh, if only more people could hear this and really understand.

Someone close to me died on Christmas morning. Although she professed to be a believer, I am (and have been) uncertain. She had an expression of horror as she was breathing her last. Was this simply because she didn't have the strength to breathe, or something more? God wants us to turn to Him. He is not willing that any should perish. But... we must turn and put Him uppermost.

Without God it is hopeless, as this song says.

Fallen, by Sarah MacLachlan

Heaven bent to take my hand
And lead me through the fire
Be the long awaited answer
To a long and painful fight

Truth be told I've tried my best
But somewhere along the way
I got caught up in all there was to offer
And the cost was so much more than I could bear

Though I've tried, I've fallen...
I have sunk so low
I have messed up
Better I should know
So don't come round here
And tell me "I told you so..."

We all begin with good intent
Love was raw and young
We believed that we could change ourselves
The past could be undone
But we carry on our backs the burden
Time always reveals
The lonely light of morning
The wound that would not heal
It's the bitter taste of losing everything
That I have held so dear...

I've fallen...
I have sunk so low
I have messed up
Better I should know
So don't come round here
And tell me "I told you so..."

Heaven bent to take my hand
Nowhere left to turn
I'm lost to those I thought were friends
To everyone I know
Oh they turned their heads embarassed
Pretend that they don't see
But it's one missed step
You'll slip before you know it
And there doesn't seem a way to be redeemed

Though I've tried, I've fallen...
I have sunk so low
I have messed up
Better I should know
So don't come round here
And tell me "I told you so..."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Literary Agent Submissions: A First-Hand Description

As an aspiring writer, how is your query received by the agent? Read on for a little first-hand description.

I read an interesting essay last week on the Amazon Create Space community by someone (Mr. Mysterious) who’d done a two week internship (7 work days total, since there were snow days) in NYC this winter. I wrote to ask for permission to post this on my blog and unfortunately didn’t receive a response, so am taking the liberty here of just summarizing his observations and impressions because they’re so helpful. I’m assuming this is OK since this guy posted on a public forum loop.

Mr. Mysterious worked for an agent mainly reading queries and samples – since this agency requested a synopsis and first 5 pages when querying. He estimates during his time there that he went through 300-350 queries, averaging about 50 per day. For eight hours (not including lunch or bathroom breaks, or other duties and time expenditures), that might be about six or so per hour, or even more roughly one every ten minutes. This isn’t much time to impress someone who is reading, say, eight pages per submission (1 page query, 5 page sample, 2 page synopsis).

Many of the queries were “way too long,” and he found himself skimming the long ones and/or those with detailed plot descriptions. He felt shorter was definitely sweeter, and he paid closer attention to the concise ones. Queries were usually mediocre, and the handful that weren’t often had sample writing that was.

Mr. Mysterious always read the sample, even if he didn’t like the query. If the query didn’t have a sample, he requested the author to email it back in the body of the email.

After a day, he stopped reading the synopses:

1. Some were too long, occasionally even longer than the sample.
2. After awhile they started to sound the same.
3. If he didn’t like the sample, he didn’t care about the synopsis.
4. They took a long time to read, and when going through a large pile of correspondence the principle is: the faster the better.

The authors didn’t always follow the requested guidelines for number of pages (the longest sample was 20 pages), and although Mr. Mysterious didn’t immediately disqualify these writers, he was definitely annoyed and gave a less careful reading.

Out of 300-350 queries, Mr. Mysterious found exactly ONE that went into the YES folder, and 40 into the ?MAYBE? folder. These query samples had skillful writing (voice, characters, settings, etc.). A few maybes were included even though he didn’t like the samples simply because the writer had some good credentials: a former literary agent or previously pubbed by a reputable publisher and/or major magazine. Many of the credentials cited in the queries were trivial or irrelevant. Credentials only mattered to the intern when they were of something/someone he’d heard of.

The agent who was mentoring this intern rejected the YES, and from the maybes requested pages from one and left two others as possibles. The rest were rejected. The accepted ones he didn’t quite remember but doesn’t think they had credentials in their queries. Neither the agent nor Mr. Mysterious liked the query from the writer from whom she requested pages.

I was fascinated to read that Mr. Mysterious found the same terms appearing in many queries. For example, GUARDIAN – there were a lot of guardians in these samples. He didn’t mention what sorts of genres the agent specialized in, but it sounded like YA and adult, science-fiction-y adventure.

Here’s a quote from the intern’s post: “A lot of queries were like, Main Character is just your average kid/just wants to be your average kid, EXCEPT HE SHOOTS LIGHTNING OUT OF HIS BUTT WHEN HE FARTS.

“A lot of queries, especially YA Urban Fantasy queries, read like they’re all written from the same template. Off the top of my head.

“NAME, a [number] teen year old at [school name] has enough to worry about with [insert generic school/teenage problems], without [insert discovery of paranormal abilities, an ancient conflict, discovery of paranormal abilities AND an ancient conflict]. It will be up to Name to [stop conflict, learn to control abilities]. That is, if he doesn’t get [insert fantasy problem and/or generic school/teenage problems,] first.

“Jake, a thirteen year old at springwood high, has enough to worry about with not making the base ball team and getting dumped by text message, without a sect of ancient warrior chipmunks bringing their civil war to his town of Springwood. As the prophesied Tailless One it will be up to Jake to bring peace to the chipmunks, if he doesn’t get his heart broken by text message again first.”

This intern also found many girl meets boy stories, where the guy is just too amazing for words. After a few too many samples like this he rolled his eyes and passed on all of them.

Another interesting observation is that writers wanted to “start with a bang,” for example a plane crash on the first page. Mr. Mysterious found this stuff not compelling, if not frankly boring. I would take a guess here that this is so because if you (the reader) don’t care about the characters yet, you don’t really care what happens.

Here’s another quote: “As an intern reading the first few pages of your novel, I was about the most detached person in the world from your story. I wasn't doing this for fun. Or as a favor, cause I knew/liked you. I was doing this, because it was my job, and as you may have guessed, a rather monotonous job at that (though certainly not without its rewards and excitement.) What this means is, the world might be ending in your story, but I was sitting there in an office, tired from my commute, hungry cause I skipped breakfast, and with a lot more queries after you to get through. And the world outside my window? Still there.

“As such, your primary goal in those first five (imo) should be to make the reader, be he agent, intern, or prospective buyer, care. If you make the reader care, he'll be hooked whether you drop a bomb on him or not. If you fail to make him care, then no matter how many bombs you drop, they'll all be duds. (lol, couldn't resist.)”

There were so many queries that he quickly started looking for reasons to reject. Some of these were:

1. Lots of typos.
2. Grammar or tense issues.
3. Blandness, clich├ęs, not being interesting.

Mr. Mysterious kept reading especially if the samples had Voice and/or Humor. He suspects there are two types of Voices that are professional: an overt or stylized voice that is immediately intriguing, and a subtle or realistic style of voice. Some examples of voice that he gives are:

Overt/Stylized: Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski, Chuck Palahuik’s Choke, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Doestoevsky’s Notes from The Underground, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part Time Indian. These overt voices portray exceptional, unique characters with stories that leap off the page.

Subtle/Realistic: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, anything by Hemmingway, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Orwell's 1984, a lot of classic plays like The Glass Menagerie, and Death of a Salesman. You could imagine someone you see in the supermarket being able to tell these stories. This style often occurs in literary fiction.

5-10 pages for a sample may not be enough to capture this type of subtle voice well, and may not play well to a hurried agent or intern. However, different agents specialize in different genres, so you should look carefully for the type of agent that takes your type of stories.


I find it interesting to think that this intern found himself jaded and impatient after only a few days on the job. Keep this in mind when presenting your story. And thank you, Mr. Mysterious, for your sharp insights into the pubbing biz.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

This is Why I Write

I love this picture. Isn't this so true -- when no one understands or wants to hash out an issue -- when you may not even KNOW there is an issue -- books have a way of gently taking you by the hand and showing a better way. Novels especially, because they just tell a story, and buried within that story is the kernel of what you need, or the model that you can follow to be just a little braver or stronger.

Keep writing, my friends. You don't know how your words may touch someone.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review: The Cause Within You by Matthew Barnett

More than anything, Matthew Barnett's story of building his Dream Center in Los Angeles reminded me of David Wilkerson's 1963 THE CROSS AND THE SWITCHBLADE, in which Wilkerson recounts building a ministry to New York City's teens involved with drug addiction and gang violence. In the present day, the Dream Center is a comprehensive outreach to the homeless and poor in LA and now in NYC as well, that emphasizes finding God's love and purpose along with food, shelter, and job training. The story of how the Dream Center grew from Barnett's failed pastorship of a dying church to a vision of others with whom he could serve is compelling. Barnett strongly emphasizes in this book of how GOD, not himself, led him to build the ministries and guided him to find the outlets and resources necessary to continue to grow.

On an inspirational level, this book is remarkable. Barnett includes many stories of his own and others' interactions with the Dream Center that have produced positive and sometimes seemingly impossible changes. Barnett emphasizes the power of unconditional love and prayer that points people to God and help them to turn around.

I found this book less helpful in regard to its purpose as stated in the title: to help a person find what he was "created to do." Barnett includes general principles: for example, recognize that God can use you and your circumstances no matter what; aim to serve rather than to be successful; pay attention to God's leading (whether a sense or observations --> not specific); walk in faith with the idea of a progressive revelation; keep proper attitudes of loving others unconditionally and being open to opportunities; and do whatever presents itself no matter how small or unlikely. Also it's important to develop partnerships and persevere together in a vision.

This is certainly good advice, but general. It is interspersed with the stories from the Dream Center, so seems perhaps greater than it actually is. There is a list of a few Scriptural references in the back of the book, but not within the body of text. The book is unabashedly Christian and might be difficult for someone to read who doesn't already have this mind-set.

What Barnett has accomplished in LA with his Dream Center is phenomenal and therefore I can't find it in my heart to downgrade his book too much. However, I found this to be a "feel-good" book with remarkable true examples, but beyond these examples little substance for deeper study.

I am grateful to Tyndale House for providing this free review copy in exchange for my unbiased opinion.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Writers Write Part Two

I thought so -- there's no easy way to be a writer, except to write. This is the year.

On a writing loop I belong to, this question came over the wires:

I finished my first manuscript last September. I was naive and eager and began submitting it to agencies right away. I received some really nice letters back and also some constructive criticism, which I took to heart. I made some drastic changes to the manuscript, which I feel improved it considerable. My question is, what do I do with it now?

At what point can I resubmit the same manuscript to an agent? 3 months, 6 months, never? Help!

This great answer is from Kaye Dacus, a multi-pubbed author of some terrific books. You can check out her website at

What else are you writing? How many other manuscripts have you finished? If you haven't already been asked that by the editors/agents you've had contact with, you will.

My advice is to set this one aside and write/complete/revise another manuscript. And then another. And then another. The best way to train for becoming a multi-published author is to finish multiple manuscripts now, before you're agented/contracted. I'd completed four manuscripts before I ever dreamed of submitting anything to anyone---and I worked on that fourth manuscript for three years (two of those years in graduate school as my master's thesis with the help of two published authors and half a dozen critique partners). By the time I submitted it to anyone, I was already most of the way through the first draft of my fifth manuscript and planning my seventh through tenth. And that fourth manuscript became my first published novel.

We learn more about the craft of writing with each manuscript that we complete and revise---our voice, our storytelling, our own individual style becomes stronger and stronger with each new story we write.

So, as I've said to the members of my local group many times: Bravo for finishing your first manuscript. Now write the next one.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Vote for Me?

I'm excited to tell you that my book, A LEVER LONG ENOUGH, is a contender for the Christian Small Publisher Association's (CSPA) Book of the Year 2011 award. Who'd have thunk?

If you've read it and liked it, and can honestly do so, PLEASE VOTE FOR ME! The link is

Here is a short write-up of Lever:

A small military team travels back in time to film the theft of Jesus’ body from the tomb. A LEVER LONG ENOUGH is an adventure story with a touch of science fiction and religion: THE CASE FOR CHRIST meets THE DA VINCI CODE.

In the near future, the Israeli military has developed a prototypic time machine. When believers in Yeshua (Jesus) create a politically explosive situation that threatens the balance of peace between Israel and nearby countries, the Israelis must send a team of four elite soldiers back to film the theft of Jesus' body from the tomb and thus disprove Christianity. The team, consisting of a Special Forces soldier as leader, an ex-American astronaut as engineering specialist, an archaeologist, and a linguist, has exactly seventy-two hours to collect the video evidence. Drawn into a web of first century deception and death, the only way to escape is for the team to change the past. In the present, a traitor attempts to sabotage the mission and seize control of the military complex. The Special Forces leader operating in the past is the only one who can reveal him, but he is trapped two thousand years away. Even with a time machine, time is running out.

I am a scientist and skeptic who was intrigued by objective evidence supporting the resurrection of Jesus. My novel presents some of this evidence (for and against) in a fictional adventure appealing to readers regardless of their religious affiliation or preconceptions.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Ronald Reagan, Happy 100th Birthday

Yesterday was Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday.

The 80s were an interesting and largely optimistic time in America. Remember Michael Jackson's Thriller and Big Hair? The bombing of the Lebanon barracks? Princess Di? AIDS? The USSR as the USA's major nemesis? After Jimmy Carter people felt proud again to be Americans. A lot of this was due to Ronald Reagan. Who can forget his line at the Brandenburg gate of the Berlin Wall separating West and East Germany: "Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!"

At his funeral over 100,000 people filed directly by the casket in the rotunda of the Capitol. He was eventually buried at his presidential library in California.

During his presidency Reagan was witty and perpetually befuddled his detractors. He was shrewd as he dealt with other nations. He led the USA confidently from an economically depressed and politically weak country to usher in a booming economic recovery and the defeat of the Soviets. The last few lines of his final address to the nation, on January 11 1989, were:

And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was 8 years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

We've done our part. And as I walk off into the city streets, a final word to the men and women of the Reagan Revolution, the men and women across America who for 8 years did the work that brought America back. My friends: We did it. We weren't just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger; we made the city freer; and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad -- not bad at all.

And so, goodbye, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

He loved this country, and he imbued many with his vision. Ronald Reagan, thank you.