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

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)