Saturday, April 21, 2012

Why I Wrote Quest for Celestia

Quest for Celestia

When I was in college and became a Christian, someone ended up handing me a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, a book that John Bunyan wrote while he was serving a twelve-year prison sentence for preaching the Gospel without permission.

From a literary perspective, his book was a groundbreaking achievement—it was one of the first (if not the first) novel-length allegories ever printed, and according to some scholars, for more than two hundred years it was the second-best selling book in the world, trailing only the Bible.

Even though I’m not typically a fan of “the classics,” I read it and it really impacted me. I’m no theologian, but the narrative-based look at the Christian life connected with me in a way no sermon ever had. The story made sense not just to my mind, but to my storyteller’s heart.

However, honestly, the book is hard to get through. With its archaic language, heavy-handed moralizing, and blatantly obvious allegorical lessons, it’s almost inaccessible to modern readers.

So, a few years ago when I was exploring writing a fantasy novel for teens, I decided to reimagine John Bunyan’s tale, not through the eyes of a preacher, but through the eyes of a storyteller.

As a stand-alone fantasy adventure story, Quest for Celestia takes readers on an epic journey through a land of giants, dragons, danger and deception. While John Bunyan’s themes, images, and fragments of thought have certainly found their way into this story, it’s not just a retelling of his allegory, it’s a completely new vision of the quest he tried to encapsulate in his tale.

Stories live only as long as they’re retold or remembered. I hope Quest for Celestia will introduce a whole new generation to the fantastical, mythic story that spans the ages, the story that John Bunyan was imprisoned for telling to the world.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Annoying Names in Novels

When authors try to be clever it annoys me to no end.

I would rather my readers spend their time immersed in my stories than looking for hidden meaning in the names or locations, so I was floored when one of my readers pointed out one time that the name Sevren (a villain who first appears in The Pawn) is Nerves spelled backward.

Man, I hadn’t noticed that, and I never would have used the name if I had.

Why? Because when readers see that, they’ll naturally start looking for more of the same and that would get in the way of their engagement with the story.

I’ve seen authors use Angela to represent—guess what?—an angelic, good character, my, how unobtrusive that is. Or Diablo as the name for a character who . . .  well, you get it.

Yes, I know, Natasha spelled backward is “Ah, Satan” and could be your devil worshipping character, but please don’t fall into that trap.

Yes, you could use the name “Marie Annette” for a character who’s being used as a puppet.  The name looks okay on the page, but say it aloud and you’ll notice that it sounds the same as “marionette.” As soon as readers notice this, what do you think they’ll naturally do?

Yes, of course, they’ll start analyzing every name, every location, to see what you, the clever author, are using them to represent. And when that happens readers are no longer in the story itself, but looking at it from the outside in and you’ve shot yourself in the foot. 

Why do this to yourself? 

Just use normal names. 

Don’t let anything get in the way of the story.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Spreading the News

Our cyberworld is connecting people better than ever believed possible. It has allowed me to interact with readers of my books like never before. Each day, I hear from people around the world who have read my books. Some have questions. Some have a bone to pick. Some simply loved the books and wanted to let me know. Well, just as the Web allows people to connect, it can also cause them to drown. With millions of other websites out there, millions of other authors, it’s easy to get lost. If you’re looking for a practical way to help spread the word about my books, consider one of these easy things to do:

1. Word of mouth—always the best.
2. “Like” Steven James on Facebook at sjamesauthor.
3. Post an online book review. (A single review can go a long way. Copy and paste it to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, CBD and Goodreads.)
4. Make sure your book stores and libraries carry my books. If not, request them to do so.

Thanks for your support!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Fifteen Suspense Movies You Haven’t Seen But Need To

Well, everyone, there are lots of great thriller films I could recommend (and I will someday), but I thought for now I’d pass along some of the little-known gems that are all on my all-time favorite movies list. Enjoy! (Use your discretion, of course. Some of these are rated R for a reason.)

15. A Murder of Crows
14. Night Train
13. Following
12. Black Book
11. The Cry of the Owl
10. Fear
9. Blink
8. Best Laid Plans
7. Dahmer
6. Joshua
5. The Dead Girl
4. Enduring Love
3. 11:14
2. Blood Simple
1. Hard Candy

What other recommendations do you have? 

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Rhythms of Life

I recently sent in the first draft of my latest thriller, Placebo, and as I was mentally regrouping, I was reminded again of the rhythms of life—the seasons of stress and recreation, of the long nights sitting at the keyboard contrasting with the warm afternoons strolling through the forest. It struck me that without the two extremes, something seems to be missing in my life.
If I don’t work hard I lose direction.
If I don’t play I lose perspective.
Right before Thanksgiving when I was flying home from a meeting at my publisher’s, I sat beside a man who’d recently retired. He told me that for the first year he liked it, but then he got bored. “You can only play so many rounds of golf,” he told me.
True enough.
We have deadlines, workloads, quotas, and we have Sunday afternoon naps, milkshake dates and family Uno nights. People who never take a break are just as annoying to be with as those who never take anything seriously. We have to live in this paradox or responsibility and relaxation, because when we slip into one extreme or the other—too much work or too much free time—we seem to become less human in the ways that matter most. 
So, here’s to the coffee breaks. 
And here’s to the reason we take them. 

Monday, August 08, 2011

RX: Writing

This week my intern, Tom Vick, will be heading back to college. It’s been a great summer working with him. I asked him to write one more blog before taking off. Here are some of his thoughts on how writing impacts his life.

From my first journal entry to my current book project, writing has been the best drug for me.
A very addicting drug that causes me to see fictional characters and to speak in a slur of poetic metaphors that leave my friends saying “Whatever, Tom.”

Without a doubt, writing impacts my life. Once you start thinking like a writer one of many things will happen to you:

1. Others will think you are weird for “people watching” and then trying to make up a story about that person.
2. Fictional people become your co-workers.
3. If you have what it takes, people will listen to you, and your writing days in those indie coffee shops will pull readers out of their mundane lives.

When you’re a writer, ideas never leave you alone. There will always be that new character that shows up, the new twist ending you didn’t see coming, and histories of entire worlds so complex you would become a cranky grouch if you didn’t write them down. But writing doesn’t just help me create it helps me process life.

Whenever I have a moral dilemma in life—you know the kind that keeps you up long hours boring a hole into the ceiling above your bed at night—I write that problem down. Then I write every single thought on the page after that problem. Somewhere, if I keep at it, I will find a solution. Or maybe not. But I always make new discoveries about life.

Without this narcotic ink I cannot really think.

One of my worst nightmares is where I get carpal tunnel, all the trees are dead, and the word processors have evolved into humans-harvesting AI with a vendetta for all the times I’ve hit their keyboards. But for now I get to pursue the dream of writing.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Your invitation to be ridiculous

This summer I have an intern from Taylor University named Tom Vick. I asked him to be a guest blogger for the next two weeks. His writing comes deep from the heart. Enjoy. 

“What is this?”
“It’s my portfolio.”
She handed the manilla folder back to me. “You can do better than this.”
“Tom, you’re a good writer, don’t settle for mediocre.”

That sort of talk was what I needed to propel me into my career. People believing in me helped me survive high school English critique groups. I could graduate knowing two or three English teachers thought I was going somewhere. Even now my old high school buddies respond with “Oh yeah, you were always good at writing stuff,” when I update them with my latest stories. But now looking back I realize it wasn’t everything I needed.

When you grow as a writer or as a person for that matter, you need more than the confirmation of your peers. My teachers believed in me. My parents cherished every written word. Even my friends thought I was going to make it big, but I always doubted.

In my junior year of high school, I published my first devotional. That’s when people started putting the pressure on me. They threw expectations at me. I didn’t want those because I had already aimed my arrows north of the bulls-eye. All that did was put my publishing career on hold for three years after those devotions.

The Word was a place of constant refuge for me and it proved my self-deprecations wrong. Jesus called his first followers with these words. “Follow me and I will teach to you to fish for people.” What a ridiculous invitation, to “fish for people” and what a radical following those words kindled.

Jesus Christ died on a tree for us. That makes me think we’re worth something to him.

Maybe he would like to see me use talents he wrote out for me before the beginning of time. Believing in yourself, a creature of selfish ambition is ridiculous, but with blood paid for my life I found out that setting expectations for yourself is a way to glorify God even though logically it’s unreasonable. That’s it. Be ridiculous. That’s the writing advice he can give you. Be as ridiculous as possible. You are a supernatural entity in God’s eyes capable of one day judging angels. It’s your free invitation to be ridiculous.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Creativity

Landscape of Butterflies by Dali

Undefine normal - The more I think about it, the more I’m starting to believe that typical exists but, normal does not.  To use the word ‘normal’ to describe something seems to imply that other ideas that don’t fit the criteria you’ve established are abnormal. That is, not good. So, instead, try thinking of what’s atypical, what hasn’t been done to death before. It’ll lead you to find new solutions and give you new perspectives. Whether that’s with a novel you’re writing, a painting you’re creating, or a new recipe you’re inventing. 
Reverse expectations - Rather than thinking about what’s expected of you, think of what is not. But what you would accomplish if you didn’t have those expectations? What would you do if no one was looking over your shoulder? What would you write in your novel or sketch if there were no expectations, if there was only a dream to pursue?
Explore relationships - Look for unexpected connections, natural consequences of your idea, and apparent contradictions. Take this train of thought to its logical conclusion. Force yourself to stick together two ideas that aren’t typically connected. Be specific, not too broad. For example—I am going to write a 3000 word short story about a scuba diver with the opening line, “I woke up underwater and I knew I was going to die.”

Friday, April 22, 2011

Flailing at Success

Today I was reflecting on success and it brought to mind some of the thoughts I shared a few years ago in my book Becoming Real.

After interviewing people about their definitions of success, author and speaker Denis Haack wrote, "Most people I've asked seem to have little trouble identifying the predominant version [of success] in society: Success means attaining some measure of money, fame, power and self-fulfillment—and then looking the part."
When I first read that, I had to ask myself how much of my life is spent in the pursuit of money? Or fame? Or power? Or self-fulfillment (however you define that)? And then looking the part?
Photo courtesy of nuttakit

For instance, why do we wear the clothes we do? Or drive the car we do, or live in the house and neighborhood we live in? 

"But," I can hear a voice inside of me argue, "I can't afford a nicer car or a better house!"
True. But if I had the money, if I had the opportunity to get a better car, or nicer clothes, or a bigger home, well, admittedly, just like most people, I’d probably get them. After all, in our society, how successful are you—really—if no one notices?
Money. Fame. Power. Self-fulfillment.

It struck me that when I die, God is not going to ask to see my bank account or my 401K plan or my abs. He's not going to ask me how many friends I had on Facebook or if any of my books were New York Times bestsellers or how much I can bench press. But I think he is going to ask me if I was faithful with the gifts, with the ideas, with the time he gave me.

I came across an instance when Jesus said, “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God,” (Luke 12:21) and I realized that, for me, whenever my work becomes more focused on accomplishment than on faithfulness, I'm no longer on the road to true success, but am actually on a detour around it.

So, I'm curious. What are the criteria you typically use to measure success? How do you identify or define a successful person? And maybe, most pertinently of all, are you a successful person?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Looking out the Window

Last week on my flight to Atlanta (this was before the Southwest plane’s roof blew off!) I sat next to a college-aged woman who’d never been on an airplane before. She didn’t hide how nervous she was and, though I tried to reassure her we’d be okay, as we took off she was seriously nervous. 

However, when we got above the clouds she just stared out the window and gasped, “Oh! Do you see this? It’s like an ocean with waves!”

I looked out the window. Just a bunch of clouds beneath us. “Sure,” I said. “It’s nice.”

But she could barely contain herself as she saw them softly wisp across each other. “It’s the breath of God,” she said softly.

The breath of God.

Seeing the sense of wonder in her eyes, hearing the awe in her voice, struck me deeply. Here was a woman seeing something I’ve seen  hundreds of times and she was astonished by the beauty of it, while I’d been staring at my in-flight magazine and hadn’t even bothered to look out the window.
Walt Whitman wrote, “A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” This universe is full of whispers of God’s mystery, his presence, his character. But most of the time we’re too blind or busy or distracted to notice.

As a writer I’m supposed to notice what other people miss, see things from a unique perspective, help people open their eyes to the real world shimmering beneath the mundane, but it took a young woman seeing something for the first time to do that for me.

I remember thinking, Wonder is living around you, Steve, clouds are whispering by, carried on the breath of God.

So today, I’m trying to see life again.

Really see it.

As if I’m looking out the window for the very first time. 

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Madness to Win

(Photo courtesy of Salvatore Vuono)

March Madness made me think a little about my own history with B-ball.
And how it ended up shaping my view of competition.
When I was in high school I was addicted to the game. I practiced three-four hours every day of the summer, sometimes shooting 2000 or more shots in a day. If I missed a day I’d practice six hours-eight hours the next. Nearly every night during those four years I slept with my basketball so that I’d be holding it eight hours a day more than my competitors.  (I should mention that I was never a great player, but our team did manage to win two state championships.)
When I got to college I asked a girl I really liked out on a date. After our meal, I wanted to impress her (hey, I’m a guy!) so I told her all about high school basketball, how hard I’d worked, how much I’d improved, and finally she said, “Steve, can I ask you a question?”
“What was your god in high school?”
The question floored me and was one of the biggest kicks-in-the-butt that led me to eventually become a Christian.
And that’s where the trouble began, because I liked to win and I was willing to work harder than anyone else to do it. But I also realized how easily  basketball could become my god. 
Then, when I really began to study the teachings of Jesus and the authors of the New Testament, I realized that humility mattered more to God than victory. One day it  struck me that all competition has, at its core, self-promotion. After all, the only way for me to win is for you to lose. That means I am honored and you are not.
I was forced to ask myself, “How can I love, serve and honor someone (above myself), while I’m wholeheartedly trying to defeat him?”
Chrysostom, one of the early Church Fathers, said that the cause of all evils was ambition. The New Testament reiterates this idea: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,” (Philippians 2:3).
Think about it this way. A person from the other team misses the shot that could win the game for him, and my team and my fans cheer. That other player already feels bad, how is cheering over his  failure a way of serving him or valuing him above myself?
Yes, I still play hoops, still love the game, but that question always sticks in my mind. And sorting out where the quest for excellence ends and selfish ambition begins is still just as hard for me as ever.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

To Tweet or Not to Tweet?

Recently I was at a seminar on social media by a man who has 40,000 Twitter followers. He told us the story of how he was having trouble with his cable connection and sent out a tweet complaining about it. The next day Comcast’s truck was at his doorstep and they laid brand new cable for his entire block!
Now, that's certainly impressive, but it got me thinking—is there any other form of mass communication that you could send out a complaint like that to 40,000 people and it not be narcissistic?
In other words, imagine walking up to 40,000 people at a time and complaining to them about the speed of your cable connection, or sending out 40,000 letters or emails, or an announcement on the radio or television to 40,000 people that your cable connection was slow. How does it benefit 40,000 people to hear that you’re annoyed at the speed of your computer’s cable connection?
Pascal, a 17th century philosopher and mathematician, wrote, “We do not content ourselves with the life we have in ourselves; we desire to live an imaginary life in the minds of others, and for this purpose we endeavor to shine."
Facebook and Twitter give us the chance to do that: to constantly insert ourselves into other people’s minds with the trivialities or our own lives. So, here are a few questions I’ve been asking myself lately about my facebook posts:
  • Am I using this post to get what I want, to maintain a certain image or identity, or to bring other people a better life? Who benefits from this?
  • If I were to give up this aspect of social media, would I feel that something important is missing from my life? I heard about a study of college students in which they had to give up social media and networking for a week and after three days one girl needed to see a therapist. “I feel like people might have forgotten about me,” she said. She needed to know that she was living in other people’s minds.
  • If no on “likes” or comments on one of my status updates, photos, blog entries, etc.… do I feel overlooked, hurt or slighted? Honestly, sometimes I do. And when I do, I can’t help but think of Pascal’s words once again.
What do you think? Is it (or isn't it) self-centered to inform 40,000 people that your cable connection is annoyingly slow?
(Computer keyboard image compliments of

Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Plan Beneath the Obvious

Last week when I was at the National Prayer Breakfast in DC, I was reminded of the Bible verse that says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
It’s a pretty astonishing promise for those who are pursuing God, for those who love him.
Well, here was my thought: there’s a plan beneath the obvious; there’s a future that our circumstances cannot overcome.
No matter how many setbacks we face, how much bad news we get; however severe the illnesses we struggle with or how deep the rifts in our relationships, the default setting for the life of those who love God is eventual blessing.
So, if you’re facing a setback today, be assured that God is bigger than your circumstances and is able to weave a blessing through time to bring you closer to him in the end.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Creating the Right Setting for Your Novel

Don’t let your story be transplantable. Is the setting integrally woven to the plot? If not, work at making it indispensable so that you cannot just pick up the story and plop it into another location. Ground your story in a specific time and place.

Think of setting as a character. Remember, the actual characters in your book will have a specific goal, attitude and (perhaps) history with regard to their environment just as they would for any other character. Let them express this in the way they respond to situations and other actual characters within that setting.

For example, if your protagonist visits the beach and this brings back memories of the time when he was ten and his brother drowned at the lake, or his experience playing beach volleyball in college, or a sense of peace, all of this will affect his actions, mood and demeanor.

So, ask yourself, “How does the setting make the characters feel? How does the setting affect the psychology of the characters? How do they interact with it? What annoys the characters about this environment? What gets in the way of them reaching his goals? What disadvantages does it cause them? What assets does it provide?” Show each person’s response to it. Give all of them an active relationship and attitude about each location.

I keep these questions in mind when I write:
  • Is the relationship between the characters and the story environment clear?
  • Are the attitudes of the characters clear (or at least strongly implied)?
  • Are there ways I can reshape the story to make the setting more significant to the plot or resolution?
So, here it is in a nutshell: Treat the setting as another character and give the people in your novel an attitude toward it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why do stories matter?

Last week I was a guest blogger for The Big Thrill and the topic for the week was “Why do stories matter?” I thought I’d share some of my thoughts here as well. Enjoy.

The topic this week really got me thinking. Obviously, stories matter to us all, they help us make sense of the world, we enjoy them, we find deep meaning in them, empathy, etc… but is there more?

When I was considering all of this, I remembered watching Braveheart and how, amidst one of the battles, I’d realized that one day I will die.

Yes, obvious, I know.

But here’s the thing, the paradox of it all—I while already know I’m going to die, I don’t seem to really believe it. After all, if I did, I would live differently, worry about different things, prioritize in other ways.

In a way, the story opened my eyes to a truth I already knew. Novels use a pretend world to help us to better see the real one. And it seems to me we need constant reminding. Because we know all sorts of things that we don’t seem to believe: love conquers all, eternity is but a heartbeat away, relationships are more valuable than possessions, etc…

I know this sounds a little odd to say, but stories help us to start believing the things we already know. After a story that has deeply engaged us, we drink in life more deeply, notice the sunsets more, the laughter of children more, value relationships more. Maybe that’s why we cry at the movies even though we know the stories aren’t real. Because the truths of life and death and love and hope and romance are real and we start to resonate with that.

If a story is well-told, when we “suspend our disbelief” during it, we actually open ourselves up to finally stop suspending our disbelief in reality and—if only for a moment—-to begin to truly believe in our hearts the truths we already know in our heads.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dropping Scenes that Work

As I work on my book I’m always tempted to include scenes that I think would be good, or that I want to see in that story, but more often than not, when I actually take the time to read through the book from the beginning, I realize that the readers don’t really care about those things.
That’s happening to me now as I work on The Queen.
I feel this tension between the desire to include stuff that I think would be good, and stuff that is contextually necessary. I find it easy to forget that my goal is to tell a good story, not to impress readers.
If you are a writer, don’t let what you want to happen interfere with what needs to happen to make the story work.
As you write your story, as you build the narrative world at the beginning of the tale remember that every character, every struggle, every significant setting that you introduce is a promise to your reader of the importance of that person, place or conflict to the story.
Eventually readers will care more about you keeping your promises to them, by showing the relevance of all that storytelling. And keeping those promises by giving the reader what he wants is more vital to telling a good story than including witty snippets of dialogue or clever descriptions of characters or fun little scenes that strike a chord.
When I finally finish a novel of 500 pages, I will have at least that many pages written that I cannot use, not because the scenes and dialogue aren’t good, but because they aren’t vital.
And so, here it is, one of the hardest things for me to remember when I am writing: context determines content.
It isn’t so much about what you include, it’s how well it fits and how well it meets reader expectations about where the story needs to go.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Twists that Work

Lately, as always happens when I’m editing one of my novels, I found myself ripping apart my writing on The Queen and coming up with little hints and reminders to help me improve my writing next time around.
I’ve decided to start sharing some of these for aspiring writers, but also for readers, so that they can begin to see the process I go through as I develop my stories.
So, this time it has to do with creating satisfying twists.
While I was editing today, four truths struck me:
1 - The story that precedes the twist must stand on its own and not depend on the twist for its meaning, context or value. A twist has to be the icing on the cake and not the icing on the liver.
2 - A twist is simply something that’s unexpected. If readers see it coming, it’s not a twist, it’s a disappointment. However, it must also flow logically from what precedes it.
3 - Twists drive the story forward as long as they add layers of meaning to the preceding story-line. A twist must cause the reader to rewind the story in their minds and then replay it with the new information that the twist provides, and find that the story is deeper than they ever imagined.
4 - The bigger the twist, the more essential that the story make sense up until that point.
So here is my mini-hint, my reminder to myself: Always twist the story forward.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

How to Desensitize People to Violence

Some people have asked if my novels, which contain violence, aren’t exacerbating the problem of violence in the world. If they are not desensitizing people even more to violence and perhaps even inciting it as people imitate what I write about.

Here are my thoughts on the issue, and I’d love to hear your comments.

First of all, I agree that our world is desensitized to violence. I believe this happens when evil is mute and sanitized (TV shows where people get shot, fall over, there is no blood, no grief, no mourning), glamorized, or ignored. I think we become more sensitized to violence when it is portrayed with honesty.

So first, muting evil. Some books and television shows do so by diminishing the value of human life. A person will be killed and no one grieves. Cut to commercial. Come back and solve the crime. This is not real life. Death hurts because we are people of dignity and worth. Death matters because life matters. Unfortunately, this muting of violence often happens in books that are labeled “religious fiction.”

This also frequently happens in the news media. Think of a news program: “A suicide bomber killed 62 in Iraq.”

When you hear that do you weep? Do you mourn? No, because it is sanitized. Only when you see the screaming three-year-old children with shrapnel in their face, the desperate widows, the bodies in the street do you feel, do you recognize the impact of the violent, evil act.

Movies such as the Saw or Friday the 13th films glamorize violence. The most interesting person is the serial killer. This desensitizes people to violence. And since we tend to emulate those we admire, I believe movies or books that glamorize or celebrate violence draw people toward it.

In my books I want people to look honestly at what our world is like, both the good and the evil. The evil in my books is not senseless, people’s lives are treated as precious and I want my readers to hurt when an innocent life is taken. The only way to do that is to let them see it on the page and then reflect on its meaning.

I think that an effective way of dissuading someone from doing something is to make them see it as deeply disturbing. And the only way to make people disturbed by evil is to show it to them for what it really is.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? I'd love to hear back from you.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Why I Write About Evil

I thought I would take a moment and respond to a thoughtful comment / question from the previous post. The reader asked about the spiritual content of my novels, wondering if a Christian would enjoy reading them.

I often get asked if my books are “Christian” or not and I’m not always sure how to respond. If you are looking for a narrativized sermon, then I would suggest you bypass my fiction.

When I write my novels, I don’t do so from an answer, such as “It’s good to have faith in God,” or “We should all tell the truth.” Stories are built on tension, not resolution, so trying to tell a story simply to make a point would result in something that isn’t really a story at all, but a lesson dressed up as one.

It’s actually very sad to me that the most virulent and hateful comments I get about my books come from Christians who do not like the violence the novels contain. (Go to Amazon and check out the reviews for The Pawn. It’s informative.) Non-Christians seem to rate the books more on the quality of the writing, the plot, the artistic excellence. I genuinely respect and appreciate that.

Some people whom I’ve met seem to believe that a story needs to talk about God or have a conversion scene if it is to be considered a “Christian” story, but I was speaking with a pastor one time and he pointed out to me that there are no conversion scenes in any of the stories of Jesus. Also there is no mention of God in the book of Esther in the Bible. So, is Esther a “Christian” book?

Other people consider a book "Christian" if there is no sex, violence, nudity, offensive language, and so on. Considering the content of the Bible, that seems like an odd and arbitrary criterion list to me.

We live in a violent and fallen world. Rather than shy away from difficult and painful topics, the Old Testament includes frightening and vivid descriptions of murder, beheadings, cannibalism, sorcery, dismemberment, torture, rape, gore, blasphemy, idolatry, erotic sex and animal sacrifice. In the stories of Jesus, people are beaten, killed (Matthew 21:35), tortured (Matthew 18:34), dismembered (Matthew 24:51), and allowed to suffer forever in the fires of hell.

I believe that the Bible includes such graphic material to show how far we as a race can fall, and how far God came to rescue us from ourselves. That's what I hope to do in my novels as well.

So, what would make a book unChristian?

I believe an unChristian book (or movie or painting, etc...) would be one that celebrates the things God abhors, or promotes an agenda that he detests.

In my books I never glamorize violence or make evil look attractive. However, I believe that including graphic material within the broader context of a redemptive story, just as the Bible does, is appropriate when trying to reveal the truth about human nature and our relationship with the Divine. For the record, when I write my novels I strive to

(1) uphold the dignity and worth of human life,
(2) as much as possible avoid showing violence on the page (most of it occurs off the page, in the minds of the reader),
(3) show that ultimately, hope does not come from inside ourselves, but from God,
(4) honestly portray the universality of evil,
(5) celebrate life, love, imagination, beauty and family,
(6) validate the purpose and meaning of life within the context of the broader scope of God's story,
(7) tell the truth about the world--exposing the grief and horror as well as championing the hope and joy.

If you’re looking for inspirational books, or more theological offerings, please check out my books "A Heart Exposed," "Story," or “Sailing Between the Stars.”

Stay open to joy.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Book Release Party

Come to the Book Release Party on July 31st to celebrate the release of The Knight, the 3rd installment of the Patrick Bowers series. The party will be held in Johnson City, TN at Cranberries located at 600 N. State of Franklin Rd at 7:00 pm. Be one of the first to enjoy the thrilling ride as Patrick Bowers leads you on a twisting and complicated chase through the mountains of Colorado. Beware: You may not get any sleep until you finish this book!

Visit for more information about the party and to see how you can enter the drawing to have your name as one of the vicitms in Patrick Bowers's next adventure, The Bishop.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Writing Effective Dialogue #2 of 2

Here are some more dialogue tips. You might want to read the previous blog first to get the context. Enjoy.

Structure and Formality
Alex smiled, “Great. Okay, we’ve talked about staying focused as well as the art of digressing. What else adds to effective dialogue? Franklin?”
“I was thinkin’ ‘sentences,’ you know?”
An awkward pause.
“What, specifically, about sentences?”
“Well, dere’s a certain way, ya know, when some people write, that the sentences are structured. But it’s different when ya talk.”
Stacy agreed. “I think I know what you’re saying, Alex. When people speak, they don’t always use correct grammar, they talk in sentences that have a shorter number of words, they use more contractions and they sometimes blur words together. Consequently, in order for sentences to sound natural to our ears, we need to write them in such a way that they’re not too structurally complex or intricately woven.”
“Mm, hmm,” said Moesha.
“Right,” said Alex. “Now we’re getting into the nuts and bolts of dialogue writing. When people speak, they’re less formal. So, keep your sentences brief. And use contractions more often and more consistently than you would in the narrative sections of your story. And, use more idioms.”
“All right,” said Stacy, “I think we get your drift.”
“Clear as mud,” said Nadine.

Consistency and Redundancy
For a few minutes no one said anything. Finally, Jason broke the silence. “Something I don’t think we’ve really mentioned yet, is that each character should speak in a consistent and distinctive voice. When you listen to some TV shows, everyone sounds exactly the same. They use the same idioms. They speak in the same style sentences. They crack the same kind of jokes. That’s evidence of poor writing. And the same thing can happen in fiction--and nonfiction--if you’re not careful. Good dialogue reflects the uniqueness of each of the story characters. Their grammar, word choice, and sense of humor can all be unique.”
Moesha nodded. “Mm, hm.”
“Great,” said Alex. “And there’s one more thing I need to mention that’s a pet peeve of mine.”
“Was dat?” asked Franklin.
“It’s annoying when the writer tries to show off by using all sorts of different words to talk about the dialogue. Attributions should disappear so the reader hardly ever notices them.”
“Yeah,” exclaimed Stacy, “I hate that, too.”
“Me, too,” chipped in Nadine.
“Mm, hm,” rejoined Moesha.
“That’s so true!” observed Jason.
“Yo,” quipped Franklin.
“Great,” summarized Alex. “So we all agree. Let’s not do that. It just distracts the reader. Just use ‘said’ and be done with it.”
“Something else that distracts me,” said Jason, “Is when the same author uses the same word too much in the same sentence or in the same paragraph.”
“I agree,” agreed Franklin.
“And don’t restate what’s already been said,” said Nadine. “It’s redundant to keep restating everything.”
“Yeah, and you don’t need to keep re-saying the same thing in different ways. Either say it, or explain it, but not both,” explained Alex.

Pace and Flow
Nadine scribbled something in her notebook and then looked up at Jason. “In your fiction writing, have you ever used a question to get a conversation going?”
“Sometimes, yeah. Questions can be good conversation starters. So can observations about the setting--by that I mean the surroundings--or responses to dramatic situations. All of those things can be used to spark a conversation.”
Stacy cleared her throat. “I’ve noticed something else, Nadine. Sometimes when only two people are carrying on a conversation, you don’t need to include attributions at all because the reader will naturally be able to keep the speakers straight, just by the flow of the conversation.”
“Really?” asked Nadine.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.”
“They won’t get confused about who’s talking?”
“No,” said Stacy. “You can trust your readers. Tell ‘em only what they need to know.”
Jason agreed. “You got it, Stacy. It’s an insult to the readers when the author always identifies the speaker. Most of the time, context speaks for itself.”
Stacy beamed and glanced down at the table.

Alex smiled broadly. “Okay, then. To summarize: good dialogue expresses something about the characters, moves the story forward, is natural-sounding, easy-to-read--”
“Rather than cumbersome,” interjected Stacy.
“Right. And yet there’s an artistry to it. Sometimes you gotta break the rules in order to make the story work.”
“Mm, hm,” said Moesha finishing up her burger. “What’s for dessert?”
“Plot,” said Alex. “But not until next week.”

Thoughts on Writing Dialogue #1 of 2

I'm teaching writing this week in North Carolina and I thought I'd share a few thoughts on writing dialogue from the course I'm teaching today.

Alex plopped down next to Stacy. “So, we’ve gotten together today to talk about writing effective dialogue,” he said.
Nadine nodded. “Yeah, and I’m glad. Most writer’s groups never get specific enough for me. Too much info on general stuff. I really need some nuts and bolts advice to help me with my novel.”
“Great, well then, let’s get started.”
Stacy shifted in her seat. “One of the things that bothers me the most about novice writers is the way they handle dialogue. Instead of letting each person talk naturally and in turn, they just let one person keep on talking until she’s delivered a veritable speech. Nobody else gets a chance to say anything. The man or woman--I want to be inclusive here--just keeps rambling on and on and on and that’s just not how people talk in real life! Conversations don’t work like that. No one ever gets a chance to explain everything that’s on her mind all at once without interruption.” She paused and looked around. “Right?”
“Das, right,” agreed Franklin. “Yo. Dat, or de writers jes start makin’ up der own way of spellin’ wurds rather than lettin’ somun express hisself by just his word choises. Know what I’m sayin’?”
“Yeah, it’s too hard to read when writers do that,” agreed Nadine. “Don’t you think so Moesha?”
Moesha took a bite of her cheeseburger and mumbled, “Mm, hmm.”
“Okay.” Alex looked around the restaurant table at the other five writers. “So, those are two great points. Who can summarize them for us?”
“Well,” Jason said, “let’s see… first of all, in effective dialogue, exchanges are brief. Back and forth. Good dialogue mirrors real speech because people speak in spurts rather than long lectures to each othe--”
“And sometimes people interrupt each other?” said Stacy.
“Right. And sometimes folks just let their thoughts trail off… and…” he paused to consider his response. “And clarity is essential. Dialect is best expressed through the judicious use of idiom rather than by the creative respellings of words.”
The other writers nodded in agreement while Moesha took another bit of her burger.

Focusing vs. Digressing
Stacy cleared her throat. “Well, written dialogue might mirror real speech, but it isn’t exactly like it.”
“Yo. Why do ya say dat?” asked Franklin.
“Well, sometimes in real life we just talk about trivial things--our jobs, the weather, clothes--”
“I wouldn’t say clothes are trivial,” interrupted Nadine.
Stacy smiled. “You know what I mean. Or the news, or who won the Mets game, or whatever.”
Franklin wrinkled his brow. “And so…?”
“And so, when you write, you have to use dialogue to move the story forward. Every word has to serve a purpose and not just take up space.”
“That’s a good point,” said Alex. “Writers are sometimes tempted to just put pen on paper and see where it takes ‘em. Too often, though, sections of dialogue just turn into sections of drivel. The story doesn’t move anywhere. It just stalls out. So, dialogue must always be purposive.”
Jason had been tapping his finger anxiously on the table next to his chicken wings.
Alex noticed. “Did you have something to add to that, Jason?”
“I think so.” He folded his arms and gazed toward the ceiling. “I’m not disagreeing with you or Stacy… it’s just that … well, if dialogue is too focused or too direct, it can also become too predictable for your readers. Sometimes you’ll want your dialogue to pool off in different directions. Yet, the real narrative artist can even do that in way that supports the story.”
Nadine was busy writing everything he said in her notebook. Stacy sat a little too quietly watching him.
“I don’t git it,” said Franklin. “Give me an example.”
“Well, let’s see… we’re talking about writing, right?”
Everyone nodded.
“So, let’s say we were writing this conversation down. You know, inserting it into a story or something.”
“Who’d wanna read about us?” asked Nadine.
“Just pretend. So, if we were turning this into written dialogue, we could leave out all the stuff we said when we first got here--before we ordered our food--all the small talk--”
“That’s what I was saying before,” interrupted Stacy. “That’s what I meant when I said you have to use dialogue to move the story forward.”
Jason took a deep breath. “Right, I know. I’m not arguing with you. But we’d want to include more than just the conversation. If we only included the bare bones stuff, it might tell the reader about our discussion, but it wouldn’t necessarily reveal the personality of the characters or the inner tension of the story. The readers want to see the motivations, the traits, the quirks, the uniqueness of each character. All of this can be shown by the careful use of digression.”
“Well,” Stacey said, “I don’t see how you can show all that by just a few words of dialogue.” She clinked her spoon loudly as she stirred her black coffee.
Jason sighed. “Forget it.”
“No,” said Alex. “This is good. You’re right. You brought up a good point. We can go too far to one extreme or the other. That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it, Jason?”
“Pretty much.”
Alex continued, “By digressing you can insert clues to what motivates your characters, throw red herrings to the reader--for, say, a mystery novel--foreshadow important events, or add new dramatic elements to the storyline.”
“Yeah. That’s what I was trying to say.”
Moesha nodded and wiped ketchup from her chin.