Friday, June 29, 2007

The Paradox of Freedom

In a previous post a reader asked me to explain what I meant by the paradox of freedom, one of the tips I list for writing. Good question!

Here’s what I’m talking about. Let’s say that you and a friend are trying to decide where to go our for supper. You say, “Where do you want to go?” And she says, “I don’t care, where do you want to go?” “It doesn’t matter to me.” “Well it doesn’t matter to me either.” “Wherever you want.” “I don’t really care.” This can go on for hours. Days. Weeks.

Sometimes in my writing workshops I’ll say, “Write a story.”

“What about?” people ask.


And ten minutes later when we check to see how everyone is doing, some people haven’t even started yet. Why not? “I couldn’t think of anything to write,” they say.

But, if I say, “In the next ten minutes write a story about a pickle who doesn’t want to get eaten,” every one of them will have a story. Why? Because the problem isn’t that they didn’t have any ideas, the problem was that they had too many ideas. So many ideas in fact, that it crippled their creativity and decision making ability.

It’s the same with a restaurant. If you can go anywhere it’s more difficult to decide than if you are limited. Perhaps by distance, or price, or preference. So here is the paradox of freedom—the more freedom you’re given, the more crippled you become. I know it sounds strange, but there is nothing as liberating as limitations.

So, the first step to writing, actually to making any decision, is to limit yourself. That will free up your creativity and your ability to make decisions.

For more articles and ideas on writing and storytelling, visit my website.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

How to be Seriously Funny - part 2

I’ve been busy working on The Rook. Forgot about this for a few days. Sorry!

Ok, here are the other ideas. Some overlap a little but you'll get the point.

1. No one gets hurt. Think about the funniest movies you’ve ever seen. Buildings may fall one the actors, they may be right next to an explosion, have cement poured on their heads, catch on fire, and then walk away and brush it off and say something like, “Man that’s going to hurt in the morning." It’s never funny when someone gets hurt for real.

2. Misunderstandings. This is huge in romantic comedies. The guy thinks the girl is thinking one thing, she thinks he's thinking something else. The situation becomes more and more absurd, not just because they misunderstand each other, but because the audience doesn't misunderstand. We see the big picture, we're in on the joke and since we see what's coming. The anticipation of the encounter between the to people is what we look forward to. I think that’s what makes it so funny.

3. Irony and parodies. The secret to using parodies is that the person listening to the story has to know the original story or else the parody isn’t funny. They just don’t get it.

4. Physical humor. Watching movies from other cultures and seeing their comedians is really eye opening. It doesn't seem funny to Americans. It’s almost all exaggerated body language and clowning around. To us, it seems like they’re trying to be funny or acting childish. The early days of TV and lots of our children's programming rely almost entirely on physical humor and silly body language. However, we loved Kramer on Seinfeld and the early antics of Jim Carrey. So there you go. Maybe we're ready for physical humor again.

5. Callbacks. You’ve seen this with comedians. They do a routine early on and then later, they refer back to it and we laugh. I'm not exactly sure why this bit works, but id does. And when it does, when it's done well, it's hilarious.

Finally, a few things that are not funny:
  • Making fun of someone other than yourself is not funny.
  • Sarcasm is not funny.
  • Someone trying to be funny is not funny. In fact, there’s nothing less funny than someone who is trying to be funny.
  • Off-color jokes are not funny.
  • Puns are not funny. At least not usually. We don’t like investing our interest in something that ends up being an intellectual gimmick.
There you go. Hm. Thoughts?

Friday, June 22, 2007

How to be Seriously Funny

In March when I was teaching writing in India, we brainstormed on the topic: “What makes a story funny?” My students came up with a list that really impressed me. Here are a few of the ideas:

1. The Unexpected. Just like a good story, the end of a joke is unexpected by also inevitable. For example, Question: “What’s the difference between boogers and broccoli?” Answer, “Kids won’t eat their broccoli.” But the joke only works if the end is both unexpected and inevitable. If it’s only one or the other, it’s not funny.

2. Truth. Humor almost always tells the truth about life, but from a perspective we hadn’t noticed. We hear the story and we say, “Yes! That’s so true, why didn’t I think of that?” This is evident by the popular comedian shtick, “Did you ever notice that?...” And we laugh because we have noticed it, but we’ve never had our attention drawn to it. I think that's what makes the cars and computers bit so funny (see my last post). But this approach is only funny if people have actually noticed it. If they haven’t they’ll just say, “No. I don’t see what’s so funny about that.”

3. Self-deprecating humor. People don’t ever want you to make fun of them, but you can poke fun at yourself. Once when I was introducing myself at a conference I said, “Last year when I was here a woman said, ‘Has anyone ever told you how handsome you are?’ I smiled and said, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘There’s a reason for that.’” People laughed, but they would have turned against me big time if I told it the other way: “Yeah, it was cool. I went up to this woman who was speaking here and I said, ‘Has anyone ever told you how pretty you are?’ And when she said, ‘No’ I told her, ‘There’s a reason for that.’” Definitely not funny.

More thoughts tomorrow.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Cars and Computers Revisited

Ok, I know this has been around forever, but a friend of mine just sent it to me today again, and I was reminded of how funny it is. It's from some very clever anonymous cyberspace author.

Later this week I’ll write a few thoughts about what makes something funny. Here it is:

At a recent computer expo (Ha! Urban legend warning!... ), Bill Gates reportedly compared the computer industry with the auto industry and stated, "If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon."

In response to Bill's comments, General Motors issued a press release stating: If GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving cars with the following characteristics:

1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash.....Twice a day.

2. Every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to buy a new car.

3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason. (My dear MG!) You would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue. For some reason you would simply accept this.

4. Occasionally, executing a maneuver such as a left turn would cause your car to shut down, refuse to restart, in which case you would have to reinstall the engine.

5. Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, was reliable, five times as fast and twice as easy to drive - but would run on only 5% of the roads.

6. The oil, water temperature and alternator warning lights would all be replaced by a single "This Car Has Performed An Illegal Operation" warning light.

7. The airbag system would ask "Are you sure?" before deploying.

8. Occasionally, for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key and grabbed hold of the radio antenna.

9. Every time a new car was introduced car buyers would have to learn how to drive all over again because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.

10. You'd have to press the "Start" button to turn the engine off.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Beekeeper's Song

A few years ago when I visited Kazakhstan, our driver stood up to sing during the Sunday morning worship service. That afternoon I wrote about it.

I was thinking about him today when I went outside and heard the summer unfolding around me, saw the bees busy at our flowers.

the beekeeper’s voice

anatole, the man who drove us around the city,
(the man i couldn’t help but smell from the back of the van),
steps to the front of the church,
he is a beekeeper who lives up in the mountains of kazakhstan,
they tell me.

but then, before my eyes, he changes,
and he steps into the music where he was meant to dwell all along
and his voice fills the room and
makes your soul weep and faint and shudder in awe.
and the walls are not strong enough to hold in the voice of this beekeeper.
it spreads out across the land and takes over the world.
something holy and divine and everlasting dwells in that song. in that moment.

and then, suddenly, he is finished.
his big shoulders slump, and he quietly takes his seat.
and he becomes a reeking russian beekeeper once again.

but the rest of us are changed,

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Man of Sorrows

As I was thinking about the topic of discernment and telling the truth in fiction, I remembered a conversation I had with a very thoughtful man from Iran on a flight a few months ago. We began talking about spiritual things and he had a ton of great questions. I struggled a bit with my answers, especially to his question about why there’s evil in the world if God is good.

At one point in the conversation I mentioned that I sometimes struggle with depression and he said, “If Jesus is so powerful, why doesn’t he help you with that?”

Wow. And I had no idea what to say. I sat there for a moment speechless because I do believe in Jesus’s power, but I also know we live in this imperfect, painful world. And we each have our struggles.

Then I remembered the verse in Luke where it says Jesus was a man of sorrows. (I just looked it up, I was wrong. It's Isaiah 53:3. Luke 22:45 just says Jesus was exhausted from sorrow.) I mentioned that to my friend and that also, in the book of John, Jesus is called a man of joy, complete joy (see John 15). I asked him, “Why do you think the Bible would call Jesus a man of sorrows?”

And my friend thought about it for a moment and then he said, “Because he saw the world as it really is.” Then he turned to me and nodded. “Jesus was a man of sorrows. That’s the best answer you’ve given me all night.”

But I think his answer was the best one of the night.

Jesus saw the world as it really is. And the more we become like him, the more we will see and experience that sorrow and that joy too.

I believe that the stories we tell, the novels we write, the sermons we preach, the movies we recommend should be honest about both facets of our world, both sides of the truth. The minute we pretend there’s no reason to feel sorrow, or that there aren’t enough reasons to feel joy, we’ve drifted from the truth and stopped seeing the world as it really is.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Developing Discernment

Just a quick note, I’ve been thinking about how we evaluate media because I received an email last week asking me, “Is The Pawn a Christian novel?”

Hm. What makes a novel, a story, a movie, Christian? I agree with Madeline L’engle that it’s Christian if it tells the truth about the way the world really is.

Ok, so here you go. I think that when it comes to movies and media, discernment involves evaluating at least three things:

(1) The artistic quality. If it’s a film, how well is it directed? Is the acting excellent or cheesy and second-rate? What about the storytelling? How well is the movie edited? How coherently do the scenes fit together? How about the cinematography, camera angles, pace, dialogue?

Many so-called “Christian films” and “Christian novels” are concerned with not offending people, or getting some kind of message across, rather than telling a good story. As a result both the message and the story suffer. And that’s more offensive to me than objectionable content.

(2) The worldview of the movie. Does this movie portray a universe where choices matter, or one in which fate and destiny rule? Are good and evil portrayed as equally strong, or does good have the power to conquer in the end? Are life, and the choices we make, meaningful and substantive, or is life simply meaningless and random? In this movie, do the ends justify the means? Are values of right and wrong dependant on the situation, or are they derived from a higher good?

When the Harry Potter books and movies came out, many fundamentalist Christians avoided them because of the content (spells, magic, wizards, etc…) and didn’t acknowledge the artistic excellence of the storytelling. In addition, the world of Harry Potter is unashamedly moral, choices matter, life is not just a matter of fate and timing. However, in the Harry Potter world, the ends justify the means. I believe discernment is harder than blind condemnation, but also more worthwhile.

(3) The content. I do think it’s legitimate to be wary of a film’s content. Sometimes the images will lead you into thought-territory that you have no business trespassing into. Graphic violence, gory murders, glorified eroticism, titillating sex, and gutter language can all affect the way we think, the way we relate to other people, the way we relate to God--and the scenes don’t typically have a purifying effect. However, content is only one of the factors a discerning person will use when evaluating media.

Undoubtedly some people will not welcome the violence in The Pawn. But I believe discerning readers will connect with the story on many other levels.

There you have it. I welcome your response.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Christians at the Movies

I love movies but I have a problem--I also like to recommend them to other people, and that’s where things get weird.

You see, some of the movies I like include what many of my friends would call "objectionable content." To me, objectionable content includes bad acting, idiotic storytelling, poor directing or lame writing, but usually to my friends it means that the movie includes: (1) sex or nudity (it doesn’t even matter if the sex is between married couples, it’s sex so it’s objectionable), (2) bad language, (3) violence, or (4) depictions of drug or alcohol use.

Their evaluations of the movie tend to go like this: “You should see it, it’s great! There’s no sex or violence or bad language or anything!”

I’m always tempted to point out to them that a blank movie screen also includes none of those things and that I wouldn’t pay eight bucks to sit and watch that for two hours, but I usually hold my tongue. That, or I feel like encouraging them to avoid reading the Old Testament where erotic poetry, brutal violence, blasphemy, prostitution, and scenes of drunken orgy populate the pages. Typically I just say, “Oh, well. It sounds like you really enjoyed it.”

I think that if the content of the Old Testament wasn’t in the Bible, but was published as a novel instead, Christian bookstores wouldn’t carry it because of all the "objectionable content."

Tomorrow I’ll share the three factors I think discerning people should use when evaluating media. Stay tuned 'till then.

Meanwhile, check out some of Ransom Fellowship's thoughtful, insightful and balanced movie reviews at
I'll bet you leave impressed and filled with great ideas for your Netflix list.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Here's The Pawn Trailer

Part of my brain is still stuck in the 20th century and it took me a couple of days to figure out how to add the video to my blog. Alas, here it is!

Btw, thanks to all the folks at Revell Publishing for inviting me to meet with them in Michigan last week. They were amazingly supportive and encouraging. The coffee was good. The food was good. And I'm excited to see what unfolds. You guys rock! (Or as we say here, "All y'all rock!")

Also, thanks to Kyle Long who produced the trailer. If you want to check out more of his work, go to

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Stupid Signs

I just feel like sharing some of the weird signs I've seen while traveling. I saw this one at Faith Memorial Gardens (a graveyard) in Huntsville, Alabama: "Buy 3 spots get 1 free!" Now, just think about that. Let that sink in. What kind of a person would offer a promotion like this? What kind of a person would impulse buy four funeral plots?

I saw this sign at a highway construction area in Virginia. Now, track with me here, don't let me lose you. The sign had all these lights around the outside of it and it read, "Construction workers present when flashing."

I just sat there thinking, "That's the last thing I want to see."

And this one up in the mountains of Colorado: "In case of flood, seek high ground."
And this one on a gas station in Kentucky: "One Month Unlimited Tanning!"
And this one on the front door of a supermarket in Tennessee: "Push. Do Not Enter."

That last one's a very bad sign if you're schizophrenic. That, or maybe if you're a college philosophy professor: "What is the meaning of the push if you're not allowed to use it? If you're told to push the door, but have no purpose in the push, do you push it of your own free will? If so, why? If not, why not? Please write a 500 word essay on what the sign really means."

But my favorite of all time might just be the sign I saw a couple of weeks ago in Decatur, Alabama: "Decatur Radiator Service - The Best Place in Town to Take a Leak."

And then next to it, a sign that read, "Customer Parking in Rear."

A few more of my favs are on the right.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Video Trailer for The Pawn

Hey! I wanted to let you know that the video trailer for my new thriller, The Pawn, has just been posted on YouTube. Check it out, I think you'll like it!

Very creepy. Here it is:

The book will be released on September 1, 2007. You can preorder it off my website or from

P.S. If you like the video, it'd be very cool if you can rate it on YouTube, save it to your favorites, send the link to your friends, or add it to your MySpace or Facebook page. It'll help get the word out and, of course, save us money on marketing. Thanks!!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Let Me Be Young Enough

This morning we stayed home from church to worship as a family and I wrote this prayer while I was sitting at the dining room table waiting for the service to begin:

God of the Dawn and the Day,
Let me be young enough to kiss your elbow and believe in fairies and dragons.

Let me be young enough to run, not walk, toward the playground,
and when I fall, to just get back up again,
and when other kids cry, to join them and not
be ashamed.

Let me be young enough to make snow angels and
climb trees in the twilight;
to be frightened of the darkness
and unwilling to stay in the big house all alone,
and astonished by dandelions and quick to chase

Let me be young enough to believe,
really believe, that you rose from the dead
and live in my heart, and then, make me
so excited about it that I can’t help but tell
all the other kids at recess that God actually
lives inside of me.

Let me be young enough to be afraid of
what’s going to happen to me when
Dad gets home, but humble enough
to run to him and cling to his leg when he does.

Let me be young enough to spill my ice cream
and then presumptuous enough to just ask for more;
young enough to say my prayers
and trust that they’ll be heard.

Let me be young enough
to bring you my stick-figure drawings
and know you’ll find room for them on your fridge.

Let me be child-enough
to step through the door to your kingdom
and then realize, in one astonishing
moment of somersault excitement,
that heaven is more like a sleepover
than an elders' meeting,
more like going camping and
eating macaroni and cheese with Dad
and playing in the tree house
than sitting through a Sunday morning
church service.

Because then, when I’m finally that young,
I’ll finally be born.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Surviving the Pitfalls

A couple of months ago I was speaking with my pastor and during the conversation I wrote down some notes. They’re all ideas on helping a marriage survive difficult times. (I’ll bet you don’t have to guess who needed the advice more, my pastor or me.) Most the ideas came from him, a few from me. Here they are:

1. Come to the place of loving and accepting yourself. When you’re consumed with guilt rather than acceptance (of yourself and your spouse) you’re caught in a downward spiral that doesn’t serve either of you well.
2. Don’t forget that she is a real person, full of needs and desires and longings and frustrations just like you. It’s easy to forget when you live with someone long enough.
3. Sometimes you need to be a hypocrite to your feelings. If you’re not feeling loving and you say, “I love you,” then you might consider it hypocritical, but you’re also affirming your commitment toward love. If you say, “I don’t love you,” then you might be telling how you really feel right now, but you’re breaking the promise you made to love until death. So, you need to choose—either be hypocritical to your commitment, or to your feelings. And only one serves your spouse.
4. Enter her world, give her what you want out of a relationship. (I suppose this works the other way as well, from wife to husband.)
5. It’s more of a blessing to give than to receive, so look for ways to give rather than defaulting back to finding ways to take.
6. Help her flower. She’ll naturally reflect your moods, so let her reflect light instead of darkness.
7. Guilt can be either a road that leads closer to Jesus or it can become a pit of selfishness, focusing only on your mistakes rather than on God’s grace. Let guilt serve you by leading you further from yourself and closer to him.

I think it’s good stuff, good advice. I’m still working at living it out. Any additional advice anyone wants to offer?