Works In Progress

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Celebration Is On

My entry to this month's Celebration of New Christian Fiction is immediately below. To see the entries from the other participants in, click here.


Thursday, April 14, 2005

on Motivating v. Preaching

(this entry is part of a "celebration of new Christian fiction" that will take place on 19 April; on that date I'll have a link to find other participants in the fiesta)

A few years back BMW came up with a marketing campaign featuring Clive Owen and the many beautiful cars in the Beemer line-up. Clive was “The Driver” and he’s shown taking the cars through their paces in a variety of action-oriented stories (save a kidnapped woman from drowning, race to beat the Devil on the Vegas Strip, get Madonna to her gig on time, keep the Buddhist “Golden Child” safe). The movies were all directed by famous Hollywood types (John Woo, Tony Scott, Guy Ritchie, Ang Lee) and include famous co-stars (Maury Chaykin, James Brown, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke). The gist of the marketing campaign was buy this car, drive real fast, be cool, drive real fast.

A week or so ago there was a DVD insert in Entertainment Weekly – a movie for the new VW Jetta. It starred Joe Pantoliano. The film tells the story of Joey Pants’ character telling some schmo to grow up, get his life together, etc. Everything takes place in the schmo’s apartment. Eventually, Joe tells Schmo to lose the Jetta (we’re shown a late-model Jetta parked outside) and get a grown up car. Schmo gets on his 12” PowerBook and asks Joe if he means “something like this?” – a nice silver sedan. Joe says “yeah” and leaves. Then Schmo reveals that the silver sedan is the new Jetta (anyone else surprised? Me neither). Message: Get the new Jetta and fool people into thinking you’re a grown-up.

What’s this got to do with anything? The BMW films showed us why we want to buy their car. Jetta only told us. Granted, not getting whacked by Joey Pants is compelling, but avoiding pain is not nearly the motivator seeking pleasure is. Even though a Z3 is out of my price range, I still watch the BMW movies from time to time. I don’t know that I’ll ever watch the Jetta film again.

What’s the writing lesson here? The Show v. Tell implications are obvious. I’m sure the Jetta marketers felt they were showing us why to buy their product – and I’m sure there are folks in their early 30s who want to fake their way through getting their lives together that will respond. But the ad was preachy; it wasn’t motivational in the way the BMW ads were (and let’s be honest, “filmmaking” aside, they’re ads).

Beyond the Show and Tell, there’s also the nature of Metaphor v. Simile. Metaphor shows. Simile tells. Dave’s assistant Jim is golden. The church spire shone like gold. The BMW stands in for a lifestyle of excitement. The Jetta, like pyrite, is a poor substitute for the gold standard. Metaphor’s the real deal; simile not so much.

In writing to communicate the Gospel, we’ve got the same choices: Motivate or preach. Do we show “liberty in Christ” or tell a “don’t go to Hell” sermon? While there are flaws in the “Purpose-Driven” movement and I’m gonna scream before long if I keep hearing about post-modern “conversations” (it’s the term ad nauseum that’s the problem, not the engagement itself), the relational aspect of Christianity (relationship with God and relationship with others) is much more compelling than a didactic “God commands you to” approach.

Revival is in a middle ground. There’s some metaphorical “lifestyle evangelism”: a Lutheran sheriff, an ex-priest bookseller, a devout woman who runs a local B&B, kids enthusiastic about the revival meeting (for religious reasons as well as the change-of-small-town-pace it offers). There’s some "it's like, you know" preachiness, too – hard to avoid with a revival preacher on the scene. I’ve tried to soften the preachiness by showing it filtered through various characters’ reactions. I’ve tried to present both the local pastor and the revival preacher with good and bad sides; there’s conflict between the two men, hostility – easy answers and Christian unity aren’t so simple.

And then there’s humor. At one point, Pastor Jim and Barbara Adams are sharing a coffin to elude the zombies. Here’s a snippet from the first draft:
Bromfeld felt himself getting lightheaded, and not just because of the company. As the oxygen level inside the coffin diminished, his claustrophobia came back with a vengeance.

“Can’t breathe,” he gasped.

Cautiously Barbara raised the lid. Fresh air wafted in without the stench of the creature. “Coast’s clear,” she said, and opened the coffin more.

“Wait.” Bromfeld grabbed the lid and pulled it back down. “It may be in another room.”

Back in the dark, Barbara whispered. “Is that a prayer book in your pocket or are you just happy not to see me?”

“Prayer book? I’m not Episcopalian. Oh ... you mean ....” Bromfeld felt his face flush. He was certain red light was shining out of the coffin, a handy beacon for the creatures to find their hiding place.

“Actually, it’s a crucifix. I grabbed it when I ran out of the church.”

“Isn’t that for vampires?”

“I figured it couldn’t hurt for these guys. Undead should be undead, after all.”

They lay together in silence.

“By the way,” Bromfeld said, “I’m also happy to not see you.”

Barbara sighed.

“Because the scar bothers you.” It wasn’t quite a question.

“Hungh? No, I like the scar. I mean, I’m not glad you got cut like that.” Bromfeld took a deep breath. “I just mean with the present lighting conditions and all ... I’m happy here in the dark with you.”

“Oh – Haaappy. You’re not too bad looking, yourself. For a minister. In the dark.”


She laughed.

Their first kiss was far from chaste.

(see here for a darker example of church and humor)

The purpose of the book isn’t to preach that you should become a Christian, and it’s really not motivational in that way either. It’s a baby-step book. Think Christians are all nutjobs? Think again. That sort of thing. The Bible’s there and the Gospel’s there, too, so it’s not impossible the Holy Spirit could use the book for life-changing purposes. I’d love for that to happen, but I’ve not invested myself toward that end.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Writer's Guidelines

This is only tangentially related to Revival, but since you're here you might as well read it anyway.
"But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months."

"Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything."

"But the plans were on display..."

"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."

"That's the display department."

"With a flashlight."

"Ah, well, the lights had probably gone."

"So had the stairs."

"But look, you found the notice, didn't you?"

"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying "Beware of the Leopard."*
Finding the writer's guidelines for Writer's Digest at is not quite that difficult.

Last year I wrote Revival during November's NaNoWriMo event. In a recent Writer's Digest "Creativity" special edition there was an article on NaNo. Unfortunately, it was a factoid-based piece, detailing the history of the event, but lacking any sense of how fun and/or frustrating it can be. The author hadn't hit the NaNo 50,000 word mark.

It was one of those things that makes you say: "Hey, I can do better than that." After all, I did 74K words in November. Surely I can write many fewer about my experience and encourage others at the same time.

Step One: Have an idea. Done

Step Two: Check writer's guidelines to make sure you stay on the right track. Uh-uh, not so fast.

If you go to you'll see a little sidebar over on the right. First item in sidebar: Writer's Guidelines. Click it and you're taken to a page advertising, a service that compiles the guidelines from a plethora of publications and will let you access them for a fee.

Part way down the page there's a "click here for an example" link. Aaah, well they've used their own publication as a sample for the service. How synergistic of them. <Click> Nope, it's Atlantic Monthly.

Well, there's a little search field. Let's try that. Writers Digest. Nothing, huh? Wait, did I forget the apostrophe? That's the ticket. Brings up the magazine and the book publisher. Click on magazine. Hmmm ... brief snippet, says they prefer e-queries but doesn't list the e-mail address. Not as bad as discovering the stairs are out, but not exactly helpful, either.

Back to the home page and start again. Click on "Writer's Digest Magazine" on the left-hand index. Subscription form. But I am a subscriber. Dang.

Try the "Get Published" horizontal menu item. Nope. But wait, there're little links at the bottom of the page. One is "contact us" ... well, that's what I want to do, isn't it?


Ooooh, under Writer's Digest Books there's a "writer's guidelines" link. Click. Back to the Writer's Market ad. Double dang.

Job Opportunities at the bottom of the page? Bit of a stretch, but <click> Yeah, like I said, it was a bit of a stretch. Plenty of career ops east of the Rockies; that's good to know.

Well, at the bottom of the page is an "about us" link. Let's find out if the Vogons are behind this. Better yet, let's find out if the Dentrassis designed the website for the Vogons in between food-service shifts.

<Click Ahoy!>

Aha! In the middle of the page: About ... link for "writer's guidelines." No, wait; "a searchable database of 'writer's guidelines'." Not gonna fall for that again if I can help it.

About our magazines. Subscription link. Where to buy. Mailing Address. "See the Writer's Digest 'writer's guidelines'."

Wait! Could it be? Is it the locked filing cabinet in the disused lavatory at long last? There's no "Beware of the Leopard" poster, but let's give it a try.

Yes! We have Success!

If you've played the Infocom text-adventure version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, this is like getting the babel fish in your ear. It's like having tea and no tea at the same time. It's like figuring out what you're supposed to do with the lint.

If that makes no sense to you, play the Java version of the game here, or the Flash version, here.

Step Three: Write the thing. Well, after finding the writer's guidelines, how hard can that be?

Step Four: ?????

Step Five: Profit!

NB: This entry was written is a spirit of fun and great affection for Douglas Adams, Writer's Digest Magazine, the BBC, and the whackos on Slashdot who introduced me to the steps 4 & 5 bit. No offense is intended and I should be highly disappointed if any were taken by any of the aforementioned entities.

*The above passage was written by Douglas Adams, who, if he has a problem with my misappropriation of his copyright, can cease pretending to be dead for tax purposes and write me a cordial letter expressing his concern.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Burgeoning Conflict

Of all the things I hate, Jerusalem crickets and conflict are at the top of the list (Brussels sprouts and cooked cauliflower are close behind).

My solution to the bug thing and my conflict issues is simple: Avoidance. I last saw a Jerusalem cricket in 1989 on the campus of UC Santa Cruz (well, except for the google link above <shudder>). Conflict comes up more frequently, though. I'm not talking about arguments, those I can handle fine. It's the actual interpersonal (and inner-personal) strife I have problems with. Cold shoulder meet Mr. I. Give-In.

Consequently, I have a hard time developing conflict in my stories. Revival is filled with scenes, occasionally whole chapters, that are little more than information-divulging vignettes. I think they're interesting (I'm biased, I suppose). They're anecdotal. They're conversational. But, zombie chapters aside, they're not very conflictive.

I think I do a fair job building the conflict between the main character and the revival preacher. Unfortunately, that's resolved midway through the book. Of course, everything takes a hiatus when the dead walk the streets, but there's not much of a tie between the first two-thirds of the book and the denoument.

There is, however, a vestigal conflict between the main character and his unseen boss that can be developed. Right now it's about his boss's tight-fistedness and it dies pretty early on. But I think it can grow. I mean, how excited can a guy be about researching the "ninth-most-livable city in Oregon"? Who's to blame? Well, the lout who gave him the assignment, of course. A more complex conflict will also tie in nicely with what's now kind of throw-away line at the end of the book.

They say that awareness of a problem is the first step to recovery. I can't say I ever see myself relishing real-life conflict, but knowing my weakness has helped me spot it in my story. Will it work? I think it has potential. There are a few other things in secondary plotlines that can be enhanced, too.

We'll see.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Two and a Half Steps Forward, Half a Step Back

As I get started to begin thinking about moving into full-rewrite mode, three things have come to me to improve the story.

1) Gantt's nightmare: In the draft, Gantt is half a day away from Graphite as the story opens. He has a nightmare where his doppelganger (his "demonized" self) reveals the town of Graphite to him. Now, with Gantt already in town when the action begins, the dream needs to change. So, now Gantt has the nightmare where his reflection in the mirror is out of sync with his body (I hate this nightmare). Usually the reflection is slightly behind, and when you realize something's wrong, that's when the "reflection" attacks. In Gantt's case, the reflection is a quarter second ahead and, far from wanting to attack the reflection, Gantt runs from it. Except that the doppelganger is a half step ahead of Gantt as he catches his reflection in mirrors, shop windows, etc. The purpose of the dream is to reveal (in the original it was fairly explicit, here it's more implied) that N'Vonecz is linked to Gantt. The implication here is that the doppelganger is leading Gantt, and even if Gantt tries to escape, the "other" is still in control.

2) When the zombies come to Ma Carter's boarding house, the lead zombie is her husband, Samuel. This is never explicitly stated, but will hopefully be conveyed by his string tie (mentioned in a photograph) and wedding band. To convey his identity through literary means, as he enters the bedroom he'll be stepping over "the threshhold," as husbands are wont to do.

3) Here's the half step forward, half step back: After Barbara Adams (formerly Brooke) is attacked, the boys in the bar "disappear" her attacker. She's told that he ran off while everyone was distracted getting her on her way to Pendleton, but it's pretty clear in the retelling of the story that that's not what happened. So ... dead accountant-type guy + zombie story = dead accountant guy comes back with a score to settle. Now in the rewrite it's clear that Gantt's tombstone rubbings are key to the reanimation of the corpses ... except accountant-type guy doesn't have a tombstone. So how's he come back? We know there's an empty grave in the cemetary (one of Ma Carter's sons didn't come back from Korea or Viet Nam), so the accountant could be buried there. Or he could be buried under the bar, which would mean Gantt would have to do a rubbing of the brass historical marker outside The Point to zombify him. Both are rather convoluted (hence the step back). Still thinking on this one.