Don’t Proceed with a Boring Lead 

Looking back at NaNoWriMo 2016, I can see a few mistakes I made. 

The first was trging to do NaNo in the stressed out state I was in. I should have just started my self care resolution two months early. 

But then,  I didn’t realize how much I needed to address my loor self care until December, so maybe NaNoWriMo helped me realize it. 

The mistake was writing something that was too … undemanding … with a lead who was just too blandly “good.”

It was the best I could do in the state I was in,  which was itself a clue. 

She wanted to save the village because out was her home and she loved it and … yawn … what was I saying? I  nodded of there for a second.

I think I will revisit that story,  and my first change well be her backstory and motivations.

The story will take a slightly darker tone,  she’ll be slightly less sympathetic, but it will all be a lot more interesting. 

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Freestyle Friday: Writing Goals for July 2016

Since it’s “Freestyle Friday,” I’m going to take a break from the heavier topics I discussed in my last two posts.

I want 2016 to be the year I got my act together.

  • I earned my Ph.D.
  • I’ve started getting my health back under control by eating a fully plant-based diet and exercising more (in the summer, that means swimming. I’ve got a plan for the fall, too).
  • I’ve started trying to unify my personal ethics with my actions, digging deeper, actually changing from the normal.
  • I’ve restarted this blog after a 3-year absence.
  • I’m going to make another go of my fiction writing.

Let me talk about the last two here. It’s not that I haven’t been writing fiction for the last couple of years, it’s that I haven’t been successfully writing fiction.

After writing a novel that I loved, one that did everything I wanted it to, one that I actually go back and read sometimes like somebody else wrote it … I found I couldn’t even come close to replicating it.

Lightning wouldn’t strike twice, and I spent two full years not knowing why or how.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t have the skill to reproduce it yet. For those of you who play RPGs, I got a critical success mostly from the luck of the dice.

But now, I have a plan. For July, I want to:

    • Continue writing this blog five days a week, putting out material that is actually useful, that gives something of value to at least somebody every day.
    • Write 4 “

Story Spines

      .” In case you’re not familiar with them, they’re proto-outlines invented by Kenn Adams in 1991 and used extensively throughout the entertainment industry,

especially by Pixar

      .

For each story, I’ll then create the main character. That character will need to be relatable, with relatable motivations that will be powerful and engaging enough to push through the entire story.

A bit more about story spines: They’re designed to get to the heart of the story long before you write an extensive outline or start putting dialogue and description down.

Like a living creature, a story only has one spine. So four spines means (the start of) four stories. The story spines will actually be the easy part.

Creating a relatable main character with powerful enough motivations to drive the whole story, well, that’s the hard part.

And that’s why I’m going to do at least 4 story spines a month (maybe more) until I get it right, and then keep doing them (and analyzing them) until I figure out what causes me to fail and what causes me to succeed.

I’ll continue to read books and articles about writing, and work on technical aspects of my prose. But the bottom line is, if I can’t write a powerful enough central motivation and relatable enough lead character to drive the story to completion, nothing else matters.

So that’s the plan for July. I guess this means I’ll owe you a status report at the end of the month.

 

Freestyle Friday: Becoming a Writer

640px-German_American_Kids_Bookshelf

I realized two things recently about my fiction writing. One of them should have been evident from the beginning: that I have trouble finishing what I start (that’s the thing that kills most writers’ dreams. You can’t work on the same novel for ten years and expect anything to happen, and you can’t do a thing with twenty half-finished stories).

The other is a little more humbling and required a good big of introspection and distance: I don’t yet have the writing skill I need. I’m not yet good enough.

(That “YET” is a key part of this. It goes back to the Growth Mindset, which I discuss in my Willpower Wednesdays posts).

What it took for me to realize this was writing something that was actually good. I mean, really, really good in the sense of being everything I wanted it to be:

  • An engaging and relatable main character (Polly)
    • with a real reason to be out doing what she’s doing
    • and with real agency within the plot (she drives the whole thing, really)
  • A fast pace, with lots of kinetic action
  • Protagonists who do not solve their problems with violence
    • Specifically, a narrative that refutes the myth of redemptive violence at every turn
    • Without actually heavy-handedly mentioning that it’s doing so
  • Breezy reading style (meaning it reads quickly)
  • Vivid descriptions, with lots of nice set pieces (it would make a good movie)
  • A positive, joyful vibe that made it a pleasure to write

… and then trying and failing for two and a half years to make lightning strike twice.

I know what I want to write. I wrote what I want to write. But I don’t have the skill to write it again … yet.

This means I’m not really ready to be writing fiction right now. This means that I need to do what I should have done twenty+ years ago … sit down and spend a few months (or more) actively practicing my fiction skills every day.

I’m still researching the best ways to do this, but I’ve got a tentative plan. Since my biggest issue is not being able to recreate a protagonist who is relatable enough and relatably driven enough to drive the whole plot of a novel, I’m going to start by writing short stories (using a short story-writing textbook I’ve found), aiming to create characters relatable enough and relatably driven enough to drive short works. With enough practice driving 2000-3000 word stories, I’ll hopefully get the fundamentals and be able to drive novellas and novels.

Along the way, I’ll try to improve my technical skills (more on that in a later post), but that driving force protagonist is the main missing piece. So that’s what I’ll work on first.

Things are all coming together in a way. If I hadn’t been studying Grit and its associated factors (including the Growth Mindset and deliberate practice), I doubt I would have ever thought to do this.

The Art of Vulnerability

Nietzsche Quote

As Christians, we have to be willing to step outside our comfort zones, something I’m not very good at.  I’m not a naturally outgoing person.  I tend to prefer books and numbers and art and ideas to people and social gatherings.  Of course, I get as lonely as anybody else if I do not get enough social interaction.  I’m incredibly thankful that I’m married to a woman who not only understands this, but feels very much the same (though she’s more focused on music than on books and numbers).

But I think that going outside our comfort zones almost by definition means doing things we’re not so good at.  Don’t get me wrong: I think God made us the way we are for a reason.  I think our talents and temperaments are not accidents, but gifts.  And so I will probably never be called to lead a Billy Graham-style crusade, preaching to millions, or even work as a pastor, dealing with an entire congregation in groups and one on one settings.  But if I ever am, I know I’ll have to step up and do it, trusting that God will give me the strength to fulfill His call.

So, what does that mean here, in the written word?

I think, for me at least, it means vulnerability.  Nietzsche famously said, “of all writing, I love only that which a man has written in his own blood.”  I think that (if I may be so bold as to speak for Him), God may feel the same way.

Vulnerability goes beyond honesty.  A person may be completely honest, as far as it goes, while writing about topics that never require him to lay himself bare, to intentionally make himself look weak or foolish or flawed.  But only by appearing weak and foolish and flawed can we really glorify God.

And this goes for fiction as well as blogging and memoir (those who know me know I’ve always written fiction, and I’ve always struggled with being truly happy with what I create).  It’s hard, when trying to juggle plot, character, character voice, and prose style to really be vulnerable.  It’s not easy to let an ugly, doubt-ridden, questioning, disappointed, vulnerable part of myself spill out into the characters, especially not a character I like.  It’s not easy; in fact, it hurts.  But it is, I believe, necessary.

So what do you think?  Should our brokenness before God show through in everything we write?  Is there a place for confident, even didactic prose?  What about didactic, prescriptive fiction?  And are we ready, as Christians in an often-sanitized culture, to confront each others’ vulnerabilities?

Repetition – an Explanation

I’ve posted two “Repetitions” here, and it occurs to me that some of you may be wondering just what I’m doing.

Well, it all began back in college, when Dr. Meadors had us read Soren Kierkegaard, including Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing and Fear and Trembling/Repetition.

I have to admit, some of Kierkegaard’s writing went right over my head.  Other parts of it challenged me (the knight of faith, the teleological suspension of the ethical as seen in the story of Abraham and Isaac).  But one part slipped, almost unnoticed, into a little empty space in my mind, and hid, almost unnoticed, for many years.

Repetition.

In the beginning of Repetition/Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard re-tells the story of Abraham and Isaac several times.  And each time it’s different.  One time, it focuses on Isaac’s broken trust in his father.  Anther time, it focuses more on Abraham’s pain and dread of what he has to do.

But what struck me was this: the Bible gives us an outline, a story in a form much shorter than what we are currently used to.  It tells us what happened, but we must infer or imagine the feelings, the reasons, the details.

And so we do.

There’s a huge sub-genre of Christian fiction retelling Bible stories in novel form, but even those of us without literary agents rewrite the stories into modern-style narratives within our minds.  And that’s good, because it makes it more than just a brief passage, an efficient chronicle of something that happened long ago.  It helps us make the story real to ourselves.

But it’s important to remember that we don’t know how Jacob or Ruth or Abraham felt (at least I don’t).  It’ s important to know that those details (the ones that didn’t make the canon) could go any number of ways.

And so, when I retell stories from the Bible, as I will sometimes do here, I never just tell them once.  That would be an “answer,” and an answer I am surely not qualified to give.  But by writing the story again and again, using different possibilities, different approaches, I can keep myself engaged with the questions, with the Bible itself.

How did Jacob feel when he wrestled the angel?  Why did he stay behind at the Jabbok ford?  Who started the fight?  If Jacob hoped to live, what did he base that hope on: his gifts and plans, God’s protection, or Esau’s mercy?  Did he ever fear the angel would kill him?  Did he even know what he was wrestling?

I don’t know.  But it helps me, sometimes, to imagine.