Category Archives: Creativity

Note for Women Writers Creating Male Characters

Early in 2011, while in my old truck and heading home from work, I was listening to David Jeremiah on the radio. He was conducting a study series on the Song of Solomon, and listed four things husbands need from wives:

1) cheerleading

2) companionship

3) comfort

4) a confidante

c. Keanan Brand

I’m not married now, nor have I ever been, but knowing what I do of men (my dad, brother, colleagues, friends), that struck me as a logical list, not just for understanding relationships but also for writing believable characters.

Can’t tell you how many times I’ve read “male” characters who behaved and spoke almost identically as their female counterparts. Almost all those men were written by women.

Note to my gender mates who also happen to write fiction: Men ain’t the same as women.

Pretty basic.

They don’t think the same, emote the same, behave the same, communicate the same. They may have the same

c. Keanan Brand

emotions, desires, and ideas, but may express them differently, or may take different paths to arrive at similar conclusions.

When in doubt, ask male friends or family members to read your work and allow them to give honest feedback. (My brother is one of my beta readers, and he tells the unvarnished truth.)

By considering your characters’ differences, you’ll make them more believable. You’ll know their goals or their logic, which will in turn lead to interesting tension, conflict, unexpected story events. Characters will start surprising you. As a result, your writing will improve, and your readers will thank you.

Respect Your Audience

Go to any writers conference or seminar, and you’ll likely hear someone rhapsodize or rant about the relationship between an author and his editor: it’s a team, a marriage, a buddy film; it’s tug-of-war, dysfunctional, hell.

Once upon a time, I was part of the head-in-the-clouds, creative masses who float along on a fog of self-important naivete, thinking their words are sacred and immutable. Editing would somehow besmirch the purity of imagination and kill the muse.

So what if a writer had difficulty spelling, remembering the rules of grammar, or constructing cohesive paragraphs? As long as he could tell a compelling story, what was the problem? A good editor could fix all the small stuff.

But then, after resisting advice — those other writers just didn’t “get” me or my work, or those editors were trying to make over my manuscripts into soulless wastes of paper — I lost a series of contests, experienced unexpected rejections.

And then, as a reader, I was assaulted with a succession of poorly-proofed or poorly-edited novels — the literary version of a 2×4 upside the head — and I realized the value of craft over “pure creativity”.

In other words, I entered the real world.

Many books with stellar jacket copy don’t deliver the goods. I’ve been sucked into the vortex too many times to buy a volume without first reading several pages. After many years as an editor, any residual trust is gone. Used to be, if a book was published, the reader could expect that the text be error-free, at least, even if the plot was full of holes. Now, with the many desktop publishing programs available, and myriad electronic and self-published books flooding the market, the amount of error-filled and poorly-written material has greatly increased. (To find well-reviewed, recently self-published books, read this list.)

I’m not saying that traditional big-city publishing houses are the answer for writers seeking an outlet for their work. Independent presses and self-publishing are both excellent for authors desiring a measure of autonomy. Many classic or famous works of literature were self-published. (In your childhood, did you enjoy the Peter Rabbit stories by Beatrix Potter? The yarns of Mark Twain or adventure tales of Rudyard Kipling?)

I am saying that, in addition to telling great stories, writers need to study their craft and polish their editing skills. And, if editing is not a strength, hire an independent editor. Please. Hire an editor.

Or, if your manuscript is under contract with a publisher, don’t fight the editor assigned to you. Yes, there are times when a writer must defend his work against those who would mangle and deform it, but those instances are rare. Most editors want your work to succeed. Consider what they say. Look at your work objectively. Realize that the manuscript is malleable. It can be changed, often for the better.

Realize, too, that significant re-writing is in store. An editor may request additional scenes, additional research, stronger passages. However, the effort and polish conducted on the front end of the publishing process will not only yield better sales but a better reputation for you, the author.

Note from an avid reader (my mother) who would like writers to know the following:

I’m amazed by the number of college graduates and twenty-somethings that still don’t understand common language. Someone recently asked me what agony meant, and someone else didn’t recognize iniquity. As writers, know your verbiage and know your audience.

Don’t dumb it down to where we’ll say, “Duh! Of course! Anyone with common sense would know that!” or use such specific jargon that only those in high academia would know what you’re talking about. Just use everyday language, if that’s what the material warrants.

There is one author I will never read because she demeans her characters and thereby demeans her audience. Respect your characters. Another author I won’t read inserts page after page of inconsequential garbage — characters’ soliloquies — that does not move the story along. I would not read them, nor recommend them to others.

Word of mouth is still the best marketing tool there is. Respect your readers by producing quality work, and you’ll never lack an audience.

Taking Issue: A Lesser Writer?

The following quote is from today’s issue of Shelf Awareness, a daily e-digest regarding all things book:

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid: A Novel by Shani Boianjiu (Hogarth, $24, 9780307955951). “An utterly explosive debut, this novel in stories follows three young women who serve in the Israeli army, and it is not for the faint of heart. Boianjiu is not interested in preaching politics or rehashing battle scenes as a lesser writer might; she sticks to her characters, tracing their often uncertain progress toward adulthood. There are no pat endings here. The army, compulsory to Israeli citizens, is not, after all, some summer camp. No matter how you feel about the conflicts that Boianjiu describes, you will be riveted by her fresh perspective on them.” –Danielle DuBois Diamond, Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex.

What struck me, aside from the intriguing summary of the book, was the reviewer’s statement about “a lesser writer”.

It happens all the time: Given the same set of words in the same language, people often say — and mean — very different things. What the reviewer intended by “a lesser writer” might not be what I interpreted when I read it. However, I cannot read the reviewer’s intentions, only my reception of those words.

Here’s what they say to me: If one writes battle scenes or promotes an agenda, one is not a good writer.

I am all for leaving agendas at home and telling good stories instead. That’s not what we get, however, because we writers are human, and what we think, feel, believe bleeds into our work. That’s true of everyone, not just writers. Our actions speak what our mouths may not.

One writer might present his agenda in clumsy, heavy-handed verbiage, while another might be more subtle about it, but the “preaching politics” happens all the time, and much as I might disagree with much of those views, I have to give credit to good writing where I find it. Sometimes, that writing belongs to someone whose politics are entangled in a story I find intriguing. A lesser writer with opposing views will not keep me interested in his story, but a good writer may.

As for the other charge — that of writing battle scenes — I must vehemently disagree. Hand-to-hand combat, a sprawling battle , every kind of fight, is a challenge to write well. The author must keep the reader’s interest, must keep the scenes real, and yet not let the action become too play-by-play so that the reader’s eyes glaze over and his mind numbs. Excellent writing is required.

So, I am left to interpret the reviewer’s words as her personal preference. She simply does not wish to read about battles and politics. A preference, however, is not a fact. Therefore, her “lesser writers” may in fact have great skill, and tell fascinating stories. They should continue to do so.

What’s My Motivation?

When I was a young writer — and I do mean young, as in elementary school and junior high — I had a difficult time understanding the advice from teachers and other writers that my stories needed more conflict in order to be interesting, and that my characters needed logical reasons for doing and saying what they did. They had to be real, not just dolls I arranged as I wished.

The difficult advice did soak in — finally. It took my reading a particular novel filled with serviceable but not artful writing, with an interesting premise that soon became flat, and peopled by characters the author pushed and prodded into roles that were awkward and not in keeping with who they were. There was a romance thread, for instance, that was painful to read, it was so forced and emotionally void.

I remember expressing my annoyance to my mother, who had read the book, too. We debated whether or not to read any more in the series, in hopes that the writer improved her craft between one book and the next, but decided we had better things to do and better books to read.

Decades later, I’m still learning how to write real emotion and believable characters. In addition to reading excellent work and striving to write it, I’ve learned much from editing the work of others. Sometimes, more than hearing or reading advice, we need to see it.

The aforementioned novel was in the forefront of my thoughts recently when I completed the second round of edits on a manuscript under contract for publication. The author can put together sentences and paragraphs, but her work suffers from the same ailments as that long-ago novel: illogical actions, skin-deep emotions, and redundant dialogue. I sent it back again with more notes, more challenges, hoping to pull excellence from a writer who has yet to break free of preconceived notions and let her characters act naturally, rather than pressing them into a tired, shallow mold.

A few years ago, I might have been kinder, gentler, in the editing. I didn’t feel I had the right or the knowledge to critique someone else’s art, especially that of an elder. Then one of those elders reminded me that we writers tend to elevate what we do to some level of squishy mysticism when it is, in reality, a craft. It must be practiced, honed, improved.

Not only did that statement help me to see my own work in a more pragmatic light, it helped me toughen mentally, and learn how to be straight-up with clients. My motivation changed from protecting myself to challenging fellow writers, from being merely a cheerleader to becoming a coach.

So, what’s my motivation?

As an editor, it’s helping fellow writers.

As a reader, it’s education or entertainment (and it’s great when they come in the same volume).

As a writer, it’s to — I hope — create stories that I can share with others. (It helps if I like to read my stories, too!)

If I motivate my characters, and allow them to act in keeping with their personalities, jobs, challenges, dreams, goals, abilities, obsessions, friendships, enmities, et cetera, my stories will come alive, and will be less likely to disappoint my readers.

Trust in the Editing Process

The time to begin an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say. ~ Mark Twain

Editing can be one of the most creative times in the writing process. It’s then that I solidify the story, learn what it’s about, see patterns and themes, become truly acquainted with the characters. Editing is exciting.

Editing for others, though? Let’s be honest. Without trust and a good manuscript, editing can be an exercise in frustration.

Recently, I sent some edits back to another editor to pass along to the author, and encountered distrust — not from the author herself, but from her liaison (which is why it’s best to establish a direct relationship between editor and author).

He warned me that she is young, and that this is her first novel. Whenever someone mentions the author’s age or inexperience, they’re telling me to soft-peddle the feedback, keep the editing more “Rah-rah, you’re great!” and less “This doesn’t work, and must be fixed.”

I taught writing to children of all ages for fourteen years, and the young writers often won poetry and essay contests. They learned how to tell stories and construct research papers. Their schoolwork improved. If honesty mixed with encouragement works for 6-18 year olds, it’ll work for a rookie author. (Hey, it works for me, too!)

The same liaison added that this young writer already has endorsements from bestselling authors, and is being mentored by another. That’s fantastic, but why do I — the manuscript editor — need to know that? Do her endorsements and mentor change the words on the page?

Something I learned as a slush reader for magazines: I don’t need to know an author’s credentials, resume of published works, movie rights sold, guild memberships, list of endorsements. None of that is important when their words are in front of me. It’s my job to read those words and determine whether or not the work is a fit for the magazine, not be influenced by the author’s appearance of prestige. That’s irrelevant to the story.

The same applies to editing.

To be honest, it is nettlesome that anyone feels the need to reveal those credentials, because doing so comes across as an attempt to temper my work, to adjust what and how I edit, in order to accommodate the author’s ego. In other words, I am to flatter rather than correct.

I’m not interested in lashing anyone’s ego. After all, I need encouragement as much as any writer does. However, being cautioned about a writer’s age, being given a writer’s credentials — this implies distrust of me as a person, a writer, and an editor.

This discourages me more than encountering a cliche-riddled fiction manuscript nowhere near publish-ready.

It’s not my job to just pat writers on the back. It’s my job to challenge them to be better writers.

Below is a Facebook exchange I had with Johne Cook, a friend and fellow writer:

EE: I’m weary of the notion that editors are mean, uncreative types who exist to trouble writers and steal the soul from their work.

JC: As a guy, I am more interested in facts, the truth. Yes, I prefer constructive criticism – nobody likes a bruised ego – but I’d rather hear the hard truth than a gentle untruth.

EE: That’s the thing: I don’t want my ego battered around, either, nor do I intend to abuse others. It’s as if writers think the truth is anathema to self-esteem. I see it differently: Someone thinks enough of me to tell me the truth. By doing so, they imply I am strong enough to handle it, intelligent enough to assimilate it, and talented enough to pursue better work.

JC: Exactly. Truth without love is brutality. Love without truth is a lie.

Enough said.

A Response to Three Common Christian Arguments Against Using Foul Language in Fiction

Today’s post is the result of a question asked of me last week when I gave an abbreviated presentation on editing. The group I addressed was composed of Christian writers, some of whom are striding into edgier territory than is comfortable to many of the traditional Christian publishers.

This question probably would not have been asked, or even considered worthwhile, had I spoken to a group of writers of no particular faith, but it did stretch me to present a cogent response, and is worth discussion, especially since it brings up the notion that every word we write must have a purpose:

In writing the conflict between good and evil—what words are acceptable? Damn, hell—how graphic can a Christian writer be?

My immediate response: as graphic as your conscience allows and the story requires.

My modified response: what is allowed depends on your publisher.

But what about a Biblical response? I’m so glad you asked.

A) What about offending a “weaker brother”?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Romans 14:1-3

“Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them.” (NLT

“Receive him that is weak in faith, but not for passing judgment. For one believes that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eats herbs. Let not him that eats despise him that eats not; and let not him who eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him.” (KJ2000)

Although we need to be mindful of others, don’t let the possibility of offending someone keep you from telling the truth. Don’t let weaker readers weaken a strong story.

Evil exists. Bad things happen—even to good people.

Consider the oppressed, tragic lives of many persecuted believers around the world. Try telling them a squeaky-clean, neatly-packaged, everyone-is-saved-and-happy-at-the-end kind of story.

That may be our ideal, but is it reality?

Use discernment.
Is evil glorified in the story?
Is it present in order to reveal truth?
Prove a point?
Provide a comparison between darkness and light?

There can be, and often are, redemptive elements in harsh stories. Context is everything. Consider your audience, and your reason for including the foul language, the violence, etc.

And remember: Everyone has to grow up sometime. One cannot always cater to the weaker believers, else they’ll never have a reason to “man up” and grow stronger. Disciple them. Show them how to be strong.

B) What about the admonition to avoid unclean speech?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Colossians 3:6-9

“Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming. You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world. But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds.” (NLT)

“For which things’ sake the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience: In which you also once walked, when you lived in them. But now you also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy talk out of your mouth. Lie not to one another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his deeds.” (KJ2000)

Not all unclean speech consists of four-letter words.

There’s gossip, slander, blasphemy, lies, name-calling, belittling, boasting, abusive speech, anything that’s meant to tear someone down. An insidious form of foul speech is the backhanded compliment, or the well-spoken but ill-meant piece of advice.

Again, context: It’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it. And how you mean it.

Do characters lie or gossip or use sarcasm in a story? Do children on a playground call names? Or is everyone in your story a perfect specimen of civility?

Remember: A major storytelling necessity is character arc, the term for the changes a character undergoes during the course of the story. The main character may begin as a foul-mouthed, brawling drunkard. By the end, however, he may have cleaned up his speech, overcome alcohol, and be working on his temper. That character’s arc/change is essential to the story.

As stated earlier, we don’t have to glorify the evil—in this case, the foul language—but we do need to tell the truth. It’s an unfortunate fact that we humans have difficulty controlling our tongues (James 3:8). If the characters in our stories act like saints in all things, they lose believability, and we lose credibility with our readers.

C) And, finally, ahem, what about avoiding unclean thoughts?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Philippians 4:8

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (NLT)

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (KJ2000)

You may not dwell in evil thoughts, but there are people who do, and therefore there are characters who do.

Those thoughts can range from wishing someone would die to actually planning a murder; from thinking oneself superior to actively working to keep others down; from thinking someone other than one’s spouse is attractive to lusting after that person; from harboring anger to plotting revenge; and so on.

Realism and character arc require room for characters to begin in a place of weakness, trouble, misguidedness, even outright evil, and then progress toward strength, peace, wisdom, goodness.

(Not all change is improvement, by the way. Some characters regress, or begin from a place of goodness or strength, and end in weakness or villainy.)

“Holier than thou” syndrome is a turn-off to believers and non-believers alike. If a non-believer reads the work, will they be offended at the presence of God in the story, or at the too-perfect falseness of the characters (Christian or otherwise)? If they’re offended by God, then tough luck. They’ll just have to remain offended. However, if the author hasn’t done his job as a storyteller, and created believable, flawed characters, then he needs to rewrite them.

Just as we living, breathing humans have shortcomings, so too should our storybook humans. Lives transform as they turn from darkness to light, and therein lies powerful storytelling. The light would not be so bright without the darkness in which it shines. A happy ending is not quite so powerful without all the struggle that came before it.

Something to consider: Perhaps the story doesn’t belong with a traditional Christian publishing house, or with a Christian publisher at all. Perhaps the work requires a secular publisher—and there are many Christians who do publish in secular rather than religious venues, simply because their work is not in keeping with the expectations of a Christian publisher or of a Christian audience.

Is the intended audience the Church, with readers who want their beliefs affirmed and don’t necessarily want to be confronted with certain words or ideas? Or is it the world at large, everyone who wants to be given hope or shown a different way?

Final thoughts

A friend read this on Facebook Monday afternoon; it was posted by E. Stephen Burnett (whose excellent post on spiritual villains can be read at Speculative Faith), who was quoting another writer:

From fantasy author Kat Heckenbach: “I was thinking about the continuing war among Christian writers. The whole, ‘Christian fiction needs to be this,’ vs. ‘No, Christian fiction needs to be this,’ war. Clean vs. gritty. Righteous vs. real. Hide in the light vs. plunge into the dark. What I think is being missed in this whole situation is this: When we say Christian fiction needs to be of a certain type, we are really saying Christians need to be of a certain type. […] God is able to meet all of those needs, and fortunately He is willing to stoop to our levels to meet them. He stoops.” So should stories.

Update (12/1/14): Another good article about foul language in Christian fiction can be found at Randy Streu’s blog, An Unfinished Life.

Update (1/20/15): An excellent piece discussing how one actually takes the Lord’s name in vain, and how profanity has nothing to do with it, can be read at Mike Duran’s blog, Decompose — “On Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain“.