Tag Archives: Books

Musings: A Story Needs Trouble

Friday, I took a walk, a reward to myself for completing a freelance project, and a chance to be away from the computer and revel in the sunlight. (Aaaaaah! My eyes! My eyes!) When I returned home, however, I didn’t want to return to work. If there is an autumn equivalent of spring fever, I have it.

There’s not much story there, other than the old one: brain takes a walk while the body struggles to complete tasks by itself. Not very literary, eh?

How ’bout this: Little kids know a good story when they meet one.

A few days ago, four-year-old Sunny ran through the house, narrating as she went: “…and then there’s a tree…Oh, no! Watch out!…but Sky swoops in…”

She complicated her play by introducing obstacles and problems, but also enabled her pretend self and other characters to overcome those blocks by imbuing herself and her imaginary friends with creative skills or tools to deal with whatever occurred.

Last night, while re-watching a Korean television series that a friend had not yet seen, I saw specific points where — if the characters had been wiser, had been less ruled by fear or grief or anger or greed, had been quicker or stronger or less driven, the story would have ended much sooner than it does.

I was frustrated by the ugly motives that led to unnecessary tragedy, but acknowledged that — without them — the rest of the story would not only lose its power but its purpose. An intriguing, funny, poignant, suspenseful series would not exist.

To borrow from another post on this blog, stories are interesting because bad things happen.

Or, to borrow from the Chinese, “May you live in interesting times.” It’s a curse, not a blessing, the most interesting times being those with wars and natural disasters. Kinda the ancient Asian version of “Go to hell.”

I’m close to wrapping up edits on a client’s fictionalized autobiography…although I like this book, the ending is thin…

I headed downstairs this afternoon to fill my cup with fresh, hot tea, and that’s when I saw the problem: There’s a positive change in the lead character’s life, but there’s no transcendence.

Sure, the guy overcomes a crappy childhood, a weak and aimless youth, and a bout with addiction and alcoholism, and he’s definitely in a better place now, but–

What now?

And why did he finally decide that addiction was not the life for him?

Even in true-to-life stories, characters need a reason, a motive, and then action to back it up.

Otherwise, it’s not just the editor who’s falling asleep, but the audience is, too.

[borrowed from my post on Adventures in Fiction]

A horror story is playing out in the Middle East — not only there, but around the world — as adherents to a violent ideology behead, crucify, rape, torture, hang, beat, and exile anyone weaker or who doesn’t believe the same way or to the same extent as they. Similar atrocities have occurred throughout history, perpetrated by different groups in different places. Mankind conjures insane evil against itself and calls it good and justified.

And yet from this darkness arises life-changing, life-affirming stories.

One such is the recent travails of Miriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman accused of apostasy and adultery, and imprisoned in chains, because she married a Christian man, an American citizen. She even gave birth while in chains. She and her family were rescued and brought to the US in summer 2014.

Another such story can be read in The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, which recently became a banned book in some libraries. It details how the ten Boom family hid Jews from the Nazis, how Corrie endured and survived a concentration camp, and how faith sustained her.

Powerful stories will be born of the current horror, as well. Tales will be told of pointless tragedy and humbling self-sacrifice, crushing dominance and inexplicable mercy, breath-stealing loss and unexpected gifts. Violence so vile it can scarce be imagined, let alone described, and yet compassion so kind one cannot help but weep.

Stories need something to overcome, and they need a reason to overcome it.

A candle is lost in the sunlight, but shines like a star in the dark.

Fatal Enquiry, or How I Ditched Work to Be a Fan

A couple Wednesdays ago, the day seemed normal enough. I woke, messed about with e-mail and Facebook and the daily news, then settled down to the business of writing and research.

And then the mail came, and with the junk mail and coupons was a package. Inside that package was a book I’d pre-ordered in September last year. And forgotten.

I’ve been a huge fan of Will Thomas‘s Barker & Llewellyn series since reading Some Danger Involved. I picked up the paperback, riffled through the pages, read the back copy. A mystery set in Victorian London, with interesting characters and solid writing, something that looked like the work of a Holmes and Watson fan, but was it’s own thing? Yeah, sure, I’d give it try.

Glad I did. The detective–ahem, pardon me, the enquiry agent–is somewhat Holmesian, and yet Barker is vastly different. He wears tinted glasses at all times, is particular about his green tea, has a Pug for a pet, and frequents a sketchy underground eating establishment. The occupants of his household and those who operate on the fringes of society are equally intriguing and amusing.

Thomas lets the stories play out against the backdrop of actual historical events, weaving issues of the day into the plots, and letting real historical figures wander about the scenery and interact with the characters. While each book revolves around its own mystery, there’s also an overarching mystery involving Barker’s past. His fellow agent is young, likable, romantic Llewellyn, quickly learning the trade and getting into this fix or that. It is by him we are led through much of each story.

FatalEnquiry-front coverAbout that long-ordered-but-forgotten book? Fatal Enquiry, the latest in the series.

It arrived one day after the official publication date, and on the same day as the first book signing.

Two hours away.

A mere two hours away.

A favorite author, a brand new book–how could I not go?

But I was also low on cash, low on fuel, and had a writing deadline in view.

Eh. Deadline, schmedline.

The weather was beautiful, the traffic scarce, and as I am wont to do while traveling, I held my camera up to the windows and took random shots of buildings, card, clouds, whatever struck my fancy. Most of those photos didn’t turn out, of course, but some were better than expected. It’s a weird bent, perhaps, but it’s my way of recording a journey.

The directions were a bit wonky at the end, so rather than being a few minutes early for the signing, I arrived several minutes late. The talk was well underway. Argh. Still, I was able to listen to the bulk of it and learn interesting trivia, such as the fact that Thomas’s research into archaic fighting methods led to the compiling of a manual on the subject and to the creation of new martial arts clubs around the world. All because he asked a question for a novel. (Read more about the author here.)

Thomas read a selection from the new novel, then the actual signing began.

It was the most low-key yet intensely interesting book signing I’ve attended. Some have been rah-rah rallies, some have been an author sitting at a table. This one? Not only was the audience educated, fun was had by all.

If you have not discovered this mystery series, please do give it a try. Click on the book titles in the list to read excerpts of each:
Some Danger Involved
To Kingdom Come
The Limehouse Text
The Hellfire Conspiracy
The Black Hand
Fatal Enquiry

I have not yet been able to read my copy of Fatal Enquiry due to an unexpected change of schedule taking me out of state, but I hope to remedy that in the coming week or two. Meantime, below are a few shots I took while at the signing, which was held at Retro Den, a nifty shop specializing in all things yesteryear.

moderator and Will Thomas, Fatal Enquiry book signing at Retro Den (c2014, KB)
moderator and Will Thomas, Fatal Enquiry book signing at Retro Den (c2014, KB)
c2014, KB
A haphazard queue (c2014, KB)
Fancy some furniture? How 'bout an art piece or two? (c2014, KB)
Fancy some furniture? How ’bout an art piece or two? (c2014, KB)
c2014, KB
A fan waits patiently (c2014, KB)

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“.