Tag Archives: Inspiration

Freeing Truth

On social media, a fellow writer and fellow Christian posted regarding the weird zone a pastor must walk between complete honesty and diplomatic reticence, lest his congregants be offended by truth and kick him out, and how the same weirdness exists in the Christian publishing industry: Can’t offend the readers, so let’s publish this not-quite-truthful fiction because it’s “clean” and it’ll keep us in business.

Below is a comment I almost posted in response:

The lack of complete honesty is one reason I stopped working for a Christian publisher: I quickly learned editors were expected to praise, not to correct. After all, praise was encouraging, but correction was negative and mean. It was okay to fix commas, but not to suggest deep revisions. It was okay to talk to a young writer about his/her first novel, but it wasn’t okay to tell them they need to do much more research about characters / history / health matters with folks who were experts in their fields.

I started holding back and doing the diplomatic thing. After all, maybe I was too intense. Maybe I was too demanding. And, after a time of introspection and second-guessing, I admitted there were a couple of instances when I coulda said something a bit more diplomatically, but I also admitted that I had never not told the truth.

“Encouragement” and “praise” aren’t synonymous.

Encouragement, as seen from the word’s construction, means “to put courage into” someone, and (according to Merriam-Webster Online) “to make (someone) more likely to do something” or “to tell or advise (someone) to do something.” (Sounds like editing, to me.) Praise means “to express approval” — and in today’s language that also means accepting without question or revision the thing or the person being praised.

An editor can praise a writer’s creativity without accepting that the manuscript is publish-ready. Praise for storytelling does not equal acceptance of clunky dialogue or run-on descriptive passages.

All writers need to be willing to receive feedback that isn’t blanket approval. Otherwise, they may never see weaknesses in their writing or their stories. They may never understand what works already or what needs improvement. They may never understand why their books aren’t selling.

In other words, unless they are willing to learn, they will never grow in their craft.

There’s another reason writers need completely honest feedback. If they only receive praise but  never encounter negative responses, they will never look at their own work critically and contend for it.

What does that mean?

If a writer must provide a reason for a line of dialogue, for a plot element, for a character, for a descriptive passage, he begins to think deeply about how the story fits together, about what’s necessary and what needs to be pruned. He begins to think like an editor.

That perspective, coupled with the fact that the author is the creator of the story, has great power in determining the quality of the final product.

Tell the truth. Receive the truth. The truth will set you free.

Faith in Dracula: a Horror Devotional

faith necklace butterfly
Photo courtesy of Bohemian for Life

What does Bram Stoker’s Dracula have to do with faith?

There’s plenty of gore in Dracula, but the novel reads oddly like a collection of love letters, ship’s logs, recipes using paprika and just plain crazy journal entries. Every time I delve into its pages I feel disappointed that the first scary scene doesn’t appear for several pages. Unless you count “the dead travel fast”. But that’s really not too scary when compared to Dracula crawling upside-down along the castle facade. That’s the stuff of nightmares.

On several readings of-I’ll be honest-this favorite book of mine, I discovered some things I hadn’t before.

Dracula is a book on faith.

Faith in the face of incredibly daunting odds! From the second Jonathan Harker begins to realize that he is facing a supernaturally powerful enemy who will invade even his marriage to get power over him–Dracula becomes a fight of faith versus fear.

What is a vampire? Something that in modern times they say we can love, and if we believe the fictional hype, even wish to be like.

But the vampire is certainly the symbol of many trials that can invade our lives and cling- and suck the life from us. Anything that draws our strength, threatens to absorb us and make us what it is, that thing can be the vampire. Attractive at first, we will soon see it turn on us.

Jonathan does his best to have faith. Mina has faith. But it is really the strange Van Helsing that helps them most of all.

He knows Dracula, and the evil that is there. Van Helsing has faith to believe not only in the monster, not dismissing its impossibility(seeing the problem)-but also in God who is stronger than the monster(seeing the answer). Van Helsing even refers to Dracula’s brain as a “child-brain”(evil is not as complicated as we think). He courageously steps in to help the horror-haunted couple and their friends.

“Thus are we ministers of God’s own wish: that the world, and men for whom His Son die, will not be given over to monsters, whose very existence would defame Him. He have allowed us to redeem one soul already, and we go out as the old knights of the Cross to redeem more. Like them we shall travel towards the sunrise; and like them, if we fall, we fall in good cause.” Abraham Van Helsing, Dracula

And in the end, Dracula is defeated by a race into the sunrise, a race that faith wins.

Dracula’s Van Helsing urges our faith to take action against our problems. He won’t let Jonathan and his friends just leave the Count alone. No, the vampire must be stopped.

And he won’t be stopped by our thoughts alone. We must take action to get the problem out of our lives. Act on our inward beliefs.

“Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” James 2:14, NKJV

 

 

 

 

Other Worlds: What One Reader Wants in Fantasy Novels

NOTE: In the post below, dated originally in September 2015, a Penworthy member writers about what he/she looks for when reading a fantasy tale. Although this was written last year, it has languished in the “drafts” folder so long that we don’t recall which of us wrote it. 🙂 Therefore, Elizabeth has edited it lightly and added paragraphing, and we hope you enjoy what you read.

A group I’m in has issued a prompt for readers to tell what they’re looking for in fantasy stories. The following three criteria are the main ones by which I judge all the stories I read, regardless of genre. (Readers be advised, this is a long post.)

3) Setting: there are two aspects to this. I care about not only how the setting is built, but also how it feels.

The time and place — the universe, if you will — in which the story is set is not required to obey the real-world laws of science, but it must remain consistent with itself. The rules by which the universe operates must be clearly laid out and then obeyed. Rule-bending and seeming contradictions must be rationally explained.

The world as a place should also give me a feeling that it’s many times bigger than whatever portions we see in the story, just as the real world is so much bigger than the portion any one person can see, visit, or otherwise experience in a single journey or lifetime. Even if the story is set in a place that’s completely “unrealistic”, I want it to feel real enough that I could plan a vacation there (or a detailed escape plan, as the case may be).

2) Storytelling: However the story is told — first, third, or even second-person, past or present tense, fantasy or sci-fi or mystery or any other genre — it must flow smoothly. As with above, there are two sides to this aspect: the mechanical construction and the semi-nebulous “story-feel”.

In regard to mechanics, choppiness and unusual constructions only work if properly and consciously manipulated. Prose is as much an art as poetry, and should be crafted as carefully. Stories should be written in a way that strikes the ear pleasantly when spoken aloud, since a reader hears the story recited in his own voice even if he does not read it aloud. The sound and cadence of a story don’t spring to the forefront of my attention on a casual read-through, but after I’ve finished reading, when I’m trying to analyze why I like or dislike a story, the flow of the words and the flow of the action almost always factor in. The sound of the words affects the image that forms in my mind. The right sound, the right flow, the right imagery: these things can cause the words on the page to fade away, so that what I see is not the words on the page, but the story itself playing out like a movie in my mind.

Concerning feel, the main thing is balance. Action and calm, lightness and seriousness: these should be woven together smoothly and in proper proportion to the type of story. Characters the readers are supposed to take an interest in should all be given enough page time to properly develop, and should all have equal (but distinct) roles in and influences on the outcomes of events. However neatly-constructed the setting, and however beautiful the prose (and however engaging the characters, see Reason 1 below), a story will not be worth a re-read unless it’s actually a good story.

I have no problem with tropes such as the coming-of-age journey, the dashing knight rescuing the fair maiden, or the Chosen One versus the Evil King; however, I’m also drawn to fresh and unusual concepts. But whatever the basic idea, the story must be told in an interesting way. Every scene has to matter, and every situation should be approached in a creative fashion. Even when using tropes, originality is a must, and subverting the expected is especially desirable.

1) Soul: The most important point on my informal mental checklist, the thing that draws me in to a story and keeps me reading, is the people. I want to see characters to whom I can relate. This is one of the most-repeated pieces of writing advice, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Strong characters are the heart and soul of a good story. I can’t love a protagonist unless I can get inside his head, understand what he wants and why, and sympathize with his struggles. Likewise, the villains I love to hate are those whom I understand. Show me what drives a person, and I’ll care about what happens to him.

All of the above is achieved only when an author gives his character a “soul”.  A character must be put together like a real person, with real needs and desires, and flaws that are believably balanced with his good traits. The best character development is accomplished when a person is revealed to the reader slowly: At first, we see just enough to make us interested in the person, but details and histories are revealed slowly, tentatively, much as a real person gradually opens up to a new friend.

When characters are realistic, I cannot help but care about their futures.

When I care, I want to know what happens in the whole story.

Then, even if I never read the book again, even if I forget the title and the author and the characters’ names, a good story will stick with me in the form of people — friends, of a sort — whom I remember for years after.

In summary, here’s a short version of my list, in order.
1) Characters matter the most.
2) Style matters a lot too.
3) World-building also matters.

On a side note, this is the first time I’ve ever put these ideas into words. Funny, how long it can take to put one’s thoughts into shareable form. 🙂

Laughing at the Moon

Introducing the latest offering from the Penworthy Press collective!

FREE-Laughing at the Moon

poetry anthology cover^salt flats and moon

Click on either image to purchase a copy — available in Kindle and paperback formats.

Note to other Penworthy Press members:
C’mon, writers! Let’s aim for a book apiece this year!

A Reading Wonderland

Some of my most calming, curiosity-piquing, wonder-filled memories are of libraries and bookstores. Even the smallest or dimmest or least organized are magical places, perhaps made more so by their imperfections and the sense of exploring a cavern of delights.

Years ago, I used to spend my lunch breaks at The Snooper’s Barn on Towson Avenue in Fort Smith, Arkansas, poking through the dusty stackes in the back where history books and old volumes — some antique — were shelved higgledy-piggledy, sometimes in precarious Jenga-like towers.

I recently introduced my eldest niece to an excellent independent bookstore in Oklahoma City. When we entered Full Circle Books — serving readers for more than three decades — we stepped not through the looking glass, nor through a wardrobe, but through a modern glass and metal door, yet the magic still welcomed us.

entryway, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
entryway, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
fireplace and sitting area, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
fireplace and sitting area, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
an old friend, c2015, KB
an old friend, c2015, KB

She fell in love with the rambling space filled with hidden rooms and cozy nooks, and the old-fashioned ladders that travel back and forth on metal tracks in need of oiling.

The children’s rooms are well-stocked with old friends and new, including a French copy of Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish — my niece’s first excuse to climb a ladder, but I don’t think she really needed a reason. 😉

children's reading room, Full Circle Books (c2015, KB)
children’s reading room, Full Circle Books (c2015, KB)
IMG_2986^cropped
the red ladder (c2015, KB)
IMG_2989^vignette brown
by the light of Winnie the Pooh (c2015, KB)
IMG_2994^cropped
French Seuss (c2015, KB)
IMG_2999^light
I love Sandra Boynton books. (c2015, KB)
IMG_3000^light
another old friend (c2015, KB)
IMG_3006^vignette pale
familiar author names (c2015, KB)
IMG_3003^HDR soft
funky covers (c2015, KB)

Same spaces have the atmosphere of a comfortable corner of someone’s home, and every doorway welcomes.

a comfortable study (c2015, KB)
a comfortable study (c2015, KB)
c2015, KB
c2015, KB
IMG_3008^HDR soft
c2015, KB
IMG_3028^cropped
a cheery welcome at one of the several doorways (c2015, KB)

I came around the corner and encountered mysteries. There’s a metaphor there, I’m sure.

IMG_3014^saturated
c2015, KB

My niece later found another reason to climb a ladder — various collections of Edgar Allen Poe, to which she coined a pun: “If one is perusing the works of Edgar Allen, one could be said to be reading Poe-etry.”

We are a silly lot.

Jamie reading Poe (c2015, KB)
Jamie reading Poe (c2015, KB)

On the mantel of one of the fireplaces stands this whimsical fellow:

c2015, KB
c2015, KB

If you ever visit Oklahoma City, try to carve out time to visit Full Circle Books, especially if you’re an independent author. The staff are friendly and professional, and the store supports indie and local authors, and the variety of books is vast.

front desk and beyond (c2015, KB)
front desk and beyond (c2015, KB)

 

reposted from Adventures In Fiction

I Lay Me Down

I forgot the deadline, so missed a chance to enter the Writers’ Police Academy Golden Donut Short Story Contest this year. Entrants were supposed to use the image below as a focal point for their story, and the winner will receive free registration at a 2016 WPA event.

image courtesy of the Writers' Police Academy
image courtesy of the Writers’ Police Academy

Here’s my would-be entry, exactly 200 words (title included), but sans any critical feedback, so maybe it’s a good thing I mistook the date:

I Lay Me Down

Two by two.

I almost expect to hear Dad holler at me for handing him the wrong lumber: “Two-by-four! We’re buildin’ a house, not a table.”

He was murdered last year. Suspect’s alibi was hinky, but witnesses were sketchy and the jury couldn’t agree.

Two by two is how graves are laid out in the Bellingham family plot. The newer portion is marked by clusters of four stones each, as if pairs of family members pushed their beds together, headboard to headboard, for an eternal sleepover. In the older acreage, graves are tombs capped with stone carvings, as if the Bellingham ancestors aspired to interment at Westminster Abbey.

A new grave has been dug among the elders, and its coffin-length cap lies waiting outside the rope barrier. I toss the shovel onto the grass then hop out of the shallow hole awaiting the concrete casement that will hold the remains of Miss Clarise, aged 103. I beat dirt from my clothes and breathe an apology for the indignity of placing below her an unwelcome gravefellow.

I return the shovel to the shed, and study a knoll above the cemetery.

A good place for a picnic table.

c2015, EEaster

It’s been a long while since I wrote flash fiction, and this piece may not win any contests, but it’s a good exercise in loosening up a long-unused creative muscle.

 

Confession

Most people who know me also know I am a writer.

They’d have to be oblivious not to know. It’s an almost constant ingredient in my conversation. (Yes, I am that boring.) I love writing. It’s “the hardest work I’ll ever love”, and I dare say this love of words and stories is a calling.

It has given me work and has enabled me to help and encourage other writers, whether they be students writing only to finish assignments or aspiring writers seeking to be published. It has frustrated me, too, and the arduous process has taught me to let go of perfectionism and to persevere.

Perfectionism is rooted in fear and pride, and it prevents progress. It is one reason I chose a pseudonym: If people didn’t like my writing, I could hide behind another name.

However, there were other equal or greater reasons for choosing a pen name many years ago:
1) minor stalking from a few creepy guys when I was younger and better looking (alas, alack, time has taken its toll);
2) identity theft (a close family member was impinged upon by someone with a criminal history who married into the family, and then my information became linked to that person);
3) my real name doesn’t fit well with the types of stories I tell (“Elizabeth Easter” sounds like a romance writer, and while there are sometimes love stories in my work, I mostly write fantasy and science fiction); and
3) a desire to keep my editing work separate from my writing, and some writers — offended by the editing of their manuscripts — have called into question my abilities. I didn’t praise them as they wished, I made suggestions they viewed as insults, or perhaps I told them large portions would have to be rewritten. Therefore, rather than examine their own work, they attacked mine.

It is this behavior, among others, that led me to resigning from a publishing house and to shuttering the freelance editing business. Online creepers and offended authors weighed my spirit, and outweighed the many times writers had been encouraged and grateful for my help. I needed to step back and gain a clearer perspective.

An aside: If we live our lives offended, and if we make decisions out of that offense or we expect other people to tiptoe around us lest they offend, we are shackling not only ourselves but everyone else.

I have been edited by too-lenient teachers and by snarky, overbearing fellow writers. Good editing is a delicate balance: telling the absolute truth while still being kind and encouraging. As an editor, I strive for that balance, but have not always succeeded. As a writer, I also struggle to receive less-than-kind feedback and apply it objectively.

Another struggle: Should I reveal my true identity?

Another reason for choosing a pseudonym — and a masculine one, at that — was to practice writing male characters. Despite the push of political correctness, science confirms that men and women think differently. No secret there. However, after much experience editing romance novels, I became weary of the heroes mirroring the heroines: men who spoke, emoted, and behaved like women.

Also, a male reader’s feedback on an early, rough, uncompleted draft of my novel revealed that my male characters spoke and thought too much like the female characters. The feedback was not delivered with any thought to my feelings, but it was honest, and I respected that.

I needed practice. I chose a masculine pen name, started a blog, wrote a short story and a science fiction serial, and joined social media. Although I am a heterosexual woman, I found it comfortable, easy, and freeing to write as a man. As him, I could say things that Elizabeth couldn’t, and I was heard. The people with whom I engaged in conversation online where mostly men, and we could express ourselves without the clutter of delicate emotions. There was respect and honesty that wasn’t commonly present in conversations with fellow female writers. And, until I revealed the truth to a select few, people seemed to accept without question that “Keanan Brand” was a man.

The advertising, spam, and inappropriate invitations have accentuated that notion. There are spam-bots and actual women who have sent indecent proposals. Oy vey.

Yet another reason for choosing a pseudonym: to test my storytelling abilities without the impediment of my soft-sounding real name. The results have been mixed. Female readers have not liked the battle scenes, the violence, and the lack of erotic scenes, while the guys have wanted even more action and less poetry. However, some men have responded well to the emotional elements — not only the love stories, but also the scene where one character contemplates suicide, and there are strong friendships and family bonds — and some women have said they liked the action and thought the story was suspenseful. They did not seem influenced by the author name, but male readers seemed more inclined to my story when it came appended with a masculine pen name.

The truth will out.

There have been times when Elizabeth crept to the forefront of Keanan’s posts, and a couple times Elizabeth signed Keanan’s e-mail.

Writers whom I respect and like, and what started as a casual crossing of paths online have, in many cases, turned into friendships. Those friends deserve the truth — though I will understand if they do not remain friends after having been deceived by my online persona.

Regardless of the consequences, the time has come to confess the truth. Keanan Brand is really a woman, and Elizabeth Easter wrote this book:

new cover^for Smashwords