Tag Archives: Novels

Novel v. Sermon

Last week, I posted this on Facebook:

If you’re a believer of XYZ faith, and you want to preach a sermon, find a pulpit and do so.

If you’re a writer of XYZ faith, tell a story.

Let your faith inform your story if you’d like, and let there be characters who practice that faith, but — please — don’t make folks of other beliefs into caricatures or idiots or villains simply because they believe differently.

And avoid proselytizing. Don’t lure readers with a promise of a good yarn, but then turn the tables on them and present a sermon instead.

They won’t praise you. They’ll distrust you.

There’s not much more to be said, I thought at the time, and that post sums up my thoughts.

Since then, however, this has been kicking around in the back of my mind, like a restless kid shuffling back and forth and playing kickball with rocks because his friends haven’t shown up yet on the playground.

I am a Christian. I am not ashamed of that, nor do I hide it.

Yet, due to other folks’ experience with people sporting the “Christian” label, I am sometimes hesitant to use the word:
1) Will they shut down and refuse to speak with me?
2) Will all their prejudices or poor encounters come rushing to the fore, creating a boundary that doesn’t need to exist?
3) Will they assume that anything and everything I write is a sermon? And do they expect me to start sermonizing right now?
4) What do they think a Christian is? An ignorant backwoods hick who believes in fairy tales? A self-righteous loudmouth? A corrupt individual who uses the gloss of religion to hide his misdeeds? A hypocrite? A prim prude who thinks she’s perfect?
5) Will everything I do or say be measured by their assumptions or misperceptions of what a Christian is, and therefore they will obstruct or impede my endeavors because they’re already predisposed to dislike or misjudge me?

But despite my hesitation — and all those questions zooming through my mind — I declared myself a Christian to a couple fellow writers who are of different mind, and their stories reflect those beliefs and questions, just as my stories reflect mine.

The conversation came about because one writer said she was considering modeling a shady and powerful organization after Christianity and/or the Catholic Church (I forget which precisely — the conversation occurred a few weeks ago). I asked her why, but she really wasn’t sure yet on some of her world-building. Knowing she is an atheist who has had poor experience with some bewilderingly clueless Christians, I cautioned her against turning a religion into a villain simply to jab at its adherents. After all, it’s not original, and it makes her story snarky, ugly-minded, and not the interesting, darkly funny, unusual urban fantasy that we’ve been reading in our writers meetings.

But, let’s be honest, we Christians do ourselves no favors when we puff ourselves up and expect everyone else to operate according to our (flawed) parameters. We do not reflect well on Christ when we flaunt our Bibles but misbehave in public. Or when we writers try to hook readers with the promise of an international spy thriller but we pull the ol’ switcheroo, story suddenly becomes sermon, and everyone is “saved” by the end of the book. Or when only the Christian characters are wise and good and noble. Or when the Christian characters can do no wrong and always make the right decisions.

Wow, are Christian characters often the least interesting ones. And, wow, are the other characters often cut-out caricatures — insulting, shallow versions of reality so we can play the puppet-master and make everything come out just the way we’d like it.

Oh, and God thinks like we do.

It’s the same thing that nonbelieving writers sometimes do: Make God in their own image — or their version of what they think He’s like — and then turn believers into bigoted, wishy-washy, whiny, or arrogant cartoons. *

Such storytelling serves no one but the readers who already agree with XYZ stance. If those readers are your intended audience, then your field is narrow, because it excludes the broader audience of eclectic readers who are willing to entertain good writing and excellent storytelling from various points of view.

I am such a one, and have read books written from worldviews far different from my own, simply because they were well-written stories that spoke to humanity and opened the door to perspectives I had not yet considered.

And yet, to be perfectly frank, I’m not interested in reading books that denigrate rather than entertain. Show people of faith in an honest, compassionate way, and even if they’re the bad guys or just average, flawed human beings, I’ll stick around. Show them as cartoons, as buffoons or criminals simply because of that faith and not because they made bad choices or need help or have other issues,  then I’ll bail. I don’t need to feed my mind and spirit on someone else’s bad attitude, ugly-minded agenda, or personal vendetta. **

Whether we realize it or admit it, whether we are theists or atheists, we write what we know — and what we believe. 

As a fellow writer and reader, I just ask that we consider how we present other points of view, and let’s not rely on just our experiences or our own agendas, but look past them to look through other eyes.

Research, ask questions, conduct interviews, ask why.

Listen. Contemplate.

And then, when we sit down to write, be honest, be compassionate, be real.

We just might find our own perspective has changed.

 

*  Sermons and agendas do not belong only to Christians or people of other faiths. There are political and religious themes in television shows, movies, and novels. For a specific example, I could link to various news stories and blog posts about James Cameron’s film, Avatar, which he admitted is propaganda. However, a Wikipedia article, Themes in Avatar, is a good one-stop source.

** Wesboro Baptist Church, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and others of their ilk use their religious beliefs as a cover, as an excuse to misbehave. That’s a conversation for another time.

Annotated Dracula (part 3)

(Below is a revised re-post from February 27, 2010, Adventures in Fiction.)

This is the final entry in my series on an annotated version of Dracula by Bram Stoker. (Read Part 1 or Part 2 for previous comments.)

‘My friends, we are going into a terrible danger, and we need arms of many kinds. Our enemy is not merely spiritual…A stronger man, or a body of men more strong in all than him, can at certain times hold him; but yet they cannot hurt him as we can be hurt by him. We must, therefore, guard ourselves from his touch. Keep this near your heart”—as he spoke he lifted a little silver crucifix… .     (emphasis mine)

“Our enemy is not merely spiritual.” Hmmm. Another strike against the argument that Dracula was just an ethereal emanation called into life by the characters’ fears or desires. But that was a point made in the previous post, so I shall move onward.

In Dracula, the characters learn that the soul of one who has been overtaken by the vampire becomes lost for eternity, therefore lending urgency to the quest to stop Dracula and to save Lucy—who, unfortunately, becomes one of the undead, and must therefore not only be staked but beheaded in order to save her soul. Then Mina becomes the vampire’s next victim, and the race ramps up.

From an e-mail to a friend, written shortly after reacquainting myself with the classic novel:

The whole “damned forever” idea bugs me. So does the notion that a person could become damned without having a choice in the matter, as happens to Lucy in Dracula, or that repeated prayers to God for salvation from such evil / damnation (as are also given in the novel) would not result in Him stepping into the situation and saving anyone who asked Him. After all, He’s not willing that any should perish, and He has provided a way of escape. Our bodies may die, but our souls need not be damned. However, though “the good guys” win in the end, God is not really in the picture as the ultimate good standing in aid of humanity against ultimate evil.

Why, then, does holy water work? Or a crucifix? Or a Communion wafer? In reality, there’s nothing inherently powerful in the objects themselves. They are metal or flour or liquid. Nothing much to fear there. So, the power must come from what or Whom they represent.

However, where’s the power in the objects if the Deity in Whose name they are employed does not answer the prayers of those who call on Him? After all, He lets Lucy be taken, right?

One may argue He doesn’t answer because He doesn’t exist; or, if He does, He’s not intimately involved with the lives of humans. Why, then, the vampires’ reactions to the items employed in the search-and-destroy mission? It’s as if Stoker wanted the story both ways: God was the ultimate good Whom the vampires couldn’t tolerate, and yet humans—frail and prone to failure already in this endeavor—are the ones whose efforts finally succeed.

In the time since writing the message quoted above, I have come to a slightly different conclusion about the story. God is the unacknowledged character throughout, and I am reminded of all the times in real life in which I wanted to be rescued—and there have been many times I have been, some of them miraculously and as a direct result of prayer—but constant rescue would make a person passive, make him think he is entitled, make her think she need not put forth any effort.

We know a new butterfly must struggle to leave its cocoon—the struggle strengthens its wings. Therefore, we can take courage from the realization that, although we may be rescued or helped at various times in our lives, it is the striving that makes us strong. And makes us that much more grateful when help is offered.

Although I still think the novel’s theology is “off” concerning the soul and salvation, I see the real-life parallels to vampires: activities that suck away our time, people that subvert our successes or leech away our energy, attitudes or behaviors that drain us of joy or ambition or strength.

Look around. Where’s the vampire in your life?

Annotated Dracula (part 1)

(Below is a revised re-post from Adventures in Fiction blog by Keanan Brand, January 27 and February 7, 2010.)

‘You are early to-night, my friend.’ The man stammered in reply: —
‘The English Herr was in a hurry,’ to which the stranger replied: —
‘That is why, I suppose, you wished him to go on to Bukovina. You cannot deceive me, my friend; I know too much, and my horses are swift.’ As he spoke he smiled, the lamplight fell on a hard-looking mouth, with very red lips and sharp-looking teeth, as white as ivory. One of my companions whispered to another the line from Burger’s ‘Lenore’: —
‘Denn die Todten reiten schnell.’ —
(‘For the dead travel fast.’)

I picked up a copy of Bram Stoker’s classic novel after I finished NaNoWriMo 2009 (during which I worked more on what’s probably my darkest effort to date), and re-acquainted myself with one of the foundational vampire tales. Dracula is far removed from the modern re-imaginings of the mythology — and, strange as this may seem, it was refreshing.

Anybody else tired of hearing about Bella and Edward and whoever else they hang with? Anybody else look with a canted eye at Buffy and Angel?

But the suckers — ahem — critters have populated frightening tales for centuries, and I don’t expect them to leave anytime soon.

On occasion, I participate in the CSFF Blog Tour, which has featured modern vampire novels: Shade by John Olson, and Haunt of Jackals by Eric Wilson. (My blog posts about each can be found here: Shade 1, 2, 3 and Jackals 1, 2, 3.) Both books are in series, and are different takes on the mythology. Shade presents more of a “psychic vampire” image without the traditional blood-letting, but Jackals is much more graphic and offers a twist on the ability of vampires to shape-shift.

I read those books, sampled some television series (those mentioned above, also Forever Knight and Moonlight), listened to teenagers — and even adults — rave about the Twilight books and films, and experienced the strange sensation of being lost, of being pressed under the weight of all those versions and the various leaps (or chasms) in logic that made me unable to suspend disbelief for long, if at all.

Dracula coverSo I went back to what many might consider source material: Bram Stoker‘s Dracula. He was not the first to cover this ancient ground (other well-known stories include Polidori‘s The Vampyre, and Le Fanu‘s Carmilla), but he is very likely the most well-known and most-referenced author of vampire fiction. The copy I chose is the Simon & Schuster Enriched Classics edition, with notes and commentary by Joseph Valente, a Professor of English.

[Though I enjoy books in which such additional information helps provide historical, social, political, or religious context, or discusses why something may have been important or overlooked by characters in the book, and so on, I sometimes wonder how much of the commentary is really just the commentator’s twisting of the text to fit an opinion, and how much is straight-forward observation of the material.]

Vampires and sex, an age-old coupling. The reasons are obvious: attacks that happen at night, usually on victims who are of the opposite gender to the vampires doing the attacking, and (in Dracula the novel) after the victims are in bed. And there’s the whole neck-biting schtick—which, as we all know, is more than a flirty little nibble.

There’s a lot of writing out there concerning vampirism and Victorian views of sexuality, and there’s a realm of scholarship that sees Dracula the character as freeing women sexually while Van Helsing, et al, try to suppress them. And, though the women seek help from their friends and send up prayers to God, they are drawn to the immortal count because their subconscious supposedly really, really wants him.

While such arguments might be made, there’s not much in the novel itself to support them. Yeah, vampires may work their mojo, but they’re presented as evil, and not all that sexy. Sensual, maybe, but not freeing. They’re rapists—even the females. After all, rape isn’t about sex or mutual expression or love. It’s about power and control.

Dracula controls Lucy. He controls Mina. Neither woman wants what he’s offering, and the men do what they can to stop him. Sure, they make some bonehead mistakes, like leaving Mina alone while they scout the count’s London digs, but I never get the impression they are trying to suppress either woman. In fact, Mina and Jonathan seem quite happy with their marriage. Until Dracula gets involved, of course.

to be continued

UPDATE: Last year, I read John Whalen’s excellent Western twist on vampires, Vampire Siege at Rio Muerto. You can read my review of his well-received novel here.

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.

Wanted: Cover Artist

from Unambiguously Ambidextrous blog

Just posted this on Facebook:

Artists–

My first choice for book cover artist isn’t available after all, and I’m in need of art involving a dragon eye, a massive claw gripping a pile of rubble, one wing wrapping the side and bottom of a crumbling stone tower, and maybe shadowy shapes in the dark distance. A cover that will still look good as a thumbnail image.

No fancy streamers on this dragon, or fur or horns, but make him streamlined and muscular. Defined eye ridge. Cat-like rather than human-looking pupil. Think ginormous Komodo dragon with a large wingspan and a long neck and tail. Legs maybe a person-and-a-half tall. Gold scales, green eyes.

Full disclosure: I can’t pay much right now, but I want to be fair, and may be able to add a bonus after the book sells. I’m interested in your best work. The fantasy novel — Dragon’s Rook — will be released as an e-book first, and then in print. You will receive full credit for your work (on the copyright page and/or in the acknowledgements), and I will be happy to include your contact information, as well (website, e-mail, etc.). Thanks!

To the description should be added these necessary details: broader head or snout than a Komodo, and huge eyes. None of these beady little things that are easily dismissed, but mysterious, arresting eyes that could mesmerize anyone looking into them. If that’s not possible with a cat-like pupil/iris, then use a human-like eye shape.

If this sounds like a project you’d be interested in joining, please leave a reply to this post.

I’m interested in seeing various styles of art, and whichever is chosen for Dragon’s Rook will have the first crack at the cover for the second book, titled either Dragon’s Bane or Dragon’s Blood.

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)

My writing process (by Suzan)

photo (19)Fellow writers and readers: grab a corner booth and sit down! My friend Keanan Brand, writer of epic fantasy, has challenged me to a reveal of my writing process. And I’ve accepted! My writing process is not a tidy one, it is “a poor thing, but mine own.” But if it gets the job done, it’s how I roll.

I’m using the Q and A framework posted by Keanan at Adventures in Fiction .

Q: What are you working on?

A: What I’m writing is a novel I never thought I would attempt. It’s a mystery thriller featuring a mentalist, a wager, and six people who are thrown into a situation filled with choices and a life-changing game. I don’t want to give away too much, that’s a very short summary.

I didn’t think I would write about mentalism or hypnosis, because my primary voice up to this point has been in horror and suspense fiction. However, once the idea was sparked, the book began to come alive.

I would also love to create a short comedy screenplay or novel about life in a retail setting.

Q: How does your work differ from others of its genre?

A: Tough question. Most thrillers tend to be all action, or a mix of action/cognition. My novel is more like the latter–it delves into the characters’ thoughts and motivations. And it mixes historical ideas with more modern ones: a nice dark blend of fact and fiction, interwoven into the plot. I’ve been told that not a lot of research has been done in some of the areas I want to explore in this book. So I’m searching out sources with care, and looking at similarities in research situations to draw ideas from.

Q: Why do you write what you do?

A: I’ve always been fascinated with the genres I mentioned above. But I wasn’t interested in magic or mentalism till last year. I saw a program which sparked my interest, even if I was sure I was looking at clever television production as well as true mentalist’s art. Actually, good film production IS like magic…but don’t let me get off the subject.

I write about people’s deepest thoughts and fears. I write about their hopes and dreams, and their journey. Because I have been through some of these things I write about, and have searched out the answers. Sometimes the question I asked was never answered. I write for the “inquiring brain” that enjoys adventure, questioning, and deep ideas.

Q: How does your writing process work?

A: For years, I was able to whip up short stories and articles at on a whim. Too bad I was not employed as a writer then! Today’s process–at least for the novel in progress–is a slower one.

I realized that I knew nothing about hypnotism when I began to write the first chapter of my novel. I blithely wrote down my impressions of a TV show I had seen. It looked so simple! Then I set off into the wilds of the Internet to find hypnotists to interview. I found, to my pleasant surprise, four interviewees who either performed stage mentalism or were hypnotherapists, and they went above and beyond to give me the best look at what this type of phenomenon really is. To my dismay, I had to re-write chapter one: all my “TV knowledge” was a sham.

Nothing beats talking to real people about their jobs. I’m extremely grateful to my interviewees!

After tallying up everyone’s views and experiences, I tried to use the basic ideas they held in common (and have probably favored some opinions over others).

So besides referring to my notebooks, I research in the directions I was pointed to. I write in chapter or half-chapter “chunks” and revise almost immediately. I write at least twice a week. As much as I’d like to hurry, I know that good work can’t be rushed. But I set deadlines for myself anyway!

I hope to independently publish my work in 2015 or 2016. I’m not sure if I will publish under this name or my real one. In any case, I’ll be sharing links to the work here.

Thanks for “sharing a booth” with me at this writer’s chat!

-post first published under Suzan’s pseudonym, Jade Smith

Whaddya Think? (Using Internal Dialogue to Enhance Character)

220px-Ladyhawke_ver1One of my favorite characters in film or literature is The Mouse from 1980s film Ladyhawke. A youthful thief of slender dimensions, Mouse makes promises to God then promptly breaks them, and though his faith is undimmed, his skepticism remains sharp.

“Lord, I’ll never pick another pocket again as long as I live. I swear it. But here’s the problem: You’ve got to let me live. How can I prove my good faith to you? If you’ve heard me, this ledge will remain steady as a rock, and that thing coming at me won’t be what I think it is. If it is, there’s no hard feelings, of course, but I’d be very disappointed.”

Later:

“We have come full circle, Lord. I would like to think there is some higher meaning in this. It certainly would reflect well on You.”

At the beginning of the film, when he’s escaping from the dungeon via a passage so small it should have been impossible:

“This is not unlike escaping my mother’s womb. God, what a memory.”

Fearful yet courageous, uncertain yet bold, seeking company yet often alone, he verbalizes his internal dialogue to humorous, insightful effect. Without Mouse’s spoken thoughts, the story would be less. It would be flat, too earnest, maybe even pretentious. But Mouse and his constant patter bring heart, humor, and that disbelieving look askance that somehow makes us believe it even more.

Granted, most internal dialogue is internal — that’s the point. It’s a character’s unspoken thoughts that readers are allowed to know, whether or not those thoughts are ever revealed to other characters in the story.

It can take many forms, from prayers to wishes, from snarky comments or ironic remarks, from telling the truth to outright lies, even conversations with people who aren’t there. In the passage below — from an episode in Keanan Brand‘s science fiction serial, Thieves’ Honor, there’s spoken dialogue between mercenary Bosko and prisoner Finney, but internal dialogue between Finney and her deceased grandfather, Admiral Cunningham. [Note: The Admiral calls her “Gracie” because that’s what he called her father, whose last name was “Grace”.  Father-in-law good-naturedly harassing his son-in-law. Both men are deceased before the story begins.]

“Like I said, you’re an uncommon target.” He chuckled again. “A great many governors and officials didn’t seem too eager to help us find you. Lotta lowlifes, too. Figured they’d been paid off—or they do business with the Vega. Name’s Bosko, by the way.”

“We’re not friends.”

“No reason we can’t talk.”

Ye don’t like talking, Gracie, do ye? Except to that crew and its captain. The admiral’s voice held a slight harrumph. Pilot on a reputable ship might make a grandda proud, but on a pirate vessel?

Fewer rules, she replied. No uniforms. No salutes. No blasted colonial government.

Ach, Gracie, now yer talkin’ like a rebel.

Aye, Grandfather, and were I braver I’d have joined them years ago, but it’s safer in the supply line.

There was a snort. Safer? And with supplies stolen from honest citizens! Then the imagined voice gentled. Not always so honest, I suppose. Still, the goods are not yers for the taking. Look where piracy has brought ye.

Not piracy. She looked down, and wrapped one blood-crusted hand around the collar. Murder. Vengeance for you. Tears slipped from the corners of her eyes and dripped from her chin. I acted in haste, and the wrong person died.

“No tears now”—Bosko sounded nervous—”and no pulling at that collar.” (from Episode 15, “Leaping the Circle, copyright KB)

Done well, internal dialogue adds tang to the story, expands the readers’ understanding of or connection to a character, and reveals that character’s philosophy, belief, opinion, etcetera. It can liven the spoken dialogue and even liven a character.

On the other hand, wielded clumsily, it can kill a character.

This was evidenced in a manuscript I recently edited. The author was concerned about feedback from beta readers who said they didn’t connect with her main character. In fact, they didn’t like her. She was cold, arrogant, unsympathetic. After I provided a detailed critique, the author made changes, but she was still concerned about the readers’ perception of the main character.

Due to various behind-scenes-matters that attend the publishing process, I didn’t read the manuscript again for a few weeks. However, when I dove in again, I saw the problem: The character’s snarky, blame-casting internal dialogue made her seem whiny and belligerent rather than realistic and confident. By trying too hard to make her seem hip or smart, the author actually undercut the character.*

“Children should be seen and not heard,” or so goes the old saying. I disagree with its intent of marginalizing children, but there’s truth in it, too. Or, to quote other old sayings, “actions speak louder than words” and “a picture’s word a thousand words.”

“Think before you speak.”

Or, in the case of an author wondering whether or not to reveal a character’s thoughts, “think before you write.”

Be aware of what is being revealed in dialogue. Is it what you intend? Will it enhance or undercut the character? Will it contradict everything else we know about the character? Will it add just the right amount of spice, or will it leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth? Will it make an unlikeable character seem nicer than you intend, or make a sympathetic character lose the reader’s respect?

Internal dialogue can also add subtext and subtlety to a story. Subtext is what is meant but never actually written or said, and subtlety is the use of the indirect or the obscure in order to reveal what isn’t obvious. Subtlety could also be defined as cleverness or perception.

Do your characters make oblique observations that, on the surface, are about something mundane but reveal what the characters are really feeling? Or, perhaps, we know exactly what they’re thinking, but something else is engaged in the dialogue, too. In the example below from a soon-to-be-published fantasy novel, nature — or God? — seems to be responding to the character’s unspoken questions:

There was another place for the fallen, for the murdered and the war dead. They were said to cry in eternal grief and bitterness, trapped on the Highlands, separated from kindred until a blue sun rose in the west. Their howls, Turi suspected, were nothing more than wind through stones, but even he would go no closer to the Highlands than the wood. After all, what defense was a sword against a spirit?

He tilted back his head and looked up at the ribboned sky. Omwendinn?

A sudden breeze set banners waving, snapping the green Oak of Disson in a brisk salute.

When will those distant fires be the fires of home?

The breeze died. The first stars of evening winked in the sky. (Dragon’s Rook, copyright 2014, Keanan Brand)

There are many ways to employ internal dialogue. Play with it. Experiment. See what works. Does it make you laugh? Gasp with surprise? Nod your head and say, “Aha!”

If so, well done.

Or, as the admiral might say, “Carry on, Gracie. Carry on.”

* This book will be published in late 2014, and I do not have permission to share examples from the text.

The Purpose of Fantasy

ThePurposeofFantasyThis is a good book.

I could end my review right there and still have told the complete truth, but that wouldn’t tell you why or what, or how you can acquire your own copy of this useful, soon-to-be essential, little volume.

The WHAT and the WHO: The Purpose of Fantasy: A Reader’s Guide to Twelve Selected Books with Good Values & Spiritual Depth by Philip Martin. I met Phil many years ago at a writing conference in Oklahoma City, back when he still worked as the acquisitions editor for The Writer Books. He’d recently published the first edition of A Guide to Fantasy Literature (now revised and with a new cover, although I much prefer the dragon on my copy!). Since then, he has formed his own publishing house, as well as offering consulting and mentoring services for fellow writers.

The WHY:

As a writer of fantasy and science fiction, I have defended my chosen genres to writers who deem them lower forms of literature, as pop-lit or pulp fiction. (Well, I ask, doesn’t the “pop” in pop-lit mean the form is popular? There must be a reason for that.) Fantasy has been and will always be a viable and powerful literary form, and Philip Martin is its apologist:

Fantasy is different from other types of fiction. It is a wonderful approach to storytelling, and “wonderful” here means literally full of wonder. Unfortunately, it is often used in a very small-minded sense to segregate off a small type of adventure fantasy into a sub-genre, a ghetto of bookstores and libraries, where you mostly find books with sword-wielding barbarians, bushy-eyebrowed wizards wearing star-studded gowns, Arthurian knights galloping across medieval countrysides, perhaps a castle in the background, perhaps a scaly dragon sailing overhead, perhaps a warty, axe-wielding ogre lurking in the shrubbery. But fantasy is far more than this. Fantasy combines wonder and whimsy with a richly non-rational, spiritual, philosophical look at matters such as good and evil…Someone said that the difficult thing about fiction is that it has to make sense. Fantasy makes sense, but it doesn’t show us reality. It shows us an inner truth, without any need to be any more real than an occasionally invisible hobbit with hairy toes. (Kindle locations 134-150) (emphasis mine)

Martin goes on to say, “At their core, fantasy stories are about what we believe about some matter of spiritual beliefs; they tackle core issues of good and evil, and how we should deal with it all” (Kindle locations 155-156).

Amen, brother! Preach it!

But this is not a religious book, nor is it a book of faith, but a discussion of how the spiritual is illustrated by and becomes accessible because of fantasy literature.

The HOW:

His three criteria for choosing the twelve books included in The Purpose of Fantasy:

  1. They had to be really entertaining.
  2. They had to be worth rereading.
  3. They had to be worth discussing.

As a result, and without prior design, most of the books that made the cut are generally marketed to children.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” (This may apply to adults as well.) What is clear is that the foundations of a person’s moral character are strongly shaped by influences and lessons absorbed in childhood. And the two things that fantasy is most about – imagination and issues of right/ wrong – are naturally in rich abundance in children’s books and stories. (Kindle locations 234-240)

However, the questions raised and the themes throughout are decidedly the realm of adults.

Some writers of fantasy have been quite annoyed to see their stories labeled as “for children.” These authors included the great fabulist Hans Christian Andersen, who insisted “my tales were just as much for older people as for children, who only understood the outer trappings and did not comprehend and take in the whole work until they were mature.” (Kindle locations 274-276)

Again, the WHAT (the books Martin discusses in The Purpose of Fantasy):

Momo by Michael Ende
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
The Rope Trick by Lloyd Alexander
Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Reading this book was a joy. It reacquainted me with beloved books I haven’t read since childhood, and nudged me to become friends with books that have long been on my “to read” list. (I first learned of Momo from a popular South Korean television series, My Lovely Sam Soon, aka My Name is Kim Sam-Soon, and have been wanting to read it ever since.)

For me, there is a danger in reading interesting books that are also well-written. When I find something I like, something that speaks to me or draws me in, I will blitz through it. I skip across the water rather than immersing in it. This time, however, I read slowly, as Martin recommends we do when perusing the stories he suggests. Savor them, ponder them, ask their questions of ourselves. Feel the wonder.

Fantasy’s gift is to allow us to see our own world in a state of surprise and grace. (Kindle locations 475-476)

Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince,

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

But fantasy is more than the fantastic or the spiritual. In the chapter titled “Is Fantasy Subversive?”, Martin opens with this statement:

 Some authors have seen fantasy as a good way to introduce a type of creative questioning, one that can shake up, or sneak by, a conventional perception. (Kindle locations 492-493)

And bolsters it with this:

Ursula Le Guin wrote that some adults are uneasy with fantasy’s inconvenient tendency to reveal truths – to tell stories in which emperors have no clothes. (Kindle locations 504-505)

I grew up in a strict church that, despite its words, seemed more concerned with appearances than with truth, and eschewed obvious sins while indulging in the more subtle, more insidious sin of pride. I was that kid who stirred up controversy by pointing out what was, to me, as plain as sunshine: There’s something wrong. There’s a disconnect between what they said they believed and how they behaved.

One of the teachings declared that most fiction was useless and even sinful, because it was lies. However, as a voracious reader, I consumed fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, fairy tales, folklore, and the like, as well as the many stories in the Bible, and gained much from them all. In a Native American folktale, I might learn about wise choices, which backed up a concept I might have learned in Sunday School or heard preached from the pulpit. In an African fable, the evil of lying might be reinforced.

Martin asks,

Do stories question authority? How often, for instance, do stories and books for young readers contain dunder-headed or threatening adults? Does that mean that those stories are anti-adult? More accurately, they encourage young readers to think twice, and compare what they see in real life to those fictional tales. (Kindle locations 576-578)

It’s not important which church I grew up in, or what I observed. It’s important that I read widely and asked the questions. Eventually, I came to see value in much of what I was taught, because it was true and solid and a good guide for life. However, there is also much I abandoned as untrue and harmful.

For a time when I was in elementary school and junior high, there was a fear among the adults who knew me that I would mix up reality and fantasy, that the fiction that so enthused me would overtake my reason or my faith. When I wearied of defending myself and the books, I hid them behind more acceptable volumes, read them under the covers, sat in secluded corners.

The key to opening the mind is to be able to imagine something else, to ask “what if.” But “what if” does not answer questions. It simply creates a portal, an opening to build the structure of a story on top of those questions…Minds of young readers are not so malleable or gullible that they swallow everything they read or are toldFantasy stories raise the question of Truth. But they don’t create it, and readers know that, because the worlds of fantasy are so clearly invented. Even more so than all the other branches of fiction, they are impossible worlds. (Kindle Locations 587-603) (emphasis mine)

It seems I cannot write a book review without applying it to my own life. That’s a good thing, perhaps, because it shows how well the book relates to me. Is it true? Interesting? Vital? Engaging? Well-written? The Purpose of Fantasy is all those and more. I recommend this book to writers and readers everywhere, especially those who see the wonder beyond the skin of the world.

Martin concludes the “Is Fantasy Subvervise?” chapter thus:

The solution, in a fantasy book, often comes from the smallest one who asks the biggest questions. (Kindle locations 608-609)

What’s your question?

*  ~  *  ~  *  ~  *

In addition to being an excellent and engaging writer, Martin is also an editor, mentor, and publisher. He’s the founder of Great Lakes Literary and its two imprints, Crickhollow Books and Crispin Books. Martin is blogging about the books he explores in The Purpose of Fantasy ( Mary Poppins, for instance), and readers are invited to join the conversation. Readers can also visit the Crickhollow Books page on Facebook.

One last note: Check out that awesome cover art! It’s called “Looking for a Good Book” and is by Greg Newbold. You can check out more of his work on his site.

Cold Heart, Kindly Meant

In recent months, I’ve been approached by new writers seeking to self-publish their work, and have participated in a few discussions about and with independent authors. As a result, I’ve come to this conclusion: Regardless of literary skill or monetary remuneration, one’s self-discipline and willingness to keep learning are important to one’s success. (And one’s definition of success is important, as well.)

Some of the authors I’ve met understood their manuscripts’ need for good editing, but have wanted it at little or no expense. I understand that. I’d love to obtain excellent products at no cost to me. Free housing, free utilities, free whatever — that’d be great, huh?

But we appreciate and cherish that which we gained at great cost, that for which we sacrificed.

So, despite how cold-hearted these words may seem to new writers in search of praise and handouts, I say, “Suck it up. Work it out. Learn. Strive. Improve. Don’t whine. Grow up. Bind your wounds. Stand on your own feet. Know when to ask for help. Keep fighting. Know your worth. Be humble. And in the words of Bill and Ted, be excellent.”

Cold Spell ("I'll get you, my pretties!") c2013, EE
Cold Spell (“I’ll get you, my pretties!”)
c2013, EE