Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sabbath Reflections: First Impressions and Board Games

Please read this whole post. Because if you don’t, you’ll never want to play board games with me again. And then I would just be sitting in my dorm room alone, playing against myself and losing every time. Which would just be pathetic.

I’m going to define what I’m talking about right away, kind of like those stupid warning labels on irons that say, “Do not iron clothes while on body,” just so that no one misunderstands me.

Whenever I talk about forming first impressions, I mean: To remember interesting or unique characteristics and personality traits of others, both positive and negative, while allowing those impressions to change over time. Not stereotyping. Not judging.

See? That isn’t so bad.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fatal Flaws and You: A Compact Psychoanalysis

There will probably never be a movie based on chess.

Just try to picture it for a second: training montages, inspirational locker room speeches, conflict between teammates, the buzzer-beating final score that wins the day…none of the typical sports movie gimmicks will work with chess.

Why do I bring this up? Why is this in a post that’s supposed to be about writing? Why do I ignore the magnificent Pixar short, “Gertie’s Game,” which is about chess, and therefore chess needs no epic movie to justify itself?

Because for all the differences between chess and sports, they have at least one thing in common: you have to pay attention to strengths and weaknesses, your own and your opponents.

Writing is the same way. As the writer, you are the coach. Your heroes are your players, your villains (and sometimes the random bystanders who get in the way) are the opposing teammates. In order to win – to make your story feel real and draw readers in – you have to know their strengths and weaknesses.

You also need to know your own.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Sabbath Reflections: Coincidence? I Think Not!

You know those stories that span years and have two people's lives intersect in a strange, coincidental ways and sound like they should have an epic score behind them in their dramatic conclusions? This is one of those stories from my life that I wanted to share.

Dialogue is my favorite part of writing. This makes sense – I love talking, I love listening, I love eavesdropping on random strangers. And I love drama (inside the theatre, not anywhere else).

These are a few of the reasons that I wrote a lot of scripts in high school, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Back then, my reasoning went something like this: some of the skits we’re doing for youth group (taken from badly-designed freebie websites) are terrible. Even I could do better than that.

So I did. My sophomore year in high school, I wrote a flurry of scripts for our youth group to perform at different events. It was a lot of fun.

But then, just like I usually do when I start a new project, I got burnt out. I didn’t feel “in the mood” to write any more scripts. So, spring of my junior year, I just stopped.

A few months later, I went to the Kids’ Action Club talent show. (That’s what our church calls our children’s ministry. Although the name might lead you to think so, it is not, in fact, a league of young spies, which is a little disappointing.) The talent show was an annual event, crammed with plunked-out piano solos and badly off-key singing and proud parents who didn’t care.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Carol Parodies

It’s finals week, everyone! To perpetuate the illusion that I’m studying for hours upon end, I’m pulling today’s blog post out of the archives. Here are some Christmas carol parodies I wrote a few years ago. Enjoy!

Christmas Specials

To the tune of: “Jingle Bells.”

Flipping channels on,
My new flat-screen T.V.
Re-runs make me yawn,
Nothing new to see.
Rudolph and his show,
You’ve watched since you were five,
And, come on, don’t we always know,
That Frosty will survive?

Oh, Christmas Town, Charlie Brown,
Clarence gets his wings,
Home Alone takes robbers down,
And Irving Berlin sings,
Grinch relents, Scrooge repents,
Bad guys always lose.
While each viewer cries laments,
Like, “I’d rather watch the news.”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sabbath Reflections: Stop Killing Isaac

Occasionally, I get this strange idea that I should write newspaper articles or promotional materials for a ministry or slasher horror screenplays.

You know why?

Because I don’t want to.

That’s right. There’s this weird complex I have: I feel guilty for enjoying writing fiction so much. I feel like studying professional writing is too much fun to be considered education. I wonder if God wants me to do something else, something that feels a little bit more like sacrifice, to serve Him.

Here’s the rule I’ve landed on: don’t kill Isaac if God hasn’t told you to kill Isaac.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Write Christmas Tree Characters

First snowmen, now Christmas trees. What is it with me and extended metaphors at this time of year?

Something in the eggnog, I guess. Oh well. Here it goes. Your fictional characters should be like the following kinds of Christmas tree:

A Living Christmas Tree
This has nothing to do with whether you cut your tree in a lot or pulled it out of a deteriorating cardboard box (because my tree at home is the latter). What I consider “alive” has a lot to do with the decorations on the tree. Some trees have nice strings of lights, bulbs carefully arranged and within a narrow color scheme, and empty boxes wrapped in coordinating paper. Others are a hodge-podge explosion of colorful holiday miscellany (always wanted to use that word). Each ornament, from the “Baby’s First Christmas” with adorable six-month-old Amy grinning out of it, to the tattered handprint Rudolph made in Sunday School, to the bookworm inside a gnawed-out apple, has a story.

In the same way, characters should be more than empty decorations, placed in the scene to look good. They represent a lifetime of stories. The readers should feel like they happened upon a chapter in the middle of the character’s life, but that it goes on before and after the novel or short story begins. This might mean including some details about your character that don’t quite fit a stereotype. There might be some odds and ends, some quirks, even some things that seem ugly. But that’s what makes the characters seem real and gives them meaning.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Always Winter, Never Christmas

One of the worst realities I can think of is the setting of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: always winter, but never Christmas.

When I first read the book as an eight-year-old, I thought immediately about the fact that Mr. Tumnus and the beavers never had presents or carols or a Christmas trees with those bulbs that make your nose look big when you hold them up to your face.

But the Narnians needed more than the outward trappings of the holidays. They were longing for things that they could hardly remember, but that they somehow knew were missing: hope, joy, and peace.

Like Narnia, our world was once frozen in always winter, never Christmas. But then, two things happened.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Writing and Building Snowmen

I used to have a really funny intro for this post.

Yep. It was all about how my ulterior motive for writing this was that I wanted it to snow. I also explained the magical charm needed to bend weather to your whims around Christmastime.

But then yesterday it snowed. So there went my intro. On the positive side, the snow put me in the mood for the actual topic of this post: how writing fiction is exactly like building a snowman.

Okay, maybe not exactly. But there are similarities. If you’re skeptical about associating snowman building and good writing, I have three words for you: Calvin and Hobbes.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sabbath Reflections: Writing in a Minor Key

Thanksgiving is over. This means I can officially write blog posts about Christmas.

If you weren’t aware of this deadline, it’s probably because you are either surrounded by happy-go-lucky elves who started playing carols after Labor Day or Grinches who might work up a tiny scrap of holiday cheer by Christmas Eve. Maybe.

However, let me assure any doubters out there that this is a legitimate, if somewhat arbitrary measurement. So here we go.

One of my favorite Christmas carols is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” You know why?

Because it’s in a minor key.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Writer's List of Blessings

I don’t know about you, but just thinking about counting my blessings overwhelms me sometimes. I started to list just the people in my life who have had an impact on me, and I had to stop after three full single-spaced pages.

So I’m subdividing my life into categories and making lists.

Those of you who didn’t appreciate the magnitude of that sentence clearly do not know me very well. I, the unorganized one, do not subdivide anything, and I avoid making lists whenever possible. In the spirit of the holidays, though, I decided to make an exception.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sabbath Reflections: Is This a Christian Book or Not?

If you’re anything like me, when you pick up a novel at a yard sale where books aren’t separated by genre, the first question on your mind is, “I wonder if this is a Christian book or not?”

Well, wonder no more. Since it’s obvious that spirituality can be rated by entirely subjective and arbitrary characteristics, score a book of your choice here:

Author Photo/Bio:
  • The author lives in a small town in the Midwest. +5
  • The author lives in San Francisco. -3
            The author lives on a vineyard outside of San Francisco for most of the year, and in Las Vegas for the summer. -10
  • Photo shows the author wearing a cross necklace/earring/T-shirt. +8
  • He has Jesus-like facial hair.  +5
  • She has a haircut like your pastor’s wife. +5
            (If the picture shows a female with facial hair or a male with a pastor’s wife haircut, give it a -50. And write a letter of concern to the author.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Rules of Informal Copyright

Although it sounds very technical and complicated, the actual copyright law is very simple: You write it, you own it. (Or, in government-speak: “Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.”)

That is not what this blog post is about.

No, I’m exploring the more complicated side of copyright – ideas that come up when you’re around other writers.

Of course, you can’t copyright an idea. That would be legally untenable, not to mention silly. But what do you do when you’re with another writer and you overhear something that could become a great devotion or short story?

It’s kind of like the literary version of calling shotgun. No one is exactly sure how it’s done, but doing it wrong can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, or writing group factions that involve Amish-style shunnings and inclusion of villains in future stories that bear a striking resemblance to the offending party.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sabbath Reflections: Song for a Book Signing

There’s this great song that every writer should add to their “Music About Writing Playlist.” (You mean you haven’t made one of those? Seriously, get with the program. All the cool kids are doing it. Because, you know, writers are typically known for being cool. And normal.)

This song has deep, moving lyrics that really capture the essence of my writing struggles and angst.

And it’s a hymn.

Well, I think I just lost half of my readers right there. The Venn diagram of people who read blogs and people who sing hymns in relatively small.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fun with Rejection Letters

I thought about titling this post “Win Freshly Baked Chocolate Chip Cookies” or anything that would attract people’s attention in a positive way. I decided against it, mainly because I didn’t want to get a lot of nasty letters saying, “Where’s my chocolate chip cookie?” “Why don’t I have a chocolate chip cookie?” and I wasn’t prepared to deal with that.

If you recognized this as an obscure VeggieTales reference, you win a gold star. If not, keep reading to figure out what this blog post is about once you get past the seemingly unrelated introduction.

The point is, the topic of rejection isn’t all that appealing. Who wants to read a whole blog post about being rejected, anyway?

You, that’s who. Because if you’re a writer, you’re going to be rejected. And because this isn’t your typical blog post about rejection. It is not….
  • A list of authors whose famous works were turned down by multiple publishers. Look this up on Wikipedia if you want to make yourself feel better, but keep in mind that for every bestseller that was rejected, so was a poorly written manuscript. Rejection is no guarantee of greatness. Or, as Carl Sagan put it, “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.
  • An instruction manual of different origami creations that can be made out of rejection letters. This could be a future blog post, though.
  • A five-step plan for not caring about rejection. There is no such plan. There is, however, a one-step plan that will work every time: don’t care about the things you write. That way, it won’t affect you at all when your work is rejected. Getting published won’t matter one way or another.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sabbath Reflections: Woody the Cowboy and Jesus

I learned a lot about writing a good protagonist by watching Pixar’s Toy Story trilogy, which you should go see if you haven’t already. The way Woody develops over the course of the movies led me to a revelation about the nature of heroes: all heroes, not just the ones in corny chick flicks, are motivated by some kind of love.

Obviously, that love looks different depending on the characters and their relationships to others in the movie. It could be a father who loves his son enough to cross and entire ocean to bring him back home (Finding Nemo), or an adorable robot who loves a stranger enough to protect her even when she shows no interest in him in return (Wall-E), or a superhero who loves truth and justice and the generic citizenry of the world enough to risk his life multiple times to save people (The Incredibles).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

National Starting a Novel Month

PROMINENT AND OBNOXIOUS DISCLAIMER: I am not against the National Novel Writing Month project. I think it’s awesome. I think it’s exactly what a lot of people need to motivate them. I think that it results in great writing, a greener environment, and puppies, rainbows, hearts, and unicorns. Nothing but love for NaNoWriMo.

That said, I have declared this November National There’s-No-Way-On-Earth-I’m-Writing-A-Novel Month. This is mostly because of my lack of faith in my ability to balance an intense writing project with my junior year of college, which would be something like trying to juggle flamethrowers and chainsaws at the same time.

But I am starting a novel. And, unless I find that the plot is totally unredeemable, I will finish it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sabbath Reflections: Living for Applause

I really want you to like me.

In fact, I care way too much about what you think about me (and my writing).

As a writer, I’m often forced to give others something I’ve written to get their feedback, on a criticism scale ranging from my mom to an editor.

Then I sit around and wonder what their reactions will be. I worry a little bit, but, because I’m a die-hard optimist, I mostly just hope.

In my starry-eyed daydreams, the reception to my writing goes something like, “Wow, this is a really deep thought. I admire Amy’s clear intelligence and spiritual maturity.”

Or, “Wow, what a great story. Clearly, Amy is a talented writer with a gift for clarity of expression and insight into the human condition.”

Or even, “Wow, this is a hilarious article. Amy must be a genuinely funny person. I want to hang out with her all the time because she probably makes witty comments every few seconds.”

I want people to like my writing so much that they like me too.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Five Things Characters Are Not

Writers are supposed to create characters. Nothing wrong there.

But sometimes we get this mad-scientist-type sense of power from the process: I can create anyone to do anything I want. BWAHAHAHAHA! (Or however you transcribe an evil laugh.)

As it turns out, we can’t do anything we want with our characters. There are some rules of believability, and the people holding us to those rules, our readers, don’t want us to be mad scientists. (Yeah, I know. I was disappointed too. That was one of my main career goals.)

Here are some things I’ve learned not to do when creating characters.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sabbath Reflections: Not Your Granny's Flannelgraph

I come up with a lot of get-rich-quick schemes, and, for some reason, many of them are faith-based. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the ridiculous merchandise in the gift section of Christian bookstores. (Look, it’s a 100-piece nativity set made out of real olive branch wood from the Holy Land! And it has a scratch-and-sniff that smells like frankincense!)

But, seriously, this one is going to work. Feel free to contact me about investing in stock any time. I’ve noticed a real gap in the market, and I know just how to fill it.

You see, there are a lot of books and movies that are “based on true events.” I figure, since most kids are bored with the same old Bible stories, I could fictionalize them to add a little punch.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Writer or Creeper?

As writers, we like to think of ourselves as experts on human nature. After all, to write realistic dialogue and create compelling characters, we have to observe the world around us, right?

Well, yes. Sort of. Anyway, it’s a good excuse for some borderline creepy behavior. The following quiz is a tool to help you evaluate your creepy writer habits. Should your score and the resulting diagnosis alarm you, don’t worry: you can change.

I’ll let you know as soon as I find out how.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sabbath Reflections: Why Did Jesus Tell Stories?

Writers love the fact that Jesus’ public ministry didn’t consist of a lecture tour or sermon series: Jesus told stories, also known as parables.

I’ve heard many people say that the reason Jesus told parables was that he liked to illustrate deep theological truths by using stories that everyone could relate to and understand.

That’s a nice thought. Problem is, it’s not actually biblical.

When the disciples asked Jesus why he told parables, this is what he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given…. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matt. 13:11,13)

That’s right. Jesus told parables to confuse people.