Saturday, December 29, 2012

Playing Peek-a-Boo With Myself

Do you know why peek-a-boo is no longer a fun game for you?

If you answered, “Because I’m not a baby,” you’re pretty much exactly right. Brilliant, I know. So the real question is, why do babies find peek-a-boo so delightfully, giggle-inducingly fascinating?

Because, when they can’t see you for that brief instant, they think you disappear. That’s right. All you have to do to become a Houdini-class magician to a baby is hide your face with your hands. Enjoy it now. You will never be entertaining so easily ever again.

It’s a pretty big deal in child development. Mommy doesn’t cease to exist simply because she stepped into the hallway. Daddy is actually continuing to live and breathe when he’s not being monitored by the watchful eyes of the baby in the crib. That stunning revelation has a fancy psychological name: object permanence.

It doesn’t take us too long to realize that other people exist when we aren’t around. But, for most people, it’s much harder to deal with the idea that we exist when we’re not around.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Seen a Hallmark holiday special yet? Turned on the radio to hear a Christmas song intended to pull on your heartstrings? Seen the covers of Christian novellas with titles like “Little Julie’s Gift” or “A Christmas Miracle” or “Members of a Small, Steepled Church, Including a Disillusioned Pastor, a Rebellious Teenager, and a Busy Mom With Wrong Priorities, Come Together to Bring Christmas to an Injured Child Whose Father is in Prison”?

Writers out there, take note: sentimental sells during the holiday season. In case you need a guide on how to capitalize on this, here’s a handy scorecard to see how sappy you can possibly make a piece of Christmas entertainment.

Does it feature a child?: If yes, +10. If no, it’s not a sappy Christmas movie/song/book. Try again.
            Does this child believe in Santa or God despite the cynicism of adults around him/her?              +25 (+10 bonus if this change only comes at the end of the movie/song/book)
                        If you flinched at the association of Santa and God above, good for you. No                         points, though.
            Has this child recently lost a parent, or is this child critically ill? +25
            Does this child die? +200

Does someone cry? (Tears of sadness: +10, Tears of happiness: +20, Tears of happiness that could be mistaken as tears of sadness or vice versa: +50)

Is there a gift that expresses profound symbolism? +20

Is there a scene/line where unexpected snow features significantly? +10
            Do the characters look up at the snow with expressions of joy and wonder? +5 per person
            Does someone express a disbelieving sentiment such as “Well I’ll be”? +10 per comment

Does the line “Merry Christmas” or some form of it end a critical scene? +10

Is one of the characters opposed to Christmas? If so…
            Is this character on a personal quest to cancel or get rid of some feature of the holiday (or             the entire holiday)? +10
            Is this character an embittered older person who will probably have a change of heart? +30

Are there any cute pets? +10 per cat, dog, bunny, reindeer, monkey, or baby hedgehog (no points for snakes or lizards)

Are angels referenced or pictured? +15 if said angel is robed and carrying a harp. -100 if it has six wings, carries a sword, and/or is covered with eyes.

Quick Checklist
+5 for any of the following:
Airport scene?
Mention of peace on earth?
Slow motion?
Word “miracle” used?
Someone looks up and says, “Thanks”?
Bells (church or jingle)?
Sleigh ride?
Boys’ choir singing?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Domesticating Evil

“What do you think about evil?”

It was a question my Gospels professor asked a classroom full of junior and senior Bible majors, who always have deep thoughts and several cross-references to back them up (sometimes they’ll even throw in a little Greek). So I knew it would be an interesting discussion.

Several students shared about how they’ve learned a lot about trusting God in hard times, and that suffering has given them the ability to minister to others who are suffering and bring them hope.

But the professor kept pushing. “But what about really terrible evil on a large scale—like natural disasters or trafficking of child slaves or genocides?”

Or an entire class of elementary school kids in Connecticut murdered on what was once a normal school day. What about that?

And the answers came again, this time more along the lines of how God can bring good out of even the worst evil, like with Joseph. Sometimes natural disasters like wildfires are ultimately a benefit to the land. We can’t fully understand what God is up to so we just need to trust the He has a plan.

In a way, I think all of those things may be true. But I raised my hand anyway, because I just couldn’t leave it at that. There was something more that I felt needed to be said, so I said it. “Sometimes I think we need to let evil be evil without saying that it leads to something good.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The First Noel?

Recently, I played one of those games where it gives you the name of a Christmas song or carol in fancy vocabulary so you have to guess what it is. The examples ranged from “A singular yuletide yearning for a pair of anterior incisors” (“All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth”) to “Our company consists of a monarchial trio” (“We Three Kings) to “A query concerning the infant presently before us” (“What Child Is This?”)

It was fun trying to figure out the different titles, and after a few, I got pretty good at it. It was when I got to “Proclaim tidings of jubilation from the summit of a rocky terrain,” otherwise known as “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” that I realized something: the “it” in the title is talking about sharing the gospel with people, especially the good news of Jesus’ birth.

Who knew, right?

Maybe all of you knew that. Probably. Because it’s right there in the song. But the “Name That Carol” game reminded me of something really interesting: I never really listen to the words of the songs I sing at this time of year.

There’s something nice, comfortable, and familiar about Christmas carols. You can let your eyes wander to the starry background of the screen during worship at church, not even glancing at the words, and still sing them on auto-pilot. The memorized lines are tucked away somewhere deep inside us, and we bring them out like treasures from the attic once a year, dusting them off and displaying them proudly.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Christmas Burnout

Eight Christmas parties in one week.

On the first Sunday of December during my sophomore year, this sounded like the most exciting schedule ever. I was involved in a half-dozen groups and organizations, all of which decided that they needed to distribute frosted cookies at various events to properly celebrate the season. It was going to be so much fun!

By Wednesday, I was a little sleep-deprived, but hey, Christmas only comes once a year, right?

By Friday, I was starting to get sick, dragging through my classes with annoying Christmas songs stuck in my head. I wrote in my journal, “To survive this weekend, I’m going to need lots of prayer, Nyquil and Christmas fudge.”

By Sunday, I skipped my last party and almost fell into a candy-cane induced coma.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

In Which I Apologize to a Fictional Character

I’ve never been really into the whole anti-hero thing. Recently, I realized that all of the main characters in my stories, while flawed in certain ways, have some things in common: they’re intelligent, they have a strong sense of justice, and they love other people.

Right now, I’m working on a story with a character named Barton.

Barton is a rude, anti-social assassin. Not exactly my typical hero.

He’s not as smart as I am, and he’s also fairly impulsive. This is annoying because I think of all of these great, complicated plans that would solve all of his problems, but I can’t realistically make them happen because Barton wouldn’t do them. (Those of you who don't understand the idea that the characters in some way determine what the author can and can't do...just trust me on this.)

He does not work well with people. In fact, when he can help it, he doesn’t work with people at all. This is annoying because everyone knows that when you have a big challenge to overcome and several people around with different skills, teamwork is the best way to go. Not alienating everyone around you by bossing them around and insulting them. That doesn’t work out so well.

He’s probably the hardest character I’ve ever worked with. And this is annoying because it shows that I am an immature writer who has some work to do. Writing Barton made me see very clearly that I tend to give my protagonists certain traits, keep their weaknesses in areas I’m comfortable with, and make them, well, kind of like me.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Marketing the Christmas Spirit

Every year, several of the residence halls at my college decorate their suites and hallways according to a certain theme, usually pretty elaborately. And every year, my brilliant theme idea gets rejected: A Cynical Christmas.

In the first suite, we would have a shopping mall filled with flashy, neon advertisements and cranky people fighting over the last Furby (heaven help us all that this trend has returned). In the second room, we would have a war-torn ghetto with a waif-like freshman huddled under old newspapers with headlines of death and destruction on them. Happy 50s Christmas music would be playing ironically in the background. Then we’d have a hospital wing—complete with holiday Jell-o—and finally, a nursing home where everyone would forget what they were supposed to be celebrating.

Fun, right?

Actually, I understand why most people wouldn’t enjoy this theme. Besides poking fun at the genuine suffering of others, it’s a bit too…cynical. Sometimes, though, that’s just how I relate to the world. Fortunately, I have two separate cynics inside of me, and sometimes when they duke it out on a particular issue, the idealist cynic wins.

Not sure how that works? Allow me to demonstrate.

Let’s take the topic of “Christmas spirit.” It’s in almost every holiday special, but sometimes it’s hard to define in real-life terms. Do people really become more joyful in December? Are they really more likely to say smile at strangers, drop money in the Salvation Army bucket, and compliment young moms on their adorable children like some sort of picture print by Currier and Ives? Do people really feel anything like peace on earth or goodwill to men when most of them think of Jesus as that plastic baby in a nativity scene?

The first cynic in me wants to say, “No.”

But I have a counter-cynic who argues with this first-reaction cynic and says, “Maybe.” The evidence? Not the touchy-feely stories on the news about someone adopting a kitten from the animal shelter on Christmas Eve or whatever. Not statistics (because even the counter-cynic knows that statistics can be completely made up). Not the frantic shopping rush that we pass off under the sneaky label of “generosity.”

The biggest proof, to me anyway, that people are less selfish at Christmastime is that marketers have to change their strategy in December. If you don’t believe me, watch the top ten Superbowl commercials. Then watch the top ten Christmas…sorry, I mean holiday commercials.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Pearl and the Keychain

One of my favorite of Jesus’ parables goes something like this, “There was a man who hunted garage sales looking for treasures. One day, he found one, and he sold all that he owned to get money to buy…a plastic keychain that lit up when you pressed a button on it.”

No, you’re right. That wasn’t it. It was a bobblehead doll of the last American Idol winner.

A magnet from Sea World?

An embossed stationary set?

A toothpick used by Lady Gaga?

Fine. Okay. Apparently no one is going to believe my version of the story. In the real story, the man sold all he had in order to buy a pearl of great price.

Makes sense. Sure, he went a little crazy, but at least he was blowing all his cash on a real treasure, something that mattered. No one would value a plastic trinket that highly, enough to make it worth everything they had.

Except, you know, me.

Last week, I promised a behind-the-scenes explanation of what you learn from having a book published. I decided to focus on just one thing, because it’s something that very few people talk about: the danger of putting your dream for the future and desire to please others above God.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Go Shopping, Fight Nazis

Today, I went Black Friday shopping. And guess what? No Nazis tried to threaten me to stay away from certain stores.

What, that’s not surprising to you? Maybe I’m just sensitive to the issue because I’m reading Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. Suddenly, I’m expecting to see swastikas on every street corner, especially because of my favorite part of the book so far, a story about Bonhoeffer’s grandma.

It was early 1933. Sometimes I think that Hitler just kind of exploded on the world scene when the war started in 1939. But that’s not usually the way history works. Things change slowly, quietly, through subtle propaganda and redefined terms and committee meetings.

Most Germans didn’t really know what was happening. They knew their hero Martin Luther, at the end of his life at least, had some violently anti-Semetic things to say. And they thought they knew, based on Hitler’s various accusations, that the Jews were controlling the press overseas and spreading lies about Germany. They didn’t see the death camps coming. All they saw was a day in April when all loyal citizens of Germany were supposed to peacefully boycott Jewish stores in protest of the Jews' anti-German attitudes and actions.

And, on that day in April 1933, 90-year-old Julie Bonhoeffer went shopping. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How to Get Published, Part Three: The Book Contract

You know when someone asks you a question, and the only answer you can think of is, “It’s a long story….”? Well, this is one of those long stories. When people ask me how I got a book contract, I’m never sure if they really want to sit down and hear everything. So I’ll say it here instead, where hopefully only people who are interested have to suffer through it.

Things don’t always (or, actually, often) work this way. My story is not typical. Then again, if there’s anything I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that no one’s story is typical. But you can still learn from other people’s experiences, even if your own experiences won’t look the same.

Around Thanksgiving during my senior year of high school, my twin sister Erika, a future elementary education major, was reading a lot of kids’ fantasy series. She didn’t like a lot of them because they were predictable and used random bursts of magic to solve whatever problem happened to come up. “You got poisoned by a snakebite? Don’t worry, we happen to have a venom-reducing emerald on hand.” (No, that really happened. Honest.)

So she did the only reasonable thing to do when your sister is a writer. She said, “Hey, Amy, I know what I want for my birthday. A book.”

And I said, “Well, it’s six months early, but okay. What book?”

“I don’t know. You haven’t written it yet.”

Silence. “Um…what do you mean by that?”

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Defending Thanksgiving

If you want to start a heated conversation, casually ask a group, “So, what do you think about playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving?” Immediately, people will start shouting, pounding their fists on the table, and throwing various items of food and Fiestaware at those of differing opinions.

Okay, so maybe not. But I have gotten some pretty heated responses when I’ve asked this question over the past few days, everything from, “It’s a sin” to “It just makes me so happy inside that I can’t wait.”

I am one of those crotchety people who is against Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Just against, not violently opposed. I’m not going to go torch your computer if I hear strains of “The Little Drummer Boy” coming from your Spotify account. (I used to have this as "Sleigh Ride, until one of my apartment-mates reminded me that this song, along with "Jingle Bells" was once a Thanksgiving song, of all things. So, in theory, those two are acceptable, although I question the legitimacy of this logic.) Still, I think there’s something to be said about letting Thanksgiving have its time before rushing on to the next thing.

I love Christmas, don’t get me wrong. But I think most of us could agree on two things: Thanksgiving is highly underappreciated, and in a contest for ideological purity, it would beat Christmas any day. Why? Because Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, while Christmas is about giving stuff.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Making Vows to Me

Sunday School teachers love the book of Judges.

You know why? Because the judges of Israel are pretty much like The Avengers, except with God.

Samson is a cross between the smash-everything-anger-problems Hulk and the billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark (maybe not the genius part, though). Gideon starts out as the mild-mannered Steve Rogers who goes from a nobody to a victorious commander of the troops. Deborah and Jael go all Black Widow on the guys (the tent peg to the temple has got to be one of the best moves in history). Ehud sneaks in and stabs a really fat king, and has plenty of time to escape because everyone else thinks the king must be taking a long time to go to the bathroom.

I’m not sure which Avenger that corresponds to. But it’s a great story anyway.

But there’s one judge who no one really likes, who no one talks about or relates to or includes in elementary school coloring books.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

How To Get Published, Part Two: Random Tips

Maybe I should have organized this list in some way instead of throwing out random information. But organization is not my thing, as you would know if you've seen any of my outlines (Actual example: "Chapter Twelve: Something happens. It's important.").

So here are some random tips about getting published, mostly in magazines because that's where I have the most experience.
  • Almost all of the places where I’ve been published were in publications that I actually read several issues of. The places where I just sent in a story or article that fit the word count without seeing the magazine itself have almost all been rejected. I’m guessing there’s something significant there.
  • It’s better (for me at least) to have a long, unbroken chunk of time to work on the research part of the publication process. Take an evening and flip through a Writer’s Market Guide, going to websites, comparing guidelines, editing several pieces, and printing them out right then to send. That way it actually gets done.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Five Things You Should Love (That Everyone Else Hates)

One of the most important things I’ve learned about writing is something that, for a long time, I didn’t actually believe. It wasn’t a list of proofreading marks or the magical formula for writing a best-selling novel or a time management chart. It was a very simple truth.

Who you are is more important than what you write.

I really mean that, and not in a touchy-feely, I’m-a-Christian-so-I-have-to-say-stuff-like-this kind of way. I mean it in a raw, your-character-directly-effects-your-writing, put-the-grit-back-into-integrity kind of way.

Yes, I realize that this statement could be taken out of context and misused. Are there successful jerks? You bet. Are there nice but totally untalented people? Oh yeah.

But what I mean is that the more you develop aspects of your character, the better writer you’ll be. I’ve seen it happen over and over again, enough to convince me that, hey, maybe there’s something to this after all.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How To Get Published, Part One: My Portfolio Is Not Magic

I feel really dumb writing this post, which is probably why I’ve put off writing it so far.

I’ve had some things published. This is true. It also does not make me an expert, in the same way that someone who has been on a jr. high swim team could be an Olympic commentator, or a student who read the Cliff Notes version of Plato’s Republic should apply to teach a history of philosophy at a local college. It would take the résumé padding of a compulsive liar to convince you that I can say anything definitive on this subject.

What I can do is share from my own experience, because I’ve noticed that a lot of people new to the writing world want to know how it works. I can’t tell you that. But I can tell you the small corner of it that I’ve come into contact with. Please note that I’m still learning and stumbling through this too, and at times, I don’t do the things I know I should or follow my own advice.

People who get published aren’t some rare, brilliant, disciplined group of people. They’re people who came to this often-mysterious thing called freelance writing, worked hard, poked around at different things trying to figure out what on earth was going on, and eventually figured out what worked by trial and error.

Trial and error isn’t always fun. So this blog post is supposed to be the anti-trial and error. That is, if you haven’t fled several paragraphs because of my lengthy disclaimer. (I swear that my self-esteem is just fine. Really.)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Time is Money

Have you ever read the fine print at the bottom of receipts? Along with a store phone number or a survey you should fill out online, there’s an enthusiastic note for you, their valued customer, something like “Total Money Saved: $78.23!” This adds up all of the sales on the items that you bought for less than the normal price (which, in my family would be pretty much every item except for those that are so generic that their prices cannot be brought down because it’s not worth the cost of printing a coupon).

At Christmas, the women of my family will go shopping. When we return with bulging bags and obnoxious holiday songs stuck in our heads, Grandpa will look at the receipts and say, with a good-natured sneer, “‘You Saved $35.38,’ it says. Well, show me the money!”

He has a good point. You didn’t save $35.38 on the three sweaters, pair of shoes, silver earrings, and pair of fuzzy socks that were an impulse buy at the register. You spent $84.99, plus tax. Sure, if you would have spent that money anyway, it’s good that you got some of the items at a lower price than usual. Sometimes, though, the promise of saving money leads us to spend more than we need.

I realized recently that it’s the same with time. One of my extracurricular activities ended last week. If you would print out the receipt of my life, it would now read, “Total Time Saved: 3 Hours!”

Except I didn’t save that time, at least not last week. I spent it in tiny increments on things that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. Daydreaming during homework, forcing me to read the same article twice. Taking a nap that was twice as long as what I needed. Wandering around on Facebook, looking for something meaningful in the slush pile of pictures of people I don’t know that well, mindless memes that might occasionally be mildly funny, and the many trials and triumphs of Farmville.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Blog About Blogging

This Friday, I’m going to talk to the freshman writing class about blogging. Since I know myself, I am fairly certain that I’ll have too much to say and not enough time. Therefore, I’m going to say almost everything here and just tell them all to read it. (As my fellow writing major put it, “How technologically impersonal of you.”)

I like lists of seven. Seriously, sometimes when I’m writing a To-Do list, I combine two items, add an extra one, or decided I really don’t need to do a few of them just so it can be a list of seven. This year, the orientation group I led was Yellow 7, the first (and so far, only) 7 group in the history of Taylor. So that was a big deal.

But next to seven, three is the next best, and since I didn’t want to add too much unnecessary information, I’m going with three lists of three that will pretty much sum up everything I know about blogging, since I’ve only been at it for a year now.

Three Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Blog
  • 76,221 Words and Counting: It’s hard work. I’ve written a novel’s worth of words in all of my posts combined (although the posts are shorter now than when I started). Consistency is especially hard—coming up with stuff to say twice a week can stretch my creativity, which is the excuse I’ll use if you think one of my posts is terrible.
  •  The Ugly Truth: You will find weaknesses and self-deceptions you didn’t know existed. And I’m not even talking about the content of the blog, although I wrote a whole post about that on Saturday. The process itself teaches you things about yourself, such as when I had to stop myself from constantly checking stats for personal validation, or the months when I didn’t have a computer and was stressed because I couldn’t follow through with posting twice a week. Once, I started a series of posts making fun of certain writing attitudes, but it was so sarcastic-borderline-mean that I withdrew the idea.
  •  Hypocrite Alert: You can be held to a higher standard. Especially because I write about my faith, I am very aware that I should be living up to the kinds of things I’m telling other people to do. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean I have to be perfect. But I do know that a lot of the people who read this blog are also watching my everyday life, and they’ll notice if things don’t match up.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dirty Laundry List

Here are two really good options for how to have endless blog content: either be an expert on something or be a failure at a lot of things.

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m the second one.

No, I mean it. As I was looking through entries to find ones I wanted to include on my Blog Birthday Top Ten List, I realized that many of my posts are about all the ways I mess up.

Here is a short list of some of the personal weaknesses and failures I’ve talked about. See any you can identify with? Doubt some of them really describe me? Read on, friend. Read on.

I am . . .

Generally a Jerk: (Tiny Heresies, Little Sins)
Afraid of Grace: (Low-Fat Grace)
Socially Awkward: (The Art of Accepting a Compliment
A Control Freak: (Learning the Hard Way)
Emotionally Needy: (Compass Hearts)
An Approval Seeker: (Living for Applause)
Self-deceived and a Compulsive Liar: (Just kidding. If this was true, then you wouldn’t be able to believe any of the other faults I identified in myself.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Puppets Wielding the Word of God

Last night, after a long and somewhat stressful day, I watched a DVD that is part of the series where about a dozen hand puppets tell the entire story of the Bible, along with church history and deep theological questions.

Yes, I’m serious. It’s called “What’s in the Bible,” and it’s the newest project of Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales. He’s already kind of my hero because of his autobiography, Me, Myself, and Bob, which is in my Top Five Books of All Time list. But these shows are just spectacular. You should really go watch a few clips here. (DO IT. Right now. You don't even have to read the rest of this blog.)

At the beginning of this episode, Michael, the young mini-van riding viewer who forms the frame story for each show, was having a great existential dilemma, much like the various stresses and trials of my life right now: he knew the right thing to do would be to share a Rollo with his brother Pierre, but his selfish human nature fought against that right desire. In a panic, he declared, “I’m in turmoil! I need the calming salve of humorous puppets wielding the Word of God!‏”

Monday, October 15, 2012

Happy Blog Birthday!

It’s my blog’s one-year birthday! To celebrate, take a look at some random stats and fun facts about Just the Fiction, Ma'am. Or feel free to send my blog chocolate cake. I hear blogs are pretty messy eaters, so I might eat some of it instead.

  • 1 – number of posts (so far) that contain a secret code. There’s a very long story here.
  • 3 – average number of times I read/edit each post.
  • 8 – number of weeks I was without at laptop due to a seven-year-old throwing an exercise ball at my screen. Posts got a little sporadic in this era, breaking my consistency streak.
  • 104 – total posts, not including this one, which somehow makes it look like I actually posted twice a week all year like I intended to, when I actually skipped several days (but I had bonus blog entries sometimes too).
  • 200000 – approximate number of typos my friends caught and told me to fix, including one that I caught while compiling my favorite post list.
Here are ten of my favorite posts from the archives, in no particular order, with a little explanation of why. If you didn’t read every post (because who does, besides my mom?), or if you came in partway through the year, here’s an easy way to catch up.

Thanks for sticking with me for a year and reading some of my ramblings. It's been a lot of fun.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Just a Little Heresy

Every Monday, I celebrate a cherished, longstanding tradition that I just made up last year: Be a Heretic Monday. In one of my classes on that day, I try to ask the professor a heretical question that relates to what we’re talking about.

It doesn’t exactly have to be blatantly heretical as you might think of it, like “Why do you keep insisting that Jesus died for our sins when he clearly wasn’t a historical figure at all?” It really just has to be something that a Bible major would be too timid to ask. (As a general rule, Bible majors usually don’t say controversial things, maybe because they’re afraid people will question their orthodoxy and thus their legitimacy as future pastors.)

This tradition started because I usually have Bible and philosophy classes on Mondays, and I genuinely want to know the answers to questions like, “How do we explain the violent language in some of the psalms?” and “If God doesn’t change, why does he seem to give different standards of moral ethics in the Old Testament compared to today, particularly in regard to women and slaves?”

And there’s nothing wrong with this. I believe that when it comes to matters of faith, you should know where you are and how you got there. An intelligent, well-thought-out faith isn’t the opposite of a child-like faith. Kids ask questions. They’re curious. They want to know why. Most of the time, it’s the grown-ups who stop caring, who know the definitions and functions and right answers, without the whys. They know that things work but don’t know how to explain them.

So questions are great. However, like almost anything else, the need to question can be taken in the wrong direction.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In Defense of Ridiculous Hypotheticals

Have you ever met those people? You ask them a fascinating question, like “What do you think would happen if a terrorist attacked Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World?”

And they give you kind of a strange look and say, “But that won’t happen. They have security.”

“Well, what if the South had…?”

“They didn’t.”

“But what would you do if…?”

“I wouldn’t.”

This person’s motto is, “If it didn’t happen, isn’t happening, and won’t ever happen, why think about it?”

And they almost have a point. Almost. Sometimes, I think we do need to bring a conversation away from frivolous hypotheticals and talk about things that have a direct impact on our lives. But I still think discussions of situations that can’t happen are worth our time. Here are three that I’ve been a part of in the past few weeks, along with thoughts on why they were meaningful.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

People Are Interesting

Several times in the past few days, I’ve said the phrase, “People are interesting.”

“Interesting” is one of the best words in the English language, the one time where having a word with multiple vague and even contradictory meanings can be useful. It can describe nearly any range of emotion. Conspiracy theories, as presented by a sincere believer in Area 51? Interesting. The lecture about the effects of the Industrial Revolution on roaming tinkers? Interesting. Your uncle’s tie-dye blazer? Interesting.

Really, when you say a person or thing is interesting, for all real purposes, you are stating that it exists and that you have an opinion about it. What that opinion is, and even if it’s positive or negative, is totally unknown (although tone and body language might give a hint).

So, do I think people are interesting in a good way, or in a bad way? Both, and not because I enjoy ambiguous, middle-of-two-extremes answers (although I do). Because that’s just the way reality works. Sometimes, I see a friend do something unexpectedly kind or I have a great discussion with a group of people or I listen to a concert that makes me happy to be alive.

And other times, I turn on the news and see violent protests, war, genocides, and, worst of all, political campaign ads. That would be depressing enough, but even in my daily life, most of my stress and anger and insecurity is related directly to other people.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Compliments for (Almost) Any Manuscript

It’s the classic editor’s dilemma: how to give constructive criticism without shattering another writer’s hopes and dreams into small, dust-like shards. I know it all too well. Give me a manuscript to edit, and I’ll send it back with Track Changes red ink and hundreds of little Microsoft Word comments in the margins.

That’s right. Hundreds.

Most of the time, they’ll be as polite as a dignified British butler. Unless you’re my friend, in which case they’ll sound a lot like I talk. Which is not particularly dignified. To illustrate, I asked my roommate if I could include some of my favorite comments that I made on her fantasy-in-progress.

Highlighted: “The wall was a mere three feet high.”
My Comment: Why even make it that high? Explain. (To keep sheep in? To establish zoning for taxes? Because it looks nice on a postcard?)

Highlighted: “I stared at him.”
My Comment: Um, wasn’t she staring at him before? Only say this if she notices something about him that makes it significant. Like, “I stared at him. He was smiling like my imprisonment was a good thing” or “I stared at him. He started to do the chicken dance.”

Highlighted: “Nothing could make me feel worse at this point.”
My Comment: “Never say such things. It’s like, “How could this be any worse?” Then, CLANG! Anvil falls from the sky, crushing Wiley Coyote.”

Highlighted: “Death. Death. Death.”
My Comment: Catchy little slogan.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Eight Tips for Being a Name Ninja

Names are important. Everyone knows this. Writers and expectant mothers spend long hours on trying to decide if they can name a character/child “Calvin” even though it means “bald.” We like to hear our own names used. Most of the time, unless you’re oblivious like me, someone calling (or especially whispering) your own name will yank your attention even in the middle of a loud environment.

The problem is, it’s hard to remember other people’s names, especially when you meet them in a larger group. But never fear, my friends, after three full years in college where I meet masses of people and forget who they are almost instantly, I have found a solution: be a name ninja.

Name ninjas are those who have found subtle, sneaky ways to avoid the perils of awkward encounters where the other person clearly knows you, but you don’t know them. Here are a few of the moves in my extensive ninja repertoire.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Candy Land Writing

Candy Land is one of the most frustrating games in the world to play. The second you think you’re about to win the whole thing and take over Candy Castle, you get the stupid gumdrop card and have to go all the way back to the Gumdrop Mountain. Or your opponent picks up the Queen Frostine card at the very beginning while you’re still stuck in the Molasses Mud Swamp.

Once you’ve learned your colors and fine motor skills, there’s very little point to the game, because it’s mostly dumb luck. You can stumble through the game without any skill, unless it’s the skill of stacking the deck. (I’ve seen a six-year-old try that with jelly-sticky fingers and a guilty look…so subtle.)

So don’t make your stories Candy Land. This may seem silly, but I’ve seen it happen a lot. Here are some examples:

All Sugar, No Substance: These are the stories full of pretty people, witty dialogue, and bright colors. Whee! Fun! But these stories don’t last, and they don’t mean anything. At the risk of assigning a cause-effect where it doesn’t belong, I might even say they don’t last because they don’t mean anything. I’m not saying that you have to work a heavy-handed moral into your story or have everyone die tragically at the end. Just don’t focus so much on funny one-liners or a clever plot twist that you miss the point of storytelling.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

My Life According to Facebook

I have a document that contains every Facebook status I’ve ever typed.

It started out as a way to chronicle my life, the small things that I won’t remember in twenty-five years. Then I realized that it had the added benefit of self-censorship—I stopped writing a ton of frivolous posts that no one really cared about. Mostly though, it’s just a fun way to look back and remember.

I can see major events: my first visit to Taylor is announced with great excitement (most of my early statuses are marked with exclamation points, though never more than one per sentence). I can watch change: a freshman year lament that I know no Taylor people who play Settlers of Catan to an announcement of a board game party that thirty of my friends attended. And I can laugh at dumb quotes, observations about life, and heated opinions that time and distance have cooled down a little bit.

At first, one of the reasons I didn’t want to use Facebook was that I thought it would make it too easy for near-strangers to get to know me. I would be an open book. That’s partially true, and a valid concern. But not entirely.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Making Things Tense

Late at night, one of my friends looked up from staring into space and said in a dull, unemotional voice, “Oh no. Stuff is happening.”

That’s not how you want readers to view your story. Stuff should happen – but it should be interesting stuff. I don’t know about you, but that’s one of the main reasons I read fiction: because my life is boring and the lives of fictional characters are not.

I don’t want to read about someone waking up to an alarm clock. I know what that’s like. Now, if your character wakes up to a phone call that tells her to go to her porch and look outside, then I’d be interested. What’s she going to find? An abandoned child? A dozen roses from a secret admirer? A dead skunk? An ax murderer?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

I Am Always Right All the Time

I was going to title this post “How To Gracefully Be Wrong,” but there’s only so much hypocrisy that I can tolerate on a daily basis. As I’ve said before about a few topics, whatever I know about this subject, I know by not doing it.

I am, however, an expert at obnoxiously insisting on my own point-of-view, even when presented with other reasonable alternatives that I didn’t really listen to before repeating what I just said, but louder and with more gestures.

Thus the title.

Debating stuff is fun, and at college, it tends to happen a lot (or maybe this just happens to be true around the people I’m friends with). Despairing professors, take note—we really do think about important things sometimes. And there would be no need for this post if we all had similar opinions on important things.

But we don’t. Ever.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Demonically Motivated Self-Censorship

I read Frank Peretti’s classic thriller This Present Darkness and C.S. Lewis’s delightfully British The Screwtape Letters in seventh grade. Both excellent books, but my overactive imagination might not have needed a double-dose of supernatural fiction. Because from that point on, I decided that I wanted to outsmart Satan.

One thing that was very comforting to me was that demons, unlike God, can’t know the future and can’t read minds. For the first time, I was thinking about spiritual warfare, which is good, I guess, but I thought about it in a very immature way.

One of the most bizarre ways I put this new awareness into action was by trying to keep secrets from Satan.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

History According to Stuff

Last weekend, my apartment-mates and I were scouring the local rummage sales for decorations to use in our apartment. About halfway through the day, a theme started to be pretty obvious: we all love old stuff. A wooden radio, battered crates, a collection of children’s classics from the 1920s, antique billiard balls, a rusty wrench...everything that caught our eye had seen many decades of use.

And then we put it all in our apartment next to our TV, electric keyboard, and DVD collection. Hey, we’re college students. Nothing wrong with a little juxtaposition of old décor and new practical items. (Besides, no one liked my suggestion of buying a large barrel to put over the TV. I thought it was a brilliant idea.)

Our rummage sale adventure got me thinking. It started with a simple observation: we don’t build things to last anymore. Most of the trinkets and tools of our daily life are made of colorful, disposable plastic or cheap metal.

And many of our things—everything from furniture to appliances—are designed for functionality above beauty. You might describe a piece of technology as “sleek” or “modern,” but is there anything about it that feels homey or inviting?

Given these two things—a decrease in durability and beauty—it makes me wonder: What will represent our generation in antique stores or thrift shops in seventy-five years?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Transformation of Boring

Profound thought of the day: Almost anyone can make something interesting interesting.

Some people can manage to make something interesting—such as an epic how-I-survived-a-rabid-jaguar-and-found-buried-treasure tale—boring.

But it takes great talent and deliberate effort to make something boring interesting.

I learned this at an early age from Pixar, Klutz Books, and Steak-and-Shake.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Tiny Heresies, Little Sins

It was one of those gloomy days, where I stare at the raindrops trickling down the window, sipping a cup of tea and cynically reflecting on the dismal realities of life.

(Okay, fine. I don’t actually ever do that. But it sounds cool. Maybe I should try.)

It was actually a bright and sunny day, and I was walking down a quiet, rural Indiana street, thinking about the dismal realities of life, when I had a startlingly pleasant thought: In heaven, all of our relationships will be healed.

The damage I’ve done to others will be fixed in spite of me. There won’t be any awkward meetings. No bitter exchanges. No subtle undercurrent of competition in every conversation.

I want to get there so badly. Because, in the Fall, we ruined the most beautiful things the worst, I think. God is love, so we chose hate. Our relationship with God was distorted forever, and so were our relationships with each other.

Sometimes it hurts a lot. Not just dramatic betrayals or arguments or heartbreaks, but the daily grind of sniping comments, lonely Facebook posts, jealous thoughts, meanspirited letters to the editor, and disappointed expectations—everything that tells us things weren’t supposed to be this way.

Study people enough, and you’ll see it: the tiny ways we hurt others, often the ones we love most. Study people enough, and you’ll start to see it in yourself too.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Benefits of Immaturity

I found this in a journal from eighth grade. Enjoy.

“I am my own worst enemy when it comes to writing. I get excited about a story idea, and I write for a while and then stop. Sometimes I just get tired of [the story], but most of the time I compare my work to the books I’ve read, and I think mine isn’t good enough. Plot line not complex enough, rambles on too much, not believable. I’ve said ‘em all. I know that professional writers are older and more experienced than me, but I still can’t help comparing myself to them. And I hate it that I don’t finish what I start. I know I can’t just keep putting unfinished stories on the shelf, but what can I do about it?”

I love this because it’s so honest, and because sometimes I still feel this way. I’ve stumbled upon some great opportunities, but I know how much room for improvement there is in my writing. Most of the time, I’m like a toddler clunking around in her mommy’s high heels, playing dress-up and trying to be a big girl. I have a lot that I need to grow into.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Not Exactly YOLO

Today, I am sore from moving in many freshmen who overpacked in an attempt to cram their lives into a small dorm room. I have this problem of having a will and determination to help that is much greater than my actual muscular capacity to carry things, which means a lot of sweat and sheer exhaustion at the end of my four-hour shift.

In the casual chit-chat with the parents of freshmen (all slightly stressed and trying to pretend they weren’t), it often came up that I’m a senior this year. Almost all of them asked me something along the lines of, “So, what wisdom do you have to share?” or “What’s something you wish you would have known as a freshman?”

And I blurted out something mundane and trivial about the importance of not getting overcommitted or the best time to do laundry or how to open the English Hall mailboxes.

This is what I really want to say: during your four years at college, it’s helpful to pretend you’re about to die.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Legalism and Spell Check

I want to make sure that no one got the wrong impression from what I said about excellence in Wednesday’s post. Sometimes, I tend to take my perspective and preach it to the world, without taking time to consider the other side.

And I know there is another side to this because when I was a sophomore in high school, I decided that what I needed to do in order to be a better writer was turn off spell check.

Yep. That was my secret to success. I was going to get rid of those squiggly lines forever. Not because I held some hippie-like belief that I should just try spelling words however I felt like to free myself from an oppressive and arbitrary system of spelling. I just thought that being forced to look up words I didn’t know how to spell in an actual dictionary would be a good discipline to get into and (somehow, not sure how this was going to work) make me a more careful editor.

When I gave up on this little program after only three weeks, I chalked it up to laziness and felt a little ashamed of my “failure.”

Later, I learned this important rule: making something harder is not the same as making something better.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rushing Art at Al's Toy Barn

One of my favorite Pixar moments is in Toy Story 2, when Al asks the elderly toy cleaner about Woody’s repair: “How long’s it gonna take?”

And the cleaner frowns down his nose at the young upstart and says snobbishly, “You can’t rush art.”

So why does everyone hate Al (besides the fact that he’s a greedy, overweight, cheez-curl eating jerk) and love the obsessive cleaner who, like Al, declares that Woody is “for display only”?

A good deal of Al’s tackiness comes from the fact that he lives to make money. He complains about going to work, lies to get what he wants, and haphazardly slaps the rest of his life together on the go. Even though he’s the owner of a toy store, he clearly has no passion for it (he lives in an apartment marked, “No Children Allowed”) And because money is all that he wants, he can never get enough of it.

The cleaner on the other hand, loves his work. He doesn’t have to go on and on about how rewarding repairing collectables is. We can just tell. I often find myself wondering, in the famous scene with the cleaner, “Why does everyone love this part? Nothing happens.”

But something does happen. We see a man with passion. Does anyone need to clip a bib on a toy being cleaned, or polish his boots afterward? No. But the cleaner does, because he’s striving for excellence. Every detail is done with precision, after many years of practice.

I love this. Something about an old man caring about his work inspires me. But I’m not willing to do it myself.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Messing Up the Greatest Commandments

I’ve always thought that I’m safely within the bounds of orthodoxy when I say that the Christian faith is about loving God and loving others.

I was wrong.

I realized this as I read an article about the brilliant poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. (And yes, I understand that this is essentially a declaration that I am a hopeless literary nerd.) The author said that, like many genius intellectuals, Shelley had a fatal flaw: “He loved humanity in general but was often cruel to human beings in particular. He burned with a fierce love, but it was an abstract flame and the poor mortals who came near it were often scorched. He put ideas before people and his life is a testament to how heartless ideas can be.”

I’m an idealist. I love ideas and the power they have to shape our thinking. That’s one important reason why this blog exists. So this concerned me, because I never, ever want to be like that.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Face is the Window to the Soul

This is kind of a more specific follow up to the post I wrote about writers and creepers several months ago. It’s a very simple writing tip: watch people’s faces.

The key is being observant, noticing the little things and then knowing how to describe them later to bring a mental picture to the minds of the readers. See what people do when they’re happy, when they’re about to cry, when they’re lying (make a truce/treaty in a strategy board game if you want to see this one), when they’re about to fall asleep in the middle of a sentence, when they’re so mad they’re about to punch you in the face (okay, it would be better if they’re mad at someone else and about to punch him in the face).

What do they look like? How would you describe their facial expression, or the way their eyes look? How do you, as an outside observer, know instinctively what emotions they’re feeling? Is their voice affected too?

Then write those things.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


I began my (brief) career in politics in my high school government class. We were doing some kind of simulation where some of us were political candidates, some were lobbyists, and some were voters, each with a certain amount of money and power, all trying to accomplish different goals.

Now, remember, this was supposed to be fun. But the way I have fun is a little different than the way most people have fun.

To accomplish the goal on my character sheet (the election of a certain candidate and passing of some laws) I cooked up this ridiculously complicated scheme, based entirely on using the fine-print government procedures of proxy voting and bribing certain lobbyist groups with Monopoly money and cookies. (Legal? Yes, technically. Ethical? Probably not, which is why I decided that year that I should never go into politics.)

I remember looking up from my research of Congressional bylaws and saying, “Amy, no one does stuff like this. This is not normal. No one cares. And to get this to work, you’re going to have to talk to those popular kids who already think you’re weird and convince them to play along.”

But, for some reason, I did it anyway.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Senior Bucket List: Be Unnecessary

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, people.

Here’s your chance to get a tiny glimpse of what I was like as a high schooler. Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the terrifying pictures from freshman year (just starting to grow out my bowl cut—no joke).

Go back in time four years and read the words of Amy the high school senior:

They say it happens every year: the seniors suddenly become unbearable.

It’s the pressure, most people say. These kids are going to be on their own soon, and they’ve got to decide what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives. Who can blame them for cracking under the pressure? Or it’s simply the fact that they’re the oldest now, the most experienced, and feel that they have the right to take charge.

I remember people saying last year, ‘I’m so glad so-and-so is graduating. She used to be so nice, but something happened her senior year.’ And I thought to myself, I don’t want anyone saying that about me. So I decided that I want to make as many people miss me next year as possible.

Great, goal, right? Make friends, be a good example, don’t pull rank or slack off just because you’re the big kid in the school. And that’s what I did my senior year.

Now I’m coming up on another senior year. And this is not my goal. Not anymore.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The New Book Marketing

This summer, I learned that all those clichés that made me afraid of marketing were way off.

The following myths can be true, if you want them to be. They are valid perspectives to take, and some of them aren’t bad at all. I just happen to not like them. Because of my personality, they won’t describe my approach to marketing.

The alternatives I explain after each aren’t the only way to do things either. They’re just the ways that I want to do things.

Obviously, all of this is easier said than done . . . but if I’m determined enough to get them done, I think I can follow through. The strategy behind marketing is just as important as the various methods you use. This is mine.

Myth 1: Sell yourself.

This implies that it’s all about me, that I’m going to focus all the attention on myself and what I’m writing so everyone can make me famous.

When, actually, really good marketing is about other people and what their needs and wants are. It’s about having more opportunities for me to deliver on those needs and wants. When you choose to look at it that way, it’s less about promoting yourself and more about serving others.

Everyone I’ve talked to about marketing mentions that with the rise of social media, readers want to feel a personal connection to the authors they love. Writers who think it’s all about them will post irrelevant, self-focused ramblings and will probably come off as arrogant. Writers who understand the relationship aspect will be much more successful.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Really Annoying Writing Habit

Do you want to be secretly despised by the other writers in your critique group? Are you dying to pick up antagonistic quirks that traditional writing magazines just don’t teach you? Will you be the voice in your generation that rises to greatness, while everyone who knows you personally wishes you would sit down and shut up?

Well, friend, today is the day your life changes forever.

That’s right—you! I’m talking directly to YOU.

We here at “Just the Fiction” can make all of this happen. Follow this easy tip, and you can enter illustrious circle of the Obnoxious Writers Hall of Fame!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What I Learned On My Summer Vacation

Despite the fact that this sounds like a second-grader’s back-to-school report, I promise you that it will be full of deep insights and life lessons.

Or maybe not. But it should be entertaining at least.

Tomorrow is my last day at my Focus on the Family internship. It’s been a great seven weeks, partially because of the cool stuff I learned. Here are some of the individual stuffs, broken down into bullet points to distract you from the fact that I just used the word “stuffs.”
  • The quickest way to the heart of a conservative Christian ministry is by distributing free cinnamon rolls along with extra cream cheese icing to spread on them. I have no idea why people promoting a credit union were doing this. But I am fully in support of it.
  • I used up two full pens writing letters and journaling, and one red pen editing. That means that I’m twice as creative as I am critical.
  • The following conversation was great: “What’d you do this morning?” “Fought Nazis. You?” “Oh, I crushed children’s hopes and dreams.” (Referring to fixing plot flaws in a kids’ book about WWII and judging entries for Odyssey’s “Get in the Show” contest, respectively.)

Friday, July 13, 2012

God Does Not Need Me

Have you ever noticed that sometimes we race past the familiar?

For me, this especially happens with Bible stories. I was zipping through John 11 this morning, skimming the story of Lazarus—“Oh, quit blubbering Mary and Martha, he’s going to be alive again in about three paragraphs”—when I was stopped by something surprising: a new observation.

Here are the verses I read, part of the wrap-up of the story where the Sadducees and Pharisees get really angry and start planning to kill Jesus: “Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’” (John 11:49-50)
I’ve read these verses before. I’ve even thought about how ironic it was for Caiaphas to say this, since Jesus really did die to save the whole nation from perishing—just in a different way than Caiaphas was thinking. It’s not a very original thought, since John goes on to explain that little plot twist in the next two verses.
But what I never thought about was this: God doesn’t need Christians to say really profound things about Him.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Survivor and Stuff

Recently, several of the Focus on the Family interns have been watching an old season of Survivor. Before I started it, my perception of Survivor was some island where people ate bugs and did obstacle courses and stuff, which didn’t seem like my kind of show.

So imagine my surprise when I started to really get into it. Yes, shouting at the TV, making predictions, dreaming that night that the interns went on Survivor and someone put scorpions in my sleeping bag . . . it was pretty bad.

I finally figured out why I love the show so much. Once you look past all the drama and manipulation and backstabbing and lying, it’s really just a strategy game.

Well, actually, if you look past the drama, manipulation, backstabbing, and lying, you miss most of the strategy. That’s because it isn’t a clinical kind of strategy game where you objectively move pawns based on set rules. You’re dealing with people, and people have emotions and personalities and complexity that a black-and-white chessboard doesn’t.

In Survivor, you would think it’s all very clear-cut. There is one goal: outlasting the other competitors to win a million dollars.

But so many things complicate that goal. And the contestants themselves do most of the complicating. That’s why reality TV works—because people are interested in other people, and this gives them a chance to see a group of real-life characters as they really are, playing a game with high stakes when they’re tired, hungry, and stuck in the middle of nowhere.