Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sabbath Reflections: What Biggest Loser Taught Me About Writing

This week, I was watching the most recent episode of Biggest Loser with my family (I think watching other people suffer makes me feel better about dragging myself to work out twice a week). At one point, both trainers were dealing with a problem contestant.

You know, the person with the attitude who flat-out refuses to do what they’re told. The one who’s always whining that they can’t do it when people twice their age are in the background, turning their complaints into sweat by gritting their teeth and working harder.

People like that annoy me. I rolled my eyes as I listened to them give excuses and said something like, “Okay, there comes a certain point where this is a character issue. The people complaining aren’t the ones who are the most physically weak. They just decide to stop working. Anyone can follow orders and keep going when they don’t feel like it.”

Then, later, I realized that I try the Biggest-Loser-wimp line all the time when it comes to writing. “I don’t feel like it. I’m too tired to write today – maybe tomorrow. This project is too frustrating to continue, because I know I’ll just have to rewrite the first five chapters anyway.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Editing Acronyms and Pet Peeves

Lest anyone think from reading Saturday’s post that I never suggest things that can be improved in other people’s manuscripts….

Here’s my editing motto: Be ruthless when editing yourself, and be compassionately ruthless when editing others.

Ask anyone who’s been brave enough to let me edit something for them: I am addicted to comments. When I’m done, it looks like an entire army of highlighters bled to death on the Microsoft Word document.

No one is ever obligated to take my suggestions. I often tell the writers to get second opinions. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have made a comment if, as a reader, I didn’t think there was a problem that needed to be fixed.

I admit that sometimes it’s hard for me to listen to advice from others, especially if it means major changes (mostly because I’m notoriously lazy). It’s easy for us to fall in love with our first drafts and not want to make changes to them.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sabbath Reflections: Don't Be These People

Writers groups are strange, confusing things. All writers talk about how important they are, yet most of us dread submitting our work for the critique of the group.

Why? Probably a lot of reasons (some of which have to do with insecurity or fear or anti-social hermit writer-ness, but I’ll deal with that later). I think one of the main reasons, though, is because sometimes writers can be jerks to other writers, even unintentionally.

As I was thinking about this post, I realized that writers’ groups resemble Bible study groups during prayer request time in a lot of ways, so I decided to compare them. Here are some bad examples from both groups:

Bible Study Member: The Person Who Brags Using Prayer Requests As a Front – Yeah, we get that we’re supposed to rejoice with those who rejoice. But when Joe just lost his job, it’s a little rude for Jane to go on and on about her promotion and salary and new office where she can actually grow houseplants because it has floor-to-ceiling windows.
Writers Group Equivalent: The Person Who Subtly Flaunts His Success – Again, nothing wrong with getting excited about places you’ve been published. But there’s a line there somewhere. Something that helps me is to picture myself as Joe or someone else in the group, listening to the words I’m saying. What would Joe think about Amy based on what she just said?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What Mafia Taught Me About Antagonists

Just so everyone is clear, we are talking about Mafia the game. It is not, in fact, some kind of assassination spree where we smoke cigars and talk in strange accents. The basic premise is much less violent: everyone gets a card that indicates whether they are a citizen or a mafia member. Before each round, the mafia members kill someone, and at the end of each round, the citizens lynch someone, attempting to get the mafia out of the game.

Besides being a very fun and entertaining game (especially the Star Wars version), Mafia has taught me three things about making my villains more complex. Here they are:

  1. The antagonists we dislike the most are the ones we once trusted.

My sister is a master of this one. When she’s the mafia, she’ll talk to people on either side of her and get them to trust her. They work together the whole game…until my sister is killed and reveals her true, sinister nature. Or, even more likely, when she wins and all the citizens are dead. Looking back, the citizens can see exactly how they were manipulated, but, at the time, they never saw it coming.

Let me tell you, that kind of backstabbing betrayal makes for a very dramatic scene. The same is true for writing. Sometimes, it’s good to have a villain we love to hate. When the sides are clearly drawn in the battle of good and evil, we all know that the guy dressed in black on the black horse with the black skull-adorned weapon is the bad guy.

At other times, though, it’s fun to use an antagonist who isn’t so obvious. When the protagonist (or even some of the minor characters) trust a character who then turns on them, that’s interesting – if it’s done well.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sabbath Reflections: Teach Me Something

This week, I was interviewing my jr. highers for a presentation on what teens are reading. When I asked them what they liked in a Bible study or devotional guide, they all said they needed to be challenged. My favorite quote from one of the girls was, “Teach me something I can’t figure out on my own.”

Then I realized something: I don’t say that very often, for two reasons. First, I’m not very teachable. Second, I like to figure everything out on my own.

This is a problem.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I Shot The Sheriff


There is no reason for me starting this blog post this way except that I’ve always wanted to do that and I am far too Yankee to try it in person. And the fact that I’m going to talk about secondary characters and Bang!, which is a Wild West card game.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, here’s a quick summary. Each player gets a role card that determines how they win the game: either sheriff, vice, outlaw, or renegade. Only the sheriff is allowed to reveal his role. To win, the sheriff must kill the outlaws, the vices must keep the sheriff alive, the outlaws must kill the sheriff, and the renegade must kill everyone…ending with a one-on-one showdown with the sheriff.

You’d think that, since everyone is trying to win, it would become immediately clear who is who. Not so. There’s an obvious way to play your character, and several more subtle ones.

That’s true with secondary characters. Most of the time, we expect them to fit certain stereotypes. Sometimes, though, other kinds of characters can be more interesting and actually help advance the plot instead of serving as human scenery.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sabbath Reflections: God Is Not Mr. Potato Head

Have you seen the new Mr. Potato Heads? I’m telling you, these things have accessories like you wouldn’t believe. Kids whose parents buy the whole plastic wardrobe can mix-and-match and create whatever type of potato they want. They can change its gender, emotions, occupation, and fashion sense just by choosing which implements they want to include and which ones they don’t.

A lot of Christians try to do this with God.

We tend to make God what we want Him to be. If we are all about mercy, then God is loving, sometimes to the exclusion of His justice. Slap on the blue hat with little daisies. If we don’t want people to get away with nonsense, God is just and all-powerful. Break out the angry eyes.

If God is a manageable plastic spud with interchangeable parts, then we can worship Someone we’re comfortable with. In a way, we are putting ourselves in control. Even worse, we are diluting the awesome, mind-blowing transcendence of God – the quality that allows Him to say, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are higher than your ways.”

We’re not worshipping an idol, not exactly…but we are making God in our own image.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Playing Settlers with Protagonists

In this post, I am officially breaking every rule of writing to a general audience, including, but not limited to, avoiding insider language, being too specific and technical, and using an illustration that may not be familiar to all of my readers. I acknowledge this and accept any horrible penalties that may be inflicted upon me by the muse and/or some mysterious board of editors who police things like this.

That said, even if you’re not familiar with the board game Settlers of Catan (which you really should be), this quiz can still be helpful. Just ignore the terminology.

We’re going to do an analogy here, so track with me. In Settlers, the goal is to win the game. In your story, the protagonist’s goal is…well, whatever his goal is. As the writer, it helps to know how your protagonist will try to reach that goal, and how he will react to people who stand in the way. These kind of tendencies are the same that can be seen in others while playing strategy games. Thus the analogy.

Take the quiz for your protagonist and deal him a hand (or her, but I use the masculine here because I think he/she gets annoying).