Saturday, September 28, 2013

Twitter Is Not The Problem

I always thought Twitter was a terrible idea.

What could you possibly say in 140 characters or less that means anything? Why have we become a culture that collects tiny, vulnerable fragments of other people’s lives and judges them as worthy or unworthy based on how witty we think they are? How can we value questions without easy answers if we cater to attention spans that stopped reading this blog after the first sentence?

In some ways, I still have those concerns. But I also see the value in Twitter for several reasons I won’t get into here.

More importantly, though, I realized that my concerns about Twitter were completely hypocritical.

Let me explain.

Today, I started a Twitter account. (@mondayheretic after Be a Heretic Monday.)

Today, I also passed by hundreds of strangers in a big city, most of whom I will never see again. Some of them talked too loudly or smelled bad or didn’t do a good job of managing their children, and I resented them for this, or for the simple fact that they were in my way. I did not meet their eyes. I did not wonder what their stories were.

I smiled and said, “Have a nice day” to the sales clerk even though I really didn’t care if she had a nice day or not, and the smile barely flickered to my eyes before dying.

I experienced life in 140 characters or less, and I was okay with that.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

13 Places to Get Ideas

Some days, you just don't feel very creative. And writers are notoriously bad at answering the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" so that's not very helpful. If you're in need of a new idea or want some fun story starters, here are a few places to look.

Advice Columns: Read a letter and the response, then think of what would happen if the person involved did the opposite of what they were told. Or read the response and try to figure out what the problem was. Imagine more details about the people involved. Put the letter in a different country or time period and think about how the advice would change.

Book Covers: Look at the cover of a book and cover up the title before reading it. Then invent a short description of what the plot might be based on the cover. Uncover the title and see if that adds another dimension to your plot or changes your original impression. Then compare the description on the back to the one you came up with.

Comic Strips: Find one of your favorites and ask the question, “What would need to happen to turn this strip into a tragedy instead of a comedy?” White out the speech in the bubbles and give it a try.

Discarded Paper: See the above book by Bill Keaggy. It contains his commentary on hundreds of abandoned grocery lists he collected from shopping carts. (My favorite contained the poignant line, “If you buy more rice, I’ll punch you.”) Give it a try—pick up a stray piece of paper you see at the store or on the street or tucked in a library book. See what you can learn about the person who threw it away. Make the rest up.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Be a Heretic Monday Starter Kit

A Handy Definition

Be A Heretic Monday: An unofficial weekly holiday that takes place on the Monday of every week, wherein Christians are allowed and encouraged to ask extremely difficult questions about their faith, even those that relate to the very pillars of their beliefs. This might take the form of a letter to a spiritual leader, an informal discussion with a friend, a Heresy Dinner with a group, or simple introspection.

I celebrate this almost every week, and have for two years. It’s challenged me, helped me grow, and given me an excuse to have conversations with others that go beyond surface-level “Nice weather we’re having.”

Not this kind of heresy. No fire involved. (Sorry, pyromaniacs.)

Why Practice Be a Heretic Monday?

One: Seeking truth is fun, and beautiful, and an act of worship.

Two: The common stereotype of a Christian is someone who blindly and not-very-intelligently accepts teachings she doesn’t really understand or know much about. While faith is central to Christianity, faith is not the same thing as sitting back and letting others do the work of interpretation and critical thinking. Asking hard questions will help us be more open to hard questions from others who don’t share our beliefs. (Note that I didn’t say it would give us the answers to solve all theological problems and refute all arguments.)

Three: We need to care more about what we believe. If we aren’t bothered by injustice or contradictions or how we should apply ethics to our lives or what others’ perception of God is because of the way they interpret the Bible, we are losing something really, really important. (Rachel Held Evans talks about this problem here.)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Figuring Out the Sea

Like most webcomics, xkcd--a comic with an affinity for lowercase letters and nerdy references--appeals to a particular audience, has a certain tone, and doesn’t vary too much in format.

Except last April, when xkcd's creator, Randall Munroe, started posting a series called “Time.” Read about it here for more details. It’s pretty cool.

The basic plot of this 3,000+ panel comic involves two people who are concerned about why the sea seems to be rising, so they go on a journey to find out why. I know this because one summer evening without much else going on, I watched the whole thing. And this frame right here was by far my favorite.

The reason I love this? The speaker isn’t going to give up on figuring out the sea. That’s a good, important goal. But he would be satisfied with just finding more beautiful places even if he doesn’t find answers.

It is extremely unfortunate that I have Miley Cyrus’s song, “The Climb” coming to mind right now. But that is what is happening.

Why? Well, I remember a discussion of her lyrics that went something like this:

Person 1: Wait, why doesn’t it matter what’s waiting on the other side? Isn’t that kind of the point of the climb?

Person 2: Yeah, what if you went over the mountain and you found a desert or something?

Person 3: Or what if you were Frodo and you climbed up Mount Doom only to find a happy meadow with fluffy bunnies and puppies frolicking around? That would be bad too. Because then you wouldn’t be able to destroy the ring. Unless one of the bunnies took it the rest of the way.

(Fine, yes, I was Person 3. Someone really should make a LOTR montage with “The Climb” in the background. Picture that with me for a moment, please.)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Not-So-Minor-Changes, Part Three

(Part Three in a three-part series about how to edit when you run into a major problem. Check out Parts One and Two.)

Three: “There are long sections of my novel where it feels like nothing is happening. But those chapters still have important information in them, so I kind of have to keep them.”

This has happened to me a lot, since I don’t usually outline before I start writing. Pace is a big reason to rewrite sections. The plot has to keep moving.

Before you do anything else, identify your “lullaby” sections. This is what I call the boring parts, the chapters readers would be tempted to skip if they were in a hurry to get to the end. Then try one (or more) of these ideas:

Add conflict. It’s fine to have chapters where there aren’t any explosions, shouting matches, or cave-ins. But it’s not acceptable to have a chapter without conflict. Easiest way to have conflict? Work with the characters you have. If you haven’t noticed in your interactions with others, people are experts at creating conflict. They have different goals, have the same goal but different ways of getting there, hate something the other likes, want to avoid confrontation, love confrontation, say things they don’t mean, refuse to say things they should have said a long time ago, and generally are excellent at adding tension to a scene. Also, people and their interactions—positive or negative—are extremely interesting to us. We are drawn toward dialogue because of that. Try putting a little conflict in to liven up scenes where not much is going on.

Friday, September 13, 2013

You Are Not a Failure

(This is a blog post to myself about two months ago, and probably to myself at several points in the future. And if anyone else is in one of these times right now, it’s for you too. Welcome. I wish I could give you a hug too, but that’s one of the limitations of a blog that I don’t think they’ve figured out how to overcome yet.)

The following is a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor who wrote lots of great books on discipleship, struggled with depression, and joined a plot to assassinate Hitler (and also had an awesome grandma).

Best resume ever, right? I want to be this guy.

“Our real trouble is not doubt about the way upon which we have set out, but our failure to be patient, to keep quiet. We still cannot imagine that today God really doesn’t want anything new for us, but simply to prove us in the old way. That is too petty, too monotonous, too undemanding for us. And we simply cannot be content with the fact that God’s cause is not always the successful one, that we really could be ‘unsuccessful’: and yet be on the right road.”

Wow. There’s a lot there. So much that I’m going to go through it again, broken up with a little bit of my own narration. You should probably be able to tell who said what.

“Our real trouble is not doubt about the way upon which we have set out, but our failure to be patient, to keep quiet.”

You can pray and pray about God’s will and end up in a place that feels frustrating and lonely and way too quiet, and wonder if God is even listening at all. Or you can make a ton of noise, trying to cover up the nagging feeling that things aren’t all right and they never will be. It’s hard to listen and wait, and most of the time, we feel like we shouldn’t have to.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Not-So-Minor-Changes, Part Two

(Part Two in a series of tips about how to make major changes to your novel while editing. You can read Part One here.)

Two: “My beginning/ending is a letdown, and I don’t know what’s wrong.”

For some reason, the first and last thing we write tends not to be our best work. (Maybe you’re one of those people who write brilliant opening lines and climaxes in the very first draft. Congratulations. Also, I hate you.)

Honestly, with this one, there’s only one solution: try things. Open with a flashback from the narrator’s childhood. Open right in the middle of a scene when the readers don’t know what’s going on. Open with dialogue between the two main characters. Open with the perspective of the murderer. Open with anything but an alarm clock going off or a dream sequence (both clich├ęs that have to be done really well to be original).
You know what I love about this picture? The fact that "Keep Calm" posters have become just as cliche as the story device listed on this one.

Try an ending that explains what happens to every single character, as well as one that leaves several subplots dangling. Try an ending right after the climax, and one that rambles gently through a scene of reconciliation and repair afterward. Try letting the narrator address the reader directly, try a final exchange between the main character and someone important in his or her life, try a graveside goodbye, a letter, an introspective assessment of what happened, a bystander’s observation on the whole affair. Try anything and everything, and go with what you like best.

(Note: this is not the same thing as "go with what your friend likes best"or "go with what feels safest" or even "go with what's marketable." It is also, however, not the same as, "go with what you like best even if several editors said it didn't work for them.")

Most of all, try an ending with hope. That doesn’t mean your last few pages have to be happy. Actually, if you like, nearly everyone on your cast list can be dead, but the reader has to feel that they died with purpose, or that tomorrow will be better, or that we learned something very important about people and life and love. As Anne Lamott advised writers in Bird by Bird: “In general…there’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.”

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Moving Van Theology: Seeking a Homeland

One week from today, I will be moving to Minnesota to start a new job. This is an exciting and terrifying thing.

Packing and organizing all of my things, however, is only terrifying. And also extremely boring and not rewarding at all for someone who hates details and planning with a passion usually reserved for rodents and parasitic insects.

Boxes, Part 1. Did I know I had this much stuff? No. No, I did not.

So, what’s a disorganized person to do? Think about theology while folding T-shirts and getting rid of old scrapbooking supplies, of course. So, I present for your consideration: Moving Van Theology. It’s what’s kept me sane over the past few days.

Hebrews 11 has been my favorite chapter of the Bible since I was old enough to decide that I needed a favorite chapter of the Bible (probably in my slightly-self-righteous sixth grader phase). My logic went (and goes) something like this: it has stories, and stories are great.

There are a few verses in the middle of the chapter that always seemed strange to me, though. They form a beautifully melancholy interlude, like someone decided to throw a bridge in a minor key into some peppy little pop song. (Someone please tell me you just inserted a movement of “Moonlight Sonata” after the chorus of “Call Me Maybe.” No? Just me? Darn.)

Anyway, this is what Hebrews 11:13 says: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”

Wait, hold up. They did get what they were promised…didn’t they? Noah saw the rain come, justifying the crazy build-a-boat-in-the-desert scheme that had been his reality for decades. Abraham and Sarah were changing diapers at the age most people are checking into a retirement home. Moses eventually left a ruined, plague-broken Egypt behind him without even an “I told you so” to Pharaoh. The walls fell, the armies fled, the lions decided it wasn’t time for dinner after all. Victory and vindication arrived at long last.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Not-So-Minor-Changes, Part One

Many writers don't enjoy micro-editing: the teeny tiny little changes and grammar rules that they have to follow to make their fiction flawless. It can get a little tedious, and there are always going to be a few things that slip by. Beyond proofreading, I've also written a post about small changes to strengthen your story, little things to add or take away or watch out for.

Sometimes, though, the alternative is even more daunting. It's the scenario every writer is secretly afraid of: what if, reading over your manuscript, you find something that takes more than just a fine-tuning or an inserted sentence? What if it looks like you'll have to get rid of whole chapters, rework an entire sub-plot, or even *gasp* start over?

First, panic. Go ahead. It’s totally natural. The rest of this post will be here when you’re done having an emotional meltdown.
Basically, red ink is scary. Even if you're editing yourself.
Okay, if you’re back and ready for some advice, I have some for you. Basically, making major changes requires a balance between two opposite-yet-still-true-statements.

True Thing 1: you may not need to change everything. Sometimes, there are ways to solve even seemingly unsolvable problems with the plot or structure of a novel. Don’t assume you’ll have to scrap the entire thing.

True Thing 2: Sometimes you may have to change everything. Or, at least, it will feel this way. You might need to get rid of a cherished character, cut out a plot twist you found particularly clever, or say goodbye to a chapter that was crammed full of your most heart-wrenching dialogue.

Do it anyway. Your story will be better for it. (I feel a little bit like a camp counselor telling the little rookie that getting poison ivy, eating mystery meat, and sleeping in the rain “builds character.” But it’s still true, anyway.) When you get so attached to a line or chapter or event in your story that you can’t bear the thought of changing it, then you’ve stopped caring about the story you want your readers to hear. Basically, you get to choose: will I put in the effort to make this the best story possible, or will I cheat my readers by ignoring this change that needs to be made?