Saturday, August 31, 2013

Introducing My Jr. High Self

Last night, I answered the question “What were you like as a junior higher?” with a story about how I used to smuggle 1000 page apologetics books out of the library and hide them whenever someone came by. This was because I felt vaguely guilty for having doubts about my faith and thought the best course of action (obviously) was to read a bunch of scholarly books that were decidedly not aimed at a thirteen-year-old audience. It was a struggle, at least by page 834, when we got into cosmology (probably the moment where I decided never to take physics).

This story was followed by a chorus of “Oh, that explains so much!” from the people I was with, which I conveniently ignored (after punching a few of the offenders).

But then I realized that, well…it did explain so much. Be a Heretic Monday now makes complete sense, as does the kind of things I say to my girls at youth group and post on my blog. I am a firm believer in Christians’ responsibility to think about their faith, question what others are teaching them, and communicate honestly with God and others. And it’s because of my fears and struggles as a junior higher.

As others shared bits of their life in middle school, it was interesting to see that pattern continue. Some didn’t mention specifically how they had changed, or what in their life now was a monument to a weakness or immaturity they had experienced six to ten years ago, but I could often see it. It was like a gallery of before and after shots, only with the grace of God doing the transformation instead of plastic surgery or a weight loss program.

I love that. I love that we don’t have to remain who we are, that seeing how we’ve changed in the past can remind us that we are constantly growing and changing even now.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Writer's Block: Strategies to Beat It

Maybe you had a very clear vision for the first few chapters of your novel, and you zipped through those, typing so fast that your fingers blurred on the keyboard. Or maybe you started with the ending, scrawling out a climax of epic proportions, and getting the characters exactly where they needed to be.

Problem is, what do you do with the rest of the story?

This is a difficulty that doesn’t just apply to the non-planners among us. Even faithful outliners may realize that they have a gap in their carefully-constructed plan that they don’t know what to do with, or that can’t be fixed by what they have as a placeholder right now.

When that happens, I say, go back to elementary school.

Before deciding that I am completely unqualified to be writing this blog post, hear me out. I know an elementary school teacher who explained to me once the methods she uses to engage students in reading. “We have them make predictions and connections,” she said. “Sometimes it even helps them to show events in a visual way.”

She spread out a series of charts and diagrams and organizational maps in front of her. Normally, I flee at the sight of anything that looks remotely structured. When I saw those charts, though, something in my brain clicked. These activities help kids because they take them outside of the narrative structure and help them see the big picture. What if the same thing would work for writers?

That said, here are some fourth grade tools adapted for use by the big kids.

Timeline: This is a popular get-to-know-you activity, along with a family tree, probably because they look good on bulletin boards. Both are also great for helping you understand your main character better—your protagonist’s family and the events of his or her life, even before the story starts, are going to have an incredible amount of impact on your story. Alternately, a timeline can be useful to plan the fictional history of a fantasy or science fiction world. Think about how much our nation’s past influences what matters to us now. It will be the same with your fictional world.

Venn Diagram: There may be other ways to use this, but the single most useful on for me has been a Venn Diagram answering the following question: “How is this story similar to and different from my own life?” Drawing those two overlapping circles has shown me that my protagonist is basically me in a different time period, helped me understand that I was working through my own sense of grief and loneliness in one story, and given me ideas for how I should change the setting of a fantasy so it reflects a different set of values than contemporary America. A self-aware writer is a better writer, and sometimes activities like this can help us connect things that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Gated Community: Who Are You Keeping Out?

In case you missed it, this is a spectacular Silly Song from the days when most of us weren't watching VeggieTales movies anymore. Seriously. Listen to it. I am making this post extra short to account for the lost time. It’s social commentary with singing vegetables—basically, stir fry satire.

Okay, now that you’ve watched it, here’s a question: in what ways do we tend to make Christianity into a “gated community”?

That wasn’t rhetorical. I want you to actually think about it and come up with some answers.

Another way to ask this question might be, "Who is the kid with the ball in your life? Who is the maintenance man/vegetable who everyone tries to ignore?"

In some ways, I tend to be even worse than the suburbanites displayed in the video. I’m not ignoring the world while grilling; I’m ignoring the world while philosophizing about the best kind of barbeque sauce and the ethical implications of eating meat.

I’m not saying it’s bad to care about theology. But I do think it’s bad to care about theology—or politics, or winning arguments, or creating great music, or sports or art or pretty much anything you might be passionate about—more than people.

Especially if those people need help. Especially if they feel left out, or judged, or think that whatever religion I represent clearly doesn't want them and their problems around.

Any time I feel comfortable with my life as it is, I watch this clip and remember that loving others as I love myself is more than just being a good person. It means actually doing something, taking little opportunities to help others, and not shutting myself off from people who might need me.

“And so what we have learned applies to our lives today.” There’s your daily dose of children’s animated conviction. Hope it made you think the way it did for me.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Flesch-Kincaid Levels for Writers

A while ago, I found a nifty website that uses an excerpt to determine reading level on a range called Flesch-Kincaid. This scale/formula uses syllable count and word length to give you a number that’s supposed to correspond to grade level.

After doing some copy-and-paste, I discovered that my last fantasy book came up with a level of 7, just about right for the target audience. This blog’s posts clock in around 10-12 (so if you're under age sixteen, this is too advanced for you--go away). My final Eastern World Religions paper on bacon in world religions was a 15, which probably makes it the most complex block of text written about bacon in the history of the world.

Except then I used Word’s Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics on the same documents. The book was a 4,  the blog averaged 6.5, and my paper was barely past high school standards, at 12.1. Another online Flesch-Kincaid calculator put those same excerpts out as 3.7, 9.1, and 13.6.

What is going on here?

Basically, I have no idea. There’s a set formula for the Flesch-Kincaid method. This one.

Probably the only time you will see a formula on this blog.
That means that both the website and Word should be putting out the same number. I can think of a few possibilities for the differences (treatment of proper nouns, difference in how they deal with syllable counts in unrecognized words. etc), but it still doesn't explain everything.

I realized after an Internet search that I had accidentally stumbled on a point of great contention. On official Flesch-Kincaid-using sites, some books line up very nicely. Black Beauty, for example, is a 4, and level 2 contained mostly short fables and fairy tales.

For others, usefulness is questionable. Sure, maybe a 6th grader could read The Illiad according to sentence structure…but what twelve-year-old wants to? And would anyone want to explain to me how The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ended up with a level of 4 while The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn jumped up to a 10? Either Twain dumped the entire contents of an SAT prep vocab list into Huck, or subject matter somehow comes into consideration. (The site never mentions this in their methodology explanation, so maybe I’m just crazy.)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Gluttony: The Church’s Best-Kept Deadly Sin

The classic list of seven deadly sins is: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.

Now, quick quiz: Which of these haven’t you heard a sermon about in the past year (or, like me, the past 22 years)? If you were ranking these in order of relative badness, which one would end up at, or at least near, the bottom?

Let’s disregard the fact that you were predisposed to answer gluttony because of the title of this post. And maybe your experience is different than mine, but from what I’ve seen, Christians tend to conveniently ignore the sin of gluttony.

The questions is, why? Maybe we’re trying to get away from the stereotype of stern legalists who can’t appreciate the pleasure of enjoying a good meal. Maybe we too closely associate eating with “fellowship”—basically talking with other Christians over some form of food—to think of it in a negative context (long live the potluck!). Maybe we’re too busy posting pictures of the cheesecakes we just made on Instagram or pinning bacon recipes.
I made and ate this cheesecake last week. And I don't think that was gluttony.

Or maybe we’re really not sure what gluttony is, exactly. Only those people on Biggest Loser struggle with it, right? It’s about being grossly overweight and making poor life choices in regard to how much you shove down at once (except at Thanksgiving, because that’s a holiday where we thank God for the ability to shove down too much at once, so he’s got to be okay with it).

You have to wonder, though: if we don’t struggle with gluttony at the time in history when we have more resources, food and otherwise, available than we ever have in the past, should we just erase this one from the Big Seven?

I’m going to say no, and here’s why: I am a glutton.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Be Nice

In my time at college, I listened to probably a hundred chapel speakers and seminar lecturers and special guests of all kinds, all of whom seemed to have a book to sell afterward.

I only bought one: Andy Crouch’s Creating Culture. (It’s really good, by the way, and challenged me a lot as a Christian artist to rise above mediocrity.)

You know why I bought that one book? I enjoyed his topic, sure, and I liked the way he presented his information when he spoke (engaging speakers are often good writers). But what set this guy apart was something that happened over sandwiches.

A group of about twenty students were meeting in a small Q and A session after Mr. Crouch’s lecture on culture. “Let’s go around and say our names, major, and something interesting about us,” the host of the session said, “so Mr. Crouch has a chance to eat.”

He dutifully shoved down a Subway veggie offering while we all did a rapid-fire round of names and other information that we all pretend to care about but forget seconds later. Then we moved on to the real purpose of the session: picking this guy’s brain.

At one point, I asked a question of some kind—I don’t remember what it was, just that it was kind of impertinent and challenged one of the ideas Mr. Crouch had just raised. He nodded and wiped a bit of mayo off his mouth. “That’s a great question…Amy, wasn’t it?”

I nodded blankly. He actually answered the question after that, but I was just staring. He said my name. The guy got shoved into a group of two-dozen and he actually knew who I was! We all knew that the name thing was a stall tactic so he could actually eat lunch. No one expected him to be paying attention, least of all me.

And that’s the reason I bought his book. Because a guy who cares enough to remember my name (and can talk articulately and passionately about what monastic chants and African-American spirituals have in common) is worth reading.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Christian Satire: Is Sarcasm a Sin?

No. Sarcasm is not a sin. I’m pretty sure of this for a lot of ethical reasons, but it’s also worth noting that Elijah, Isaiah, and others used sarcasm pretty heavily sometimes (Elijah decides the reason Baal isn’t showing up is probably because he’s on the toilet, Isaiah 44 makes fun of people who take a block of wood and worship half of it and use the other half to cook dinner).

Can you sin by using sarcasm? Yep. You certainly can. Since I’m a writer, I’m going to approach this from the angle of satire, a written form of sarcasm used to make a point. But you can apply it to just about anything, from Facebook posts to witty comebacks. You see, the danger of satire or sarcasm isn’t really that people might misunderstand you.

The real danger is that you might start caring more about your image than other people.

Well, that escalated quickly.

It's your lucky day!
Let me explain why being good at satire can feed a writer's (or, you know, just a normal human being's) already-well-developed narcissism. (Keep in mind that this is a few days after I posted a satire post on the evils of letter-writing. So I can say things like that.)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Four Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Write Letters

Most people know I’m in a strange, old-fashioned category of people who still write letters. There is actually a line in my budget labeled, “Postage.” I buy stamps in bulk. One of my most frequent complaints is that the US Postal Service is supposed to persevere through any kind of weather, but will shut down for every single minor official holiday.

But I’ve seen the light.

That’s right, friends and blog readers. I have repented of my letter-writing ways. From now on, I will use only electronic communication (and then only when absolutely necessary). Here are a few good reasons to let the art of letter-writing die.

Sorry, summer pen pals. It's all over now. Thanks for writing, though.

I can fire off a Facebook message in seconds. And we all know that efficiency is the single best measurement of communication. Maybe the only measurement. If you send someone a letter, you have to grab paper and a pencil, get their address, form actual words with your own handwriting, and buy a stamp. An incredible waste of your time (not to mention the rising cost of postage). Also, with hand-written letters, there’s this general idea that you should put thought into what you’re saying instead of just reacting in as few characters as possible, Twitter-style. That has to go. In fact, I think all of our communication would be better if we got right the point and skipped any personal information and small talk. Because who are we trying to fool? No one cares, and we’re wasting their precious time.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

God as a Plot Device

You know what’s worse that Christian fiction that crams sermons into most dialogue and concludes with a fake-sounding lesson?

Christian fiction with a few stock spiritual-sounding phrases to make it qualify as Christian.

One of my recent freelance editing jobs was a Christian fiction story written by a non-Christian. Strange, I know. And I’m sure that there are many talented writers who can write convincing point-of-view characters even if they don’t share their convictions. This writer, unfortunately, wasn’t one of them.

The “Christian content” of the story was found in three paragraphs—one at the beginning of the novella where the main character’s mother talks about faith saving her from a life of drinking and drugs, one in a moment of crisis where the character prays to God for help, and one near the end where she talks about how God wants us to love our enemies instead of taking revenge.

I’ll admit, it was almost a relief to not have to deal with the heavy-handed morals at the other end of the Christian writing spectrum (You can usually spot them a mile away). But it was also interesting to see how outsiders think our faith should influence our lives. According to this author, God is a convenient plot device to use when….

  • You need a dramatic conversion to tear you out of a self-destructive lifestyle.
  • You want a miraculous intervention of some kind.
  • You are appealing to basic morality or the Golden Rule.