Book-oriented Writers and TV-oriented Writers #amwriting

There are two kinds of aspiring writers in our age— book-oriented ones who get much of their fiction through books, and TV-oriented writers who get much, most or all of their fiction through television and movies.

Since television and books are different art forms, you can guess that the more book-oriented a writer is the better he is able to produce good books of his own. But with television ever-present in American homes and beyond- with DVD players in vans so little tots don’t have to do without entertainment on the ride to the grocery store, and televisions even intruding into family restaurants— we can understand how some folks can be TV-oriented.

I was almost wholly TV-oriented myself. My mother wrote in my baby book that they sat me up in front of the TV to watch Captain Kangaroo at six months. They thought I was a TV-watching prodigy or something. And as I grew older the first fiction that really inspired me to make up stories of my own was the original Star Trek.

But I was lucky enough to be born into a book-loving home. Neither of my parents went to college— in their day it was rare for people of their lower-income background to have that chance. I always remember my father having a collection of ‘serious’ non-fiction books– about the lives of recent presidents and statesmen, about wars, a set of books by Winston Churchill. My mother had some popular novels like Gone With the Wind and The Silver Chalice, and some sets of mystery short stories.

When I was a baby my mother bought a 12 volume set of children’s books for me called ‘My Book House.’ The first volume had nursery rhymes from around the world. The second had simpler fairy tales, and the next had more complex ones. The last volume was advanced enough that it had chapters from ‘The Mill on the Floss’ in it. When I was about nine I decided that the numbers on the books indicated the age of child who was allowed to read it. So I didn’t read the last few books as often, since by then I was finding reading material on my own.

I got the idea to want to be a writer from reading ‘Little Women.’ I don’t know that I liked writing, or the character Jo from the book who wrote, all that much. I just was afraid if I cultivated my musical talent like Beth, I’d die young.

But, more so in these days, there are a lot of people who are keen on TV shows and want to tell TV inspired stories. That’s where the impulse to write TV-based fanfiction comes from. And there are a lot of fans of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter that experienced the movies first, and may or may not have read the book series. If you are from a TV-oriented family where no one owns books or reads them, it may not occur to you that the books can be deeper and richer than any movie could be.

The answer, if you are a TV-oriented aspiring writer, is to find books you like and read them. Novelizations of movies and TV shows count, at first. As a kid, when in about fourth grade I saw another kid reading the Star Trek book illustrating this blog post— Star Trek 3 by James Blish. I nagged my parents into buying me the other books in that series, and later used my allowance to buy others in that eventual 13 book series. Later, after the movie Star Trek 2 came out, original Star Trek novels started being published by Pocket books and I regularly bought them. I now have a nearly-full bookshelf of them— though some very recent Star Trek novels I bought were so very bad, riddled with political correctness, that I don’t think I need to be buying any more. Imagine a character in the middle of action worrying about which pronoun she should use when thinking about a gender-neutral alien species. People that dumb wouldn’t survive long in a hostile situation.

Of course an aspiring writer, even of genre fiction, will want to read a variety of books, including some that are rated ‘good literature.’ Don’t be afraid of trying books like that. Some of them are even better than Star Trek 3.

Advertisements

Should Sunday Schools teach moral law or not?

Jesus. He’s a Friend of mine.

 

I always understood that one of the things we were supposed to be taught in Sunday School was the Moral Law: things like the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. How to do the right things God wants us to do, instead of behaving the way that the Devil likes.

But I’ve read that some people worry that doing that will teach the kids Works Righteousness— the idea you can earn your way to heaven by doing good deeds and avoiding evil ones, no Jesus or cross required.

Works Righteousness does not work. Not even if you are Catholic. Not even if you are the Blessed Virgin Mary. I mean, we Catholics pray ‘Hail Mary full of grace’ and not ‘Hail Mary who is full of good works and doesn’t need grace.’

But children need to be taught, and God leaves it up to us. He doesn’t send down angels to teach kids that stealing is wrong even if they really, really want something that belongs to someone else.

Many of us Christians have been raised in the faith and taught well about the Moral Law from such an early age we don’t even remember all of our instruction. We don’t really know how far astray a young human can go if not taught.

I remember reading on the news years ago of some young woman who was auctioning off her virginity online to help pay for her college tuition. She didn’t seem to have any sense that she was doing anything wrong, rather she thought she should be praised for being responsible and seeking out a higher education. My thought was not to blame her, but the people who raised her who should have taught her the Moral Law to a much greater degree than they did.

When I was a young kid in the Presbyterian Church, we had catechism classes where we were to memorize the statements of a catechism, where we learned about the Ten Commandments among other things. My mother had to memorize these things in her church as well.

People discount this as rote memory and therefore not worth doing, but it is something to hang on to. And there is no rule that learning something by rote memory excludes the possibility of the teacher instructing the pupils to understand what they are memorizing and learn to apply it.

These days the Sunday School instruction tends to be far weaker— in my mom’s church instead of having a Sunday School hour for all ages, the children are trotted out after that pastor gives them a children’s sermon. I wonder how much time they have to teach everything to the few children that come to that church.

I think that these days parents have to take responsibility for the religious education of their kids. You can buy an old-time catechism book related to your faith. Or just teach the kids to memorize appropriate Bible verses. Teaching Biblical moral rules doesn’t teach your kids they can be righteous enough on their own. Just trying to keep moral rules teaches us the opposite— that no matter how much we want to do what is right in God’s eyes, we just can’t do it on our own. We need the forgiveness that Jesus Christ bought for us at the cross.

Detecting a scene’s viewpoint character #writing

When I read a novel for my own pleasure, I read fast. I don’t stop to think ‘this is a new scene’ or ‘Buck is this new scene’s viewpoint character.’ I just inhale the story.

But sometimes a reader— especially if the reader is a would-be writer— needs to slow down and notice things. In a novel written in the Third-Person-Limited point of view, the story may jump around in different places with different characters present. Each scene should have a viewpoint character— this helps the reader feel anchored. But only if the writer has left easy clues as to which character is the viewpoint character.

  • The viewpoint character may be mentioned by name in the first sentence of the scene. In the book I am reading right now, ‘Armageddon’ by LaHaye and Jenkins, I checked several random scenes to find that the very first word in the scene is the viewpoint character’s name. The name should at least be mentioned before the end of the first paragraph.
  • The viewpoint character is the one we follow. Some scenes are in motion— characters don’t stay in the same room or same setting, perhaps because they are chasing a suspect or a clue. The viewpoint character will be moving along with other characters in motion.
  • We are often shown the viewpoint characters emotions and thoughts. We don’t know these things directly about the other characters in the scene.
  • Other characters in the scene become known to readers through the observations and interactions of the viewpoint character. These other characters are observed externally— we aren’t told their thoughts and feelings directly.
  • If the viewpoint character leaves the scene or dies, the scene ends.
  • Every scene in fiction has a purpose to the overall story. The viewpoint character usually has a stake in that purpose. At least the viewpoint character will have a goal for the scene.
  • If the viewpoint character is not the main character or an important character in the novel as a whole, there must be a reason why the author chooses to show this particular scene through this character.
  • Some novels stick mostly with the main character as a viewpoint character. Others have many different characters who serve as viewpoint characters in scenes. Novels with a lot of action in a variety of settings, like ‘A Pius Man’ by Declan Finn, often need to have many viewpoint characters.

Writers and would-be writers should be aware of the viewpoint characters in scenes, especially when reading fiction by skilled or popular authors. By learning how other authors handle this issue in scenes, you can improve how you do it yourself.

Exercise:

Find a book at random (by a skilled author) and pick three random scenes. For each scene, write down the answers to these questions.

  1. Who is the viewpoint character for this scene?
  2. How did the author establish that this was the viewpoint character for this scene? Was this done in the first sentence?
  3. What does the viewpoint character seem to want in this scene? Does he get it?
  4. Was this character a good choice for the viewpoint character in this scene? Why or why not?
  5. Is there an opposition character that is trying to prevent the viewpoint character from getting what he wants? If there is, imagine how the scene would be different from this opposition character’s point-of-view.

If you have any difficulties on the issue of viewpoint characters, do ask a question in a comment

#Purgatory : Second Chance at Heaven?

Some of my Protestant/Evangelical have the odd idea that the Catholic Church teaches that Purgatory is a second chance at Heaven for people who failed to be ‘good enough’ for Heaven the first time around. Others, including nominal Christians (Christians-in-name-only) and secularists, adopt the idea of Purgatory as a path to Universalism, the idea that God is going to ‘save’ all people and eventually get them all to Heaven whether they want to go or not.

Universalism is a false belief within Christianity as we can see from the Great Commission in the Bible (Matthew 28:19.20):

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (KJV translation)

Now, why would Jesus give an urgent Great Commission if teaching and baptizing people made no difference, they would all go to Heaven in the end anyway?

This is what the Catholic Church actually teaches about Purgatory— it is for the Heaven-bound only! If you are ‘saved’, in friendship with God, regenerate, a real Christian when you die, you are eligible for Purgatory to get purified for Heaven. Jesus paid the ETERNAL price for our sins, so we don’t go to hell, but our souls may not be clean and pure enough for Heaven at the moment of our deaths.

This is why in the Catholic Church we call the people in Purgatory the ‘Holy Souls.’  They are Christian people who died with a little extra sin in their lives, who need to be prepared a bit before they are ready for the full glories of Heaven. It is not a second chance for damned souls.

C. S. Lewis, the beloved Christian author who was an Anglican, believed in something like Purgatory— we would be cleaned up and purified for Heaven. Most Protestants/Evangelicals do not. But all Christians believe in the Great Commission, or should— that we need to spread the Good News to everybody.

I feel it is a good idea for writers, particularly Christian writers, to have an accurate idea of what the Catholic Church really teaches if you are ever going to write Catholic characters that are believable to a Catholic audience. Don’t go to ex-Catholics who are now Evangelicals or extreme religious Liberals to find out what the Catholic Church teaches. Many of these people never did have a good religious education while they were Catholics.  There are good books that you can read that will help you understand Catholic beliefs and why Catholics think they are part of the Apostolic Tradition (the things Jesus taught the Apostles, that they passed on and often wrote down in the books that became the New Testament.)

If you are Catholic, you may be interested to know that the book cover that illustrates this post is of Thirty-Day Devotions for the Holy Souls by Susan Tassone, which is a nice devotional for those who are praying for the Holy Souls this November.

What is a Dystopia?

‘Dystopian’ is a popular subgenre these days particularly in older children’s fiction (YA/Young Adult.) But a lot of people don’t quite understand what the word ‘dystopian’ means— even people who are thinking of writing dystopian fiction!

‘Dystopia’ comes from the word ‘Utopia’— a word coined by Thomas More (1478-1535), and the title of a book of his. The book was a philosphical account of an imaginary kingdom and its ideal government. ‘Utopia’ means ‘Noplace.’ Thomas More may have been interested in government because his good friend Henry was a king of England. Unfortunately for More, it was Henry VIII, and when the king broke with the Church in order to get rid of his first wife, he insisted his subjects sign an oath which assented to Henry’s rejecting the Church. Thomas More was a faithful Catholic and could not do that, and so on July 6th, 1535, he was beheaded. It never would have happened that way in Utopia. Thomas More was canonized a saint and his feast day is July 9th. He is considered a martyr who died in defense of marriage and so is a saint for our own times.

‘Dystopia’ replaces the ‘U’ of ‘Utopia’ with a syllable which means ‘painful’, so instead of ‘noplace’ it means ‘painful place.’ A ‘dystopia’ is normally more painful for some people than for others. Think of the real-world examples of Stalinist Russia and National Socialist Germany. If you were a faithful member of the ruling party, even a lower ranking one, life might not be that bad at least as far as the government was concerned. But if you were part of a group the government targeted, life could be hellish.

In ‘The Hunger Games’ you can see how Panem was a ‘dystopia’ for Katniss. She lives in an impoverished district and has to break the law to keep her mother and sister fed. Both she and her sister are eligible to be selected for the Hunger Games, a fight to the death between 24 contestants. But for residents of the Capitol, like Caesar Flickerman, an entertainment celebrity, Panem isn’t a bad place. It’s a place where he can live in comfort and luxury.

In The Safe Lands series by Jill Williamson, the Christian villagers from Glenrock are kidnapped by the infertile people of The Safe Lands so that the women can be made pregnant and have their babies taken away by the state. But the hedonistic young people that live in the Safe Lands have good lives— until they reach age forty and something that sounds like death is their fate. So The Safe Lands society is dystopian for the Glenrock villagers and for people approaching 40, but not so much for the younger people of the society.

When planning a dystopian story, you have to consider both who are victims of the dystopia and who are the people that benefit. There will likely be a third class of people who are at least getting by— the system is something they can live with and that is not targeting people like them.

Should every main character in a dystopian story be involved with overthrowing the government? It’s probably not such a good idea. The teenage kids who read a dystopian YA story will soon be in colleges where they will be taught that they must have an absolute meltdown when someone from the ‘wrong’ political party gets elected. We don’t want to encourage the idea that rioting in the streets is a good idea.

An alternative plot to the start-a-Civil-War approach is the escape story. The Dystopia is bad, but there is a place where the dystopian conditions don’t apply. Your character can be struggling to get to such a place.

Your character can also be involved in a non-violent underground or subculture, like the Christian subculture in the Communist countries both in the past and in China today. Such an underground may be aimed at allowing people to practice a forbidden faith or pass on a forbidden minority culture or language.

A final thought about dystopian fiction: the temptation may be to make the dystopian leaders similar to the leaders of your least favorite political party or faction and the heroes of your own political party or faction. This is not a good idea. Ideally your reader should have to stop and think when asked who are the Democrats and Republicans in the story.

Note: comments with swears and nastiness don’t get published on this blog, be civil.

The #Orville: Star Trek alternative or moral sinkhole

A lot of people who have once loved the Star Trek series but are turned off by the modern movie series in which James T. Kirk seems to be a sexual predator as well as a bratty overgrown kid. Some people seem to think the new series ‘The Orville’ is a enough like Star Trek to be an alternative, plus it’s on free TV so we can all see it.

But a recent episode shows that The Orville is not the family-safe show that the original Star Trek was. The big funny in the episode is that there was a male alien who went into heat and gave off pheromones which attracted reproductively  irrelevant species and genders. The captain of the Orville and his ex-wife and first officer were competing for the alien’s sexual attention and neglecting their duties. The ship’s female doctor— mother of two fatherless kids— had sex with an alien who looks like a pile of goo. But it was all OK in the end because the crew used the pheromones to make two male warring aliens have sex with each other and believe they were ‘soulmates.’

Ok, funny. Not someone one could watch with their kids, other people’s kids, parents, grandparents or pastor in the house, but funny. And wholly unrealistic.

In the real world a military space ship that has mainly peaceful intentions would have to train its people to resist sexual temptations especially when dealing with other species or cultures. There are good reasons why cultures all over Earth have had rules against certain forms of sexual behavior. Adultery not only destroys marriages but what happens to a child when its father suspects he’s not the daddy, and that fact can be confirmed with DNA tests? Fornication with young unmarried women can lead to them becoming unsuitable for marriage. And it is highly likely that many cultures will look at sexual relations with other, different-looking species to be a form of bestiality that would cause outrage.

In addition, it’s very possible that sexually transmitted diseases that are mild for one species can mean death to another. We can see a little of that in the history of Earth in how mild non-sexual diseases like measles became a deadly plague to Indians in the Americas. Not only would Our Heroes from the Orville probably not enjoy, say, a flesh-eating STD, if they passed it on to members of an alien species before they knew they were infected it might well be considered an act of war.

Some viewers of The Orville may believe that one of the alien crew members is involved in a homosexual relationship, since both partners seem male. But an episode reveals that though the species considers itself ‘all male’, females are born (hatched, actually) and they are given ‘sex change’ operations. The alien crew member’s husband revealed herself to be born female, so therefore the relationship is not homosexual.

The Fox channel has a long history of providing raunchy and/or inappropriate programming even if the programming might also attract children, as in The Simpsons, Married with Children, and many others I’ve never even watched. Sadly, the Orville’s content as well as its mocking tone make sure that children can’t be inspired by it as I was by the original Star Trek. If only television producers had not lost the art of making clean television programming that even Christian and/or conservative families could enjoy!

Left Behind: Thinking Characters and Flashbacks in 1st Chapter

Recently I was re-reading one of my how-to-write books by Christian author James Scott Bell, and he spoke of how many first time writers write a novel beginning with a character just sitting, thinking. Often the thinking includes thinking about loads of backstory items, which make that opening into an info-dump.

And then I went upstairs to get something to read and I picked Left Behind, a bestselling Christian novel which made the whole nation aware of the Rapture theory, which was previously pretty obscure even among Christians. And I noted that the first chapter began with main character Rayford Steele, a pilot, sitting in the cockpit thinking.

Now, we know that Jerry B. Jenkins, writer of the series (LaHaye was the theologian and prophecy-wrangler) was not a bad writer. In the author bio in the back of the book it tells that Jenkins had written over 100 books at that time. And Left Behind went on to be a major bestselling book which crossed over into secular audiences. So we know that sitting-and-thinking opening worked. But why did it work?

The scene in question begins on page 1 of my paperback copy and goes on to page 5. I think that the main reason it works was that what Rayford was thinking about was, in fact, adultery.

Now, most people who don’t normally read Evangelical Christian fiction think that is all about devout and perfect Christians who never swear, drink or pick up a deck of cards. So when Rayford starts off thinking about adultery, and about how he feels okay about that because he is ‘repelled’ by his wife Irene’s ‘religious obsession.’

Non-Christian readers (I was non-Christian when I first read the book) were reassured that Rayford was a ‘guy like us’ who wasn’t a religious fanatic or holier-than-thou. Devoutly Christian readers, on the other hand, got the idea that Rayford was not actually a believing Christian but a nominal Christian who went to church only for social purposes and thought that ought to be good enough for God.

The sitting-and-thinking opening also introduce us to some basic facts— the makeup of Rayford’s family, the fact he had not ever cheated on his wife but he was thinking of changing that, and the fact that he was currently flying a 747 airliner over the Atlantic to Heathrow.

Another important bit of info Jenkins is slipping us is the fact that Rayford’s wife had become interested in Bible prophecy and that she believed in the Rapture theory and had told her husband enough that he knew about it (and was not interested.) This is essential setup for the rest of the chapter when Rayford discovers that a number of passengers had disappeared from the airplane and had left their neatly folded clothes behind.

The first chapter goes from Rayford’s thinking-about-adultery scene to another scene that does something that writing teachers warn against in first chapters: it goes into a flashback. The flashback involves a second major character, Cameron Williams, who is a reporter and flashes back to an exciting event he had witnessed in his reporting career— a seemingly miraculous event which thwarted a Russian attack against Israel. (This event has Bible-prophecy significance to the story.)

The problem with a first-chapter flashback, as a writing teacher will tell you, is that you are jumping away from the present story to follow a barely-known character into the past. This break, when poorly done, can make a reader put down a book, never to resume. I mean, it’s harder to stay interested in the story when the author is making you jump around in time before you have even gotten interested in the characters! I have sometimes gotten quite lost in a story because I have a habit of skim-reading especially when part of a chapter seems boring. I can miss the clues that a flashback is starting and wonder what the heck is going on.

The flashback works in this case because it is action-packed, and shows Cameron Williams in action as a reporter willing to go to dangerous places to get a story. It might not have been the best choice for the chapter, but it did get one of the authors desired Bible-prophecy events checked off the list. And it establishes the key fact that Cameron Williams believed in God but had not become a Christian by this point— something essential to establish since the Rapture was going to hit before the end of the chapter.

As a reader, I found that first chapter quite exciting enough to get my attention. I was not a Christian at that time, but when I had been Christian, I had never been in a church that taught the Rapture theory. When I read it I kind of took a superior attitude and thought I knew better than those dumb Evangelical Christians. But I enjoyed the book, and the series, as exciting futuristic disaster-fiction. Probably a reader today might call it ‘dystopian.’


Note: if you are unfamiliar with the Rapture theory, Protestant historian Dave MacPherson has traced the origin of the theory to a private revelation to a young Scottish lady in the year 1830. This private revelation, when made known, impressed some preachers in a church called the Plymouth Brethren who were interested in Bible prophecy. One of them was C. I. Scofield who produced the Scofield Reference Bible which is a popular book to this day. MacPherson has written a book on the history of the Rapture theory as he has discovered it in Plymouth Brethren writings of the time, The Rapture Plot. If you belong to a church or denomination which does NOT teach the Rapture theory, I think it might be a good idea to read MacPherson’s book if you are planning to read or re-read the Left Behind series so you will understand that the Rapture is not a universal belief of all Bible-believing Christians.