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Monday, July 30, 2012

The Courtesy of Remembrance

While watching the 2012 Olympics, cheering on the splendid athletes and marveling at the pageantry, my mind is elsewhere.

A veteran of the Korean War, in his mid-eighties, lived in an RV on my neighbor's land. He used to help with her horses and goats, but recently he stayed in the RV, watching television, and singing. he was a quiet man, very deaf, very private. His name was Alan.

Alan died this morning.

A few years ago Tom Brokaw called the veterans of Worlld War 2 our Greatest Generation, and I won't argue with that. Millions of young men and women stepped forward to defend this country and the world against the vicious tides of totalitarianism and cruelty.

But only five years later, young Americans were called forward again, to defend a small Asian country against invasion, in something that wasn't even dignified by the name of war...it was a police action.

We all remember Pearl harbor and Normandy...but how many recall Inchon, and the Chosin Reservoir? yet the suffering was as great, if not greater. Those who died are just as dead.

And those who lived, lived in the shadow of Glory. They fought a forgotten war, and many of them felt just as forgotten.

Alan drove a tank in Korea. I'd always meant to ask him about his experiences. Now it's too late.

Do you know any veterans of Korea? At the grocery store of the mall, have you ever seen an old man wearing a baseball cap that marks him as a veteran of that war?

If you do...shake his hand. He put everything on the line, by choice or not, for you. Please grant him the courtesy of remembering.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Character, not Caricature, Part 3 - Memorable Characters

I thought I'd share some memorable paper people with you today, and talk a little about why I think they work. And I hope you'll return the favor!

Ransom, from C.S.Lewis' "Out of the Silent Planet", is probably my all-time best-remembered character. He's introduced as an academic on a walking tour of England, only to be kidnapped and taken to Mars by two rather unpleasant men. They intend to give him to what they think is the ruler of Mars as a human sacrifice, in exchange for the right to take away gold (though one of them has a more sinister motive).

Ransom is very much everyman, a 'good chap' who is 'taken' into the story only through rather resentfully promising to look for the half-witted man who the villain's hired as an assistant - by interfering, Ransom takes his place. Arriving on Mars in a home-made spaceship (vaguely described), he escapes from his captors and finds himself with Hobson's choice - stay alone and lost in an utterly alien land, or approach the locals - to whom he was to be offered as a sacrifice.

What makes Ransom so memorable is, I think, his very human reaction to his predicament. He is by turns angry, bitter, terrified, hopeful. When given choices, he makes the ones with which I can identify - even if they're wrong. His behavior's always within the framework of his character; there's never a "Why did he do that?" There's little physical description - we know he's middle-aged, of average size and fitness.

How did Lewis do it? My feeling is that he followed the dictum, "write what you know"; Ransom IS Lewis. Thus, he didn't talk down to, or try to limit his character, and by knowledge of his own foibles avoided aggrandizing Ransom. A modest man, creating a modest hero - so hard to do, but what a beautiful gift for us all!

(And yes, the name Ransom is symbolic of Christ, being a ransom for us - he takes the place of another as a sacrifice, albeit unwillingly. The story, and Ransom's theological arc,  continues in "Perelandra" and "That Hideous Strength".)

Captain Philip Queeg, from Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny" - well, I said memorable, not beloved! Queeg is introduced as a pleasant individual when he takes command of the fictional destroyer/minesweeper USS Caine in WW2. Yet there's something strange about him - on this first meeting, in conversation with the commanding officer he's relieving, he is detached to the point of making a totally irrelevant comment about the weather, when the previous captain is telling Queeg about the crew he'll inherit.

We never get inside Queeg's head. Everything we learn about him is observed, and as the book goes on what we see is almost comically horrible. Queeg is clearly not cut out to be a captain, and his erratic behavior makes this clear to his crew, the readers...everyone but the US Navy, and he remains in command. The downward spiral of a personality buckling under pressure is relieved from time to time by genuine humanity, and by "I might have done that" moments.

In the end, after the climactic mutiny', the trail of the mutineers completes the destruction of Queeg, and then resurrects him as a sort of hero. Queeg is in some ways a classical tragic hero - a man with a fatal flaw, which destroys him because his subordinates can't bring themselves to support the rank and office, if not the man.

Why does Queeg live so vividly? Wouk treats him, always, with respect. It would have been easy to make Queeg the butt of every malediction, but he's not that...whenever the reader really grows to hate the guy, Wouk gives us a reason to take pause. Wouk didn't like Queeg, I think...but he respected him.

What about you? Anyone you like, and want to share?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Heaven Is Real. It Ain't That Bad, Neither.

(The series on creating characters will continue...but I was asked to write today's piece by a good friend)

I feel sorry for anyone who hasn't had a Near-Death Experience (NDE). It's not that I want you, or your family, to go through the pain and anguish of imminent death - rather, I'd wish upon you the sense of profound joy and...

Aw, nuts. NDE's are just plain COOL.

I've been lucky to have had several. There is the meeting with a guide, or guides; the walk along a lighted tunnel; and the emergence into a place that's far more...EVERYTHING than this life could ever be. And then, the choice to go back.

It's certainly real, and I will tell you know, it's not oxygen starvation. I've been through that lovely experience, too. It's not fun, and as different from an NDE as chalk is from cheese.

It's not a dream, either. For me, at least, dreams always have at least one element of pseudo-reality that I know an't be right - either during the dream itself, or on waking.

If you're with me so far, I suppose you might want to know - what's heaven like?

I saw no streets of gold, no angels, heard no celestial choirs. There was no throne room, there were no cities.

The part of heaven I saw was a wide valley, carrying a river. Tremendous mountains stood on either side, at a great distance, and they were snow-capped. I came down one side, through a glade of short grass, covered in dew, and I could see boats on the river; sailboats, and motorboats. I could hear birds, the wind in the trees, and yes, engine noises.

I did have guides - a friend who had been shot through the head, years ago, and one of my departed dogs.

I did meet Jesus. He had a swarthy complexion, was clean-shaven, and had blue eyes. He wore jeans and a denim jacket, with a red bandanna knotted around His neck. He was shorter than I am (I'm 5'10").

He answered a lot of my questions. Some salient points -

- You'll be surprised at who you meet there.

- Yes, there is a hell, its inhabitants choose it, and enjoy it in the twisted way that an office gossip enjoys ruining reputations.

- The Rapture is real, it's not what we think, and it's more akin to firemen saving people from a burning building than anything else.

He gave me the choice - stay, or go. He strongly implied that I should return to this life.

So I did, and my 'mission' is to live every day trying to display the truth of those three words - Heaven Is Real.

What about you? Ever had an experience like this? Skeptical?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Characters, not Caricatures - Part 2

Last post, I talked about picking a name - and how it can affect the way readers see your characters.

Today, let's visit the land of first impressions. So important in a job interview, on a date...and for your paper children.

There are two ways to introduce a character - directly, when you meet him or her face to face, as it were, or offstage, in which case other characters make the introduction to the reader. The important thing to remember is that the introduction launches that character on a trajectory that you, as the writer, have to control. If the first impression is too bland, or unpleasant (for a protagonist), you may have your work cut out to bring that character back to the arc you intended from the beginning.

Likewise, it's easy to build up a character too much at the first meeting - it becomes an analog of bragging. An example would be describing "chiseled good looks, and rippling muscles". Instant caricature.

Think of what you experience on meeting someone. You get an idea of overall physique - thin, fat, trim. You see the facial features, mainly eyes and mouth. You feel a handshake - firm, or spaghetti. And you hear a voice, and what's said. There may be some body language to read. That is the sum of the first impression. Rippling muscles don't normally enter into the picture just yet.

Here's an example:

"A dust devil swirled past, and I saw him, leaning against the fence, tall and thin, like one of the saguaro cacti that dotted the landscape. A stained hat shaded his eyes, and his thumbs were looped through his belt."

From the setting...lean cowboy, experienced in his work (stained hat), as patient as the land in which he lives (looks like a cactus, thumbs through the belt). Let's add some a bit:

I walked up to him. "You Luke?" I asked.
He turned his head fractionally and spat a stream of tobacco juice, not quite missing my Adidas.

We know more...he's either rude, or cares not a whit for city folk. His name is also a classic 'western' name. Luke the Cowboy is launched...but alas, he's launched into the netherworld of cliche cowpokes! let's try to make him a bit more interesting.

"A dust devil swirled past, and I saw him, leaning against the fence, tall and thin, like one of the saguaro cacti that dotted the landscape. A stained hat shaded his eyes, and his thumbs were looped through his belt.

I walked up to him. "You, uh, Vlad...uh, Vladimir?" I asked.
He turned his head fractionally and spat a stream of tobacco juice, not quite missing my Adidas."

One word changed, two words added, and the scene is totally different. A cowboy with a Russian name! Now he has a backstory. It may be totally innocuous...a mother who read Tolstoy. Or perhaps he's an out-of-work KGB agent?

He has potential. And that is exactly what your introduction should give your characters - a running start.

How do you introduce your characters? Do you have any 'favorite introductions from books you've read?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Character, not Caricature - Part 1

One of the hardest jobs for a writer is creating believable, memorable characters.

Disagree? Quick - how many characters can you name from recent books you've read, versus how many plots you remember? I'll bet that plots win out.

For my part, the author who created the best characters was Nevil Shute. His plots tended to be quite simple, almost hackneyed at times, but the stories were lifted into grace by characters whose company you enjoyed - for their own sake.

On the other side, Arthur C. Clarke wrote wonderfully vivid SciFi, creating worlds that were achingly appealing, but his characters were flat - mere porters for his delightful scenery.

So...how's it done? There's no formula, and you do need a touch of magic in your craft to give flesh and blood to mere words. But there are some basic tools and rules that will, I hope, help you inhabit your written world with real people.

Here, in order of development, are six pegs you can use to lay out your characters.
1 - Naming your 'children'
2 - First Impressions
3 - Backstory
4 - The Things They Say
5 - The Things They Do
6 - The Way They Interact

Today we'll talk about names.

What's in a name? Quite a bit, because of the cultural preconceptions we carry. The name your character has can identify social class, geographical origin, ethnicity, and attitude to life, for starters. Or it can be a random name, with no significance at all. Your choice!

For example, Cedric Walker-ffolkes would, on first glance, be a part of the English upper crust, while Billy Joe Trask probably lives in a trailer in a humid southern forest. Eddie Williams is pretty laid back, while Edward Williams is a bit starchy.

Peter Williams is American or English. Pieter Willems is Dutch; Piet Willems is likely from South Africa.

The use of common surnames can be a useful tool, as well. "Joe Smith" is such a bland name as to be almost invisible...but is that a disguise for an illicit adventurer? On the other hand, Cholmondely Smith is up-front intriguing, but not very anonymous.

In Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny", one of the main characters (neither hero nor villain) is Phillip Francis Queeg. The surname has a disagreeable sound to it, and I suspect that was the idea. When Queeg is introduced, he's nice but a bit odd. later in the book you'll hate him, and by the end, a grudigng respect will have grown. But Wouk uses the name to set a distance of affection between you and that character, and over 600 pages bridges that gap with respect.

One device of which I'd steer clear is the temptation to give characters cutely symbolic names. For example, a few years back a recurring character in a series of mysteries was named Quillman...and yes, he was a writer. For me, and for a number of people with whom I spoke, that was a deal-killer. It was a cloying attempt to either be cute, or to keep me reminded of what this chap did for a living. I needed neither, and could not finish one book in the series.

What about you? Do you have a method in naming characters, and are there any characters whose names you particularly remember?

Say What? Writing Believable Dialogue

In the second of Peter Jackson's "Lord Of The Rings" movies, "The Two Towers", there is a line in which Legolas, the Elf, says, "The White Wizard approaches."

It's a simple, scene-setting line, and in context, it flows with the rest of the film. In spite of its archaic formality, it's not out of place.

Yet, in almost any other cinematic setting we'd care to name, the line would be almost laughably out of place. It could kill a scene or, since dialogue is the only substantial connection between the writer and the viewer, it could cripple the whole film.

Dialogue has two primary functions. Its primary use is to illuminate the relationship between characters. It also can describe off-scene action.

Pretty short list, eh? it's short for a reason - dialogue is not action. It sets the stage, cocks the pistol...whatever metaphor you want to use can fit, but the basic tenet is that dialogue builds a scaffold off which action can leap.

And think of it as a treat for the reader, a privilege to eavesdrop. Solid narration followed by two paragraphs of snappy dialogue is something to which a reader can look forward; three straight pages of dialogue can be Chinese Water Torture.

With that understood, how do you make it believable? The first rule is that whatever your characters say has to be congruent with who they are. Legolas is a character in a story which takes place in a land not unlike medieval England, so we'd expect the archaic and formalized sentence structure. It also fits his personality; he moves with an almost regal dignity, and has none of the hail-fellow-well-met about him

If that line came from Gimli, the dwarf, it wouldn't work. He'd have said, "The White Wizard's coming" in a thick Scots burr.

Second, most of the things real people say is not, taken as individual statements, expository. We don't give an introduction, develop our thought, and wind up with a conclusion, all in one go. (Unless we're college professors, but who want to read about them? I was one, and that is how I sometimes talk, according to my wife.)

But you shouldn't overlook that to fit the job dialogue has to perform, it does have to be expository; it has to have a point. otherwise it's just filler. let your characters make a definite, plot-advancing point.

Third, where possible, the emotion can often come from the words themselves, and not from adverbial phrases:

"I just won the lottery," he said happily.

Would any same person be unhappy about winning the lottery? We can get rid of the 'he said happily' by simply using appropriate punctuation:

"I just won the lottery!"

Doesn't that look punchier on the page? You do have to beware of over-use of exclamation points, though! Few things are more irritating than their misuse! See?!

It's a matter of balance.

Finally, make dialogue a tennis match, and give all participants an equal part of the load as you can. Don't let your protagonist (or villain) do all the talking, with the others present just to add "Amen"s.

If you pay attention to these areas, you'll be a long way down the road to dialogue that's snappy and fun to read.

How do you handle dialogue? Readers, what do you like to see?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Watch Your Language!

As a Christian writer, I often face the assumption that I never have my characters use bad language, and that often extends to the assumption that I don't use it myself...

Well. As to the first, I'll talk about it in a minute. As to the second, DEEP SIGH. I could do better.

The question of how much obscenity/profanity to use in a novel isn't always an easy one. My stories are about soldiers, either active duty or retired. The soldier who doesn't swear is a rarity (they do exist). So it's really not a question of whether to use bad language, it's 'what kind', 'where', and 'how much'.

The first question, 'what kind', addresses the distinction between obscenity and profanity, i.e, is God's name used in vain or not. My aim here is to minimize obscenity, but if a character would use it in a situation, to go ahead. Profanity I don't use, unless the text in question can be taken in the context of a rough prayer.

Where to use it? In general, only within dialogue. Nothing gets more boring quicker than a character to whose thoughts we are privy, when those thoughts consist of a long string of expletives.

The movie "Hamburger Hill" has an excellent example. Two characters are talking about 'boonie rap'; one was sent home from Viet Nam on compassionate leave, and his grandmother fixed him his favorite meal.  He recounted how he said to his grandma, "Could you please pass the f*****g potatoes?", and how it got worse from there.

Should this be in a book? I think, yes, because it emphasizes the divide between the way soldiers and civilians interpret the world through language. But it doesn't need to fill every page. Once, and it's shock value. A hundred times, and it's mental Novocaine.

Also, Irishmen and New Zealanders (for instance) tend to use f*****g as an all-purpose adverb. I worked for a New Zealander, and when he got going, that expression was used in every sentence. I think that the way to emphasize this casual use is to add the 'all-purpose adverb' when the character's introduced, thrown into a completely innocuous context...and then leave it alone as much as possible. The point's been made.

And that begs the question, "How much?" I use bad language sparingly, as emphasis to express the emotion of the character using it, in a way that's internally consistent with the character's personality. And since I can set up the scenes myself, I can avoid description of a scene that would require the use of a lot of profanity.  For instance, describing tactical radio transmissions during a firefight would require a lot of cursing to be even remotely believable. Yes, there is such a thing as radio discipline, and it goes out the window in heavy contact.

But I can avoid that scene, or describe it differently. I'm the boss!

Writers, what do you think? Readers, what do you like or dislike?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Obligation of Courtesy

I've recently talked with a number of friends who have lost their jobs in fairly ugly ways - not misconduct on their part, mind you!

Just demeaning and insulting behavior from their erstwhile bosses. Losing a job is painful enough, but these incidents included cruelty for its own sake. A gleeful, "You're fired!" in a setting of intimidation, patterned after "The Apprentice".

It leads me to wonder if, back in the 80s when we embraced the managerial style of Donald Trump (among others) in the creation of the Me Generation (or the Generation of Greed), we also gave away one of the things that made this country great.

The obligation of courtesy. Not, "It's nice to be important, but it's important to be nice', but the thought that we owe one another polite and gracious treatment that puts the other's feelings first.

And that puts our desire to vent our feelings so far down the list it's off the page.

In the last few decades a legion of psychologists have told us that it's unwise to 'bottle up' our emotions, that it's unhealthy and they'll come out in other, ominous ways. (It is of interest that emotional catharsis used to be pushed for veterans with PTSD...until they started killing themselves after releasing their feelings.)

Maybe. But maybe if we had rules (gasp!) to live by, which disallowed the venting of anger for its own sake, the burden of 'bottled emotions' would become society-wide, a burden we all could share, and therefore lighten.

What do you think?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dukee Plays Nice

We teach kids to play nice, and to share, and boy! is that a trial sometimes! It can be a pretty reluctant paradigm into adulthood, as well.

Dukee is the most recent addition to our family. He's a long, immensely broad dog with a couple of other nicknames - "the walking ottoman", and "flower pot" (because his head tapers like a it's a flower pot, placed open end onto his shoulders.

We have a houseguest this weekend, Jed, a former student of mine from Texas. I'd told him about Dukee's more interesting habits, such as his propensity to push pieces of kibble through the wires of his crate for Ladron, on of my service dogs (a heeler), to find.

Jed smiled politely.

Well, last night Dukee took things into his own paws, and upended his entire dish, forcing most of the contents out of the wires. Ladron thought she'd died and gone to heaven.

Dukee did two things, I think perhaps deliberately, that one does not expect from dogs. First, he shared. Second, he made a larger gesture on that occasion to prove a point (the evidence for this is arguably weaker, but it's still within the realm of possibility).

What do you think? Will dogs share, taking well-defined actions like this? Do they understand emphasis? Do you have any stories of your own?

Friday, July 13, 2012

And Mercy, More Than Life

(First - my nephew Ross is doing ok so far - still responsive. In the morning, we'll see.)

Yesterday I wrote about Sheldon Vanauken's "A Severe Mercy", which is more or less about how sometimes God has to amputate part of our heart to save it.

The concept of mercy's an important one, because it's the active core of love and compassion. Love and compassion are what we feel; mercy is what we do.

Mercy is love that comes with a cost.

The writer of "America the Beautiful" says it best in one of the 'later verses'- "Oh beautiful for heroes proved/in liberating strife/who more than selves their country loved/and mercy more than life..."

Mercy more than life. It brings to mind firefighters running up the stairs in the World Trade Center on September 11, or Father Maximillian Kolbe, volunteering to exchange his life for another's in a Nazi concentration camp.

Dramatic, and far beyond experience for most of us - thank God. But sometimes, we do have the chance to exercise mercy, to exercise compassion with a price.

How? Well, think - have you ever had a chance to take revenge against a backbiting colleague or friend? Revenge that would put him or her down, and vindicate you?

If you had the chance and didn't, that's mercy. Any time you put your own interests or desires aside to show love, that's mercy.

I hope you'll have that chance, and take it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Severe Mercy

"A Severe Mercy" is the title of a book written by Sheldon Vanauken, a friend of C.S. Lewis. In it, he write of marriage to his soulmate, with whom he had the explicit understanding that one would not outlive the other. "The last, long dive" would take both of them, at once.

But his wife became ill and died, and Vanauken realized that there was meaning, and ultimately joy, in staying the course, and living through the lonely days. His loss was the severe mercy that brought him from the pagan ideal of a sort of Viking funeral into the arms of God.

Last year my college teaching career came to an unexpected, and bitter end. I had come to it late, only earning a PhD in my late 30s, and worked hard to get what I considered a good position, in which I could do the research I enjoyed and teach more classes than most.

And one day it was gone, and the manner of its ending left the chances for another position hovering between slim and none.

Did I mourn? You bet. But it is turning out to be my severe mercy, a break that has seen the publication of Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart, the preparation of several more novels, the reconstruction of airplane parts that had been fit for scrap...it's seen my wife blossom in a new job, finding strength in relating to people that she never thought she had. It's brought several new dogs into the pack, who would otherwise have been euthanized, and whose daily joy and, I think, gratitude is a constant inspiration.

I'll always miss the interaction with college kids, and the fun of conferences and research presentations. But God has snapped the reins, and we've moved off the trail, steeplechasing across the fields, up a slope to a horizon backlit by a rising sun.

What about you? Have there been severe mercies in your life? And how long did it take to recognize them?

Launch Day!

Blessed Are The Pure of Heart is now available, in both 'real book' and ebook format! Here are some outlets...


Barnes and Noble

Tate Publishing

Powell's Books

We'll be having book signings at three Albuquerque-area Hastings at the end of August - beginning of September - please watch for dates!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Social Media - A Change of Heart

I'm a relative newcomer to Social Media, and am trying to find my way through its use (my wife's been using Facebook for quite a while, and I've been hanging on her coattails!).

Rachelle Gardner's blog today touched this issue, and the comments have been fascinating. The initial question was whether it's made us more transparent than we'd really want to be, but the comments have gone far beyond that, and in their entirety form an excellent treatise on the values inherent in the Social Media's use.

For my part, reading them has caused a fundamental change in my outlook. I came to the subject thinking that Social Media is more a curse than a blessing, in that it provides a tempting outlet to create a false persona with a pseudo-intimacy that doesn't reflect who we are.

No longer. There are problems, certainly. But when this communication tool is used as it's intended to be used, it allows us to maintain connections that may otherwise have been lost, to share life experiences that may resonate with others, and ultimately to give us a sense of connectedness that is so important in a world that increasingly feels large, cold, and unfathomable.

For myself...well, I'm dealing with a chronic illness that affords the opportunity to experience more pain than I ever thought possible. Facebook, and the blogs that I follow, give me the opportunity to step outside myself. When it hurts too much to leave the house, I can still feel like I'm contributing something.

And that there are people out there who care.

What do you think? Have any of you changed your views of Social Media, pro or con?