Storyteller Wednesday: Character Creation.

Bwa-ha-ha.  It can be a bit like being a god, but not really.  I invariably say oops!  And I have even been known to apologize to characters when I try to force them into a box they do not want to go.

Some writers start with characters.  I don’t.  I tried that.  I have a drawer full of fascinating character sketches… and nowhere to put them.  All characters, some say, have their own story to tell.  That may be true.  I figure I may be deaf or all of these fascinating people I have found have dull stories. 

I need to start with the story.  I need a germ of a plot, some notion where I want to head (if not a glimpse of the possible end) and an interesting place and time for the story to get off the ground.  Then the characters evolve.  The people who find themselves in the midst of all those trials and tribulations work hard.  They grow as the story progresses.  They change and are changed in subtle ways as they work through situations and “live” the story.  Sometimes even the end evolves as my characters take me to places I never imagined in the beginning.

I think that is what we want.

But that is just me.  You may work wonderfully well starting with a fascinating person.  Then again, you may get frustrated, find your writing likes to ramble, find yourself tearing out huge sections and whole chapters which sounded great when you wrote them but now don’t appear to help the story move where it might be heading, maybe.  You may be frustrated that your characters are not cooperating and it makes you want to chuck the whole thing on the ever growing pile of unfinished works.

If starting with a great character works for you, great. 

But, if you are more of the latter, try starting first with the story and see who fits.  Isn’t that better than you having the fits?

Just a thought.

Storyteller Wednesday. Writerly Stuff: The Elements of a Great Story

Someone recently asked, what are the elements of a great story?  Everyone had a different answer.  I am sure you have your own answer, and I would bet it relates to a story you once read that you considered great.  It may relate to some ideas you gleaned from a creative writing class, or MFA program or writer’s retreat or critique group.  All of that stuff may be wise, good and true.  I won’t argue against any of it.  I only want to suggest three basic things, because I believe if you can master these things, you can produce a great story of your own.

1.         Setting.  Whether Atlanta is burning or Bogart is stumbling around Rick’s café in Casablanca, the setting, where all of the story takes place, must hold the reader’s interest.  The best words are unique and fascinating.  We may live in a world of Google travel, but the human desire to seek out strange and exotic places is not diminished.

If it is a mystery, people are tired of the same old bar scenes, and gin joints and the same old wealthy mansions (that may be haunted).  If it is science fiction, what makes your space ships different from all the generic ones on paper and in the movies?  If it is fantasy, must we suffer through yet another medieval world?  When are all the demons, vampires, werewolves and slayers going to discover that there is life outside the cities?  And honestly, how many stories can really take place in Amish country among a people whose lives have remained essentially the same for centuries?

Authors who would not be caught dead with generic characters often place them in the most generic settings.  Be careful.  Dull settings can kill a great story.  Make it fascinating, unique, strange, exotic, a place where people want to go (or perhaps decidedly do not want to go, if you know what I mean).

2.         Characters.  Too much has been said by too many people on this topic already.  Everyone has a take on how to build complex, well rounded characters.  In fact, I do not wonder why so many new writers become confused about the issue.  Information overload, and to be sure, not all the experts agree.

My take is much simpler.  You don’t want characters.  You want to people your story with people (human beings).  The better you know people, the better your people on paper will be.  It really is that simple.  Human beings are complex, fallible and, well, you know.

The thing that stands out for me with regard to characters, though, it consistency.  Yes, half-way through a book that rotten neighbor can show that they have a heart after all, but I have found that even for some authors who have well-rounded, well-developed human on the page, consistency can be a problem. 

If Aunt Linda would never say such a thing, don’t have her say it.  If Pamela would never be caught dead in that situation, help her avoid it.  I know the temptation is to have whomever is available say something or do something vital to move the story forward; but for me when people say something they would not say or act in an “uncharacteristic” fashion it can kill a great story.

3.         Plot = for God’s sake make something happen already! 

Sadly (I feel) literature (what some professors and experts consider GREAT literature) remains full of stories that are little more than naval gazing on paper.  I have no interest in reading such shorts or novels because they aren’t stories.  Sometimes I get trapped into reading such works and always get to the end and think, that was a day (four days) of my life, wasted. 

Now, it may just be me, though I suspect there are plenty who agree with me.  I don’t care how great a work of literary art the academic community calls it.  In my opinion, if things don’t happen to hold my interest and make me want to turn the page, I am not interested.  (I guess that is like saying water is wet stuff).  People may respond, but consider the great philosophy, consider the great expression of the human condition, consider the great writing – it is poetic, brilliant!  I just sigh.  But it is not a story, and certainly not a great story.

Wise Words for Writers: G. K. Chesterton and Young Adults.

There was a bit of a stir recently through the Wall Street Journal when an essay was presented questioning the darkness in Young Adult literature.  Curious (to me), when the rebuttals came in, no one denied that the literature is dark.  Some even suggested it was very dark.  Of course, they went on to suggest that the essayist was everything evil, just short of a censor.  In fact, it was a strong enough reaction, the essayist was allowed an unprecedented second column to rebut the rebuts.

The person in the Wall Street Journal was not suggesting that young people be denied access to any to these stories.  They were simply questioning the author’s intentions in writing such stories

What are such authors trying to say?  The moron’s response would be they are not necessarily trying to say anything.  If that were true, why write the book in the first place? 

Okay, the response might go, but they are not trying to influence young people – they are not normalizing the darkness.  Novelists don’t have that kind of power.  And neither do television shows, video-games, movies, or the internet alone.  But in case you haven’t noticed, the darkness surrounds young people these days.  Say it isn’t so.

What it comes down to for me is something G. K. Chesterton said:

Fairytales are not written to tell children that dragons exist. Children know full well that dragons exist.  Fairytales are written to show children that sometimes dragons can be defeated.       G. K. Chesterton

Personally, I have no problem with dark themed Young Adult books.  My only concern is, what are we saying to our children in the process?  Are we telling them that dragons are normal, to be expected in life and the whole world is f***ed up, so get used to it?  Or are we saying that dragons can sometimes be overcome?

I am no Y. A. expert.  You tell me.

Wise Words for Writers: Ancient Roman Poet, Horace

“Adversity reveals genius.  Prosperity hides it.”

No, son.  You need to be seasoned to write well.  Artists need to suffer.  That’s what they say.  I don’t buy it, entirely. 

It is true that musical genius can be found at a very early age.  But so also mathematical genius, and those two are much closer than many believe.

Also, it may be that a young painter can capture an image while still young.  Good eyes and a steady hand may have something to do with that.

But writing…

Obviously, non-fiction requires certain credentials or a host of experience to write about a topic effectively.  People, though, have the strange idea these days that anyone of any age can write fiction successfully.  Story, though, is about adversity.  There is struggle and conflict and sometimes win or lose.  And it is hard to imagine one can write well about such things until they have lived such things

The old adage is not incorrect:  “Write what you know.”  But how is it we know things?

1.         Learning.  We can study and learn about things, but without living them it is all academic.  It is possible to write about life in an academic way, but it will likely read academic and not make an effective story.  There is nothing worse than fiction written by thesaurus.

2.         Experience is the great teacher.  The cliché is not necessarily untrue that to really understand another person and their problems one needs to walk a mile in their shoes.  A young twenty-something might produce a good story about teenage angst; but at twenty-something the story is not likely to have the range or depth of the story the same person might write when they are forty-something and have experienced more of what life is really like. 

Distance and perspective also help in crafting good fiction.  Certainly Mark Twain had to get a little age and experience and put some distance between himself and his childhood before he could write effectively about Tom and Huck.

Experience is indeed the great teacher, and when it comes to storytelling, experiences in the adversities of life are invaluable.

3.         Empathy can go a long way toward telling a good story, if we are inclined and gifted with an empathetic soul, even if we don’t walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.  Few, if any church members have suffered through the kind of poverty and need of some, but it does not stop them from working in a soup kitchen or at a food bank or on a Habitat for Humanity house.  Yes, some of that may be to make themselves feel better about their own good fortune, but some is surely an empathy for the wrongness of those who go without.

Hans Christian Anderson was never a little girl, and while he may have experienced the cold, he never froze to death.  This did not prevent him from writing the Little Match Girl.  

Charles Dickens was undoubtedly a man of great empathy for the poor and working class souls that surrounded him.  He was able to take his empathy in one hand and his experiences of childhood in the other and produce Oliver, David Copperfield and Great Expectations.  The beauty of A Christmas Carol is not found in Scrooge, but in the ordinary people around him who were affected by this miserly, old humbug.  Dickens may have never experienced a haunting, but I have no doubt that at some point, like Scrooge, he came face to face with the idea that it is appointed once for a man to die and after this the judgment.

4.         Eyes also matter, if you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.  Writers, they say, are 50% perspiration and 50% observation.  But it is hard to imagine the young observing much if they haven’t lived, yet.  Travel, they also say, broadens the mind.  And travel through life is certainly a key to storytelling. 

Then there is the matter of being well read, which many claim is imperative to writing well. 

All of this indicates to me that the young might tell a good story, but with a little age:  some experience, empathy and open eyes, they might tell a better story.  This flies in the face of our culture of youth.  Even in the writing world I know some editors who only want “fresh” young voices.  Ignorance on their part, I would say.  Storytelling is adversity telling and adversity lived (even if extrapolated) is realistic and engrossing.  Adversity only imagined is half-baked.  But stories are adversity and conflict rooted because it is what people who have lived can relate to.  It is also best for children to read and learn.

Now, I have said nothing about how an easy life might interfere with good storytelling.  No doubt a life that cannot seriously relate to adversity will be hampered in the art.  Does that mean all true artists must suffer?  Not necessarily, but adversity, at least in storytelling, is more likely to produce genius, or if not genius, authenticity.


Congratulations to my son, Jonathan, on his day of graduation, June 11, 2011, and to all the class of 2011.  May the future be bright.  Now is the time to get to work.  May it always be what you love to do.  Go with God as you paint on the canvas of eternity.

Writerly Stuff: Words on Originality

I have heard time and again that there are no original tales to tell.  That may be true.  If you click on the tab “On Stories” above, you will find brief reads on competition plots, internal and external journey plots and relationship plots.  They are all basic plots, by no means comprehensive or all encompassing, but with a simple look you can see how the same basic plots have been used over and over again in story after story.  For example, how many versions of Beauty and the Beast can you think of?

Then there are characters.  While it is true that no two human beings are alike, we all share so much in common it is hard to distinguish one from the crowd.  We all know love, hate, fear, hope, and we share being born, aging and death.  It may be that along with stories there are no original characters.  Even the space aliens in science fiction and the fantastic creatures in fantasies share human characteristics – which is good because otherwise the reader would never be able to relate.

I was thinking of this the other day and remembered something worth sharing:  Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear but forgetting where you heard it.  Naturally, I forget where I heard that.

It came to me about the same time as the quote that what makes a work original is all in the telling.  This is where the unique nature of the human species speaks.  No two of us will see the same story in the same way.  No two of us will see the same character from the same angle.  What makes a story original is not the plot or characters or even the setting.  It is the unique combination of these and the angle of presentation and voice of the teller.

Given that, it is a wonder to me that any writer or would-be writer cannot “think of what to write.”  Take a plot, any plot, fill it with people and tell it in your own way.  Take Beauty and the Beast.  Who is your beauty, and what makes them beautiful?  Who is your beast and what makes them beastly?  How is it that they come into contact?  What stands between them?  What must they overcome to be together?  Do they succeed or fail?  You know the basic story.  Tell your version, your story in your way and it will be original.  That is about as original as anyone can get, and remember, you heard it here first.

Writerly Stuff: How to Title

How do you pick a title for a story or that novel you slaved over or are presently creating?  Do you pick something that sound marketable or eye catching?  Do you roll the dice between options or pick a card, any card.  May I make a couple of recommendations?  Mind you, I am not saying mine is the only way, the best way, or even necessarily the right way.  I am only offering these thought as something to consider.

1.         My strongest recommendation would be to boil the story or novel down to the essence of what it is about.  I have heard it said that if an author is not able to say what the story is about in a sentence or two (especially for novels) they are not ready to market the work.  My thought here is when you get to those couple of sentences, keep boiling.  What we want is a few or a couple of words that allude to the essence of the story.

What is your book about?  Pride and Prejudice.  It’s about Great Expectations.  It’s about Mice and Men, an Odyssey, The Sound of Music or To Kill a Mockingbird.  Okay, the last two are a bit of a stretch and a bit esoteric, but I think the idea here is clear.  If a story can be boiled enough to get to the essence in a few short words, that may be the best title.

2.         Failing that (recognizing that not all stories are so easily boiled) my second recommendation would be to consider the key motivation for the story.  What drives this plot?  What is the key and can it be named? 

What is your book about?  It is called The Scarlet Letter.  It’s called Moby Dick.  It’s called The Pearl, The Hounds of the Baskervilles, Murder on the Orient Express, The Time Machine.  It is called The Lord of the Rings.  Okay, the last one refers more to a character, though it mentions the rings, but the character idea will have to wait.

3.         Before turning to character names, I would suggest looking at the setting.  This may work best when the setting is unusual or unique.  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a great example, as is The War of the Worlds.  Here, you have Jungle Book, The House at Pooh Corner, Casablanca.  With these titles, the potential reader has no introduction to what the story is about or what the motivation for the characters might be, but it can intrigue, as I said, if the setting is different and maybe mysterious or suggestive.  Thus we have a Tale of Two Cities, The Ox bow Incident, The Lost Horizons, The Old Man and the Sea and more recently, The Road or The Shack.

I have had a story in the back of my mind for years.  It is a Noah’s Ark story as it might play out on another world with an alien species.  For years I called it Prem after what I imagined would be the name of the main character.  This year I have begun to work on the novel, and as I have started, I stepped up the ladder in naming.  I have turned from the character name to look at the setting.  The current working title is “Not This Earth.”

4.         When all else fails, I suggest looking at the characters themselves, and unless there is an imperative to do otherwise (perhaps as in Moby Dick), really only the main characters should be considered.  Thus we have Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, Oliver, Robinson Crusoe, Dracula and Frankenstein.  Note that all of these names are unusual enough to stand out from the crowd.  That does not mean a common name won’t work just as well, though when using a common name I recommend enhancing that name in some way.  Consider The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

This use of names in the naming process need not be confined to a single character when the group may do.  Swiss Family Robinson comes to mind as does The Three Musketeers.  Likewise, the actual name of the character need not be center stage.  I mentioned Lord of the Rings.  Consider also Lord of the Flies, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Last of the Mohicans. 

Finally, you might try enhancing the name with some indication of story direction if possible, such as Gulliver’s Travels or Pathfinder.  Generally, though, I feel it is not the best option to simply use the name of the main character for your title since it gives the reader the least clues about what they can expect and so it is the least likely to draw people into the story.  This is true even if your character is named Ebenezer Scrooge – and you will notice, Dickens did not name the story with that name.

Of course, not all titles fit neatly into these four ideas.  One of the best might satisfy the first (essence) and last (name) ideas at the same time.  That would be “Psycho.”  So, how do you name your stories and books?  I hope these thoughts help.

Time Off from the Trenches of Life

This is Lent, a season for giving something up and spending time with the Lord – for those who are traditional Christians. 

For non-Christians and even atheists it is not a bad idea to set aside a time to try and get a little more control over some bad habits; like deciding on a season to seriously work on quitting smoking as opposed to making some New year’s resolution guaranteed to fall flat by January second. 

For everyone, it is a good idea to take a season to let go of some of the pulls and tugs of this rapid paced world and relax.  Like set down the cell phone, stay off the internet, avoid the multi-media attractions of our age and spend time in the real world.  How about give up the news for a whole week and spend that week camping and communing with nature.

Whatever you decide, for me, it is Lent and the Lord, and the thing I have (mostly) given up is blogging.  (Like a person trying to diet, this blog is me falling off the wagon).  Yes, I continue to post the stories of the Traveler on my Storyteller blog, but that is because they are already written.  Yes, I continue to post Lectionary Reflections on my Word & Spirit blog, but that is because Sundays happen, even in Lent.  But for the rest of it, I have let it go for a time.

Why?  Because unless you are the type to just sit and ramble (and many are), blogging takes a great deal of effort of the heart and mind.  It can also be very time consuming – time I can spend on other writing, fiction and non-fiction, or time I can spend (in my case) with the Lord and in his Word.  Time off also gives me a chance to reflect on just what this blogging business is all about, and that is something that is hard to do when I am in the midst of it.

Like most bloggers, I want to be able to reach people, to interest them in my words and world and begin to build an audience for both my stories and my ministry of the Word and Spirit, but I wonder how effective daily blogging really is.  I feel for now it is more work than return, which is effort and time I could be spending on other venues.

Thus, I think I am going to stop trying to blog three days per week on each blog (which is six days per week or the equivalent of a daily blog).  Instead, I am going to try twice a week each.


Storyteller:  On writing, telling stories and writerly stuff like wise words for writers.

Word & Spirit: On ministry, meditations and common sense teachings and reflections.


Storyteller:  Avalon, the Series, season 1 – weekly, just like the old movie serials where several parts make a full episode.

Word & Spirit: Lectionary Reflections for the coming Sunday.

What do you think?


Wise Words for Writers: Legacy and Benjamin Franklin

Writers are known for having vision.  All of the new and unpublished writers I have ever know are no exception.  Generally, though, the new writers in particular have a shared vision which is  something like this:  A number one best seller followed by a string of successes and a continuous following for generations into the future.  You might call it the Jane Austin syndrome.

Sadly, few if any will achieve that goal – if indeed it is a goal and not just an idle dream.

Still, it suggests the question:  “How would you like to be remembered?”

One friend said, “I would like to BE remembered.”  Another suggested this:  “What would you have them carve on your tombstone?”  Think about it.  Final words.

Famous author?  Saint?  Nobody in particular?

Personally, I am leaning toward the phrase, “Finally Thinking Inside the Box.”

But you know, there are two ways to be remembered.  One of my favorite people of all time captured that thought very well.

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing.  –Benjamin Franklin

Of course, he did both.  Not a bad legacy.  We are living in it.

I might add only this idea to what Franklin said:  Find someone who did things worth writing about and write about those things.  Then again, this world could use more doing in certain quarters, but that is all I am going to say about that. 

Instead, let me end where I began.  Writers are known for having vision, but many writers might better be described as those who dream dreams.  That’s okay.  That is Biblical:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my spirit on all People.  Your sons and daughters will prophecy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. (Acts 2:17, NIV).

There is nothing wrong with visions and dreams, only here is my suggestion and the reason for bringing it up in the first place:  Don’t spend your time and energy dreaming.  Spend it instead pursuing the dream.  Don’t waste your life with idle thoughts about the future.  Focus on the present and what you are doing whether that is doing or writing about doing. 

I believe if you truly strive to accomplish your dream/vision/goal, the legacy will take care of itself.  Then all you have to decide is what to have them carve on your tombstone.