I was asked to give a devotional for the June 24, 2017 meeting of the South Carolina chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW). The pattern they prefer is 1) a bible verse, 2) reflection from personal testimony or other illustration, 3) a lesson learned or life application, and 4) a prayer. I chose to draw from the story of David and Goliath.
David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground (1 Sam 17:49).
I remember when the writing bug bit me. I thought about Jesus and the sinful woman, and something stirred in me. I grabbed a pen and notebook and started writing the story as if Jesus were telling it. I didn’t think about it. I wouldn’t even have attempted it if I had. But somehow the story just flowed out of me. I looked at it and realized I had to be a writer.
After that, it was like I was on a writer’s high. I wrote constantly and thought everything on the pages was brilliant. I would write, look at it, and I was like, “I can’t believe I wrote this.”
Some months later, the high wore off. As I studied more about what makes good writing, I found my clever turns of phrase were really clichés. My profound comments on the human condition were breaking connection with my POV character. My masterpieces were filled with rookie mistakes. Weak verbs, info-dumps, irrelevant details, characters that were spokespersons for my beliefs rather than real people, not enough emotion and suspense, too much internal dialogue, tell don’t show. And I looked at it, and I was like, “I can’t believe I wrote this.” Not in the good way. I was writing, but I still had a lot to learn about the craft of writing publishable stories.
We’ve all heard the story of David and Goliath. Do you remember that when David told Saul he would fight the giant, Saul gave him his armor and weapons? And what happened? That’s right. He did not take it. The armor probably didn’t fit. Don’t forget Saul was the tallest man in Israel. That’s why they wanted him to be king. And David had never worn armor or used a sword or spear. So he went into the fight with what he knew, a sling and five smooth stones from the brook.
But after that initial glory, David would be called upon to lead the armies of Israel. He had to learn new skills and techniques. He had to learn how to speak in a commanding and inspiring manner, make battle plans, lead marches, choose terrain for battle, maneuver units to outflank the enemy, coordinate infantry, chariots, and slingers, and start wearing the armor and using the sword and spear he had not been ready to use against Goliath.
As writers, we will probably never be called upon to lead armies or kill giants. Unless we want to write stories about them. But like David, this calling to be a writer will require we learn new skills and concepts like, plotting, characterization, style, dialogue, creating scenes, how to work in description and backstory without bringing the action to a screeching halt, and what exactly does “Show don’t tell” mean?
So if you find yourself annoyed with all the technical stuff about writing, think about David. He may have had moments when he pined for his sling and a giant to take down. But after Goliath, there were no more giants. If he was going to make the transition from baddest slinger in the Middle East to commander of the armies and eventually to king of Israel, it was time to put his sling down, put his armor on, and practice with his sword and shield. And also like David, whatever new adventures writing brings you, keep your faith in God.
Prayer: Lord God, thank you for your gift of the written word. Bless this ACFW chapter to train and equip these people gathered here to make the most of their gift and calling, so that we may point others to the light of Christ. And it’s in his name we pray. Amen.
My next publication credit can be seen online. It’s about a man who purchased some former slave dwellings to preserve them and make them a living piece of history. It’s published in the Anderson Independent Mail.
The article begins…
While he was growing up in downtown Anderson, Herman Keith Jr. did not know just a few blocks away from him were four houses believed to be the homes of former slaves.
When Keith, now an adjunct professor at Claflin University in Orangeburg, found out about the homes, he saw an opportunity.
It’s been a good week. I made two of my short stories available on Kindle for only 99 cents. One is called “Many Waters.” It tells Luke’s story of the Sinful Woman (7:36-50) from Jesus’ perspective. I think I must have been crazy to do that. The Preface tells the story how I came to make such a bold move. I included an Epilogue with some FAQ’s from people who have read it.
The other is also one I wrote years ago. This year is the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. Since they died within a few days of each other, I wondered what it would be like if they met in heaven. It’s called “A Requiem for Two.”
I also picked up an issue of Anderson Magazine (several, actually) that ran my story “Church Street Heritage Project: Looking Forward by Looking Back.” I wish I could give you a link to it, but it’s not available on the website yet. Anyway, if you’re in Anderson, South Carolina, the May/June issue is available now.
A subject of interest for me is the role of fairytales and folk stories in bringing out and nourishing children’s spirituality.
There are many reasons why I think fairy tales are good for kids development. This article outlines just a few. Fairy Tales do the following:
Teach right from wrong
Help children deal with emotions
Develop cultural literacy introducing them to different cultures
Develop critical thinking skills
They are fun!
Parents have a great opportunity when their kids are young to help them learn about people, the world, and themselves. Fairy tales provide kids the chance to put themselves in the shoes of the characters, which allow children and begin to develop essential decision-making skills. These are skills that will help children throughout their lives.
The Role Of Myths And Fairy Tales
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This is a book review for Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God: A Novel of Arthur. It is the second in a series called The Warlord Chronicles or sometimes the Arthur Books. Notice it does not say King Arthur. Cornwell has a different take on these legends and characters. I really enjoyed this book, and I am giving it a five star rating. This review does have a few plot spoilers, but I will keep them as vague as possible.
There was so much I liked about it. I liked being in England in the Dark Ages – or what we now call the Dark Ages – at a time when Christianity was not yet the dominant religion in England but was a rising force. It was also a time when people still believed in magic, spells and charms, and sometimes believing in it might have been enough to make wondrous things happen.
Cornwell pulls off two difficult moves. First, presenting “the truth behind the legend” in a plausible fashion. He recreates these characters and stories as they were before they got embellished and whitewashed, or as Arthur says, “Before we paid the bards to make our squalid victories into great triumphs, and sometimes we even believe the lies they sing to us.” As an aspiring author, I was impressed with this. Second, he doesn’t lose me when normally I would be thinking, wait that’s not how Lancelot is supposed to be, or wait, Arthur is supposed to be king. He stopped those responses from me even before they began. I think the reason is the narrator. He tells this story through Derfel (pronounced Der-vel), a knight and close friend of Arthur. Derfel is now an old man, and he is telling the story as he remembered it. Incidentally, it was the same way Anita Diamant was able to change the Old Testament story of Dinah in The Red Tent.
There is one disadvantage in this approach. You lose some suspense. When Derfel is in a dangerous situation, you already know he’s going to survive because he’s alive to tell the tale. But I think what he gains in believability makes it worth the trade off. I don’t know any other way Cornwell could make changes in such a familiar story. Using an older Derfel as the narrator makes it plausible because he has the credibility of an eyewitness. It also makes it more interesting in some ways, because you know some details are going to be the same and some different. You’re constantly watching to see how the “real” story compares with the legend.
I haven’t said King Arthur because Arthur is not a king. Mordred is the king of Dumnonia and Arthur’s half-nephew (if there is such a term). Arthur and Derfel are charged with protecting the boy Mordred and keeping order until he is old enough to rule as king. Derfel and others who follow Arthur think he should be king, while Arthur dreams of a quiet retirement as a farmer. Guinevere, on the other hand, wishes Arthur had more ambition. Her drive for power is going to have more impact on the story than you will imagine.
Lancelot is a king and far from being a hero or the greatest knight of Arthur’s roundtable. Merlin is a druid, and he is trying to recover the treasures of Britain. He takes Derfel on a quest to find one of those treasures, a magic cauldron. Merlin believes if the treasures are recovered, the old gods of Britain will walk the earth again.
And it’s not just the old gods that have a stake in Britain’s future. Because of leftover Roman influence, some foreign gods are still worshipped. Guinevere is a worshiper of Isis. Derfel is a Christian but belongs to a society of Mithras. And some Christians are especially troublesome because this story takes place between 490 and 496, and they believe 500 is the year of Armageddon. They believe they must get the world ready for the return of the Lord. In order to do that, they try to rid Britain of all traces of paganism. They go around destroying temples, burning villages, and torturing and killing pagans. They try to purify themselves by self-flagellation.
The Christians are not all bad, but they are often not the good guys in this story. And we have to be willing to admit, historically, that has often been the case. However, I think more than a knock on Christianity, it illustrates that when people believe the world is about to end, they will do things they would not do otherwise.
Arthur is caught in the middle between the traditional religion and Christianity. He is a Christian but does not take up the cause against the pagans. Because of this, Christian extremists call him the enemy of God, hence the title of the book. Instead of a religious crusade, Arthur wants to create a national identity for the Britons so they can unite against foreign invaders, like the Saxons and the Belgians. He creates the roundtable toward this end, though most of the names we are familiar with are missing.
Oh yes, the names. They are difficult. Because Arthurian legends were originally Welsh stories, Cornwell decided to keep most of the Welsh names for an authentic feel. Once you get past familiar ones like Arthur, Merlin, and Guinevere, the names are almost impossible to pronounce. I run into the same problem writing about Rome. The most common complaint I get is, These Roman names are difficult to read. And let me tell you, Roman names are child’s play compared to Welsh names. So I suggest the same trick many people use for Biblical names: Just make something up and move on. No one will care that you cheated.
But what really thrilled me was what Lancelot did to try to claim the throne of Dumnonia away from Mordred. Up until then, I would have given it four stars. It was a great story, well written, and I was enjoying it, but when that happened, holy crap! That was a twist worthy of Game of Thrones. That’s when it became a five star novel for me.
I mentioned this is the second book in a series. I haven’t read the rest of the series yet. So why did I read the second book first, you ask? I am part of an online book club of Ancient and Medieval Historical Fiction. Last year, the theme was “second book.” One thing I’ve learned in this experience is with some series, you can read books out of order, and you don’t lose much. The second thing is sometimes the second book is better than the first, so the first book of a series may not always give you the best of what an author has to offer. So far, I’ve found this to be true of the Roma Sub Rosa series and the Saxon Tales series.
I see two reasons for this. First, I think sometimes the author becomes a better writer after the second book. There are lessons learned from that experience that you can carry with you when you write your second book. Second, in some cases, the main characters become better developed as the series progresses. I definitely thought that was true of the Harry Potter series. I know some H. P. fans are going to disagree with me, but I liked the books toward the end better than the ones in the beginning. I saw J. K. Rowling’s writing style and storytelling technique get better with each book, and what she did with the final book, Deathly Hallows, was absolutely amazing.
So now I’m not sure if I want to read the first book of this series or not. But if you are interested, volume 1 is called The Winter King, and volume 3 is called Excalibur, which I will be reading as soon as I can fit it into my schedule.
In the 1980’s, I loved Carman. He had a sense of humor, and early in his career, he said he wrote some songs that weren’t accepted by mainline Christianity because they were, in his own words, “a little off the wall.” This post is going to be a little off the wall. I hope you can handle it.
As someone who believes Christianity was originally nonviolent, and should still be, you might be surprised if I make a comparison between gangs and early Christians. I might not have the “street cred” for this. I was never in a gang. My only experience with them is through TV, movies, and news reports. However, like today’s street and motorcycle gangs, Christianity was sometimes an illegal organization in its early days.
In previous posts, I have talked about my novel manuscript that has not yet been published. (Maybe it’s a little off the wall). A major theme in the story has to do with persecution. How did the church continue to not only survive but grow when just being a Christian could get you tortured and killed? I think I got a few insights from watching Gangland and Sons of Anarchy. Gangs create a culture that encourages extreme loyalty that will stand up to prison, torture, and death.
The main rules you must accept to be part of any gang:
- Respect the O.G.’s
- Gang before everything, even family.
- Brotherhood: Intense love for each other.
- No snitching.
- Make some friends outside the gang.
- Never let a rival gang disrespect you.
- Recruit new members, but be careful.
The early church used these same tactics. I’m not saying they were a gang literally, but I think in some ways they had to have a gangster mentality. Let’s compare how this looks in gangs versus first century Christianity.
1. Respect the O.G.’s
O.G. stands for Original Gangster. Every gang has its founders, i.e. O.G.’s, and you must respect them. The Twelve O.G.’s of Christianity were the twelve apostles in the scripture references above.
2. Gang before everything, even your life and family.
Gangs make it clear up front you must give them your ultimate loyalty. The gang comes before your wife, your kids, your job, your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your life, everything and everyone. The church wouldn’t expect you to put them above your own life and family, would they? Well, how do you explain verses like this?
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Mat 10:37).
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mark 8:35).
Their loyalty to Christ had to be absolute. Their loyalty to each other had to be absolute. Your family might turn you in to authorities – whether the Sanhedrin or the Romans – but your brothers and sisters in Christ never will.
The authorities might threaten not only your life but your family’s lives as well. You had to remain strong. That was the only way to ensure the gang could continue after you were gone.
3. Brotherhood: Intense love for each other
In Sons of Anarchy, which is clearly modeled after the Hell’s Angels, they talk all the time about being a brotherhood. They will say to each other, “I love you, my brother.” There aren’t many places where men declare their love for each other without afterward saying, “But I’m not gay.” Being a part of a brotherhood like that is definitely part of the attraction of gangs for young men.
John’s Gospel and epistles give some of the most succinct expressions of brotherly love:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another (John 13:34).
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (1Jn 4:20).
Their loyalty to Christ was directly tied to loyalty to one another. He died for us, so we have to be willing to die for each other. That formed the basis of their brotherhood. And yes, sisterhood too.
4. No snitching
Have you heard snitches get stitches? Gangs punish betrayal severely. In gangs, if you rat, you die.
Remember how I said earlier your brothers and sisters in Christ will never rat you out? The flip side of that coin is you’d better not rat them out. The worst name you could be called was Judas, the mother of all rats. To most gangs, it would be unthinkable to let a rat live. To the church, killing was forbidden. However, the church had another punishment that was even worse: “Leave it to the wrath of God… ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay,’ saith the LORD” (Rom 12:19).
How would God repay? Hell was certain, unless like Paul, you repented. Death comes to everyone, and after that, judgment. If you turn in your fellow Christians to the authorities, knowing they are going to be tortured and probably killed, do you want to face God on the judgment seat after that? I don’t think so.
Why such severe punishment? Think about the situation they’re in. The authorities can use severe punishment to coerce testimony against you and your gang. You hope your brotherly love will keep them loyal under any duress. But just in case, you need punishment even more severe to be sure they keep their mouths shut.
5. Make friends outside the gang
In Sons of Anarchy, they had people in their pocket who could help them in ways people inside the gang could not. If they were in a bind with the authorities, they had people they could call in favors from: A sheriff, a police chief, a few deputies, a few prison guards, a few businessmen, a city council member. Now think about that when you see a verse like this.
And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward (Mat 10:42).
What does that mean? Are you a Christian? Ok, then, I’ll give you this water. Why would anyone do that?
Is he talking about Christians giving to Christians? That’s the only case where giving to someone because he’s a Christian makes sense. Why would a non-Christian give to a Christian because he’s a Christian?
This verse did not make any sense to me until I thought about how gangs have friends on the outside. Maybe this is referring to friendships cultivated with outsiders. Maybe there were some people who saw their persecution and were sympathetic to them. During the Holocaust, there were some Gentiles who helped Jews because they were Jews. They hid them and did what they could to help them survive. I think Christians had friends like these when they were persecuted as well.
6. Never let a rival gang disrespect you.
The Sons of Anarchy were constantly in tension with, or outright war against, other gangs in the area. Someone in another gang disrespects them or kills one of their own, it’s war. Literally. At one point, I had to stop watching because there was too much blood and guts. I don’t mind realism, but it was getting excessive, and innocent people died too often just from doing their job or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What does that have to do with the first century church? Early Christianity was not monolithic, as we tend to think. The orthodox, or “correct,” version had not yet been established. There were rival factions, and I think some sects were not above using the authorities to remove some they thought of as heretical. Consider this.
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God (1Jn 4:2-3a).
I don’t think we should take this literally, because I have seen and met some people who believe all the right doctrines and are not from God. You can talk to just about any KKK member and ask,
Do you believe in God almighty, maker of heaven and earth?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son and our Lord?
Do you believe Jesus Christ came to earth in the flesh?
Do you believe white people have to keep uppity [N-word] in their place?
That spirit is definitely not of God. Why would this or any one specific doctrine be some absolute standard of trustworthiness? Like one of my professors said, “Right beliefs, right confessions, and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee in the coffee shop in Sheol.”
Maybe there’s something else going on in John’s community that’s not immediately obvious almost 2000 years later. We know from the New Testament and other literature of the time there were some Christian sects who did not believe Jesus was a flesh-and-blood human being. They believed he was a pure divine spirit who appeared in human form, sort of like Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
To John, the community’s O.G., it was very important that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood human being. I’d like to propose that John was talking about not just a theological dispute but also a way to identify a separate sect, i.e., a rival gang. Saying Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh would be like a red bandana to a Crip or a blue bandana to a Blood.
John’s message to his community is, “They may call themselves Christians and preach about Jesus, but if they don’t believe like we do, they don’t belong to us.” In an environment where Christians are part of something illegal, they need to know who they can trust. That gang over there, they may look and talk like us, but they are not us. You can’t trust them.
7. Recruit new members, but be careful
People die in gangs: From old age (if you’re lucky), but more likely from being killed by police or rival gangs. This outflow makes it necessary to recruit new members. But how do you recruit for something like that? You can’t run an ad saying, “Anyone want to join an outlaw motorcycle gang? Meet us on the corner of 5th and Oak Street.”
They can only take people they know will not betray them. They need people who will follow their rules. Most people only get in if a member recommends them, though occasionally someone might be able to approach them, especially if they have a useful skill.
But getting in doesn’t mean you are a member. First, you are granted “hangaround” status, which means what it implies. If a member is willing to sponsor you (absolutely necessary), you have the right to “hang around” the gang and show you know your place. After a while, you may be upgraded to Prospect. This is the time when you prove your loyalty by doing anything a gang member says, from guarding bikes while the gang members party and cleaning up afterwards to criminal activity, even murder. Only when the gang is satisfied you’ve proven your loyalty will they accept you as a full member, and the vote has to be unanimous.
The early church wouldn’t have people run drugs or murder anyone, but there were times they had to be careful about who they let in. They needed to know any new members would be loyal to them, no matter what. I don’t have texts to prove this, but I believe early Christian communities had an initiation period where people would have “hangaround” or “prospect” status before being accepted as members. They would be instructed in their most basic beliefs – as much as they could tell, and probably emphasizing that they accepted the authority of Rome in earthly matters, while Christ is Lord over spiritual matters (Just in case they were spies for the Roman government). They would be encouraged to “count the cost,” because Rome did not always accept their distinction between earthly and spiritual Lordship.
If they still wanted to join, and the members accepted them, then they would be baptized to recognize their full membership. Only those who were baptized could join in the Lord’s Supper. Only the those who partook of the Body and Blood of the Lord together would be trusted with their secrets.
Jesus himself modeled this. He would speak to the crowds in parables but only explain the meanings to the twelve disciples. This made it difficult for his enemies to pin any charges on him, while communicating his true message only to his inner circle of twelve friends. Those twelve went on to become the “Original Gangsters” of the first underground Christian communities.
Very pleased to recommend Kristen Lamb’s author blog, which I just discovered. Have just started with it but I can already tell it will be helpful for me and any other aspiring author.
In a post titled Author Animal Farm—New York Goood, Self-pub Baaaaaad she responds to a piece in The Huffington Post trashing self-publishing. She addresses whether self-pub is a legitimate path for an author, whether traditional or legacy publishing is really better, and whether we as writers should contribute to sites like Huffington Post that only pay in “exposure.” Here is the comment I left on this post (with a few proofing corrections, bold and links added here).
This gave me a lot to think about. On Huff, I thought it would help me to get published there. I’m already not getting paid for my blog posts. At least I would get some name recognition from that. On the other hand I hate to see publications who have the money to pay writers but still don’t pay. On self-publishing, I’ve seen both sides. C. Hope Clark is the author of two mystery series set in coastal Carolina. She says Legacy Publishing made her a better writer because after 36 rejections, she looked over the manuscript again and realized it wasn’t ready. Having that measure of quality control made that first novel better and those lessons carried over to the others. If it makes my work better, I’m for it. However, I’m in a bind because my novel doesn’t fit neatly into one genre. I knew it would be a challenge for traditional publishers because of that. But I find myself having my manuscript rejected for ridiculous reasons.
I read about the multiple points of view approach from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel, and I was encouraged because it applied to my novel. I followed his advice for using it effectively. Most agents and editors are telling me now that I have to stick to one point of view, two at most. WHY????? The lead agent of a highly respected agency wrote a book on how to write a commercial best-seller, said this is a legitimate way to do that, and now all the gatekeepers think it can’t possibly work?
The Pendergast series from Preston and Child is one of my contemporary favorites and always a guaranteed bestseller. They always use multiple points of view. And what would Game of Thrones be if we could only experience the Seven Kingdoms through one POV character? And at the risk of sounding immodest, I know I have a good novel. In fact, it’s better than a lot that actually gets published through Legacy Publishing. I know that because I’ve read some of what’s out there. No one could read it all, but I’ve read enough to know mine compares favorably.
I also know because my first draft sucked. It took a lot of time, educating myself on the craft, blood, sweat, and tears, and critique groups who kicked my butt to teach me how to create tension, drama, and characters they would care about. So I know it wasn’t always worthy of being published, and self-publishing that first or second or seventh draft would have been a disaster. But now? I’ll give the “real” publishers some more chances, but if I have to go self-pub, it’s still a good novel and worthy of being published.
Btw, I also know it’s good because it recently won an award for unpublished fiction.
Original image via Kabsik Park courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.
Okay at first I wasn’t going to say anything regarding the latest Let’s Bash Self-Publishing rant over at HuffPo, but (like all “real” writers) I am in the business of serving my audience—YOU—what you want to hear and after about the tenth person who sent me Laurie Gough’s Self-Publishing—An Insult to the Written Word, I figured y’all might want my take 😉 .
For another angle on this controversy, I strongly recommend Fisking the HuffPo’s Snooty Rant About Self-Publishing.
Consider the Source
First of all, am I the only one to see the laughable hypocrisy of anyone who writes for Huffington Post lecturing anyone about real writing? Huffington Post is a predatory business, a literary parasite that has made hundreds of millions of dollars by paying writers in “exposure dollars.” And, by doing so, has…
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One of the items on my pre-publication bucket-list for my manuscript was to be able to call myself an award-winning author. I can now check that off. I entered the first twenty pages of my book, Through Fear of Death: A Novel of Empire and the Kingdom, in a contest sponsored by the Foothills Writers Guild. Last month, it won the Juanita Garrison Prize for unpublished fiction.
A few days ago, I actually got to meet Ms. Garrison herself! What an honor not only to win the award but to meet the person for whom it was named. She was a lovely lady and a gracious host.
I certainly hope there will be more awards to follow, not to mention publication. But for now I am pleased as punch.
New blog post, titled Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?