For Writers: Make Your Scene’s Action Come to Life

Verbs are for action. That may sound obvious. But so many writers seem to forget that when writing the action in their scenes (myself included). If your verbs are strong, your action will be too. I’m going to show you an example of what a difference strong verbs can make from my current Work in Progress (WiP).

I’m editing my manuscript called Through Fear of Death. It’s historical fiction based in ancient Rome in 96 AD. Valentinius is the senior guard at the Carcer, Rome’s main prison. In this scene, Silas has just been brought to the Carcer, along with other prisoners. Silas is a big man, so Valentinius takes it upon himself to escort him, leaving the other nonthreatening prisoners to his partner. Valentinius pushed him in the back, but only once. Here is how I wrote it originally.

He gave a little push in the prisoner’s back. The man did not put up any resistance or even look back at him. A good sign. He was not looking to make trouble.

Draft for Through Fear of Death

In the editing phase, I noticed the first two sentences could be tightened up. So I changed it to this.

He pushed the prisoner from behind. The man did not resist or even look back at him. A good sign. He was not looking to make trouble.

Draft for Through Fear of Death

Now the action is more vivid, because pushed is more direct than gave a little push. Did not resist is tighter than did not put up any resistance. Normally, you would not tell what the character did not do, but in this case it says something about Valentinius’s motive for pushing him. He’s gauging how the prisoner will react. No reaction, in his mind, is good.

Use Strong Verbs for Action

To keep the reader’s attention, you have to make the action in the scene vivid. This is why every fiction class says, Show don’t tell. In the first example, I followed that rule, but the action still wasn’t as vivid as it could be, which brings me to the next rule. The most important word for any action in a scene is the verb. Use strong verbs for action.

Get your story in action.

In the first version, I used push and resistance as nouns. That required me to use weak verbs, gave and put (up). Push and resist are stronger as verbs than nouns. If your verbs are weak, chances are you can replace them with stronger verbs. Your reader will notice and enjoy it more. They won’t necessarily say, “Great use of strong verbs.” But they will notice the action in your scenes leaps off the page, and that will keep them reading.

But I’ve read lots of books with weak verbs, and I liked them.

This is a common problem for beginning writers. They have read other authors breaking the rules. Classic authors, especially those who wrote before movies, TV, the Internet, video games, etc., could take their time unfolding action slowly, going into long descriptions of settings that may or may not have anything to do with the plot, showing off their fancy ways of putting words together, painstakingly describing every subtlety and nuance of a character’s expression or action, and telling, not showing. Authors today do not have that luxury.

I once read Dickens take an entire paragraph to describe how a woman raised her eyebrows. You might have read that and liked it, especially if you read a lot of classics. People accept that from Dickens, because he is required reading in just about every English literature curriculum. But today’s readers will lose patience if you take too long and too many words to get to the action or the point of a scene.

Knowing When to Show and When to Tell

Following the rules show don’t tell, and use strong verbs, I have shown the action rather than told it. He pushed the prisoner from behind. What was his motive for doing that? I have shown that. The man did not resist or even look back at him. A good sign. He was not looking to make trouble. He is not just being a bully. He wants to see how the prisoner reacts to it, so he can see how closely he needs to watch this big prisoner. This is a tactic he uses, not on every prisoner, but the ones who could challenge him. I’ve hinted at that, but I wanted to make the strategic aspect of this clearer, so I added a little exposition.

He pushed the prisoner from behind. It was a test he gave prisoners who might want to challenge him. The man did not resist or even look back at him. A good sign. He was not looking to make trouble.

Draft for Through Fear of Death

That’s a bit of telling, not showing. You hear show don’t tell all the time when you are learning how to write. But the truth is at some point, every story requires some telling. So it’s more like know when to show and when to tell. The main action in a scene should always be shown not told. But other aspects might be better told than shown. In general, I try to show as much through action and dialog as I can. Then, if I feel there is something the reader needs to know that I can’t quite show, I will do a little telling.

It was a test he often gave prisoners who might want to challenge him. I can’t show you every time he ever did this or the details of how he chooses which prisoners to push. But this tells you something about how he does his job. Initiating physical contact might be a problem for prison guards today. For ancient Rome, however, one push on a big man, for whom it could not do any real damage, to see how he reacts, would have been considered reasonable.

Breaking the Rules I Just Told You

It was a test he gave prisoners who might want to challenge him.

You might also think that sentence is not as tight as it could be. I tried tightening it a few times, but it did not quite work. Writing tight is not as important there, because it is not action (This point is arguable). It is technically called exposition. I’ll explain more about that in a future post.

If I can sum up, for the action in a scene:

  1. Show, don’t tell as much as you can.
  2. Use strong verbs.
  3. Write tight.
  4. Convey as much to the reader as you can through action and dialog without resorting to exposition.
  5. When you must use exposition, make sure there is a purpose for it, keep it brief, and make it relevant to the character’s action and reaction.

Exercise: Look at a scene in your work-in-progress (WiP). Did you use strong or weak verbs for the action? Change any weak verbs to stronger ones and see if you like it better.

Announcements

Audiobook:

In the next couple of months, I will be working on an audiobook version of Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain.

Novel:

I am preparing my novel Through Fear of Death: A Novel of Ancient Rome to self-publish as an ebook. Afterwards, I will have print and audio versions available, but the ebook will come first. I’m looking for publication at the end of August, so I can enter it into this year’s Self-Published Ebook contest with Writer’s Digest. Hopefully, lightning can strike twice.

You will have the ability to sign up for exclusive updates leading up to these two publications. Details to follow.

A cover, release date soon

Dark Nights Of The Soul: Reflections On Faith And The Depressed Brain has a cover.  I plan to release it in July.

Book cover-Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Living with the Depressed Brain by David Anderson

The book is the product of wrestling with God, the Bible, and my own demons of depression. (The demons are metaphorical, not literal). It is short, about 25,000 words. I could have made it a lot longer, but I thought people would be more likely to read a relatively short book. At this length, it says enough to make an impact but won’t be intimidating like War and Peace.

Whether you struggle with depression or love someone who does, I pray something from this project will help you through the holidays and beyond. If what I went through helps anyone find happiness and meaning for their lives in spite of being depressed, it will all have been worth it.

Grace and Peace to you.

I'm underwater with my right hand above

Baptism with my right hand above the water

My parents live in Honolulu, so if I want to visit them, I have to fly there. I know. Life is hard. Anyway, I went with my wife and stepson recently. My sister and brother-in-law came as well. Of course, in addition to seeing everyone, I was looking forward to getting in the water.

The day before we were to fly out, I got a flat tire. While I was trying to get to the spare in the trunk, my hand slipped and banged against something. My thumb started bleeding. That’s what I get for trying to fix it myself. I called roadside assistance while trying to stop the bleeding, got the car towed to a place where I could get a new tire, and then went to the emergency room to get my thumb stitched.

We stayed at a hotel near the airport, so we could get there on time. While washing my hands, I broke open a stitch or two. I managed to get the bleeding stopped, but how would affect my beach time? The doctor and nurse who stitched me said after about twenty-four hours, I would be okay to put it in water. However, that was with the wound closed. Now that it was re-opened, I couldn’t be sure anymore. It was Friday night, we had to make the flight Saturday morning, so it would probably wouldn’t be until Monday that I could see a doctor again.

Well, the doctor said I should keep the hand out of the water, just as I feared. Even thought it’s salty, the marine life has to take care of their business in the ocean (not to mention some people, but we won’t go there). That was not a problem without broken skin, but… It was still a good trip but a huge disappointment that I couldn’t really get into the water the way I wanted.

On my last day, I went all the way into the water with my right hand sticking out. I got my wife and stepson to take pictures.

I'm underwater with my right hand above
Does Baptism like this count?

This wasn’t just about obeying doctor’s orders. I was re-enacting a bit of Roman history. One story I heard about the Roman army is that when the emperor Constantine wanted his soldiers to be baptized, they asked if they could keep their right hands above the water. Why would they do that? Because the right hand was their sword/spear hand. It was the hand they used to kill in battle. This is one reason I believe early Christianity was a pacifist religion. I mean, when your founder says, “Love your enemies,” doesn’t that pretty much preclude killing them?

However, soldiers after Constantine were not prohibited from killing. Constantine’s rule marked a sea change where Christianity went from being distrusted and sometimes persecuted by the empire to being the religion of the empire. Unfortunately, it adopted the violent ways of the empire, among other things that we are still living with today.

When people say the church needs to get back to the first century, I wonder if they understand what that really means. Persecution could spring up anywhere without warning, and you could not kill to defend yourself. Their belief was that life was a gift from God. Only God could decide when a person’s life would end. That meant you could not kill for any reason: abortion, euthanasia, war (even if it’s just), the death penalty, or self-defense. Not even to defend your loved ones. When their lives were threatened they did not return evil for evil. They trusted God enough to believe in overcoming evil with good. They did not expect non-Christians to live the same way, but these acts were forbidden in the church nonetheless.

What would it look like if the church really did that? I explore this in a novel I am getting ready to publish with the title (subject to change) Through Fear of Death. A gladiator named Silas converts to Christianity. This means he cannot kill. His defiance will incur the wrath of his lanista and the Procurator of the Games. He finds an unlikely ally in his prison guard, a retired soldier named Marcus Valentinius. Will their friendship and loyalty be strong enough to bring down a ruthless emperor, or will Rome’s system of violence and treachery destroy them?

Through Fear of Death cover choice1, gladiator helmet
One possible cover for my upcoming novel
Through Fear of Death possible cover image, gladiator in arena
Another possible cover for my upcoming novel

If you have an opinion about these covers, let me know in the comments below.

The Holiday Blues

 

‘Tis that season when you hear “Joy to the World” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” everywhere you go. We think of the holidays as a joyful time, where we get to enjoy our families, food, and gifts. Yet for some, the holidays are a time of stress, sadness, and loneliness. Because of that, I’ve added this chapter on dealing with holiday depression.

Why are the holidays a depressing time for some people? Experts cite a number of reasons.

  • Stress. The parties, the get-togethers, the shopping, the decorating, yes, it’s all fun, but it’s stressful too. Normal irritations can become magnified during the holidays.
  • Pressure to be happy. When you see people around you happily saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” and stores are playing holiday music to get people in a shopping mood, you feel out of place if you cannot get into “the holiday spirit.”
  • Unrealistic expectations. Comparisons often lead to depression. If you are comparing this holiday to ones in the past, you’ll feel disappointed if this year does not measure up. If your neighbors appear cheerful and have it all together better than you do, remember at home behind closed doors, they are probably as stressed as you.
  • Doing too much. If just the thought of holidays brings stress and anxiety, it’s probably because you have done too much in the past. Maybe it’s time to scale back.
  • Neglecting self-care. If you meditate and exercise, you might be tempted to put that on hold because you feel pressed for time. You might not be getting enough sleep or taking time during the day to decompress.
  • Family strife. Spending time with family is the most important part of the holidays for most people. However, there might be some family you’d rather avoid.
  • Overindulging. If you have depression, WebMD recommends you avoid food and drink that makes your blood sugar spike. This includes most of the holiday treats we love. Sugar highs and the inevitable crashes afterwards are not a recipe for holiday cheer. And of course overindulging in alcohol will not help.
  • Isolation. Being apart from those you love never feels good. But during the holidays, you miss them even more. For those who have just moved to a new city, especially if they are single, they may not have made any friends where they are. They feel alone because they have no one to celebrate with.
  • Grieving. The first holiday after the loss of your spouse or parents or children can be rough. If most of your best holiday memories are with someone who can no longer be with you, the loss you feel will be magnified during the holidays.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a condition where people become more depressed as the days get shorter. The holiday season, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, is timed perfectly for SAD.
  • Post-holiday letdown. You manage to get your fill of holiday cheer in spite of the stress, and then it’s over. Until next year at least. As stressful as it was, some people miss the activity, the busyness, the holiday cheer, and the people who have gone back home.
  • Overspending. Some people use “retail therapy” to cope with depression, and the holidays present every temptation to overspend. Buying those expensive gifts is a big hit with those you give to. Then the credit card bills arrive.

 

 

What you can do

 

  1. Set expectations low. The lower your expectations, the less you can be disappointed. Don’t expect everything to be perfect, and you won’t have a meltdown when it’s not.
  2. Plan ahead and Prioritize. Make a list of all the things you expect to do for the holidays, then prioritize. Schedule time for the most important things. If you don’t have time for everything on the list, some lower priority items have to go. Do you have to go to every party you’re invited to? Can someone else host the family Christmas party this year? Can you enlist friends and family to help with the preparations? Say no to a few things that are not high on the priority list. People will not be nearly as disappointed as you think.
  3. Set a budget. Know how much money you have to spend on each person before you start shopping. Don’t pressure yourself to buy the best and most expensive version. If you don’t trust yourself, bring a friend who will make you stick to your budget. The best gifts don’t have to cost anything. I honestly believe if I gave my wife a “coupon” for a free massage, she would like that better than a diamond necklace. Remember they want your presence more than your presents.
  4. Maintain healthy habits. Enjoy your treats, but remember to eat healthy, get enough sleep, and avoid overindulging. Keep up your exercise and meditation routines. If you don’t meditate, you should start. A few minutes of meditation can do wonders for stress. Whatever you normally do to de-stress, don’t forget to do it during the holidays.
  5. Manage family encounters. If you dread getting together with some family members, here are some options, listed in increasing severity.
  6. Set aside differences. Don’t get baited into those same old debates. If you argue with the same person every year, you already know what they are going to say. Resolve before you go in you will not waste any more time trying to set them straight. If they start, just say Merry Christmas, and talk to someone else. If there is some past slight you are still sore about, what better time to forgive than the holidays?
  7. Seek out the positive people. Instead of fretting over that relative who is always critical, think of the people you enjoy and seek them out. If you are busy with them, that means less time with negative people. You can ask the person arranging the seating to place you next to someone more supportive. Better to say, “Can you sit me next to this cousin?” than “Don’t sit me next to Aunt Martha.”
  8. Make an early exit. You can always make an appearance, and make sure those who need to see you do so. After a decent amount of time, you can say you have to go because of another commitment.
  9. Avoid certain people altogether. It is better for your mental health to forgive than to hold grudges. But if the pain is too raw, or if you know they are going to make you uncomfortable, then don’t go to the party or to their house unless you have to.
  10. Volunteer. Nothing is more in keeping with the season than helping someone in need. Volunteer at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or other community service. Helping others feels good and is often the best antidote for depression. You might even want to make it a new tradition.
  11. Community, Religious, or Social Events. Religious services have always been a part of my holiday tradition. With or without my family, I like being a part of them. If that is not your thing, look for other community and social events open to the public. They present low pressure opportunities to see old friends or meet new people with shared interests.
  12. Call friends and family. One year my sister was working as a missionary in Mexico. We celebrated Christmas as usual—me, my parents, and grandparents. In the afternoon, we used my iPad to call my sister on Skype. My grandparents were thrilled, not only to talk to her but to see her. It is easy these days to set up video chat online. Skype is still popular, though WhatsApp and Viber are more popular now. If you have an iPhone, Facetime is included. Bottom line, for your loved ones who are miles away, if you have a cell phone, tablet, or computer, you can contact them.
  13. Journal your feelings. I started keeping a journal in college. I journaled about things that happened to me, and how I felt about them. During bouts of depression, it was a lifeline for me. Which is why if you read my journals, you would probably think I was a basket case. But studies have shown that journaling your feelings, especially during times of grief or depression, helps people feel less depressed and less anxious. Darlene Mininni, author of The Emotional Toolkit, suggests writing for fifteen minutes three or four days in a row to start. If you don’t know what to write, you can prompt yourself by writing and answering questions like, “Why does this upset me?” or “What do I want to happen now?”
  14. Get counseling. If you can’t shake feelings of sadness, loneliness, or anxiety, it might be time to seek professional help. I’ve listed some websites where you can search for a counselor in your area (Appendix B). But first, you might want to read this guide on what to look for in a therapist. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/how-to-find-therapist#1
  15. Remember to be grateful. The holiday season starts with Thanksgiving. That’s a hint. Begin each day with just a minute or two to think of three things you are grateful for, and the rest of your day is likely to go better.
  16. Plan a post-holiday get-together. This is a way to ease any post-holiday letdown. Set a date to get together with a friend in mid or late January. This will give you something to look forward to after the holidays.

 

###

 

In my post called “The War on Thanksgiving,” I said this. “We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.”

The point I was trying to make is not to let commercialization take over the real meaning of the holidays. Sure, I buy gifts for whoever I’m spending Christmas with. I enjoy getting presents, but I also enjoy seeing their faces when they open a gift I gave them, especially when my niece and nephew are there. They are still young enough to approach Christmas morning with unbridled joy. Isn’t that what we really want from the holidays? To give and receive joy?

So whatever you do, whether it’s decorating, baking, making the holiday dinners, trimming the tree, eating with family and friends, shopping for gifts, making gifts, volunteering, attending religious services, whatever your traditions are, or if you think it’s time to start a new tradition, do it with the intent of spreading joy. That is the surest way I know to have a happy Thanksgiving, happy Chanukah, merry Christmas, happy Kwanzaa, happy Boxing Day, happy New Year and Dia de los Reyes. And a happy Festivus for the rest of us.

 

References

 

Kerr, M. Medically reviewed by Legg, T. J., Ph.D., PMHNP-BC. Holiday depression. Healthline Newsletter. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/holidays#1

Mann, D. Emotional survival guide for the holidays. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/emotional-survival-guide-for-holidays#1

Mayo Clinic Staff. Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544

Minnini, D., PhD, MPH. (2006). The Emotional Toolkit. St. Martin’s Press. Available in libraries or at https://www.overdrive.com/media/1571599/the-emotional-toolkit

WebMD staff. Medically reviewed by Bhandari, S., MD. “Foods to avoid if you have anxiety or depression.” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/ss/slideshow-avoid-foods-anxiety-depression

WebMD staff. Medically reviewed by Goldberg, J., MD. “Holiday depression and stress.” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/holiday-depression-stress#1

 

Faith Pitch, Feb. 28

Tomorrow, there is a Twitter event called Faith Pitch. It’s described as a

Twitter Pitch Party exclusively for faith-based fiction MS. Pitch agents & editors. Three 2018 dates: Feb. 28, June 28, Nov. 28! 8a-8pCST.

I’ve come up with two pitches to tweet for my MS of Through Fear of Death.

  1. One of Rome’s most popular gladiators is arrested, but his prison guard becomes his ally. Their unlikely friendship could be what saves Rome.
  2. One of Rome’s most popular gladiators wants his freedom. When he refuses to fight, he is arrested. But his prison guard becomes his ally. Their unlikely friendship could be what liberates Rome.

This is first a PSA for other Christian authors, if you have a manuscript you’ve wanted to pitch to agents and editors, you don’t want to miss this opportunity. Second, I would really appreciate feedback on how effective you think they are. Thanks for stopping by.

On Meeting Editors and Agents at Writers Conferences

Most writing conferences offer opportunities to meet with agents and/or editors one-on-one. Some people are confused about the purpose of meeting with an editor. Before you register for a writing conference, you need to be clear about this. And of course, meetings with agents and editors are for writers who want to be published through a traditional publisher. If you are self-publishing or indie-publishing, you don’t need to meet with agents and editors.

Logo for Carolina Christian Writers Conference 2018
Source: https://www.fbs.org/christian-writers-conference-2018/

But first, you need to understand there are two kinds of editors. Some operate like independent contractors. You can hire one to edit your manuscript. I’m still trying to decide if I want to do that, because it is an added expense, I’ve already done a good bit of self-editing, and I don’t know if it will really help me get accepted by an agent or publisher. But if I were self-publishing – which I’m still considering – I would definitely hire one of these editors, because I don’t have a traditional publisher to provide one for me. However, when conferences offer a chance to meet with agents or editors, these are not editors who edit your manuscript.

The other type of editor works for one publisher, and part of his/her job is to acquire new manuscripts for his/her employer, i.e., sometimes called an “acquisitions editor.” Ultimately, an editor is a gatekeeper to the publisher, but most of them will only accept manuscripts submitted by an agent. An agent has relationships with many publishers. He/she can submit your MS to editors who are looking for your type of book. Though the role of agent and editor is different, they are both at the conference because they are looking for new manuscripts and authors they believe are ready to publish now.

An agent is usually necessary to get your foot in the door with an editor. However, the one exception is at conferences, editors will hear pitches directly from authors. And if they like your pitch, they may ask you to submit a book proposal and sample or even a complete MS.

Logo for Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference
Source: http://ridgecrestconferencecenter.org/event/blueridgemountainchristianwritersconference#.Wo2lvHxG3IU

So in moving up the ladder to publication:

  1. An agent shops your MS to (acquisitions) editors.
  2. An editor presents your MS to representatives of his/her specific publisher.
  3. Publisher representatives accept your MS and offer a contract.

At that point, you will want your agent to negotiate your contract with the publisher, and the editor will be your liaison with the publisher.

Moral of the story: Agents and editors are both necessary to get published, so talk to any of the ones who are most likely to be interested in your manuscript.

Q: So this is not an editor who is offering to edit my manuscript?

A: Correct. There may be some of those editors as attendees, but the kind of editors conferences will make available to you are the ones that could potentially get you accepted by a publisher.

Q: If these editors will only accept manuscripts from agents, should I only talk to agents?

A: Normally, yes. But as I said, the one exception to this rule is at conferences. When editors offer one-on-one meetings at conferences, they are offering a rare chance to bypass the agent and pitch your MS directly to them. If they like your idea, they might ask you to submit something to them. Every editor is different in terms of what they want to receive initially, but most will ask for a book summary and/or outline, some sample pages, and a brief author bio. Only submit directly to an editor if they ask, and give them what they ask for specifically.

Q: If through the conference I can get an editor to accept my MS without an agent, why do I need to talk to agents?

A: Two big reasons:

  1. Your chances of being accepted by an editor are still much greater through an agent than on your own.
  2. Even if you do get an offer from a publisher because an editor was excited about you and your MS, you should still have an agent represent you in contract negotiations. If publishers can take advantage of you, they will – even Christian publishers. They’re not bad people, but this is a business to them. They want the most advantageous deal they can get. An agent knows the tricks they will try to pull and how to protect you from them.

Q: What if I do get a publishing offer, but I don’t have an agent?

A: Contact a few agents who represent your type of book and tell them you have a publishing offer and need an agent. My guess is your phone will ring off the hook.

Q: How do I know what agents and editors are interested in?

A: Find a recent copy of the Writer’s Market. For the editors listed in the conference, look at their publishers and see what they publish. That will tell you what the editor is looking for. You might be able to find a copy in your library. However, if you are serious about getting your MS published through a traditional publisher, it is worth buying. If you want to focus on agents, the Guide to Literary Agents can give you more detailed info.

Q: So at the conference, is it better to talk to an agent or editor?

A: It’s best to talk to whoever is most likely to take an interest in your manuscript. You will need both of them to successfully navigate the publishing process. If you get an editor first, you should have no problem finding an agent. If you get an agent first, his/her job is to get your foot in the door with an editor. Where you start your journey is not nearly as important as finding someone who really wants to help you get in.

And Evening and Morning Were the First Day… Or Was It the Fourth?

The Foothills Writers Guild has started something called the First Draft Society (FDS). It is strictly in-house. Members can submit short pieces to be distributed to everyone in the guild through email for a first reading and feedback. Most of these submissions come in response to challenges from the president. Of course, last month there was an Eclipse Challenge. There were at least half a dozen submissions before the eclipse. I started mine on the day and just submitted it. Since it took this long, you probably already guessed it’s not really a first draft. So sue me.

Still, I understand it’s pretty late for this topic. So if you can take one more commentary on Eclipse 8-21-17, I really appreciate you stopping by and reading this, my first FDS submission.

*****

I bet when Bonnie Tyler recorded “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” she had no idea it would be the biggest hit of 1983. Even more so, I bet she had no idea that 34 years later, it would become number 1 again, and everyone would be talking about it. Or that a cruise ship would hire her to sing it as they sailed into the path of a Solar Eclipse. I didn’t make it to that cruise, but I was one of the lucky ones who only had to step into my back yard to see it. I didn’t really want to get caught up in Eclipse-mania, but when a wonder of the heavens is observable right where you live, you know you will never forgive yourself if you miss it.

imperfect image of solar eclipse of 2017
I tried to photograph the eclipse. But without the protective lenses, you don’t actually see the moon starting to block the sun. But you can see one star.

The sun is the very model of consistency and dependability. The earth keeps spinning on its axis, and the sun holds its position, so every part of the globe experiences daytime and nighttime. Sunrise and sunset happen at totally predictable times each and every day. You can literally set your calendar and watch by it. It shines on everyone on the face of the earth… except during a total eclipse.

The newspapers said Greenville (South Carolina) got 2 minutes, 10 seconds of totality, while Anderson got 2 minutes, 34 seconds. I couldn’t watch the event and start a timer, so I wasn’t able to track the timing. Thanks to the website www.eclipse2017.org, I found out the eclipse I watched started at 1:09:15 PM. I saw totality for 2 minutes, 35 seconds, starting at 2:37:57 PM. And “total” is important. The difference between 99% and 100% is never more striking than when you are watching an eclipse.

It amazes me how today, scientists can calculate exactly where the path of totality will travel, and based on your location, tell you exactly when the eclipse will begin, exactly when and for how long you will see totality, and exactly when it will end, down to the second. But what if you were living at a time before that kind of mathematical precision? What if you were a caveman, and you saw a total eclipse for the first time? You know it’s supposed to be day, and then all of a sudden it’s night. You look up, and it looks like the sun has been swallowed by the moon, which now has this fiery halo all around it. Day has turned to night. Nocturnal birds are waking up. Crickets and cicadas are chirping. What’s happening??? But after about two and a half minutes, the sun returns, and you’ve learned an important lesson. The sun can be hidden, but it is always where it should be in the sky.

The sun, moon, and stars, were created on the fourth day of Creation. I thought about this, because the only time you can see the sun, moon, and stars all together is during a total eclipse. Unfortunately, when it turned dark, the automatic streetlights in my neighborhood turned on. The ambient light hid all but a handful of stars. Still, it was enough to make me marvel that for the first time in my life, I could see all the heavenly bodies represented at once. It made me appreciate that fourth day of creation in a new way.

Fourth Day vs. First Day

Did you notice that in Genesis, light was created before the sun, moon, and stars? Light was created on the first day, but then God waited three more days to create the sun, moon and stars. I’m not arguing for a literal 6-day creation here, but I do believe the author of that particular passage did this deliberately. Whether the author was Moses (as tradition says) or the unknown author known as the Elohist (as scholars say), by separating the creation of light from the familiar lights in the sky, he wanted to tell us something much more profound than how old the heavens and earth are, or how many days did it all come together, and were they actually the 24-hour days we know, or were they 1000 years as the Psalmist said, “A thousand years are but a day in Thy sight”? Or were they billions of years, as evidence now indicates the universe is approximately 13.8 billion years old? I find all this fascinating to study. But at the end of the day, I don’t know, and I don’t care.

What the author was trying to tell us is this. It is not the sun, moon, and stars that are the source of light. It is God, who made all of them. Most people at that time worshiped the sun, moon, and stars as gods. The account of creation says those bodies we see in the sky give light for only one reason. God said it, and it was so. And so they are not gods. They are natural phenomena that operate under the sovereignty of God. God is light and the source of all light. God’s light pre-existed and is independent of the light we see with our eyes.

But sometimes even that light may be blocked from our vision. Many saints of old said they experienced a few dark nights of the soul. Sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances that hide God’s light like the moon hides the sun during an eclipse. I’ve experienced a few times in life when God’s clear light of day suddenly turned to night, and they lasted a lot longer than the roughly two and a half minutes I experienced under a total eclipse. If Bonnie Tyler’s song was called “Total Eclipse of the Soul,” would you have known what she meant? I would.

Maybe you have experienced some of your own dark nights. Maybe you are going through one now. If so, one bit of good news I can offer is you are not alone. Name any Biblical hero (and in some cases, I use that term loosely), and I guarantee you the Bible includes accounts of their dark nights of the soul. God’s light was hidden, and it was as strange for them as that caveman I mentioned seeing day turn to night. All the caveman had to do was wait, and the sun would reappear again. God, however, does not move as predictably as the sun, moon, and stars. No one can give you a timetable for when your dark night will end, but it will end.

The moon appears to swallow and devour the sun, but really the sun is still there all along. In the same way, no matter how long God’s light remains hidden from you, it is always there. Neither life nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come can destroy it. They can only hide it for a time.

When the moon moves, as it always will, the light you see will most likely look different than before. Don’t worry. That is a good thing. Our dark nights of the soul remove our illusions and delusions we once held so dear, so that we can see the true light more clearly.

References

http://www.eclipse2017.org/2017/communities/states/SC/Anderson_1401.htm

http://www.eclipse2017.org/2017/communities/states/SC/Greenville_1483.htm

http://www.eclipse2017.org/2017/communities/states/SC/West%20Pelzer_1654.htm

Is Multiple POV Dead?

When I first started seriously shopping my novel manuscript in 2014, secular agents/publishers said

  1. It’s too Christian for us.
  2. We don’t want more than two points of view.

Christian agents/publishers said

  1. It has too much sex and violence for us (none of it gratuitous, I assure you).
  2. We don’t want more than two points of view.

I expected #1 from both to be an issue that I would just have to negotiate and maybe make some changes for them. #2, however, came totally out of the blue for me. All my life I’ve read and liked novels with multiple points of view (POV). Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel devotes a whole chapter to how to write in multiple POV. But they just wouldn’t seem to budge on that. They really prefer one POV. Even two is pushing it.

When I first started writing this manuscript, I envisioned it as two POV, a criminal condemned to death and his prison guard. It wasn’t working. After trying different things with the plot and working on my writing technique, it improved, but I still didn’t feel like it was ready for publication. When I wrote some chapters in a third POV (the wife of the condemned criminal), that opened up new scenes and characters that made the story and main characters more real to me. I felt I was moving in the right direction.

Then I tried out a chapter from the perspective of the Procurator of the Games, to get access to important Arena scenes and intrigues around the emperor. My critique group loved it, so I wrote some more. So that meant I had four POV characters.

At the time, I had no idea it would even be an issue. When I kept running into the same brick wall, I stopped sending query letters and tried to figure out what to do with it. Can I eliminate two POV’s? And if not, what then?

A sock in the gut from an author and an agent

A few months ago, award-winning author Lynette Eason spoke at the local chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW). She writes mainly romantic suspense for the Christian market. She wrote one novel with four POV, like mine. It was 90,000 words while mine is 76,000. She suggested they might be thinking it’s not enough words to develop all four of these characters. It was the first thing anyone in publishing said that made sense to me.

However, I recently attended a workshop through Writer’s Digest that suggests I may not be able to overcome this no matter how many words I add. I got to ask all my burning questions to a reputable agent. She asked if there were any bestsellers comparable to mine that

  1. Were written by debut novelists, and
  2. Were published in the last two years.

There’s the rub. I can think of multiple POV bestsellers. Preston and Child’s Pendergast series, the most recent of which was The Obsidian Chamber (2016). George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, which has been adapted very successfully for television. Jodi Picoult’s latest novel, which has seven POV in one chapter. But all of these authors have consistently written bestsellers going back to the 90’s. They have a proven track record. As a debut novelist, I do not. In fact, the last multiple POV bestseller from a debut novelist I can remember was The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2009). Eight years ago.

And I can’t fall back on Donald Maass, as great as his book was, because Breakout Novel was published in 2002. Book publishing has changed a lot since then. That’s why in your query letters, when you name published books comparable to yours, you can’t go back more than two years. What sold three or four years ago is already outdated. The one bit of good news I have is I found three novels set in ancient Rome all published this year. But, of course, they are all single POV.

I spent about twelve years working on this novel, writing and failing, writing and failing, over and over again until I finally had a manuscript I believed in. And in that twelve years, the very thing that breathed life into my novel like God breathing life into clay became the thing that makes publishers say, “Thanks, but it’s not for us.”

What to do now?

I don’t know. I could maybe bring down the number of POV’s to three. That’s still too many for the major publishers. Are there any agents, and maybe independent publishers, that are willing to take a chance on a debut novelist with a multiple POV story that is a damn good novel if I do say so myself? I’m going back in the ring to find out. Because after all the work I’ve put into it, I just can’t accept that I created something no one will care about.

If you are a writer, what POV do you write in? First person? Third person, deep POV? Third Person omniscient? Do you use one POV character? Two? Do you ever use more than two?

And whether you are a writer or reader, what do you think about this situation? Are publishers right that multiple POV novels don’t sell any more (unless you are an established bestseller)? Or are they misreading the market? I would love to hear your comments.

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In the meantime, we are coming up on the 20th anniversary of the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. I wrote a short story imagining them meeting in heaven called “A Requiem for Two.” It’s available on Kindle for only $0.99. And it’s only one Point of View (Princess Diana) in case you were wondering. If you like it, I would so appreciate a rating or review.

J. C. and the 12 O.G.’s (Mk 3:13-19a; Mat 10:1-4; Lk 6:12-16)

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.

Image of Sons of Anarchy cast members Kim Coates, Charlie Hunnmam, and Tommy Flanagan

The main rules you must accept to be part of any gang:

  1. Respect the O.G.’s
  2. Gang before everything, even family.
  3. Brotherhood: Intense love for each other.
  4. No snitching.
  5. Make some friends outside the gang.
  6. Never let a rival gang disrespect you.
  7. 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?

Yes.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son and our Lord?

Yes.

Do you believe Jesus Christ came to earth in the flesh?

Yes.

Do you believe white people have to keep uppity [N-word] in their place?

Yes.

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.

Image of Q as a judge
Caption: It’s not like I’m an all-powerful space entity or anything, but — Oh, wait! I AM an all-powerful space entity!

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.

Award Winning Author!

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.

image of pre-publication cover of Through Fear of Death
Possible cover for as yet unpublished novel

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.