Chart comparing Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, and Rey on "Mary Sue" traits. Overpowered: Luke, no; Anakin, yes; Rey, yes. Unexplained power level: Luke, no; Anakin, no; Rey, yes. Perfectly good: Luke, yes; Anakin, no; Rey, yes. No personality: Luke, yes; Anakin, no; Rey, yes. Instantly liked: Luke, no; Anakin, sort of; Rey, yes. Feels like wish fulfillment: Luke, no; Anakin, no; Rey, yes. Not embarrassed/fails: Luke, no; Anakin, no; Rey, yes.;

Writing Tips: The Dreaded Mary Sue

The Mary Sue trope is one of the most dreaded in fiction, sure to alienate readers. Mary Sue characters have ruined Star Wars (Rey) and Star Trek (Michael Burnham). What is a Mary Sue, you ask? The original “Mary Sue” was a parody of a character type that typically showed up in Star Trek fan fiction. Signs of a Mary Sue include:

  • Everyone instantly loves her and trusts her, even though they have no reason to.
  • She is better than everyone at everything. Training and experience are irrelevant because she’s just awesome.
  • Everything she needs comes to her when she needs it.
  • The team would be helpless without her.
  • She has no flaws or weaknesses whatsoever.

In this writer’s question, I try to stop a writer from creating a Mary Sue.

Question:

I’m writing a fantasy, but my MC is from the contemporary world (who then travels to the fantasy world). …I was wondering how a relatively normal, modern girl would develop a fighting style … without just instantly being good at it for the sake of the plot. She’s also not combat trained, since I figured that would be a little too convenient. I want her to be a normal girl who has to grind her way through the fighting side of things, and who uses her resourcefulness to balance out her shortcomings when it comes to being untrained.

I had an idea that perhaps she has some sort of talent that she could adapt INTO a fighting style throughout the course of the story. Perhaps she’s trained in some form of fan dancing and gymnastics, as I like the idea of something “feminine” like dancing being incorporated into combat. However, in my research I haven’t been able to find a fan dancing technique that I felt could work. They seemed a little too slow. At the moment, I’m considering baton twirling. The fast movement of the batons seems to fit with how I see my MC wielding her two weapons. …

I guess I’m wondering if you’d buy the logical leap of my protagonist using her baton experience (or fan dancing, whichever I go with) to inspire her combat in the fantasy world.

Answer:

Don’t make her a Mary Sue, a female character who is instantly good at everything. That’s why everyone hated Rey in the Star Wars sequels. If she has no training in combat, she needs training, pure and simple. As for incorporating dance or gymnastics, I like that idea (not necessarily fan dancing). If she has baton training, she could make that work to her advantage, but again with training and practice.

Have her go through the training and make mistakes. Maybe early on she tries to use her dancing/gymnastics, and her teachers beat her easily. She goes through training in standard combat. As she masters that, she finds ways to incorporate her other skills. I would recommend reading about Arya in Game of Thrones. In the first book she is given a sword teacher from Braavos, a people known for their “dancing style” of swordsmanship.

Chart comparing Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, and Rey on "Mary Sue" traits. Overpowered: Luke, no; Anakin, yes; Rey, yes. Unexplained power level: Luke, no; Anakin, no; Rey, yes. Perfectly good: Luke, yes; Anakin, no; Rey, yes. No personality: Luke, yes; Anakin, no; Rey, yes. Instantly liked: Luke, no; Anakin, sort of; Rey, yes. Feels like wish fulfillment: Luke, no; Anakin, no; Rey, yes. Not embarrassed/fails: Luke, no; Anakin, no; Rey, yes.;
Why Rey is a Mary Sue, and Luke and Anakin Skywalker are not

Mary Sue vs. Strong Female Character

There is a difference between a strong female character and a Mary Sue. It’s fine to have a woman who is strong, tough, and/or exceptionally talented in some ways. Sarah Connor from Terminator 2 and Princess Leia I think are two great examples of that. Arya was a great character in Game of Thrones at first. But as the show went off the rails in the end, so did she.

I gave a hint above on how to avoid making her a Mary Sue. Have her go through training and struggle to master the fighting techniques she needs. Have her lose to her instructors and other students in practice. Give her a reason to persist no matter how hard it gets. Why does she want to master these weapons? The reason has to be compelling enough that she will not quit, even when everyone else thinks she should. As she masters her weapons and starts beating the other students, we’ll feel like she earned it.

If you want to know whether your character is a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu, as it may be), these links will help you identify her and transform her into a character people will root for.

What Is a Mary Sue Character? – The Moonlighting Writer

The Problem with Perfect Characters: Mary Sues, Gary Stus, and Other Abominations – TCK Publishing

Mary Sue – Wikipedia

Stained glass windows. On the left, Ruth pledges to stay with Naomi. On the right, Boaz shows kindness to Ruth.

On Biblical Fiction and Rewriting God’s Word

In a Fiction Writing Facebook group, someone was working on a novel based on the story of Naomi in the book of Ruth. If you’re not familiar with the story of Ruth, I’d recommend reading it. It’s only four chapters, and the namesake is an unusual hero in that she is a Moabite, not an Israelite. Not only that, she becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Sorry for the spoiler, but the story has been around for over 2,000 years.

Anyway, she first asked for feedback on her beginning. It promised a story where the main character changes her name twice. For those who know the story, they know the significance of the name changes and expect a story of tragic loss with healing and redemption that follows. If they don’t know the story, it might stir their curiosity. Why would she change her name twice? Either way, it’s good hook, and I told her so.

The Story

But I did not think the ending she proposed would be satisfying. Here is how she described it.

This is historical biblical fiction. It’s about Naomi’s ten years in the wilderness, and written in first person. The last chapter of Call Me Mara ends with “…it was the beginning of the barley harvest” and I will encourage readers to finish the story of Naomi and Ruth in the Scriptures.

This writer wants to tell the story from Naomi’s point of view. No problem there. But she is proposing ending the story in the middle and then saying, “If you want the rest of the story, go read the Bible.”

Here is how I responded.

If this is the ending, I would feel cheated. Biblical fiction can be a great tool for getting people interested in the Bible, but it is not an excuse for doing our job halfway. You still need to give your reader a complete story. Use your storytelling skills to give them an enjoyable reading experience, and they will be more likely to follow through on your suggestion to read the Bible.

She wasn’t convinced. She said,

I just don’t want to rewrite God’s Words in my own words. Ruth 2 and beyond have already been told and I can’t improve on that. For now, this is where I feel my story ends and the Spirit takes over.

This is the dilemma for writing Biblical Fiction. It’s always “already been told.” Rewriting the Bible sounds daunting, even sacrilegious. But if you want to write Biblical Fiction, you have to make peace with that somehow. Just so you know, here is how the story would end as she proposes it.

“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.

(Ruth 1:20-22)

Ruth and Naomi haven’t even arrived in Bethlehem yet, much less met Boaz, who becomes the kinsman-redeemer who marries Ruth, ensuring a secure future for both women. Again, sorry for the spoiler. Her version would leave all of that out.

It also does not deliver on what she promised. Her intro promises a character who changes her name twice. But if she ends the story there, we only get one name change. We get only the tragedy and miss the healing and redemption that follows. If you promise something to the reader, you need to deliver.

The Rest of the Story

But the rest of the story is in the Bible.

Then why should they read your story at all when they can read the whole thing in the Bible? Fiction when done well does not just tell a story. It gives us a chance to experience it through the character. You are not just told what happened. You feel like you are there as it happens. When you write Biblical Fiction, that is what you are promising the reader, the chance to experience the story—the whole story—with Naomi. Or whoever your character is.

If you want to write Biblical Fiction, don’t use the Bible as an excuse not to do your job. Writing fiction of any kind means creating a good story that moves the reader. I’ve read the Bible several times, but I can still appreciate a work that helps me see it in a way I had never considered. If you give them an enjoyable reading experience, they will be more likely to take your suggestion to read the Bible so they can see where your story came from. Here is how you can do that.

  1. Be faithful to the source material. One way to look at it is the Biblical story provides you with the bricks. You use mortar to connect them. The mortar includes techniques writers use to draw the reader in, like scene setting, characterization, action, dialog, and plotting.
  2. You are not rewriting the Bible. You are creating a new way for others to experience it.
  3. Pick a point of view character that you connect with.
  4. Fully imagine the character in that situation. What do they see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? What is the weather like? What emotions are they going through? How do they see the world around them? In the end, what kind of transformation do they go through?
  5. Look for ways you can fill in missing details. The Bible often leaves out the kind of details that make fiction come alive. See that as an invitation, not a restriction.
  6. Write a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

If you would like to see some of my recommendations for Biblical Fiction done well, click here. Some of them do not actually follow rule number one. They might take a little more creative license with the story than some would like. But they do it in a way that is believable and makes you feel like you are there.

Pen writing on paper, message reads Be creative, drawing of a light bulb turned on

Writing Tips: Coincidence in Fiction

Another question from my Fiction Writing FB group.

Question:

Does this come off as too much of a coincidence in my plot?

My story is a crime thriller and in it, a woman wants police protection because she knows too much about a crime, and after being interviewed at the police station, the main character detective takes her home, and she begs him to protect her, since she is in fear of harm.

He can’t do it and break protocol and is about to leave, and then he gets a call from his superior, giving him the assignment of protecting her.

But I am wondering if it comes off as too much of a coincidental convenience, that she wants something, he doesn’t give it to her, and then he gets a phone call that compels him to give to her, and thus conveniently answering her prayer in a sense?

Answer:

Can you show that it is not a coincidence? If the superior orders the MC to do something against protocol, he should smell something fishy. That and the timing being just a little “too perfect” indicates the superior is watching the witness, the MC, or both. Why and how? And why did the superior not assign protection at first only to change his mind a few hours later? Is the superior being pressured by someone else? It sounds like there is something corrupt in the department that could not only explain the coincidence but drive the plot and the MC’s actions.

It turned out all my guesses were wrong. So without knowing the story, I can’t comment any further on this example. But here is a rule of thumb. If the scene unfolds this way for no reason other than you need it to, it’s too much of a coincidence.

How to write a novel: 1) Write. 2) Edit. 3) Get Feedback. 4) Revise. 5) Repeat.

Writers’ Questions: Contradictory Advice and Tips for a Newbie

I’m doing a blog series now where I find questions on FB writer groups, like Fiction Writing, answer them, and post the Q & A. Eventually, I’m hoping I can collect these into an ebook. Here are a couple of questions, one about how to handle conflicting advice from critiques, and one from a writer just starting her first novel.

How to write a novel: 1) Write. 2) Edit. 3) Get Feedback. 4) Revise. 5) Repeat.
My most succint writing advice.

Question:

…I wrote a series where witches work with law enforcement. It’s not the premise of the stories, but it is a strong recurring element. I shared a scene with a group who hadn’t read it, with two witches coming to an active crime scene, after having been called to it by a federal inspector who had been working with them for roughly five years.

I was told it made no sense to have them there, furthermore that they should argue with the witches about coming. Even after explaining their partnership I was told it didn’t matter and to apply the suggestions. I changed the scene to be more of an clash and when my betas read it, they were confused and upset that after all these years the Inspector changed her tune.

What’s the best way to mitigate this kind of feedback? Since most writing communities shun the author defending their choices, should you do what others say even if they don’t have full context, or is it best to stick with people who’ve followed the story?

Answer:

If your beta readers are familiar with the overall story, you should listen to them. Nothing takes me out of a story quicker than when characters do something that makes no sense given what has happened in the story so far. If I had been one of your beta readers, I probably would have had the same reaction.

On critique groups in general, I am getting ready to self-publish my first novel, and I never would have gotten to this point without them. However, this is the kind of problem that can happen when critiquers see only one scene without having read the story leading up to it. You can explain the situation to them, but sometimes they still don’t get it. I shared my chapters in order, so I knew if they said something didn’t make sense, they had the context to make that judgment.

Anytime you solicit advice, you have to separate the good from the bad. Mostly what I have found is advice falls mostly into three categories.

  1. I know they are right.
  2. I know they are wrong.
  3. I don’t want to use that, but their suggestion points me in a direction that is more interesting than what I have.

If you’re not sure, then try out what they suggest and ask yourself one question: Does this make it a better story? The answer to that is subjective, but that is what it means to be an author: You get to make that call.

Question:

I am just starting out as a writer.

I want to write fun somewhat surreal tropical paradise like stories and also tropical paradise murder mysteries. I have read some of both and am currently on a trip in French Polynesia.

I am a big fan of Agatha Christie and see her series stories as inspiration.

I am learning Polynesian culture and also more specifically Hawaiian culture and history.

I have just entered my 60s, and my career is and has been Information Technology. That might be some I might incorporate as well.

But I am at the very beginning!

So how does one start?

Answer:

Read current bestsellers in your genre. Agatha Christie is considered cozy mystery, so you will need to know what that audience is reading now. Beyond that, join a writing group. Learn the craft: plot, characterization, dialog, point of view, etc. Write. Edit. Get feedback. Revise. Repeat. And welcome.


Both these posts came from a FB group called Fiction Writing. If you would like to see the original posts and other answers, here they are. Given your interests, cozy mysteries set in Hawaii would be the best thing to read. You will probably have to request to join the group. But if your serious about writing fiction, it’s a good place to get some feedback and questions answered.

I wrote a series where witches work with law enforcement.”

I am just starting out as a writer.”

Happy writing!

Writers’ Questions: Should I Open with an Extended Flashback?

This question is about jumping into a flashback in the opening of your novel.

Question:

What’s your guys opinion on a beginning that starts with a cold open, then flashes back to what led to it—Breaking Bad episode one for example: starts with Walt diving the RV violently through the desert with two (presumed) dead bodies sloshing around in chemicals behind him. Crashes the RV in a ditch, gets out in his undies, points a gun toward the approaching sirens, and then boom were taken back to his normal life, cancer diagnosis, and ride along to a meth lab bust which gives him his bright idea, etc., etc., until we lead right back into the opening scene. Works well for tv, movies too, but generally do you find that to be attractive when reading?

Or would it be more plausible to hook the reader, then just keep the story rolling, sprinkling in backstory over the course of the narrative?

Like I said, just a general question. I’ll end up going with whatever I personally enjoy reading/writing the most and what I feel works best for the story but I was just curious about your thoughts on it 🙂 thanks!

 I bring it up originally because I reread Live By Night by Dennis Lehane, and he opens on a scene that happens like 10 years after the story unfolds. Only touches on it for a paragraph. Thought it was an interesting take on getting us into the story—linked the pic of the first page below.

Dennis Lehane jumps quickly into a flashback to explain how his main character, Joe Coughlin, ended up in a tubboat with his feet in cement about to be thrown overboard.
The opening of Dennis Lehane’s novel, Live by Night (2012).

Answer:

A few thoughts.

  1. It is good that you distinguish between writing for visual media, i.e,, TV and movies, from writing novels or short stories. Some things work better for one media than others.
  2. From what I’ve seen, most bestsellers take the second approach: Hook the reader, keep the story moving, and sprinkle in backstory at opportune moments. Jumping almost immediately into an extended flashback happens more in literary fiction. Commercial fiction is much easier to get published than literary fiction, especially for a new author.
  3. If you really have your heart set on flashing back, make sure you have a clear transition between the story opening and the flashback. In the example you give, Lehane did this well with the last sentence of the first paragraph, and the first sentence of the second paragraph.

One more thing to consider. I took a course on writing memoirs. In one of my assignments, I used the same technique. I started with a phone call from a former crush who told me she was getting married, flashed back to when I knew her, my love was unrequited, and she moved away, then back to the phone call and going to her wedding. My teacher told me it made the story interesting in a way. But by saying at the beginning that she was marrying someone else, it took away the suspense the reader would have felt in wondering, “Will he win her heart or not?” I had never thought of that.

Try to understand what you will gain or lose with either choice.

That post came from a FB group called Fiction Writing. This was my answer. If you want to see the original post and other answers, here is the link. You will probably have to join the group if you haven’t already. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=1628589800828232&set=gm.2377342689075120


What do you think? Do you like it when novels jump into a flashback after a brief introduction? Is it something that works better on TV than in books? Have you read anything published in the last three or four years that has an opening like Lehane’s above?

You're a writer. Claim the title. Writers write, so make time for it every day. Set realistic goals. Embrace the ecstasy of writing. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read. Follow your heart, not the market. Don't just start stories; finish them. Dream big. Learn the rules. Follow the rules. Break the rules. Constructive Criticism: Solicit, Accept, Manage. Put your ego in your back pocket and sit on it. Writing is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the scenery. Give back to the writing community. Write scared. Remember you are the master of inspiration, not its slave. Set your stories free. Send them into the world. Don't slack on the hard stuff: Outline, Research, Rewrite. Build a lifestyle that nurtures and supports your writing. Love what you do. Write with joy. -A Wordplayer's Manifesto

Writer’s Questions: What if My POV Character Does Not Understand the Language Others Are Speaking?

Point of view (POV) is an important consideration in how you write your stories. I came across this question in one of my Facebook Writing Groups.

How to write about characters speaking in a different language?

Hey guys, hope ur all well! So I’m working on a ww2 story and in one scene, the British mc gets captured by the enemy soldiers. He is laying on the ground at gun point while the other men are arguing with each other in German about whether to kill him or not

How should I go about this since the POV character doesn’t understand what they’re saying? But I also want to show the readers the intentions of the soldiers arguing with each other (some want to take the boy prisoner, but some want to execute him as a lot of their friends got killed in a recent skirmish)

I was thinking maybe ‘they shouted in German’ or actually translating and writing the German dialogue down. Any suggestions please? Thanks!

My Answer

If the POV character does not understand it, don’t translate it. That takes the reader out of your character’s point of view. He probably can’t even make out the words they’re saying, much less understand them. The character can get a sense of what they are saying through their actions and tone of voice. One of them puts his boot on his back, shouts something angrily in German, and presses the gun muzzle to his head. The other shouts, “Nein,” (most people understand that even if they don’t speak German) and pushes him away. Then they argue. The character knows which one wants to kill him and which is trying to save him.

Remember, only 7% of verbal communication is in the words we say. The other 93% is body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. The POV character does not have to understand the words to get the gist of it.

Omniscient vs. Character POV

I gave this advice because the poster said the British MC was the point-of-view (POV) character. If he/she was writing in an omniscient POV, it would be fine to give the words in German and translate them, e.g., “Wollen Sie mit mir kommen?” (Do you want to come with me?) the man asked. In an omniscient POV, you have a narrator who knows everything, so they can tell you anything they want you to know.

But if your POV character does not understand German, you can’t give the exact words. So you have to communicate the soldiers’ intent in a way the MC will understand, i.e., body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

Most novels today are not written in omniscient POV, and I think for good reason. Here is another example that I think clearly shows the difference. Jerry Jenkins used it in one of his writing tutorials.

In this scene, Mary has just won some election. Here is a brief snippet you might write in omniscient POV.

“Congratulations,” Bob said.

Mary did not believe him.

We have an omniscient narrator telling us what Mary is thinking. But let’s say you are writing the scene from Bob’s point of view. Bob does not know what Mary is thinking. You have to show it in a way Bob will know.

“Congratulations,” Bob said.

“Oh?” Mary raised her eyebrows. “I thought you wanted your wife to win.”

Don’t you feel the tension much more that way? In the omniscient POV, we know Mary does not believe Bob, but Bob does not. In Bob’s POV, Mary shows her disbelief clearly, so Bob knows along with the reader. This is the difference between telling and showing. I added a little body language with Mary raised her eyebrows. But you could have just written Mary said, and it still would have been clear.

“Show Don’t Tell” and POV

Show don’t tell is one of those rules you hear all the time but can be difficult to explain. I think the best way to learn it is to practice using POV characters instead of omniscient POV. In omniscient POV, you can tell all day and get away with it. But if you filter everything through one character’s POV, then you have to show it.


What do you think? Do you have a way of handling characters dealing with foreign languages? Do you prefer to write in omniscient or character POV? Why? Do you agree that character POV makes it easier to show and not tell? Let me know in the comments.

Two mackeral and a loaf on a board

On the Art of the Sermon

I am late with this. My pastor retired at the end of June. My televangelists of the past mocked the idea of pastors retiring. I don’t think any of them really retire from ministry. Their ministry just takes on a different kind of practice, so I don’t begrudge them their retirement. I have been in churches all my life, but I think this was the first time I was there to see a pastor give his or her final message before retirement.

What I’m doing here, though, he might question. He said he sent all his old sermons to the recycling bin. Though he meant every word of those sermons at the time he preached them, he said, “something goes out of them after their preached, and … they’re done.”

I was a little sad to hear that. I had often wondered if he would ever collect his sermons into a book. Apparently not. I would have bought that book. If you’ll forgive me Dr. Bailey, I don’t think this last sermon is done, so I’m going to share for those who weren’t there some highlights. He said a number of interesting things about the art of ministry and preaching sermons. For anyone who has ever wondered how pastors feel about the enormous task of proclaiming the word of God, I think you’ll appreciate his insights.

He said he gave his first sermon on July 4, 1982, called “New Beginnings.” This one, the last before retirement, he called “A Couple of Thousand Sermons Later.” That alone says a lot about why he is qualified to give advice on how to write and deliver a sermon. He thanked not only us but his former congregations for having “open minds, a sense of humor, and forgiving hearts.” No pastor can last long without that.

He believed pastoring a congregation was based on two foundations.

  1. Relationships of trust built by being a faithful friend and pastor.
  2. A willingness to continually go through the process of wrestling with scripture, prayerfully seeking from it what is God’s message for today, and delivering that message in a way that makes sense and makes a difference.

I’m not the only member who will attest he did very well on both counts. I think that’s why when at times he said some things I knew a lot of the congregation did not agree with, they did not push back too hard or try to get him fired. They already considered him a faithful friend and pastor, and they knew he would not say anything from the pulpit without honestly wrestling with the scripture and prayerfully seeking from it God’s message for us. That is where the ability to speak the truth in love served him well. He could let you know where he stood without being confrontational about it.

I Am a “Dinosaur”

Looking back to when he was interviewing for this position, he told the nominating committee that he was “a dinosaur.” It seemed the megachurches had brought a new style of worship that included rock bands, short film segments, multi-media presentations, light shows, and stadium seating. That was not his style, and he hoped that there were some people who still found the traditional style of worship appealing.

Though sometimes I feel like I’m a dying breed, I am among those who still find the traditional style of worship appealing when it’s done well. In fact, a few years ago, I watched video of a megachurch service with all the bells and whistles that usually come with that. When I was younger, that would have appealed to me. But now it seems I’m at a point in my life where I want church to be church. That includes corporate and responsive prayers, singing of hymns, music from a choir (traditional or contemporary), reading of scripture, reading of the Apostles’ Creed or something similar, and a sermon that explains the scripture well.

Pastors Work More than One Hour

Most of the sermon was focused on the art of preaching itself. It is not the only part of pastoring, just the most visible. The pastor actually does work more than one hour per week. I remember in seminary, I heard a professor say you should plan on one hour of preparation per minute of your sermon. So if your sermon is 15-20 minutes, that means about 15-20 hours of preparation. And that does not include other duties like committee meetings, hospital and home visits, weddings, funerals, counseling, et al, and I was blessed to experience his wisdom and grace in all those capacities.

In an age when we are bombarded with media of different kinds competing for our attention, preaching is challenging today. It requires sustained attention from both the preacher and the listeners, and while megachurches have many tools to keep your attention, the traditional preacher only has words.

As a writer, I think that is what I appreciate about the art of a traditional sermon. I know what it’s like to have to determine not only what I want to say but what are the right words to say it. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” So I appreciate pastors who know how to capture the lightning. Pastoring requires regular writing on a deadline that has to communicate the word of God to the listeners, which is why I don’t understand why more pastors don’t collect their best sermons into a book, Dr. Bailey’s comments about them being “done” notwithstanding.

Complete Honesty

He realized early in his career that effective preaching required complete honesty. And so he would confess some things about himself in sermons that he would rather not tell us in private conversation. Because of that, it was always a challenge when he had to preach more than once on the same day, as when we did multiple services to accommodate Covid restrictions. I never heard him complain about it, though perhaps he did in private. But throughout the Covid crisis, his first concern was our safety. So if that meant preaching multiple sermons to keep social distancing or putting more effort into directing people to the church’s YouTube channel, or just doing things that were uncomfortable, he was willing to do it. And I agree that honesty is truly necessary for effective preaching.

Some Sundays, he felt like he had completely failed to get the most important points across. But then as he greeted people at the end of the service, someone would enthusiastically tell him that something he had said really made a difference for them. Then there were other Sundays where he felt great about both the sermon and delivery, but afterwards someone would ask, “Are you okay?” I imagine anyone who speaks in public regularly can relate to that.

How to Stay Encouraged with Low Turnout

On Sundays when people commented there was a low turnout, it never discouraged him. He said he was always amazed that anyone showed up. He knew most of the reasons people show up had nothing to do with him. But even so, he said, “I hope you will allow me to say that your presence here … is and has been the most wonderful affirmation for me that you believe God has called us into partnership to be a community of faith together.”

Lightning. The pastor is the leader of the congregation, but he is not the whole show. I don’t trust pastors who take an authoritarian approach, a model that is sometimes called shepherding, where the pastor’s word is law. As Dr. Bailey said, church should be a partnership, not only between pastor and parishoners, but within the congregation as well. I joined the church because I liked the pastor and his sermons, but also because there were people there who made me feel welcome from the beginning, especially in my Sunday School class. Going there feels like a family reunion, where there are families with multiple generations represented, and you know you are already loved even before you walk into the building. That is what I think being a community of faith together means.

The Privilege of Focusing on God’s Word

“It’s an amazing privilege in one’s job to be able to study and pray over God’s word at length and then attempt to bring that word to others, and to have people show up to engage you in that enterprise with you.”

Lightning again. Though I am not ordained, I feel most alive when I am able to study and pray over God’s word at length and then attempt to bring that word to others. That is why I started this blog. It’s a sign of his humility and grace that he recognizes that is a privilege, one that no preacher should take for granted, to be able to do that, and have others around who believe in you enough to pay you to do that, not for them but with them.

Hope, Joy, Good News, and Challenge

“My hope and prayer is that in the long run, the sermons have brought mostly hope and joy and good news to people as well as the challenge to live the way God calls us to live in Jesus Christ.”

Lightning again. I’ve heard some preachers say they only want to bring hope, joy, and good news to people. I’ve heard others who complain about them, saying speaking the truth of God’s word needs to challenge people and convict them of their sin, but they don’t have much to say that is encouraging. The way he described it strikes the right balance. He hoped that his sermons brought mostly hope, joy, and good news, while also recognizing living the way God calls us to live in Jesus Christ is a challenge, and preachers need to be honest about that. Again, speaking the truth in love goes a long way to earning your parishioners’ trust.

Truth-telling and Ambiguity

He quoted a line from Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors. Buechner called the sermon “… a creative type of truth-telling that is willing to live with ambiguity, willing to live with unanswered questions rather than presuming to have all the answers.”

I wish more preachers today would take that to heart. Too many of them presume to have all the answers, maybe because they never learned to live with unanswered questions. You’re human. It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers. But they have to make you think they know everything, so they quote a Bible verse or two, usually out of context, and say, “This is the word of God,” meaning there is no more room for discussion, no possibility that they might not see the whole picture.

I heard one Jewish woman say, “Jews open the scriptures to begin a conversation. Christians open the scriptures to end a conversation.” Like most statements of this nature, that is true–to an extent. But I agree Jewish tradition is much open to conversation than Christian tradition. Opening the scriptures, and hence sermons, should be an invitation to further thought and discussion. Yes, there are some things I think are the Truth (with a capital T), and I try not to compromise them. But even then, I have room in my thinking for honest and thoughtful debate. On most of my posts I make my opinions clear. But I take the time to explain why I think or believe the way I do, and I’m always hopeful that people will use the comments section to share why they agree or disagree. Most of the time, I am looking to begin a conversation, not end it.

New Beginnings

His final prayer for us: “I pray that God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ. And I pray that you will continue to open your hearts and your ears and your mind to those who will stand here in the pulpit in the future, attempting to the best of their ability to tell the truth.”

In other words, he hopes we will treat the next pastor the same way we treated him. And he hopes we will continue our partnership of being a community of faith together with whoever is next to occupy our pulpit.

Presbyterians don’t usually applaud, but we gave him a standing ovation. Even the “frozen chosen” have moments when we must show our appreciation. I said in an earlier post I think the next pastor will have big shoes to fill. But if he/she (yes, women can be pastors, at least in PCUSA) honestly wrestles with the scriptures to give us the truth to the best of their ability, is a faithful pastor and friend who invites us to join in their work of carefully studying God’s word and trying to draw from it God’s message for us, whose preaching invites conversation rather than shutting it down, and who offers hope, joy, and encouragement in the challenging work of living as God in Jesus Christ calls us to live, I for one will accept them with an open mind, a sense of humor, and a forgiving heart.


Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment or question below. No trolling, but I am happy to engage in honest discussion and debate. As always, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

For Writers: What’s so Bad about Adverbs?

Have you ever played Tom Swiftie? I’m referring to the word game many of us learned as children where you make a sentence in the format: (Statement) + Tom said + (punny adverb). Here are a few of my favorites.

“This lemonade needs more sugar,” Tom said sourly.

“I’m not good at darts,” Tom said aimlessly.

“I only have diamonds, clubs, and spades,” Tom said heartlessly.

“I dropped the toothpaste,” Tom said crestfallenly.

If you have fun with this, keep it out of your writing. The adverbs in these sentences, while good for making puns, can suck the life out of fiction. Steven King perhaps popularized this notion more than any other fiction writer. The Dorrance Publishing website has a page with 20 of Steven King’s top rules for writing. Numbers 3 and 4 concern (not using) adverbs.

3. Avoid adverbs. You need to do the work prior to using an adverb so that it isn’t necessary as a descriptor. If your characters are in a heated argument, you need to create the drama leading up to an exit so that you don’t need to say that the character slammed the door, forcefully. Forcefully should be redundant.

4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.” (Sorry, Tom S.) According to King, “While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.” You don’t need to add an adverb after “he said” or “she said.” Just keep it simple.

“Authors’ Rules for Writing: Stephen King

In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he gets even more critical. “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

Whether you are a fan of King or not, I believe the greatest reason for his success is his ability to paint vivid scenes and characters in the reader’s imagination. So we would do well to heed his advice. Why is he so down on adverbs? Let’s explore that for a few minutes.

#3 Avoid Adverbs

So what’s wrong with adverbs? As a kid who grew up on Schoolhouse Rock, I can still sing the chorus and most verses of “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here.” Now, as a writer, the experts tell me I should let Lolly keep their adverbs. As with most writing rules, when I first learned this, my first instinct was to rebel. What did I spend those Saturday mornings watching cartoons for if it’s to forget the grammar I learned?

“An adverb is a word, that modifies a verb …” or props up a weak verb.

But as with most writing rules, as I sit with it, it makes sense. In the last post, I talked about the importance of using strong verbs instead of weak verbs. This rule is a corollary of that. As King indicated in Rule #3, strong verbs make adverbs unnecessary and redundant. If Tom slammed the door, there’s no need to add “forcefully.”

Think of this sentence. She walked slowly. The adverb here props up the weak verb walked. How could we say that without the adverb?

She crept. She tiptoed. She shuffled.

Self-Publishing School: Ultimate Strong Verb List
See complete list at https://self-publishingschool.com/strong-verbs-list/

Do you see how using a strong verb makes any adverb unnecessary or even redundant? Not only that, the strong verb paints a more vivid picture than the verb/adverb combination we used originally.

So the lesson here is watch out for verb/adverb combinations. When you see one, try to find a stronger verb.

#4 “He/She said,” No Adverb

Now we go after Tom Swiftie. King’s 4th Rule refers specifically to using an adverb with “he said” or “she said.” Again, if you do the other parts of your writing well, you shouldn’t need an adverb in that case. The action and dialog should make the emotion behind it clear without any adverbs. One of Elmore Leonard’s cardinal rules was you should never need any dialog tag other than said. I think it’s safe to say he would agree with King on this.

Consider this example. “That’s not funny,” he said angrily.

The dialog here does not clearly communicate anger, so the writer used the adverb, angrily. But as an article on Autocrit said, “An adverb in a dialogue tag means you probably have to rewrite the dialogue itself.” How could we change this dialog?

“That’s not funny, you disgusting pig,” he said. Now there’s no need for an adverb.

You can also use action if you prefer. He grabbed the joker by the throat. “That’s not funny,” he said. Or something simpler. “That’s not funny,” he said through clenched teeth.

Those are just some examples, hopefully enough to demonstrate that “said” with an adverb is not the most powerful way to convey emotion. And this is really part of the “Show don’t tell” rule. Instead of telling the reader what the character is feeling—angry, frustrated, happy, sad, etc.—show the emotion through action and dialog.

Breaking the Rules I Just Told You

On why the road to hell is paved with adverbs, King says,

“To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”

Stephen King

Did you notice he used adverbs? Totally, completely, profligately. Yes they are adverbs, but they do not break the rules. You want to avoid verb/adverb combinations, and you want to avoid adverbs with dialog tags. His adverbs do not describe a verb but an adjective (“covered”). If you think covered is a verb, it can be. But in this sentence, it’s a past participle, which can be used as an adjective.

Bottom line, the goal is not to eliminate all adverbs. The goal is to make your writing vivid and compelling to the reader. And these two rules will help you do that.

Exercise

On your work-in-progress, pull up the search function (Find in MS Word). Search for ly. This will be at the end of almost all offending adverbs. If your adverb is paired with a verb, replace it with a strong verb that makes the adverb unnecessary.

If it is a Tom Swiftie (“he said adverb”, “she said adverb”) you can try two things.

  1. Remove the adverb. Is the meaning still clear? Congratulations. You wrote it well but just didn’t know it.
  2. If the meaning is not clear, add some action or make the dialog sharper until the adverb is unnecessary.

https://pin.it/23CUIsQ

References

For more on reworking those unnecessary adverbs, see

Adverbs in Dialog,” Autocrit.

I believe the road to Hell is paved with adverbs,” Goodreads.

Authors’ Rules for Writing: Stephen King,” Dorrance Publishing.

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.