Free Advice Friday: how not to suck at writing

Take my advice with a grain of salt, because I mostly learned it through sucking and then trying desperately not to.

  1. Write Things Down.  I know, right?  Writers should write things.  But here’s the thing:  Sometimes you spend hours agonizing over a character’s motivation.  Or thinking about what season the story takes place in.  Or wondering what will end up happening to this or that guy.  Or thinking about where you want the story to go.  And you need to use the toilet, or make yourself a sandwich, or move on with the day.  You think, “oh, I’ll remember.”  NO YOU WON’T.  Write it down.  The best writers leave behind notebooks, sometimes banker’s boxes, sometimes MULTIPLE banker’s boxes full of their notes to themselves.  You wouldn’t believe how quickly even a monumental plot decision leaves your head when you stop writing and start living your daily life.
  2. Write Daily.  Do not write when the muse strikes you, because the muse is a fickle wench who will run you on a bender for weeks and then leave you high and dry twenty pages from finishing your novel.  Write daily.  Even if it’s just opening the document and tweaking a few words here and there and patting yourself on the back for not completely sucking, write daily.  If you don’t, you will grow away from your story.  Every day our lives change us, even our brain chemistry changes by fractions.  We continue to evolve.  If we don’t write, we evolve away from our own words.  Trust me, I know.  Shelve your writing for a few months, come back to it, and you won’t pick up where the last sentence left off.  You’ll stare at the horrid thing wondering what self-congratulating hatchet man wrote that inane drivel and then you’ll want to drink until you forget that it was you.  Trust me.  And it’s not just that- details like people’s eye color, what kind of sweater they were wearing, what they were going to say next, how you wanted the story to end, they will all leave you faster than the proverbial Hollywood film producer upgrading to a fresher model of trophy wife.  Write daily, or write crap.  BELIEVE ME.
  3. Read.  Read good things and read bad things, but read.  The best writers are also ferocious readers.  Why?  Because when we read we learn what we do and don’t love about writing.  We, as writers, can take that and improve our own writing by knowing what is good and what isn’t.  You know that one writer whose settings always draw you in?  That author whose quirky characters always steal your heart?  That wordsmith who smacks you down with the opening paragraph and drags you kicking and screaming to the gruesome climax every time?  Don’t you want to be that guy?  I know, I know, stealing other author’s ideas is plagiarism.  But stealing their methodology isn’t, and by reading you can start to internalize those things you love most and recognize writing that you hate.  You’ll start to think, “are my characters as endearing as Rowlings?  Are my settings as breathtaking as Dickens’s?  Is my pacing as nervewracking as King’s?”  Whether you realize it or don’t, you are learning to teach yourself to write by reading.
  4. Know your characters.  Have you ever read a book where the entire time you just couldn’t make yourself like the characters?  Where they felt hollow and unpredictable?  Where they read almost more like caricatures or stereotypes than three-dimensional people with wants and needs?  Yeah, don’t write crap like that, enough other writers already do.  Before you start writing, and as you write, ask yourself a lot of why questions.  Why would he say that?  Why would he wear that?  Why would he want that?  Why would he do that?  Also, ask yourself a lot of “hows” and “whens”.  And (point one) WRITE IT DOWN.  Don’t be afraid to go through, line by line, and ask yourself, “why?  how?  when?” realizing that as you get more familiar with the process of thinking about your characters, it will become more and more second nature.  There will come a point in writing when the words just leak out of you (in an overflowing pitcher sort of way, not an incontinent bowels sort of way) and you won’t have to think and think and think.  Although there will still be times, even several novels in, where you still do have to sit there and write pages and pages about your characters in a notebook somewhere just to say “hi” and get to know them.  Think of it as a shortcut to saving a lot of time later, when you’d have to spend months editing a manuscript just to fix problems that could’ve been avoided by asking yourself important questions before writing the story.
  5. Write about the human condition.  Whether you’re a farmer in the midwest or a banker on Wall Street or a hunter-gatherer in the bush of Southern Africa, you want the same basic things as the rest of us.  You want a safe place to sleep.  You want to be loved by someone.  You want a good meal.  You want to feel like the work you do with your hands pays off.  You want to leave a good inheritance for the next generation.  You want to experience beauty.  That is what makes you human.  If you want your story to instantly speak to anyone who would ever pick it up, write about those things.  The best stories are the stories where the protagonist just wants a decent cup of tea.  Or, just wants to curl up with her boyfriend but an apocalypse keeps happening.  Maybe he’s a servant who can’t seem to even wash the dishes right, but once the adventure starts you think, “maybe he’s going to save the world.”  Even if the plot line is nearly unbelievable, if your story has those elements people will put themselves in it.  They’ll commit.  And if the payoff is good enough, they’ll be loyal to you as a writer, because they’ll feel like in some small way you wrote about them.  And you did, because you wrote about all of us.
  6. Torment your audience, at least a little.  If your protagonist just wants a good cup of tea, make sure he doesn’t get one until the end of the story.  If she just wants to smooch with her honey make sure a really good apocalypse interrupts them.  If he just wants someone to appreciate him, make sure the person he wants that appreciation from the most doesn’t look twice at him and he has to prove himself over, and over, and over.  Believe me, no one wants to read the story that goes like this:  “Susy never had any good luck in her life ever.  But when she woke up that morning, she made the best pot of coffee.  Her bacon was just crispy enough without being burnt or soggy, and for once the pancakes didn’t have any lumps.  On her way to work she met the cutest guy and gave him her number.  Her boss didn’t yell at her once, and then as she was leaving the cute guy called and they met for drinks.  They hit it off and eloped and then made sweet, passionate, just-kinky-enough love.  The end.”  YAWN.  NO.  Make sure Susy burns her toast.  She is too shy to give the guy her number.  Her boss is a major suckwad.  She’s miserable.  She hopes to see the guy at the bar but she doesn’t, but THEN…  You get the point.  People want to see their characters tested because it gives them something to hope for.  Maybe, just maybe, things will work out for Susy.  (And if they work out for Susy, there’s hope for all of us.)  Ah, that’s better.
  7. Torment your audience maybe a lot.  People say things like, “don’t kill off your most sympathetic character or the audience will hate you.”  Then authors like JK Rowling and George RR Martin have a good laugh, because isn’t that how the game is played?  Sometimes there is nothing better than holding your breath while you’re reading, starting to feel that sense of dread, your pulse banging in your ears, thinking, “oh man oh man oh man…” and then, WHEW, the protagonist dodges a bullet.  You put the book down and you think, “woah.”  And then you fall in love with the author and read the rest.  Or, once in a blue moon, the character dies gruesomely, and you throw the book across the room and cuss and cry and swear you’ll never read another word by that author, and you start to pen them a horrid note and then change your mind and read the rest of the book and adore them.  (I’m not the only one who does this, right?)  Because you realize that they were writing about life, and sometimes life takes a turn.  Sometimes it’s brutal and short and mean and the good ones die.  Sometimes by dealing with death we see people to be who they truly are.  Imagine if Harry Potter’s parents had lived; or, if certain other characters had survived in other books.  Would it have been the same tale?  Would Harry have risen up to be the man he was by the turn of the final page?  What if a certain beheading didn’t happen in A Game of Thrones?  Doesn’t the torment the characters experience refine them like coal into diamonds?  So don’t be afraid to torment your audience, because each time a reader feels their pulse change and their throat catch they feel their whole body commit to a story, and that’s good for everyone.
  8. Picture the whole story in your head.  Some writers talk about being inspired by a few scenes, images, or quirks of characters.  (William Goldman and NK Jemisin come to mind.)  That has led to some amazing tales, but don’t think for a moment that when William Goldman first dreamed up the Princess Bride he didn’t sit down and write the sword fight and pirate tale that he first envisioned and then magically end up with that classic novel.  No, he had to work out the story to give those few scenes breadth and depth and meaning.  So if you have a conversation in your head, or one quirk about a character, or a few disconnected images, don’t imagine that by writing them down you will suddenly find your muse and become the next great novelist.  Work your story out.  Picture the whole thing.  If you have to, be like Kurt Vonnegut and get a roll of paper and map the entire thing from start to finish in crayon.  Think about things like pacing and how stories have rolled out as you’ve read them, and make deliberate choices about where you will take your reader and why.  You know this muse that writers long for?  You’ve got to woo her, and you’ve got to pay your dues.  To put the figurative ring on her finger and take her home, you’ve got to know her story.  Unlike the floozies you may find at the bar in the bottom of a bottle (you know the ones, the ones you would NEVER tell your parents about) she’s not going to give it up the first time you sit down at the keyboard.  Work for it.

There’s more advice, of course, but this is the basic stuff.  The big stuff.  The game changing stuff.  The stuff I banged my head against for years and years.  It all boils down to the same thing- don’t expect the writing process to be magic.  It’s called a process for a reason.  It takes a journey to get to a good story, even a short one.  Even a good paragraph means thought, planning, and work.

So work it.


Honest Conversations: Revised, Expanded, and being GIVEN AWAY!

“There is a love that is so deep it surpasses understanding. It is so enormous and boundless it could utterly destroy you with its force. It is a love like the ocean. In the shallows it looks harmless, but caught in the undertow it will drag you away from everything you know and enjoy and bury you in a world you’d never imagined.”

“This is God.”

Honest Conversation.  As I wrote yesterday, revising it has been a strange journey for me.  I came across the above passage this morning and it was one of those moments where I forgot having written something that still grips at my chest now.  Passages like that remind me of the importance of this book just as much as the passages about being a gay Christian do.  Why?  Because there’s a side of God that many people in the Church too easily overlook, the violently affectionate God who longs for all of his children, even the ones we’d rather not have be a part of the family.  This is why I wrote that book, and it’s why I still believe in it and want it to be successful.  I want to share a taste of the God who changed my heart and my life and brought me back alive when I was dead in my life, the God who dragged me out to sea like the undertow and brought me back to shore a wholly new person.  The God whose love in me has allowed me to see and experience things I would have never been able to in my own power.

So I’m going to be doing a giveaway of Honest Conversation.  The giveaway will be twofold:  first, I’ll randomly give away copies to two people who review becoming. on Amazon or Goodreads before January 10th (the prospective release date for Honest Conversation).  People who review it on both sites (copy and paste, y’all) will get entered twice.  People who also paste a link of it being reviewed on their blog to my author fan page on Facebook will get entered THREE times.  I’ll also be giving free copies of Honest Conversation to trustworthy reviewers.  So if you know someone who book-blogs and would be interested in reading Honest Conversation, please send them the link to this post.

One of the additional blessings of my Kickstarter campaign having gone so well is that I’ve got enough money to be able to afford this giveaway- so a big THANK YOU to everyone who contributed.

Plus as an additional happy part of the giveaway, I’ll be adding in some as of now unnamed goodies, so stay tuned!

***(Anyone who already has Honest Conversation coming to them as a part of the Kickstarter campaign can request another book of their choice.)

Book Review: White Buffalo Gold

White Buffalo Gold is a book I had the pleasure of reading as part of the process for my good friend, Adam Fleming, to pursue publishing.  (Check out his Kickstarter project!)  White Buffalo Gold follows the lives of three girls as they come of age in a rural town.  Amy, Emily, and Melissa share a long history together.  Through the novel you see that history laid out through several decades.  You see how complex friendship can be, and the many faces people may wear as friends, but Adam dares to go deeper.  You see those three girl’s lives intertwined with other souls in the town and you see the interweaving of those souls as well.  Some people seem like the stereotypical “decent folks”. Other people betray the complexity of life through their actions, both good and bad.  Adam writes about how easy mistakes can be and how the repercussions can last throughout a lifetime.  Yet what resonates is not that there are “good” and “bad” people, but that we are more than the sum of what we do.

What I love the most about this novel is it’s honesty.  It never feels contrived, even when the spirit of a white buffalo starts haunting someone.  The characters all play out as very genuine, and the greater themes of small town identity, regret, aging, death, and starting over all get a fair shake.  You’ve got small town Nebraska, a gold rush mystery, and Native American spirituality all weaving into a coming of age story about the choices that make us leave and the choices that keep us close.  When I finished reading the novel I felt as if I’d just had tea with old friends and neighbors I hadn’t seen in a while, and I was so glad to have caught up on their lives.

If you like contemporary fiction that harks back to some of the great American narrative traditions, then this book is one you’ll enjoy reading.  It’s got small towns, rural America, big potential and simple dreams: all the Americana with none of the pretense or cloying sweetness that can make the genre turn sour.  I’m so proud and privileged to be a part of seeing it put into print.

***This review is not paid or coerced in any manner.  I volunteered it because I believe in Adam’s project.

Honest Conversation: for sale now!


40 days ago I embarked on a strange journey.  Given the content of the story, I find it ironic that my artificial deadline of 35 days ended up turning into a forty day journey… but that’s a story for another time.

Today I want to talk about my novel- my brave little book that is finally written.  It has all of the things that a novel should have- a start, a middle, an end.  It has them in the right order, as well as being possessed of a single cohesive storyline and a subplot that involves kissing.

I’ve discovered something.  Fiction is dangerous- it’s dangerous because you don’t always notice that you are being taught a lesson when you’re reading a story.  When someone is simply schooling you, you notice immediately.  And if they tell you something you don’t want to hear, you get defensive.  But when reading a story it feels safer to allow yourself to be questioned.  So while I was working on this book and realizing how many things I was saying that some Christians might find offensive, or flat out wrong, I decided I would change things up a little.  I’d say all of the words that I wanted to say, but I’d cleverly hide them in a story that forced them to look at the humanity about which the words are intended.

So instead of me, as the author, saying that I find it hard to believe that God would reject the service of a gay man who honestly believed that God had created him to love other men, those words are spoken by a character.  And throughout the story there are moments of revelation, tenderness and tolerance.  All of it to forward a single message:

The big question isn’t one of sin, it’s one of mission.  It’s one of God’s love.

So pop this subversive little story of gay acceptance and hetero romance on your coffee shop trade table, slide a few editions into your local church’s resources library…  You never know.

A good book can save a life.

Available on CafePress

::For people who want a personalized copy, contact me at the price for a single book will be $16, including shipping.  Bulk discounts and discounts for books that are to be donated can also be negotiated through me::

Novella Excerpt #2

So that you know I am indeed putting my sabbatical to good use. I’m still hoping to have the completed work available for order by the seventh, although that will be cutting it REALLY close, as it’s still not really done.

But these few lines, I just like. I’m not sure if my love of them is justified, but I love them indeed. So I give you a much shorter conversation between the Pastor and Associate pastor, once the pastor has started to see the implications of tossing out the gay couple, but the elders are still holding firm that they will not tolerate gays in their midst:

Tilly nodded curtly and walked away without excusing herself. As the lobby door banged shut I turned to John and said, “I take it your conversation with her didn’t go very well.”

“It went as well as I expected,” he replied. “She sees no reason to consider the implications of throwing Kyle out. She sees any consequence as a result of Kyle’s hard heart and choice of lifestyle. In her mind it’s like… Like a judgment he’s earned.”

I must have made a bitter face. John nodded and continued, “I know, I know. It’s not like Christ. And the more I’m watching the events unfold, the more I realize that it’s not like Christ. It may be Godly to see homosexual acts as sin, but it’s certainly not Godly to make no attempt to save the boy.”

“Or to help him, or love him. It’s not just salvation we’re talking about, John, it’s mission. It’s our role in this world.” I felt so hopeless. There was so much on my heart and it just wasn’t making it all out in my words. “How are we to reach the lost if we feel we must always keep them at arms length? How are we to embrace the weary if we feel we must not become unclean? Have we forgotten the point of the New Testament? Of Freedom from beneath the law?”

“Call nothing unclean which I have made clean,” John said soberly. “God’s word for the gentiles.”

“I don’t believe for a second that God would suddenly make an exception for the gays,” I replied.

John looked as if he agreed with me but was also terrified. “I feel as if my entire worldview has been turned on it’s head.”

“Good,” I said, with a smile.

A confession:

I’m not writing materials to teach your church about homosexuality.  Well, not as such.  After a three week long struggle with the format of my book and the flow of my book and the tone of my book I went to a few friends in desperation to see if what was coming out of me was the least bit worthwile.  I found myself facing a common dilemma:  people who agreed with me would agree with me, and people who disagreed with me would likely feel poked in the eye.

So what to do?  Because the audiences I want to write for are 1) people who disagree with me and 2) gay people so they know I don’t think they are the enemy.

And a friend of mine very wisely said, “write it as a conversation.”  Because in a conversation you can show as many points of views as you can have participants.  In a conversation each point of view can be defended by the holder.  In a conversation you can allow people to identify with the speaker they agree with, and thus act as a mirror when things go somewhere that the reader wouldn’t want to go.

So I’m not writing a dissertation on homosexuality anymore.

I’m writing a novel.  I’m telling the story of an associate pastor who feels deeply convicted when a gay couple starts to attend her church, and one of the elders screams for them to be sent away.  The associate pastor threatens to tender her resignation if any action is taken against the gay couple- which is where our story begins.  The pastor asks her to wait, so they can talk things through.

Everyone starts talking.  The associate pastor (Zoe) talks to the pastor (John).  Zoe talks to the gay couple, Kyle and Evan.  Zoe talks to an ex-gay minister who is a friend of hers, who encourages her to be Christ to Kyle and Evan even if it costs her everything.  That minister then talks to John, who talks to the elders, who still want Kyle and Evan gone.

Then things get very, very interesting, as by this point the pastor has come around and sees that if Kyle and Evan are sent away it will be at the cost of their love for God.  So what should he do?  Appease the Elders, who are “strong enough in faith” to take care of themselves, or show mercy to the gays?

More talking commences.

And thus the story goes.  It still has all of the material my original book was going to cover, just in a more easily digestable format.  I would still strongly suggest giving it to anyone who has questions about how a good Christian should feel about homosexuality, or even to give it to someone who strongly opposes allowing gay people to be active in the church as an admonition that such a stance likely comes at the cost of a few souls.  And, while we’re handing it out, give it to your gay friends, too.  Show them that there are committed heterosexual Christians who aren’t afraid of poking a few hypocrites in the eye when it comes to the issue of sexuality.

Right now I’m 3/4 of the way through writing the thing, the first draft will be done this weekend.

It’s been a wild and wonderful journey.  (And it’s not over yet)

My Novel

I’m currently editing a novel I wrote several years ago. I mean that quite literally- as I type this I am taking some much coveted time away from my family to edit. I just re-wrote the introductory chapter for about the fifth time, and I’m reading it over and over and wondering if it’s any good. I suspect it is, but I’m biased, and as much as I suspect it’s good I’m sure it’s not.

Anyone reading this who has written fiction for pleasure knows what I’m talking about. Even Stephen King was fairly sure that his success was just a fluke.

Yet… I love words, I love shaping them, I love stories about humanity, I love success and failure and literature even when it’s total tripe. And I love my brave little novel.

Here’s the new first few paragraphs:

Let me tell you a story about a girl. This girl struggled every day to think of herself as more than just a mess of flesh and emotions taking up space and time. This girl slid out of happiness and into chaos almost overnight. This girl’s life changed in just a few short hours.

One night she was laying on her back lawn imagining her life taking it’s carefully planned course through college and into a career. She pictured a handsome husband and two fat babies and an energetic dog. Not too big of a dog. Maybe a Scottish Terrier or a small Collie. And then our girl heard a noise on the periphery and turned to see a dark figure holding a knife.

At this point the details cease to matter. What matters is pain and fear and the things that pain and fear can do to a young girl. What matters is the focus of her existence shifting away from the American dream and towards survival and survival alone. What matters is the shame, the embarrassment, the feeling of having surrendered control, fear of judgment, fear of consequence, fear of death and fear of having to continue to live the rest of her life carrying the knowledge of torment always in the back of her mind.

Let me tell you about what happens when a girl is left standing at the bottom of a dry well, knowing that there is nothing there to give her comfort or nourish her. So the girl looks up at the sky, so far away, and wonders. Millions of years ago primitive man looked up in the sky and he asked the same question. Throughout the ages that question has fueled art and industry and science, it has made men feel less and more alone, it has inspired awe and despair. And for one girl with blood under her fingernails, it gave her something to live for just a little while longer.

Just long enough.

Of course it’s not meant to give you much information. It’s only supposed to tell you just enough so that when you get to the next scene you don’t put the book down and never pick it back up. It’s supposed to get the saliva flowing just a little. It’s supposed to make you care about the main character enough that you forgive her selfishness and the fact that the book literally starts out with a scene of self-mutilation. (Which I’ve been told is hard to understand if you don’t understand the back story, which goes back fairly far, far enough that I’ve never really known where the tale should begin. I just can’t begin it before the rape, because I can’t make myself write about the rape itself in any detail.)

I thought I’d share that tiny bit with you so that you can get a glimpse into my “serious” writing endeavors. That and if it’s total crap, someone can tell me. 😀