Archive for May, 2005

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Advice to Fiction Writers – Sound Real

May 31, 2005

You are reading about a college professor whose life has just fallen apart as he discovers his daughter’s suicide. In the dialogue that follows, he talks with his mentor and tries to get across the desperation that overwhelms him:

Professor: “I feel like dying myself. She was too much a part of the fabric of who I am.”
Mentor: “Stay here awhile and have a drink. Maybe have two. There, that will suit your mood.”

This is not well-written dialogue. I won’t mention what book this is from, but it underscores a basic premise of good writing: Your dialogue must be believable. It must sound genuine and real to the ear. There may be nothing more difficult to write than realistic dialogue. Even the best writers get it wrong occasionally. Some well-known writers get it wrong a lot of the time. The two-line dialogue I use above illustrates how hard it is to hit at the mark of a personality while maintaining integrity of moment. The writer of the words above wants the reader to think of his hero as an intellectual. So he casts his phrasing in exacting English. Unfortunately, that is not how fathers who have lost daughters talk – ever! They speak in halting sentences, grasping for breath, giving way slowly to words.

I do an exercise occasionally to hone my dialogue skills. I take a tape recorder and sit in a public place where the conversations around me can be recorded. Then I spend an hour transcribing what is said. Here are the things I have found from listening to people speak in dialogue:

  • They rarely speak in whole sentences
  • They make liberal use of body language to fill in the gaps
  • Things are referred to casually that we would never do in writing. As in “That man on the bus…flower man…it cannot be the same, can it?” Those who listen are left to wonder about the reference, the man and what “it” is.
  • There is a constant flow of interruptions. Seldom do we finish sentences when we speak together.
  • Sounds (onomanopeia) are not only common, but expected. We need to master how to spell those sounds (‘unh, unh’ and ‘uh, huh’ are the opposite…but which is which?).

Good dialogue is obviously not the only writing skill that will sell short stories and books. Two writers who get bad marks for dialogue also sell millions of copies of their books. James Patterson, the author of the famous detective series featuring policeman Alex Cross, does a poor job of making his dialogue gritty enough and yet human. He constantly says things that no one, let alone a veteran of thirty years of detective work, would ever say. Yet his books are best-sellers, mainly because he is an expert at crafting exciting plot twists. Sometimes you can make up for a lack of good writing in one area by excelling at another. However, most of us will be fortunate to be published at all, and therefore, we need to do well at most areas of the art form. Jacqueline Carey is another best-selling author who writes ridiculous dialogue. Her fantasy books have sold over 10 million copies, but her “lines” are laughable. Even her fans admit that she has significant trouble sounding believable. But she draws upon such rich research and uses her innate ability to describe background material that the scene takes a believable shape. You can make up for bad dialogue, but it must be done by mastering another aspect of the writing craft.

Better than that, learn the basics of writing good dialogue. Here are some hints that I think will help even the beginning writer to sound genuine and interesting:

1. Make dialogue short. Long soliloquies cause readers to suffer from MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over).
2. Listen to people who talk like your character. You may have to rent a movie or read a book from your chosen genre to get this.
3. Don’t waste words. Don’t throw details into dialogue that are unnecessary to the story.
4. Use active voice in writing dialogue. No one speaks passively when they speak from their own perspective. I guess that this means you have to learn what “active voice” means…but there are good web sites and books to learn about that.
5. Don’t use too much dialect. If you character is from Louisiana, too many strange sounding and strange looking words will make the reader tired. It will not cause them to read furiously to the end of your story.
6. Make sure all your characters sound different from one another.
7. Don’t be afraid of using the word “said” after a line of dialogue. Too many writers want to add variety by saying, “he bellowed” or “she crooned”. If she really is crooning, then let her croon, but it might work better to describe what crooning sounds like through the words you choose. Better still, if you can omit “he said” altogether and it won’t be confusing to the reader, do so.
8. Read it aloud afterwards so your ear can hear it. I do this test before finalizing the dialogue.

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They Write Stories Too

May 31, 2005

Dear C.S. Lewis: If you were still with us in body, would it please you to know that the best minds of a generation have found a way to give a remarkably accurate picture of what Narnia might have looked like? Could you even imagine what CGIs could accomplish, turning the stuff of imagination into delicious eye-candy? Would it hearten you to learn that the man given the responsibility for turning Aslan’s visage into a true-to-life looking form is a believer in Jesus Christ and lives in Northern California? Well, you probably wouldn’t care about the No-Cal connection, but would the rest of it all inspire you and maybe bring a tear to your one good eye?

Or would you, as so many of the so-called “Builder” generation of writers have done, castigate Hollywood for turning the imagination of man into a static image…well, many images, but unchanging…for the sake of clarity and the celebration of special effects?

We don’t know what he would think, but I am not sure he would express awe and wonder. His generation grew up on the idea that the mind is a more vivid canvas than any painting, movie or other visual capture could ever be. He drew up his Chronicles of Narnia with two express purposes. First, to grab the heart and soul of man with enduring images. Once that was accomplished, he hoped to seamlessly slide in something else – like chocolate filling in a plain-looking glazed doughnut – the message of God’s enduring Love for his Creation. Rather than preaching, Lewis found a way to grab the picture-making part of our brains and use them to paint a charicature of such beauty and subtlety that we don’t know we have been preached to until long after the sermon’s echoes have faded.

Some would call this ‘sneaky’. I call it genuine art.

Lest we think that only Christians seek this avenue of propulgating their beliefs, atheists have been doing it just as long. Some have done it so successfully that we also do not realize how much we have had our faith challenged until the knife strikes the Artery of Faith and tries to sever it. Since atheists didn’t openly declare themselves until the last two and a half centuries, most of their work is found in the modern era. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Shelley, William Saroyan and others have crafted stories that attack the underlying concept of God.

I just finished reading a Science Fiction book that won the Hugo Award in 2003 for best novel. It is called “Hominids” by Robert Sawyer. The story is unique and it is for this reason alone it won the award. It is about a parallel universe where Neanderthals survived and homo sapiens sapiens did not. These two universes cross over and a Neanderthal (a modern one that understands physics and medicine and computers) comes into our world. I won’t spoil the story which is clever and contains some fascinating science (especially in the field of quantum theory), but it is the understory that I need to mention. The Neanderthal has several lengthy conversations with moderns about religion and the nature of God. It is amazing how this Neanderthal immediately knows all the subtleties of the classic atheist argument from the moment he hears about God. He also immediately sees the “dangers” of over-population, monogamy, heterosexuality, and living with both parents. His society has no war, no poverty, no real disease, and….no God or gods! There is no doubt left in the reader that the development of the idea of God is to blame for all of life’s ills.

The writing is not bad, but it is not exceptional. His dialogue is phony, and the plot is contrived and predictable. I tried to imagine how this won the Hugo Award (one of the hardest Novelist prizes to win). There are probably two reasons. First, the idea is one never before explored in a Science Fiction novel; and that is hard to do. Second, story ideas which attack everything about religion are now in vogue and are sure to receive critical acclaim.

Caveat Lector (reader beware).

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The Object of Homosexuality

May 23, 2005

Let’s say the Bible did not exist. Let’s say there was not 5,000 years of people who believe in God and who see Theist principles as the healthiest ones for living. What if we all started where we are right now with society. Can we look at the homosexual community in this world as in any way a healthy and whole alternative?

I want to warn you about what I am going to say. The article I am referencing contains descriptions of homosexual behavior that are not pleasant or cleaned up for this blog’s readers. If that will offend you, please do not move to the article I am linking in the New Yorker magazine. But it so capably makes my point for me, that it is must reading for those who want answers.

I look at the homosexual community and I have come to realize it exists for one reason above all others (recognizing there are occasional reasons that may show up in one or two people…but these are so far below the majority reason as to be statistically non-existent): The homosexual community exists to have sex, lots of sex, and more sex in as many ways and places as possible. There is no clamboring for marriage, other than to rub it into the noses of those who don’t seem to want sex as much as they do.

Don’t believe me? Read this article and come back and read what I have written.

A person whose entire lifestyle revolves around getting sex is destructive and hedonistic. No society will survive on such nihilism…and at the zenith of every destruction of a culture, homosexuality is always on the rise. Read the “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” to get a view on that. Homosexuality is not what causes cultures to fall. It simply shows up more frequently as a culture begins to deteriorate. What does that tell us? It tells us that sex is a drug greater than any other, and if given no boundaries, will destroy everything in its path. It also is a drug that helps people forget the collapse of society around them.

Men and women are completely different than one another. It is this difference which causes us to want more than just sex. It is the sameness of men with other men that makes homosexuality unavoidably obsessed with sex. It isn’t about male bonding and friendships. It is about sex that is easy, often and without the possibilities of being rejected as happens in hetero relationships.

Think about it.

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What Peace Really Means

May 19, 2005

I was reading an article recently by an Australian reporter of Palestinian descent. She set out on a pilgrimage to discover her roots and to see what was happening in Israel firsthand. She had heard of the horrible tragedies for years, but wanted to be a living witness of the culture of fear they live with every day. On her return from living in Israel, she wrote a series of essays on the experience. Here is a quote from one of them:


Israelis have always talked about peace, sung about it, made art and poetry about it as if it is something almost supernatural, some kind of a paradise that they yearn for but that has nothing to do with their everyday reality, and that they have no idea how to create. But what peace really means to these exhausted, anxious Israelis is to be left alone.

In this, Avigail Abarbanel voices the definition of peace that so many ascribe to: the absence of problems, the avoidance of the issue. However, she personally does not accept that definition of peace, and neither do I. Further down in the essay, she states, “ In family therapy there is an accepted principle that unless serious injustices are addressed, there cannot be real peace.

Avigail, who comes out strongly on the side of a Bipopulace principle for Israel (ie. Jews and Palestinians living together), believes that peace must address the issues of the “ethnic cleansing” that took place when Israel was born again in 1948. In this, she is actually much closer to the biblical definition of peace than what most people hold to. She wants something from the past resolved.

Adding his voice to this discussion on “true peace” is Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, Israel. He makes this comment in a Christmas letter sent out this last year:


In our Palestinian context, “peace talk” is often a good recipe for managing the conflict rather than resolving it. As the world continues to talk peace, Israel continues to build the wall and while Christians continue singing “O little town of Bethlehem”, Israel makes sure that this town stays as little as possible. As little as 2 square miles, surrounded with walls, fences and trenches with no future expansion possibilities whatsoever.

To all concerned, the peace of Bethlehem is ensured by building a wall around it to keep out those who would disrupt its peace. It does not ask why someone would want to do that or why the birthplace of the “Prince of Peace” should be so fought over.

The Greek word for “peace” tells us a lot about why we don’t find it often enough. The word is irenai (we get the name Irene from it). The root word it comes from is the word which means “to divide”. Irenai is the opposite form. It means to take two divided pieces and join them back together again. Therefore, the true definition of peace cannot be the absence of something (absence of fighting, war, bickering, nagging, seeing atrocious things) but rather the presence of something (resolving issues, bringing forgiveness, working out agreements, settling disputes). Today’s Israeli/Palestinian peace talks always focus on armistice, not arbitration…and that is why it never seems to last.

People want me to counsel them with the goal of bringing peace to their lives. By this, they hope to accomplish less conflicts in the home, less complaining, more times of smiles. They are often surprised that I don’t ask to see the others who live in the home with them right off the top. I want to know why they don’t have peace. I want to know why they are divided inside. Traditional Behavioral counseling teaches students to bring in all parties in a household so the counselor can observe the interactions and relationship clues. Out of this, the counselor can then ascertain the best course of action to correct the problems.

Work-related peace is the same. It amounts to adversaries not talking to one another openly (however, they talk to everyone else instead), perhaps even transfering to different departments or branches of the company. Peace means that managers go to both parties and get them to “agree to disagree” for the good of the company. This happens in sports all the time. Recently, the coach of the Houston Rockets told the world that his Center, Yao Ming was being singled out by the league’s officials for fouls in games, and a referee was the one who told him. The league commissioner threatened him with lifetime expulsion if he didn’t recant. Instead of taking the story back, he “rewrote” the details and said he didn’t say what he said. All the reporters who asked him to explain his previous comments received the same answer: “You must have misunderstood what I said.” There is now peace in the situation, but nothing was resolved, and the league is not proceeding with his lifetime ban. Who knows, Pete Rose may end up in the Hall of Fame yet.

No, peace is something much more than all of this. Peace is actually bringing two broken pieces back together and making them stronger than they were before. The reason we don’t see much peace is that the process requires repentance, forgiveness, honesty, humility and a heart of love and acceptance.

My favorite example of this happened many years ago in my life. An elderly woman used to clean the small church of which I was pastor. She didn’t attend our church, but would occasionally come to potlucks, where she would bring a mound of perogies. Look up a recipe for them…they’re to die for. Many days, she would scour my office while complaining about her life. She had been through five marriages. She had six kids, none of whom spoke to her any more. She was lonely, depressed and suicidal…all the time. I tried to share the love of Jesus with her, but she just retreated from the idea of God with a vengeance. But, one day, she gave up her resistance to God and received his love into her heart. Obviously I am condensing a very long and beautiful story. During the next few years, God spoke to her about the things that had taken place in her life. My constant advice to her was to seek forgiveness from them by repenting. She really seemed to agree with me. I lost track of her after awhile because she moved back to her old home town to a nursing home. Several years later, the director of the nursing home called to tell me that she had passed away. He also told me about the last five years of her life. They were spent contacting former husbands to make amends. She called all her children, and by the time she died, she had asked forgiveness of them all and walked in humility in front of them. She reconciled with all of them before she died. She also used to sit in the main meeting room of the nursing home and teach about humility to the other residents.

Here were the final words of the nursing home director to me: “She changed this place. She brought peace here.”

Now you know what peace is. Now you know what it isn’t.

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Two Men…One Decision

May 18, 2005

Several weeks ago, in a message I mentioned a man by the name of Charles Templeton. I remarked on how he was one of the greatest early influences on Billy Graham’s life, especially when it came to giving Altar calls. I also talked about how Templeton abandoned the Faith and rejected Christianity completely.

The story is not a nice one, but it does cause us to have to take stock at what serious doubts can eventually lead to. Here is an article from “Christian History” magazine with a fascinating account of Billy Graham and Charles Templeton both facing their doubts as to the accuracy of the Bible. They both sought different ways to solve their doubts. Read about how they came to their conclusions and then ask how you are going about solving your doubts.

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Should a Christian Listen to Secular Music?

May 17, 2005

Actually, (and I freely admit this) its a stupid question. I simply posed the question “Should a Christian listen to Secular Music” because I wanted you to read further. The fact is, most Christians listen to secular music at some point. And they have reasons they like to do so. As I mentioned in a recent post, the designation “Christian” when added to any art form is a term that is open to a varied amount of interpretation. Personally, I believe that Christian music is any music produced by a Christian. I admit it is a pretty broad definition, but I think it fits the bill.

So why do Christians listen to music that is not produced by Christians? I think there are many good reasons. First, they might enjoy a genre of music that Christians have not delved into very far. Reggae doesn’t have many Christian producers and performers, so if that is your gig, you couldn’t very well listen to the Christian version. The same could be said for Emo, Jazz, Grunge (although there are a few Christian Grunge bands), Torch Music, Big Band sound etc. If you are an aficionado of these, then Christian bands cannot be included that easily.

Another reason is that many Christians enjoy quality music and they may find that the quality of Christian music is lacking. I think the gap is closing, but perhaps not fast enough for your taste. DC Talk and Mercy Me have excellent producers and their sound is clean.

My brother helped point out a third reason that you might listen to secular music. He was visiting a while back and he mentioned the name of an 80s hair band. I didn’t recognize any of their music. He quipped, “There was culture in the 80s outside of church, you know.” I actually had a good excuse for not knowing the band in question. I lived in a tiny town in British Columbia with one radio station (public radio) that played no rock music. We had no music store in town and Kathy and I didn’t own a television. Even if we had, MTV was several years away. My brother lived in the big city. He also has always been leery of becoming too “churchy”, so he compensates by listening to the music of the culture. By doing this, I believe he hopes to relate better to the pre-Christian ethos.

As one person noted in a recent comment to this blog, a lot of Christian music is “worship” oriented and preaches too much about God. Here is something to consider concerning that. In the Old Testament, one of the best stories is the book of Esther. Esther’s story was probably written by Ezra the priest and certainly chronicles a very dangerous time in Israel’s history. But it is unique, not for what it reports, but for what it doesn’t contain. The name “God” is never mentioned anywhere in the book. God is nowhere to be found explicitely. Several famous Bible scholars and preachers over the centuries have wanted Esther cut out of the Bible for that reason. But God is found behind the book.

There are truthful statements all over our culture. Consider the words from Creed’s song, “Six Feet on the Edge”:

reflecting on all of my mistakes
I’ thought I’m found the road to some where
some where, where there is grave
I cried out heaven save me
but I’m down to one last breath
and will he let me say, let me sayhold me now I’m six feet from the edge

This song is incredibly deep and shows that the writer is wrestling with truth.

Or look at this song by rap-artist Kanye West:

Jesus Walk- God show me the way because the devil tryna
break me down
Jesus Walk With Me- The only thing that I pray iz that my
feet dont fail me now
Jesus Walk-And I dont think theres nothing I could do now
to right my wrongs
Jesus Walk With Me-I wanna talk to God but im afraid cuz
we aint spoke in so long

There is a mint of musical philosophy that can be appreciated by delving into it. There may be people astounded to hear it, but I like these artists: Avril Lavigne, Faith Hill, Creed, Blink 182, Default, Nora Jones, Diana Krall, and Shania Twain. I don’t like every one of their songs. But I like their musical style and some of the lyrics they try out. I like their striving for perfection and the attitude of professionalism. But I don’t always like their lifestyle.

I don’t need to worship all day long. I think there is a place to think about what others believe and ask questions that need to be asked.

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More on Christian Artists

May 13, 2005

As to the issue of those who “took me to task” for my views on Christian art, I don’t mean to suggest they were angry with me. They just disagreed with the concept of Christian art defined by the person who produces it. They defined it, rather, by its content. They wanted art that was proclamational.

That’s fine for books and music which have “messages”, but it is much more nebulous for instance when we talk about the visual arts. Can a painter be said to be “Christian”? Obviously, from his many books, we have come to understand that Thomas Kincaid is a believer. Does that mean his paintings are “Christian”? I believe so. Christian music was much harder to define by content in Classical eras because it had no words. But by listening to it with your spirit, you can tell the difference between Bach and Wagner…or today, between John Cage and Christopher Parkening. It is the spirit of the person who produces the music that defines its nature.

Btw…to answer Jeremiah’s comments (see the comments under the previous posting) …Christopher Parkening is a tremendous example of someone who is a strong Christian and yet leads his field of music (he is a classical guitarist). However, I also agree there aren’t many Christian artists who have made it in the much more discerning world outside of Christendom. We do accept mediocre work, simply because it has a Christian message. What pains me is that several of the most skilled, talented writers today are patently anti-christian in their approach. No one can paint a character like John Updike. But try reading him to find any sense of moral or ethical truth and you’ll be sorely disappointed. Annie Proulx has the craft down pat; but I’d like to see you get much truth out of The Shipping News.

One Christian writer however that deserves mention is Annie Dillard. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for the book, “A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” That book may be the best-written book by a Christian in the 20th Century. In addition, several of Madeleine L’Engle’s books are considered classics and they contain biblical truth everywhere (in fact, it is hard to turn a page without finding some). Her book “Certain Women” is a reference to the female followers of Jesus. But she paints a story involving a man dying who is surrounded by his wife, daughters and ex-wives in a wonderful tale of reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness. Hooray both for L’Engle’s craft and heart.

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