Saturday, January 28, 2012

Reality Check

Jordan Sillars, the author of today's guest post, is a junior literature major at Patrick Henry College who likes Clint Eastwood movies because he's always wanted to be a cowboy. Unfortunately, all he's allowed to have in his dorm room is a fish, and you can't ride a fish into the sunset.

I like stories with happy endings. Call me sentimental and hire me at Hallmark, but I really don't like a story if it ends darkly. Hamlet, for example. I mean, c'mon, Will, what's the deal? Did you have to kill everybody in one scene? Couldn't you at least have spread it out a bit? Anyway, before my Shakespeare ignorance shows, I'll get to the point.

What is realism, really? (Sorry, that's a question, not a point. Bear with me.) A lot of movies and books style themselves as being truly realistic. They don't include anything fantastic or supernatural. Their characters don't scale Burj Khalifa in Dubai or fight off seventeen trained assassins. The hero doesn't have laser vision and can't transform himself into a giant robot. The characters walk, they don't run; they wear suits, not capes; their problems are everyday, not galaxy-destroying. “Realistic” stories present the world as normal people perceive it: sort of boring, kind of gray, and often difficult. The characters stutter, gasp, and muddle through until the protagonist dies or the cherry orchard is cut down. Rub some dirt in it, kid: “Life sucks, and then you die.”

But I don't believe this is realism. Pessimistic? Sure. Depressing? Yeah. But not realistic. The trouble seems to be that people confuse perception with reality. They look at the world, what they can empirically observe, and think, “Wow. This place stinks. If I want to write a realistic story I better present the world in all its stinkiness.” So they construct a story like one described above because that's how the world appears. Unfortunately for so-called realists, that's not how the world actually is. They forget to include the epilogue that begins with “But God...”

Don't get me wrong. “Realistic,” hopeless stories tell a true story, insofar as the parts of the story they tell are true. Life sucks sometimes; loved ones fail us, friends leave us, and dreams disappoint us. Evil people kill millions of innocents, and liars rule the world. I'm not proposing that all stories be mushy, feel-good fairy tales. I really don't like Hallmark movies. By all means, portray evil in your stories.  Show just how nasty men can be. Describe the world as the depressing place it sometimes is.

But never forget to tell a complete story. If you want to tell a realistic story, don't forget to include a realistic ending.

I love reading the Old Testament prophets. At least, I love coming to the end of their books. For pages and pages, Amos prophesies against the nation of Israel. God is going to destroy his people for their injustice, their pride, and their lack of repentance. God says, “Strike the tops of the pillars...Bring them down on the heads of the people; those who are left I will kill with the sword. No one will get away, none will escape.”  When the Lord of the universe says no one will escape, you can bet that no one will escape. Life isn't looking so great for the Israelites, to say the least. Then, just when all hope seems lost, God ends the book with this: “In that day I will restore David's fallen tent. I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be...The days are coming...when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman...I will bring back my exiled people Israel; they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them.” This is the refrain throughout the Bible. Men are fallen and sinful, but God always restores in the end. God takes evil and turns it to good. Despite what we can see with our limited perspective, this is the way the world truly works. There will always be restoration.

If you haven't read Crime and Punishment yet, you should. It is considered one of the greatest novels of all time, and rightly so. Its characters are engaging, its descriptions are vivid, and its plot is riveting. But perhaps its strongest characteristic is that Dostoevsky's novel is truly realistic. He does not sugar-coat the evil in the world, but neither does he leave his characters without the hope of restoration. Crime and Punishment is dark and gritty, but a ray of hope shines in the epilogue. The novel speaks to what humans know to be true: evil is strong and terrible, but good will always triumph.

I like stories with happy endings because I think they're more realistic than hopeless ones. They resonate with me because I know that they are true. There is always hope, however small, and a good story points me to this reality.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Writing and the Imago Dei

 Today's guest post was written by Eric Burk, a journalism major at Patrick Henry College who  spends his free time reading and discussing literature with his friends.

“First there was nothing...then there was Calvin! Calvin, the mighty god, creates the universe with pure will! From utter nothingness comes swirling form! Life begins where once was void!”

In the dark and brilliant colors of his comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, artist Bill Watterson portrays the malignant imagination of Calvin, a little boy whose parents struggle to keep him under control. The comic is a masterpiece of storytelling and art partly because of the fascinating images Watterson draws, but also partly due to what the strip shows us about ourselves. Calvin may be a violent little boy with a vivid imagination, but the pleasure he takes in creation is common to all mankind. Part of what makes humans human is the creative urge, expressed in everything from politics to writing. Just as Calvin does, we all create, imitating in our own flawed way the work of the great Creator. It is important to think of writing in terms of creation, since flawed writing can often be traced back to a flawed understanding of who God is and the place humans occupy in His creation.

Christians should recognize who man is as a creator. In the beginning of God's instruction manual for humans and life on earth (the Bible), God tells how He created the universe. He also gives insight into what He intended man to be. In Genesis 1:26-27 He records,
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”
The meaning of that phrase, image of God or imago Dei, has been debated often. Clearly, it’s a massive idea that is beyond our ability to completely grasp. However, we can grasp bits and pieces of it. In chapter two of her book The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers highlights one of the elements of the image of God. She argues that the image of God is clearly not referring to the false classical idea of God as “a hirsute old gentleman in flowing robes seated on a bank of cloud.” Instead, the image of God refers to something more fundamental that is in part reflected in man’s ability to create.

In Genesis 1:26-27, God commands that man exercise dominion over the rest of creation. The concept of dominion is closely tied to another characteristic of man: his creativity. It is not a coincidence that man is a creator; he was created in the image of the greatest Creator. Obviously, people do not create from nothing using only the spoken word, as God did. Instead, they are completely reliant upon God for materials, ability to will, and power to create, making the human creator a minor creator. I think of a little boy working with his father in the garage. While his father crafts a fine cabinet for the kitchen, the boy watches in the corner and pounds a scrap of wood with a hammer and some nails, all given to him by his father. The boy is thus a minor carpenter in the image of his father. Creativity is man’s most noble calling, a display of the image of God.

However, there is a dark side to man's potential. Calvin, though a creator of sorts, failed to create in the perfect image of God, instead creating in mankind’s twisted, distorted nature. Genesis 3 warns that man is fallen, wicked, twisted, and distorted. C.S. Lewis says that man is bent. Mankind can still reach some of his original potential. However, instead of creating things that beautify and establish order, man can create evil and destructive things, a direct contradiction of man's original purpose. Man, once perfect in the image of God, now feebly tries to oppose God by destroying in small pieces what God spoke into being.

Sayers creates an analogy between the Persons of the Holy Trinity and mankind’s creative power, presenting a creative idea, a creative will, and creative power as corresponding to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit respectively. Distortions in man’s creation are thus related to heresies of the Trinity. In order to create properly, man must not only understand himself, but must correctly perceive God. Thus, creators are in danger of a sort of unintentional heresy and blasphemy when they ignore the One who enables them to create.

When people create, they can only work with what God gives them. Thus, sometimes the act of creation is merely a rearranging and partial destruction and reconstruction of matter. However, artists such as writers, painters, and musicians have an extra power. In chapter three of The Mind of the Maker, Sayers states, “It is the artist who, more than other men, is able to create something out of nothing. A whole artistic work is immeasurably more than the sum of its parts.” In that knowledge, go; write. But do not underestimate what you do. You are an imitative creator in the image of God; rely on Him and create art for the glory of God.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Slice and dice: writing with limits

The Call to Pens deadline is very quickly approaching! With only a week left to go, you've written the perfect story. There is only one problem: you're over the word limit. Those angry numbers stare at you and perhaps you wonder how on earth you can sacrifice your wonderful creation to meet a seemingly arbitrary rule. But as an editor and a journalist, I can tell you that it's possible. Often, you can strengthen your writing by cutting out a lot of quite unnecessary words.

How is such slicing and dicing possible, you ask? You must take a surgeon's scalpel to your writing and cut it unmercifully, but for the purpose of healing. If you cut words correctly, your piece will be healthier for the word-surgery.

If you're...

500+ words over: Ask yourself whether you've tried to accomplish too much in one story. A short story should have one well-developed main character; you don't have much space to tell more than one story. Do all the events in the story accomplish your purpose? For the 1,500-word category, you have enough words for only a couple scenes. Each scene should move your character toward a single focused climax. If your hero is fighting dragons and suddenly remembers that he needs toothpaste at the grocery store, take out the grocery store (unless, of course, toothpaste is essential to your character's development). Short stories should start en media res, or in the middle of the action. The beginning of the story is not the time for you to give a vacuous wind-up of the character's past history, friends, and relations.

<200 words over: You'd be surprised how easy it is to trim out some unwanted words without losing content. For example, do a search in your story for the word "that." "She knew that he would come" loses nothing when it's shortened to, "She knew he would come." Try to make every word tell. Take out adjectives and adverbs and replace them with stronger verbs, i.e. "she cried loudly" to "she wailed," or "he ran quickly" to "he sprinted." It will save you words and make your writing stronger.

You can also remove trite, overused words such as "quite," "very," "perhaps," and "suddenly." (Don't warn us the crash is sudden before it happens; crash that car and let us be surprised!) Let's take the 85-word opening paragraph to this blog post as an example:

The Call to Pens deadline is very quickly approaching approaches! With only a week left to go, you've written the perfect story. There is only one problem: But you're over the word limit. Those angry numbers stare at you and perhaps you wonder how on earth you can  to sacrifice your wonderful creation for an to meet a seemingly arbitrary rule. But As an editor and a journalist, I know can tell you that it's possible. Often, you can strengthen your writing by cutting out a lot of quite unnecessary words.
The new version is only 60 words. We've lost 25 words of fat and our writing is healthier for it.

Be a fearless editor, my friends! We are looking forward to reading your creations.

For the judges,


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reading Like a Writer

Today's author, Reyna Johnson, is a college sophomore who dreams up stories and delights in putting them on paper. She currently resides in Southern California. 

I'm sure you've heard that if you want to write well, you've got to read. Don't think I'm about to challenge that oft-repeated maxim, because I'm not. It's perfectly true.

It's just not complete.

In order to write well, you must do more than just read. You have to read well. You have to understand why what you read affects you the way it does. You have to understand why you care deeply about the fate of one character, but could not care less about another character. You have to understand why you read one book over and over, but cannot stand another. In short, you have to understand what separates good writing from bad.

So how do you go about this? The key is asking yourself questions about the different elements—such as plot, character, and style—that work together to make a story. The first step is identifying the plot of the story, something you likely already do. Ideally, you should be able to mentally chart the events in the story, and each should lead logically to the next. If you can't, what changes could you make to the plot so that its progression is logical?

Plot is great and all, but nobody cares about events without characters. A good character is more than just a name and a collection of facts. Think of your favorite character. Chances are, this character reads like a real person whom you know, the way you know your friends. You know what he would say or do in a given situation and what his values are. Next time you read the book featuring this character—or any other character that leaps off the page—pay attention to how the author crafts the character. How does the character behave? Think? Dress? Walk? How do these characteristics differ from those of other characters in the book?

Oftentimes, characterization is expressed through dialogue. Good dialogue both advances the story and stays true to life-like expression. Pay attention to conversations around you. Compare them to those in the books you read. As you do, you'll get a feel for what elements are intrinsic to natural conversation, and thus will gain a better understanding of what constitutes a realistic conversation. When you read a snippet of dialogue that strikes you as unrealistic, go one step further and try to figure out why. In what way does it stray from authenticity?

The way a story is told is very nearly as important as what is told. A good author tailors his phraseology, and pacing to create the most impact for his audience. Compare Tolkien's differing styles in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The former is a children's book, and Tolkien adopted a more informal, conversational tone, almost as though he is telling a child a bedtime story. The latter is more serious, and Tolkien's style changes, becoming grander and more formal. When you read, notice the word choice. Why does the author choose to phrase something one way, rather than another? How would the emotions evoked in a scene change if the author had written in a different style?

Lastly, pay attention to the theme, or the conclusion a story draws about life. Themes can be tricky because a single story often has multiple themes, not all of them intentional. Christian writers in particular tend to have difficulty in this area. Because we often come to the table with the intent of delivering a message wrapped in a story, it is so easy to let the theme overrule the story. A story that falls into this trap becomes preachy. And nobody likes to read a sermon when they're expecting to read a romance or thriller or comedy, just as few people want a rollicking adventure story when they sit down to study a sermon.

But like all else, there is a balance. The theme is what gives a story its weight and purpose, so to chuck it entirely is also a grave error. When you read, try to identify the theme. Is it presented in a way that's both unobtrusive and powerful, or does it lumber around the plot like a three-legged buffalo in a flowerbed?

Reading well—like writing well—takes practice. Chances are you won't be able to pick all these elements out and process them the next time you read a book. But after awhile, you'll notice you analyze stories more, and therefore have a better understanding of how to best craft your own stories. You will have moved from simply reading a book to using each story to improve your own writing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Importance of Story

"Winning entries will thoughtfully reflect a Christian worldview, but not necessarily in an overt manner."

What does this "hint" in the submission guidelines mean? I'd like to take a moment to expand upon Erik's post from last week and talk a bit about what your judges will be looking for when you submit that story by February 1.

Erik talked about the problem with emphasizing a didactic message over the story itself. Is it important to talk about the message that stories convey? Certainly. In fact, I would say it's vital to analyze worldviews in literature and determine whether or not they match up to the Biblical standard.

However, portraying a theme is somewhat like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: the harder you run at it, the further away it grows. In other words, messages in literature can distract you so much from the story itself that the messages lose their potency.

The beauty of fiction is that it is created to show, not tell. Consider the following photographs:

Image credit: PA Forestry Dept.
Image credit: Flickr

Which image best captures the beauty of a tree? Which one makes you catch your breath in awe at its aesthetic symmetry? Which image would you rather hang in your living room, for your guests to admire? Both are pictures of trees. Both are factually correct. Yet while the image on the top might be fascinating for someone with an interest in botany, the image on the bottom is the one that makes most people stare in wonder.

What's the difference? The image on the top tells everything; it's a diagram. It leaves no mystery, nothing left to be discovered, nothing for the viewer to find under the surface. The image on the bottom is a photograph; it shows you something of beauty and presents something true and pleasing to the eye.

In the same way, your stories should be photographs, not diagrams. It's easy to focus on theme because we give you a theme to write about. But don't lose the aesthetic beauty when you're slamming home a theme because the theme will lose its power.

Last year's coordinator, Crista Richey, talked about how Christian writers should instead seek to create a good story first, instead of sacrificing writing excellence on the altar of theme. She wrote:
This Christian element must be natural to the story; must arise from it, instead of being tacked on to it; must have power and substance in itself, and not rely on Scriptural quotations or witty proverbs to back it up. (After all – if your story relies upon such gimmicks, why should someone read it at all? Wouldn’t it be far better for your readers to consult the original source – the very life-giving Word of God?)
Even Jesus taught in stories, instead of simply repeating the verses of the Law that everyone-- especially the Pharisees-- had heard hundreds of times. When they asked Him, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus didn't set out a didactic list of people that His followers were obligated to be nice to. Instead He told the story of the Good Samaritan.

So, seek to show instead of tell. See what story you can find that is true, unique, beautiful. Make it the best it can be. And when you seek to tell a true story, a story that reflects the world as it is and should be, then you will have written a uniquely Christian story.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Plotting Change

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Sarah Pride, the author of today's post, graduated from Patrick Henry College in 2007 with a degree in Literature and an undeclared minor in History. Her personal mission is to illuminate the world with beauty, goodness and truth, and to help build organizations that do the same. She has written a feature film screenplay and a half-dozen short films, as well as quite a few short stories, and is currently several chapters into the first book of her epic trilogy.

Creativity, so the myth goes, is a mystic force that spurts forth spontaneously. A divine spark possesses the artist and brings him outside himself to see the world with fresh eyes. Once the influence passes, it leaves the artist a forlorn and wild-eyed husk. He is more than a little insane.

This concept appeals because it means that we are not responsible when we do not produce. We were not “inspired.”

The trouble with the theory, of course, is that many authors have produced a great deal, inspired by little more than their need to survive. William Shakespeare, for example, wrote more than three dozen plays and a great deal of poetry. Charles Dickens wrote his novels in monthly installments. Just as any craftsman learns basic facility in his tools and an eye for what is good and bad in his field, so we writers can grasp principles to take control of our creative processes.

Today, I am going to write about the fundamental qualities of conflict and change, the principles that drive your plot. Basically, if nothing changes in our characters or in their environment from the start to the end of a page, we do not have a story at all. We have dead space. Conflict drives that change—either from within our characters or from their surroundings.

For example, consider the following exchange:

The queen swept down the hallway, raising her hand to stop a maid who was rushing past clutching an armful of books. “Flo, fetch me a glass of water,” she commanded. The girl bobbed a curtsey. “As you please, Your Highness!”

Dead space. But then, we alter it:

The queen swept down the hallway, brow furrowed. At last, she spotted a maid darting out of the library with an armful of books. “Ah, Flo!” she exclaimed. “The king’s fever is running high. Please fetch him another glass of water.” The girl gasped and bobbed a quick curtsey. “If you please, Your Highness – the vizier told me to bring these books to the Hall of Justice immediately.”

Suddenly, we have conflict. The vizier’s and the queen’s wills in that moment stand in opposition, and someone is going to have to change.

One way to take control of a story, then, is to plot the points of change. Consider how the main protagonist and his world will be different at the end of the story than at the beginning. Once we know our starting and ending points, we can mark out a series of necessary steps between, each sparked by a conflict inside characters, between them, or between them and their environment.

Once we get into this process, we find immediately that we have to know our characters intimately. We have to know the stimuli that will cause them, as individuals, to change in their own unique ways. What spells “love” for one real-life person can mean “hate” for another. So it must be for our characters. But that is a topic for another post.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Defeating the Grammar Villains

 English is a strange language. Much like the ethnic diversity of the United States, our language is filled with smatterings of other places. Words hail from musty tomes of Greek and Latin, the guttural Germanic tones of Old English, the smooth rhythm of the Romantic languages. And English grammar rules are often downright unconventional. Here's a classic example: haven't you wondered why the plural of "goose" is "geese" but the plural of "moose" is not "meese"? Haven't you wondered why almost ever other possessive is formed by adding an apostrophe and the letter "s" but the word "it's" is a contraction for "it is"? So, why is grammar important anyway?

Pretty much every discipline in life has rules. Just like you can't substitute baking soda for flour in a recipe or replace the oil in your car with water, you can't write "gr8" and "its time 2 go c u l8r" in any professional English writing without creating a devastating reaction. As William Strunk and E.B. White emphasize in The Elements of Style, you have to know and follow the rules before you've earned any right to break them.

As this year's contest coordinator and a former Call to Pens judge, I've found that few things are more distracting in a good story than improper grammar. It's hard to get involved in a story when you're constantly jerked back to reality by comma splices or  misused words. Even if your story has all the other ingredients-- a strong plot, believable characters, etc.-- continual grammatical mistakes can make a good story horrible, just like too much baking soda can wreck a recipe. I like to call them "grammar villains": those nasty little mistakes that seep in subtly to undermine your message.

The following list is by no means a comprehensive catalog of these nefarious creatures. But by watching out for these three common mistakes, you can keep your stories free of unwanted and destructive villains (except, of course, the real villains that are supposed to be there).

1. The Calamitous Comma Splice.

This common error raises its ugly head nearly every time unfortunate writers are wearily trying to fit all their thoughts into one sentence. See an example:
The knight fought valiantly against the dragon, his sword melted under a single blast of the dragon's hot breath.
Like the knight under the dragon's breath, the reader is wilting under the barrage of words and wishing that the sentence would come to an end. But defeating this monster is simple. To have a grammatically correct sentence, you must have only one subject (the knight) and one predicate (fought) per sentence. However, you can also join the two independent clauses together with a comma and conjunction (and, but, or!).

Thus, we have:
The knight fought valiantly against the dragon. His sword melted under a single blast of the dragon's hot breath.
The knight fought valiantly against the dragon, but his sword melted under a single blast of the dragon's hot breath.
Villain vanquished.

2. The Fatal Fragment.

The fatal fragment is a deadly and subtle villain that attacks writers who are trying desperately to eschew the comma splice. It hacks apart your thoughts and leaves your sentence missing one of its vital limbs. And it can masquerade as a perfectly innocuous sentence that even has a verb in it:
The knight who was very brave. Fought off the terrible dragon.
 However, neither of these strings of words are actual sentences. They're posers, Trojan horses that creep their way into your writing. To have a real sentence, you need both the subject (knight) and a verb (was) in the independent clause:
The knight was very brave. He fought off the terrible dragon.
However, fragments aren't always fatal. Good writers can use them rarely for dramatic effect:
She told me that she would always be there. That she would never leave me. That I would always have a mother. But now she was gone.
This is a matter of style, but it also means that in order to break the rules, you must know what they are and follow them most of the time. Stylistic fragments should be used very rarely, and only if they are obviously intentional. Discretion is key, because you can overdo it very easily.

3. The Injurious It's (and its sinister almost-twin sister, Its).

It's and its are two words that often switch places to accomplish their dastardly deeds in secret. However, brave and skillful writers will see through their nefarious masquerade. It's plain and simple: its is a possessive pronoun (its teeth) while it's is a conjunction for "it is" (Look out! It's a monster with sharp teeth!)

If you're not able to spot this distinction, practice it until you know the difference, and be sure to check your writing for these sneaky little words.

Though these aren't all the errors that can sneak into your writing, they are a few of the most common ones. Buy a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style (it's usually under $10) and read it cover to cover. Study it and refer to it when you're proofreading your work. And in time you will be able to defeat the grammar villains, which means we're more likely to focus on how your characters defeat their villains.

Happy writing!


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Christian Fiction?

The author of today's post, Erik Landstrom, is a senior Literature major at PHC who can't get enough of a good story.

The tide has turned against Christianity. This is true in many areas of modern culture, but particularly so in the artistic community. At a rare best, we find modern literature, film, and art ambivalent toward Christianity. In most cases, however, there seems to be a growing sense of actual hostility toward the faith. Although in America this persecution is rarely physical, this does not discount the intellectual and cultural antagonism toward Christ and His followers. Christians with artistic gifts are hard-pressed to find their output taken seriously—their beliefs seem to disqualify them from serious consideration. 

Thus as writers and Christians, we find ourselves as a persecuted minority and accordingly, we find ourselves taking a defensive posture. We do not enjoy the luxury of a prevailing worldview amicable to Biblical truths. We are the odd men out. We are the ones pushing against the system. If we cease our struggling, we will be carried away in the current.

In response to this cultural hostility, Christians find themselves under the burden to reach out through this opposition and bring the light of Christ into the darkness. For believers who are called to politics, this means striving to implement Biblical standards into their execution of law. For those in business, this means a staunch commitment to ethical dealings. For the layman, this means an unabashed witness to the saving grace of Jesus in one’s life. For the writer (and indeed the artist in general), this means glorifying God in one’s work. 

Yet this not as simple as it may appear. Many authors operate under the idea that their duty as Christians is to produce “Christian books”—meaning books which deal chiefly and explicitly with redemption and the gospel message. They are guided by their conviction that the world needs the gospel worked into novel form. Yet often with this emphasis toward a “message,” the quality of the literature is no longer considered. I have read many books by well-meaning Christian authors in which the dichotomy between the good and evil is incredibly simplistic, where conversion is as quick and easy as blinking, and where characters speak as if reading a sermon. This is not to mention the wooden characterization and the inferiority of the dialogue. However noble their endeavors, these Christian authors have sacrificed much for the pedantic communication of their message, and in so doing have largely discredited their own work.

At the risk of splitting linguistic hairs, I wish to propose a distinction between “Christian writers” and “writers who are Christians.” My concern is that in regard to literature, the title “Christian” has drifted from a noun to merely an adjective. In other words, rather than emphasizing truly excellent literature, the Church seems to be looking for books in which characters are converted, salvation is preached, and evil is redeemed completely. Please don’t misunderstand—there is nothing wrong with this per se. Indeed, many talented writers have written about these experiences with true literary excellence. My point is merely that by and large, ‘Christian writing’ has become its own genre—and a mediocre one at that. Unable to compete with the standards of the artistic community at large (however far removed from a Christian worldview), the Christians have created a genre of their own in which quality hinges on the efficacy of the message. There is no emphasis on the excellence of the writing itself

Instead of striving after literary principles which have guided the best authors—many of them Christians—we put an unnatural bent toward overt communication. I would argue that one of the most powerful “messages” a Christian author can communicate is the actual story. Any message, however truthful or pertinent, will fall flat if the message itself is the sole impetus of the work. Art cannot be driven by ulterior motives—to do so strips the work of all its power and reduces the gospel to sheer propaganda.

What our dying world needs is writers—writers who are in fact Christians. We need young men and woman eager to cultivate their creative powers as they study to learn the mechanics of their calling—a solid story arch, meticulous character development, unique literary themes, precise subtleties, concrete details, beautiful language, and a cohesion and genuineness within the tale itself. After this technique, if the writer finds that a strong sense of redemption or conversion bubbles out from the very heart of story, then the writer must embrace it wholeheartedly. 

Such a writer has a daunting challenge before him—to communicate these themes in a fresh and genuine way—but they have risen organically from story and are thus fitting. Ultimately, however there is no fault in simply telling a story. In fact, this is where the true merit of the writer lies. We must never turn our creativity into a cheap platform for our message. Our art must speak with its own voice, and this requires skill coupled with training.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Chasing Stories: How to trap the elusive idea

The author of today's guest post is PHC student Sarah Watterson. Sarah is a sophomore literature major at PHC who spends her spare time chasing stories and devouring those that other writers have caught.

In Barnes and Noble a few days ago, I noticed a game in which one threw three dice to create a story. On each side of the cubes was a different picture and from the combination of pictures one had to piece together an impromptu tale. While I'm not sure this is a foolproof method, it highlights what is necessary for the creation of a story. A story is just the joining of elements that were originally separate, a piecing together of different things. Story-writing is all about making connections and creating patterns.

But how does one come up with a good story idea? To be entirely honest, I'm not really sure. Often I have no idea where one of my story plots comes from; all I know is there is something gnawing at my brain that was not there before. C.S. Lewis said The Chronicles of Narnia was inspired by a mental picture of a faun walking through the snow carrying an umbrella. J.R.R. Tolkien was grading papers one day when a line popped into his head, which he promptly wrote down: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” So of course he had to find out what a hobbit was, and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were born. I was encouraged when I learned that Tolkien was just as surprised as his characters when Black Riders entered the Shire and the hobbits met a stranger called Aragorn in an inn. Stories, once begun, can run away with you.

To acquire that elusive beginning, I can offer a few hints that may help you (some serious, some perhaps less so).

Dream often. The books Frankenstein and The Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were purportedly inspired by their authors' nightmares. So if you can remember a weird or fascinating dream, write it down. You may become the next Robert Louis Stevenson. But if you are not gifted with such dreams (I'm not), take heart and read on.

Take long showers. While this advice might seem a little strange, I have found that some of my best inspirations come while I’m taking a long, hot shower. Maybe the streams of warm water aid in the flow of imagination. But seriously, find the right place where you write most easily and haunt that place like a restless ghost. Maybe it is not the shower (I rather hope not for the sake of your family members who will be taking arctic baths), but whether it is under a favorite tree or in a cozy nook or in the local library, settle yourself down and start banging or scribbling away.

This next one is a no-brainer: Learn from the best. Read the great works of other authors. I promise, they are the farthest thing from stuffy or dull. As you read, pay attention to the things they do well. How does this author tell an engaging story? How does he make you care about his characters? How does she make the setting seem real? Find the crème de la crème of the genre in which you desire to write and learn from them. And while I have no quarrel with the living, dead authors often are the best teachers. Though I'm sure you can get plenty of recommendations,  I will put in my own plug for Dostoevsky, Flannery O'Connor, and C.S. Lewis. And the Bible definitely counts as well. God is, hands down, the best Storyteller.

Bounce ideas off your friends. Many of my story ideas come from conversations in which my friends and I spin a “what if?” into a story.

Find some children to tell a story to. Kids love stories, and they will help you think on your feet. When a six-year-old asks you for a story about a dragon, he likely won't be willing to wait for an hour while you sort out your thoughts. You will be forced to invent quickly. So find some siblings, kids you babysit or a friend's little sister and weave them a tale. It doesn't have to be serious; make it light-hearted and funny. But I guarantee it will get your imagination working.

Look for story ideas in your studies. My friends can attest that my school notes are full of story scribblings because ideas will drop into my head while a professor is lecturing or the class is discussing a concept. Unlikely as it might seem, school textbooks, history lectures, and biographies are a gold mine of story ideas. Be on the alert.

Notice the little things. Anything, a diverting circumstance, an interesting sounding place, even an unusual name can release a train of ideas that eventually gel into a narrative.  Story ideas often come when they are unexpected. So pay attention and be ready. Write ideas on napkins if necessary.
While this may sound patently obvious, one of the best ways to write is to, well, write. Just sit down and start spewing whatever comes to mind. Trust me, this is not a waste of time. Often when you start writing, the words begin flowing of their own accord. (This article is a perfect example. I started not knowing what I was going to say and now you are scrolling down, searching and praying for an ending).

Final advice (yes, this will have an end): Be patient. Keep working and give yourself time to let ideas brew. Dig persistently and you will find some nuggets of treasure, even if it feels like you have to dig all the way to China. In short, just keep spilling words onto paper (or Word processor) and keep your eyes and ears open. Who knows what  might drop into your head, demanding to be scribbled down. Happy writing one and all!

Monday, January 9, 2012

23 days...

The countdown to the Call to Pens deadline has begun! There's only a little more than 3 weeks left until February 1, and it goes by faster than you think. Entries have begun to filter in, and I'm very excited to see what you all come up with.

Over the next few weeks you can expect several things from us:

1. More frequent guest posts on the blog. We are working with a number of excellent contributors to post on topics from story-theory to literature to how to craft a good tale.

2. More answers to your questions on the Frequently Asked Questions page. That repository is slowly growing, and if you have a question that's not on there, feel free to leave a comment or email us at

3. Contest updates. After the deadline has passed, I'll be posting periodic updates on the judging process to let you know how things are going. Be on the lookout for the announcement of the winning stories in April!


Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Writer's New Year's Resolution

Writers write.

It's a simple cliche, but you'd be surprised how few people do it. When I was growing up, I'd scour the non-fiction section of my library and come out laden with how-to books on writing. I'd read The Elements of Style and Writer's Inc. from cover to cover and daydream about how wonderfully I'd write, as soon as I got that next great idea. I'd discover 50 fixes for my fiction and 40 ways to plan a plot. I'd attempt to create vivid characters by filling out questionnaires with everything from my character's blood type to her favorite childhood memory (regardless of whether such things played a part in my tale, of course). I'd read reams of manuals on how to make that manuscript stand out when it reaches a publisher's desk.  

While I'm sure such pursuits were valuable to a point, I discovered I couldn't substitute reading about writing for the real thing. It's like driving a car: you can read endlessly about how to start the car, how to follow traffic laws, how to be a safe driver. You can watch videos in driver's ed and even sit in the passenger seat and observe a veteran navigate traffic. But until you get behind the wheel yourself, you won't know how driving feels. You won't know practical things, like how to judge the distance between cars or how far you have to turn the wheel on a right turn without taking a curb. While you might benefit from your theoretical knowledge, you won't be a good driver until you practice.

If you want to be a good writer, write. Don't be discouraged if your plots form holes the size of Saturn or your characters sound as stilted as the actors in a B movie. You're a new driver; you're going to take a few curbs your first time out. But do write consistently.

To write consistently, you need somewhere to collect all your ideas. Good writers are "pack rats." They save most everything they write, even if it seems like garbage. Who knows, even if something is badly written, you could come back to it in a couple years and rework the idea into something worth reading. One of the benefits of living in the 21st century is that you can be a digital pack rat-- it's a lot less messy, and your parents and siblings will appreciate being able to see your bedroom floor (we hope).

Start a writer's folder on your computer that you can fill with all your half-baked ideas and random ramblings. Or, if you want more accountability, start a blog. There are a number of free blogging platforms out there:,, and, just to name a few. The benefits to blogging are numerous:
  1. The satisfaction of instant publication. 
  2. The opportunity to cultivate a unique audience. Because anyone can start a blog, the best content is bound to rise to the top. If you post quality writing consistently, you'll begin to develop a group of faithful readers over time. 
  3. The ability to keep track of just how often you're writing. With Wordpress's "Calendar" widget, for example, you can see how many days you've posted each month.
Side note: If you feel uncomfortable spewing your thoughts to the entire online world, most blogging platforms allow you to password protect your site and only allow the users you choose to see it. Also, you can write under a pseudonym (and it's wise not to post too much personal information on the web anyway).

Discipline yourself to write a blog post or something to stick in your folder at least once a week. The more you write, the better you'll get at writing. Like most good things in life (an education, physical fitness, or your relationship with Christ), there are no shortcuts to becoming a better writer.

This year, if you want to be a better writer, you've got to put in time and good, old-fashioned hard work. But that's one resolution that will be worth keeping.