Three Lessons I’ve Learned

Since I’ve been attempting to write fiction, I’ve learned a number of lessons. I thought I’d take a moment and share three: Get as much advice as you can; Don’t take any advice as ‘gospel’; Let yourself be surprised.
Get advice. This can come in many disparate forms. At first, it was from other writers I met through my participation in NANOWRIMO. In various chat rooms, I’d toss out a question and I’d receive several helpful answers. Reading blogs is another way to interact with other writers, though it tends to be more one-sided. A few bloggers do a great job of asking questions and responding to the questions of others. But even simply consuming the information they provide can be helpful. A third way is to Go to ‘school’. This may not be an actual classroom, though that is an opportunity for some. I’m slowly working my way through Brandon Sanderson’s BYU lectures that I stumbled over on YouTube. Great stuff!
Keep the main thing the main thing. Very often, I’d find myself getting caught in the spiral of reading advice and NOT writing. If you want to write, you should probably be writing. While in that spiral, I’d also notice that I would place way too much emphasis on what “whoever” said about “whatever” and I’d start to second guess myself. Stop. What works for Hemingway (writing drunk and editing sober), may not be the best idea for me (it’s not). Yet, within that popular aphorism is a truth. Write with abandon. Don’t sweat the details (always a problem for me). Just get it on ‘paper’.
Be surprised. This is a wonderful moment. I remember the first time that a story surprised me. I sat back in wonder. “How did THAT happen?” The more of those you allow, the more surprises the reader will get. Readers love to be surprised. It keeps the pages turning.
How do you fall on these? Do you ever find yourself getting lost in advice? Do you ever get surprised by your own story? I’d love to hear about it!
-Mark

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Who’s In Control?

So I was sitting and staring at my computer screen the other day, stymied at my own inability to move forward — something in the narrative wasn’t right. I spent a good portion of time asking questions about how one thing led to another or why a certain person acted the way they did. I was frustrated that the sequence of events seemed out of kilter. Then it dawned on me – I was in control of the narrative!
I’m sure that to you pros out there, that is a ‘duh’ moment. But for me, it was freeing. If I can’t make sense of the sequence of events, I can change it, it’s MY story, after all.
Apparently, one scene that I wrote early on is actually something that happens later. Now I get to connect the dots. I’m not sure if this writing out of order is a common process. I only know it’s happened to me and realizing it has been helpful.
All you planners out there will shake your pencils at me and tell me how and outline would have prevented this mishap. Maybe, though I’m not so sure. This is my first foray into writing so I expect that there will be some ‘discovery’ moments. Here’s to more of them!

What about you? Have you had a good “Ah-Ha” moment in your writing? Let’s chat!
-Mark

Moving Forward

I teased a few weeks back that I was re-starting my novel, changing its setting and genre. I can only say that it’s been fun. So I thought it only fair to toss a bit of the beginning at you. Please realize this is the FIRST draft! Much revision ahead, but I’m happy with the results so far. Be kind 🙂

— The final chords of The Moldau reverberated through the empty seats of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, trying to find their way back to their source, hitting wall after wall until they decayed into silence. Ellen always found The Moldau’s closing cadence wistful. A special kind of loneliness was imagined in their powerful yet solitary declaration.
Her personal reverie was interrupted by the players’ representative’s mundane announcement of call time and dress. She only half-listened as she packed her flute in its case. She stood up and stretched. Her unusually hard morning workout still left her stiff. She really needed to slow down.
“Fancy lunch?” Mildred said, looking up from her chair. Mildred and Ellen had been sitting side-by-side for the past two years. Their relationship was cordial. The routine was simple: one would ask the other about lunch, the other would decline, the offerer would then say, “Rain check, then.” And they would go their separate ways.
“No, thank you, I have to teach lessons at GW today. Some other time, maybe.”
“Rain check, then.” Mildred smiled and left the stage.
As Ellen was walking out, her phone signaled a text. She checked the screen, and froze. Kevin was texting her. But why? They haven’t talked in three years. She slipped into her Audi and read the text.
“Ellen, this is kevin. We need to talk. Tonight. 1349 Good Hope Rd SE. 9pm”
Ellen stared in disbelief. Three years of silence and then a summons to one of the worst parts of town at night? She quickly typed in, “confirmation code k627”
“Never happened”
“Cy”
“Dz”
Ellen sighed. It really was him. But why now? Why there? She started her car and drove off into the gray day, pregnant with snow, to teach. —

-Mark

Time for something musical, I think.

Yesterday, April 17, was Tax Day in the US. Always a day of angst. Today, the day after, I noticed that CNN had created a playlist for those who needed a soundtrack to watch their money getting flushed with each entry on the dreaded 1040 form. What I found interesting was that three of the suggested tunes were Beatle tunes (One was a cover): Taxman, Can’t Buy Me Love, and Money (CNN suggested the original by Barret Strong).

Two of these, Can’t Buy Me Love and Money are opposites. The latter is a pure declaration of the need for more money. The former says: “I don’t care too much for money…” I always found it interesting that the Beatles recorded both.

Now, I know that musical artists aren’t bound to propagate only one philosophy. Certainly, they must broaden their scope and appeal to a wider audience (someone say: “Taylor Swift”). Not everyone is a money-grubber who believes that only those things that money can buy are worthy. Likewise, not everyone is a wide-eyed idealist that believes love can survive on only a wish and a dream.

But one could never accuse the Beatles of wishing and dreaming. They worked hard for the money (thank you, Donna Summer, also on the list), and created songs that have endured decades. Much like the Great American Songbook, the Beatles songbook seems to be poised to cross over any style that pop music can throw at it. It is because of that endurance that even the estates of Lennon and Harrison continue to benefit.

You might not be able to buy love, but you certainly can buy land and houses. We all know that money can not buy one happiness, but it can purchase space in which one can be happy. If that’s the case, then The Beatles, those living and the estates of Lennon and Harrison, certainly have a lot of room.

The net worth of The Beatles is really impossible to ascertain, but it is not beyond imagination to suggest $3 billion. “Money don’t get everything, it’s true; What it don’t get, I can’t use…”

However, as a Christian pastor, I must ask this: At what price? Between the four Beatles, there are nine marriages (Although the idealist in me would like to think that the number would be seven had Linda McCartney lived). Lennon and McCartney spent much of the seventies in a bitter, sometime public, feud.  I will not even discuss the alcohol and drug abuse issues.

For those of us who are believers in the Lordship of Jesus Christ and His saving work on the cross, money is just one more worldly item to have to deal with. I will admit, there are times when I wish I had a bit more to deal with, but, on the whole, we make it just fine.

I may never have $30,000 in the bank, let alone $3 billion, but I do have much more – a place reserved for me in eternity where, thankfully, the only currency is God’s love.

-Mark

10 Things You Should Know about the Resurrection

Great thoughts to take you through Easter week and beyond! -M

Already Not Yet

Resurrection-of-Christ-713x509

By Adrian Warnock, author of Raised with Christ: How the Resurrection Changes Everything.

1. The resurrection is the core of the Christian message and should never be neglected or assumed.

Sometimes today, when we hear the gospel preached, the focus is on the cross. The resurrection is often ignored, assumed, or mentioned only in passing. In contrast, the preaching recorded in the book of Acts emphasized the resurrection of Jesus, and barely mentioned his death. The apostles were preoccupied with the resurrection and emphasized it much more than the cross.

Sadly, the church only seems to get excited about the resurrection once a year at Easter time. In reality, every Sunday should be Resurrection Sunday. The reason why the early church began to meet on the first day of the week was to celebrate Jesus’s defeat of death. Imagine what church would be like if we consciously gathered

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Home Runs

I’m sure that many of you have seen this already.

I love baseball. Of all the sports, baseball always makes me smile. One reason for this is moments like this one. I’m not enjoying the bad defense (although San Fransisco certainly did), I’m relishing the opportunity that came even though the ball was poorly hit. You see, it’s Easter.
For the preaching pastor, Easter is the season for home runs. Besides Christmas, there is no other time when people’s minds are on things spiritual (What else would you call an imaginary rabbit that delivers colored hardboiled eggs?).
Every time I read the resurrection accounts, I get nervous. How can anyone possibly preach on this without diminishing the beauty of God’s plan? I need to hit a home run. Or do I?
It seems that I might not, which gives me hope. There will be people in our pews on Sunday that need to hear of the resurrected Jesus and His power and God’s message of forgiveness and love. And they will. But that is not ‘on me’. The Holy Spirit will blow where it wills. I am only called to be faithful.
I will prepare, as I always do. But I also know that, even if I hit a twenty-five foot blooper, God can score three runs. I just need to step into the batter’s box and swing.
Happy Easter – The Lord has Risen!
-Mark

Unexpected Turns

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have a inclination toward reading more about writing than actually writing. Blogging is one way to combat this. It forces me to craft sentences for public consumption. That may be good or bad, depending on how these sentences fall on your eyes.
Anyway, One caution that I have read about is that, even when you plan out your writing, be prepared for those ‘wicked turn of events’ that creep up out of nowhere. This happened to me recently.
I am rewriting a story that has been rattling in my brain for years. I thought I knew where it was headed. But, lo and behold, the story surprised me. What is most amazing to me is that, even though I never would have planned it like this, the surprise actually has me sharper. I’m more focused on the plot, the characters, the eventual ending.
Without giving away much, my main character is at a large public gala in a prominent public building in Washington (D.C.). I have her conversing with a few people. Then, I had her excuse herself to the restroom to compose her thoughts after a particular uncomfortable encounter. It was there, as I sat asking myself, “What now?” that the surprise happened. It was not out of character for the plot, in fact, it might actually work better. But it never crossed my mind to let it happen like this. Now, I have a new wrinkle to write through which, as I said, adds a certain focus to my thoughts.
For all of my writing buddies: Has this ever happened to you? Has the story itself ever thrown you a curve ball that made you either leap out of the way or reach across the plate? I’d love to hear about it!
-Mark

Jesus Completes His Mission

Great thoughts as we approach the cross this Sunday!

The Life Project

Luke 23:26-49

Any time you read a transcript something is lost, for a transcript reads without emotion or emphasis and a great deal of the communication that took place is lost. Most human communication is nonverbal whereas a transcript is only verbal, thus voice inflection, tonal quality facial expressions and body language are all gone. As we read Luke’s words, our perception of what is going on tends to be rather stale; we have a conversation recorded between the three who are being crucified and it reads as though they are sitting by a warm fire with nice cups of coffee on the table in front of them, along with fine pastries… and nothing could be further from the truth for they were in the process of being tortured to death slowly, agonizingly…

Luke mentions that the Romans grabbed a guy named Simon on the street and forced him to…

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Lazarus

This past Sunday, I preached a sermon on John 11 – The Raising of Lazarus. This is a fascinating read. Every time I encounter John, I’m simply astounded at the craftsmanship that went into this document. It is the most ‘artistic’ of the four. By that, I do not mean in anyway that it is fiction, it is not. But John presents his subject and themes through symbol and metaphor in a way the other three do not. This particular account is a case in point.

But first, let me take a moment to describe the three ways that Jesus teaches in the gospels. One way is through direct instruction, what we might call didactic teaching. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; Luke 6:20-49) is the perfect example of this style. The second is through the use of story, what are called parables. This is a story that takes its substance from the everyday, in Jesus’ case mostly agriculture, and transforms it into a story with a single point. There are so many examples that to name one would be silly.

The third way, and I think the most often missed, is that Jesus taught through circumstances. We often think of these as the miracles and healings, but each one is much more than that. When I was in seminary, a professor (whose name I can not remember) called them “enacted parables,” and that they are.

One example might be the event of the feeding of the multitude, a miracle found in every gospel. Was Jesus just feeding people or was there a point? Well, I think there was a point. In my estimation, the point was that coming to Jesus for spiritual feeding will always satisfy one’s spiritual hunger, no matter what meager supply of faith you might have. In fact, after the feeding recorded in John (6:1-14), we have the Bread of Life Discourse (6:22-58).

The event recorded in John 11 is also an enacted parable. Every step of the way, from when He first hears of His friend’s illness to the ultimate scene when He says, “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus is teaching a crucial point to anyone who will open their eyes to see it. Some do, some don’t.

Notice that the event doesn’t end with Jesus calling Lazarus out. There is an epilogue. In fiction writing, we are told to end the book in a manner that demonstrates to the reader that the characters go on. It isn’t necessary to delineate what that looks like. It is only polite to give the reader the sense that these characters that they have spent a considerable amount of time with, do indeed, carry on.

So John shows us what happens after Lazarus comes out. Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” And THAT is the point! Faith in Jesus unbinds us from the entanglement of sin. Faith in Jesus frees us from the shackles of man-made rules for ‘goodness’, none of which can be followed perfectly. With Jesus, the ‘deadness’ of this life has no meaning, only the life we live through the Spirit of God indwelling our hearts.

How often do you feel like your life is more like a tomb? How often do you feel ‘stuck’ at a ‘dead end’ (job, marriage, etc.)? Maybe it isn’t the job or the marriage. Maybe it’s you.

I know, that hurt. But really, honestly, we are our own worst enemies. What if you stopped living like that job was the worst thing in the world and started living like it’s the job God called you to. Maybe not forever, but for now. Would it change how you worked?

Everyone of us who is married made a solemn vow at our wedding. Assuming you didn’t have your fingers crossed, what are you going to do about it? Can you tell yourself that this is the spouse God called me to love until I die? Rather than wallowing in the swamp of misery we create for ourselves when we say things like: “She doesn’t love me.” “I don’t feel the same way.” “We’re just growing apart.” Perhaps our marriages would be stronger if we said : “I will choose to love him.” “Regardless of how he feels, I will dig deep for those feelings within myself.” “Even if our lives appear drifting apart, our roots are enmeshed below the surface.”

I know that giving in to the voices around us is so much easier. Troubled marriage = divorce. Dead end job = quit. But that is like Lazarus, having been raised, walking out of the tomb, and saying, “No, this is too hard. I want to go back.”

This is exactly way the epilogue is so important. Jesus wants us to hear that life with Him is unbounded and free, a spiritual Garden of Eden. Jesus is saying to you, to me, “be unbound, you are free.”

Challenges and Changes

My wife asked me the other day, “Are you reading more about writing or actually writing?” Ouch. In her own subtle way, she had pinched a nerve that needed pinching. I had, indeed, spent way too much time reading about writing.
Part of this stems from the age old writer’s malignancy of self-doubt: “I don’t know enough about writing to actually write.” The truth is, if every writer waited to ‘know enough’ before they wrote, we would have empty libraries. And yet, I felt inadequate because I didn’t go to school for writing and my depth as a reader is not what it is for other writers that I know.
So there was my challenge – write more. Simple as that sounds, when I did sit down to tackle the next scene in my SciFi novel, Origins, I was blocked. And I had to admit, I had been blocked for sometime. The story has a decent premise — humans 10,000 years in the future finding the lost Earth, the origins of humanity. The problem for me was that the stakes were simply not high enough. The point of the main character finding Origins was not enough to make the story compelling. I was bored. And if I was bored – well, need I continue?
I spent some time thinking about the whole reason that drove me to write and it boiled down to a character. The main character of Origins was originally a character in another novel I had started to write some years back but trashed. I mean, deleted…gone…kaput.
I had listened to one person’s critique: “it’s been done before.” I caved and trashed the whole project. But I have come to realize that, first of all, listening to ONE person’s critique was simply wrong. Second, everything has been done before. It’s not a question of what I write about, it’s a question of how I write about it. I wanted that story back. So I’m doing that.
Origins has been placed in hibernation and the original novel, as yet untitled, is back on. No longer a SciFi piece, it is instead set in modern times and deals with international crime and domestic terrorism. Stay tuned!