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Lessons from the Classroom for YA Writers

Engaged Student

I wish I had started out as a writer first, then a teacher. I think my first few years would have been much better. Writers tend to notice things about people that others don’t.

That said, I’m thankful for the time I’ve spent trying to sell curriculum to resistant young people every day, because I think it makes me a much better writer. Here are five things I’ve learned:

1. Teens respond better to active, engaging material than passive.

In the classroom, this translates to hands-on activities and interactive models, such as the potato gun above–one of my all-time favorite projects from some of my favorite students*. In writing, this means drawing them into the action and letting them experience it as the character. They don’t want to just stand by and let you tell them a story. They want to think, feel, taste, smell, touch, fear, rejoice, and be.

2. Teens thrive on relationships.

They want to have them, hear about them, talk about them, dissect them–it’s a challenge sometimes as a teacher to get them to stop thinking about relationships long enough to teach them something. You might think I’m only talking about romantic relationships, but it’s more than that. They thrive on building strong relationships with the adults in their lives, even the elderly. They are interested in watching how two teachers interact with each other, or how a mother interacts with her baby.

That’s why I feel like it’s important to consider the relationship dynamic between ALL characters, not just the main ones, and adding in a few details to show appropriate behaviors between people. Maybe someone holds the door open and someone else thanks them. Perhaps an older couple is walking by in front of them, holding hands. Sadly, a lot of kids do not have good role models to imitate. In Christian fiction, especially, we need to keep that in mind.

3. Teens are smarter about life than we think.

I’ve critiqued a lot of aspiring YA writers, and one of my pet peeves is how they sometimes try to explain every little thing. It’s like they think teen readers won’t know the meaning of words or understand the history behind an event. Believe it or not, teens are usually pretty up-to-date on current events and fairly knowlegeable about history. After all, they get three years to study it in high school. I’ve had some great intellectual discussions with students about surprising topics over the years.

They also have experienced more than we might believe–pain, loss, joy. In fact, many of them could teach us a few things about coping.

We have to be careful to not make characters too naive. In a recent discussion with a group of young readers, we talked about the Princess Diaries and how frustrated they were with Anne Hathaway’s character being inept at so many things. While most of them liked the movie, they didn’t find her character relatable. Their average/awkward is a lot different from the way Princess Mia was painted.

If we’re not careful, we could write characters that might come across as an insult to today’s savvy teen readers.

4. Teens have short attention spans. 

It’s been my experience that teens lose focus after about 10-15 minutes. In my classroom, I have to find creative ways to throw in hooks every so often to pull them back in. And honestly, I think that’s true for a lot of adults, too. I’ve seen a lot of students take books back to the library before finishing them. Instead of being a story they couldn’t put down, it was something easily dismissed. At the very least, a writer should put a hook at the end of every chapter.  You’re not going to keep them turning pages with a bunch of info dumps, either. They’ll just flip through and skip pages to look for the next action scene.

5. Teens are brutally honest. 

One thing I love about working with high school students is that you never have to worry about what they’re thinking. If they love an assignment, they’ll tell you. If they hate it, you’ll know. So, hard as it may be to handle their blunt feedback, if you’re going to write YA, you might consider having a couple of teens read your story before submitting, and REALLY listen to their advice.

*Photo used with permission.

 

Through Devastation, Joy

The Bernie Madoff story has always fascinated me. How could one man orchestrate something that ruined the lives of so many? How could he sleep at night, knowing all of his gain was because of their loss?

Recently, I read this article from the Wall Street Journal, telling how some of the victims have done over the last five years: on.wsj.com/1gWvNJN

I think about all those people who were in retirement, thinking they were set for the rest of their lives and suddenly losing everything. Some have adjusted to a simpler life, but others have been destroyed trying to rebuild their financial lives from ground zero. I can’t imagine that kind of loss. Someday I want to write a fiction story about a character who goes through something similar.

Instances of loss are all around us. Homes burn to the ground or are demolished by tornadoes. Children, mothers and fathers are lost to freak accidents. Loving spouses bury their longtime mates. We sometimes bury ourselves in our sorrows, taking comfort in the fact that Christ understands them and sympathizes with our pain.

And yet the Bible is so clear that God wants us to be a people full of joy, not of devastation.

Someone once told me you can’t worry and be joyful at the same time. I know Matthew 6 tells us we aren’t supposed to worry, but financial stability is always on my mind. Even as a tenured teacher, I worry a lot about keeping my job as the tides in educational leadership continue to change. And I worry about costly illnesses. These days, with the changes in our health insurance policies, it seems like any of us could be just a few rough medical bills away from financial ruin.

But then, I remember Habakkuk 3:17-18.

Though the fig tree may not blossom, Nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, And the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, And there be no herd in the stalls— Yet I will rejoice in the LordI will joy in the God of my salvation.

 

How many times (a day) do I forget that my purpose is His purpose, and that my life is a vapor?  I was not put on this Earth to maintain financial stability, but rather to spread His good news to as many people as I can. Good news–joyful news. We have a Savior. He is risen! We can have eternal life through Him!

The temptation to mope through life and bemoan our circumstance is an ever-present thorn in today’s society. We have to be like Paul in Philippians 3:7–counting all things loss for Christ, and remember Mark 8:36, that if we gain the world, yet lose our soul, it’s all in vain.

 

 

Meme-Based Religion and the Status Bible

Sometimes it scares me how impatient we’ve all become, and how few people seem to take time anymore to stop and smell the roses. But the things we do take time for…always Facebook, right?

According to this NBC News article from 2013, smartphone users check their Facebook pages an average of fourteen times every day. That’s the average. The article goes on to mention that 79% of users check their phones in the first fifteen minutes of their day.

Think about how different the world might be if those same people checked their Bibles first thing or opened their Bibles fourteen times every day.

I think there are a lot of Christians out there who live busy lives and take comfort in being able to post a Bible verse or a religious-themed meme. We do so with good intentions–it’s an easy way to “share Christ” with everyone who follows us in their news feed. But what are we really sharing? It’s Cracker Jack Christianity. Dig through the sticky muck on our newsfeed and pull out a cheap imitation for the real thing. But at least people are reading Bible verses, right? Well, yeah. Right.

However…

And this is a big however…

According to several studies, there are a lot of Christians out there not reading their Bibles very often anymore. Take this article from the Huffington Post, for example (April 2013). They cite a survey from the American Bible Society claiming that only one in five Americans read their Bibles on a regular basis. It said that fifty-seven percent only read their Bibles three or four times per year, and that the same percentage of young people ages 18-28 read their Bibles three times or less per year.

What this means is for many, the only access they have to Scripture is whatever random verse they see on someone’s Facebook wall. They might base their faith entirely on that, thinking they’re okay when they’re not. And like Psalm 119:105 says, the Bible is a light to our path–without it, we’re just walking blindly in the dark.

This is what prompted me to write Cavernous. It’s a what-if book, considering the idea that our obsession with social media might lead to the next big political revolution. First, a presidential assassination, and then a planned effort that leads to the secession of several states. And a group of extremists who recruit through their Facebook page lead several states into secession to form their own country.

Is that so far fetched? How many blog posts have we shared without looking to see what the writers really stand for? How many memes have we passed on without looking at the names of the original poster? I for one have seen Christians post pictures from users or groups with inappopriate names  on multiple occasions and they probably didn’t even notice.

What if–we like the pages, we sign on via the comfort of our own homes, and then suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a great divide?

Suppose a new political leader came along who didn’t agree with three verses in I Corinthians–so he has them removed and reprinted. And he didn’t like part of Romans, and he couldn’t leave in the verses that address his favorite sin… and suddenly we have a Bible that doesn’t reflect God’s true plan of salvation. And we might not realize it because WE HAVEN’T READ OUR BIBLES LATELY!

It would never happen, right?

But think about it, thoughout history, political leaders have had influence on printing the Bible. The King James version, for example, was commissioned by King James IV and the church of England. And these days, anyone can self publish whatever drivel they feel like.

In Cavernous, one of the themes is to not only read Scripture, but to write it on our hearts. The main character, Callie, is able to stand up to the political leaders because of her Biblical knowledge. I’m not sure I could do that myself, which is why this is a message for me as much as anyone else. These days, it’s so easy to read the Bible. There are even phone apps that will read it out loud to you. None of us have an excuse to rely on statuses and memes to give us our daily Biblical nourishment.

Rant over 🙂 Back to writing!

When Your Goodness is the Enemy

Today in my professional development training, my principal ended with this quote from Jim Collins:

Good is the enemy of great.

In his book Good to Great, Collins asserts that we don’t have many great schools, newspapers, government agencies, churches… because we have so many good ones. It’s about complacency, or not holding ourselves to even higher standards. We’re content to let good be good enough.

We might make the same argument for books. I know of many self-published authors who put themselves on a deadline to finish their novels. They’ve written good books with minor errors that don’t sell, then had to rewrite and republish later to fix the embarrassing mistakes.

Our conversation today was regarding PGES, a new method for evaluating teachers, which has drawn both praise and criticism from many. Personally, I like it, although It’s never easy to take a look in the mirror and realize we have room to grow. Sometimes, with the constant criticism from many angles, it’s easy for a teacher to start feeling as though no one thinks they’re good enough. I think that’s true for writers, too. But at the same time, sometimes we get so much praise that we start to think ourselves better than we actually are.

Actually, someone else gave us a charge to pursue greatness long before Jim Collins walked the earth.

The Bible clearly teaches that we must use our gifts and talents to God’s glory. No question, to strive to be Christlike is a strive to perfection, and an acknowledgement that we are all far from perfect. Writing Christian fiction is a ministry, is it not? So then, would publishing mediocrity be to the glory of God? We have to humble ourselves, keep going back to the drawing board, revising until we’ve given our best.

Romans 12:3 comes to mind–such a simple verse, and yet so hard to follow.

For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.

We should always accept that there’s room for improvement.

It amazes me when I critique someone’s first draft and they want to argue against common sense, industry-standard editing advice. They believe, mistakenly, that their work doesn’t need to be improved, often presenting it more for the pat on the back than the honest critique. Gone are the days of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t.”

We can carry things too far and drive ourselves into perfectionism, but sometimes I think we all need to take a little more pride in our work. Myself included.

Redeeming Bible Villains–Jezebel

This post is continuing with the theme of finding redeeming traits that might make characters based on Bible villains more three-dimensional.

Of all the villains in the Bible, Jezebel is one of the most fascinating. Even among those who aren’t avid Bible readers, mention of her name conjures images of wickedness and seduction.

Her name appears in the Bible twenty times, although one refers to the Jezebel of Revelation 2:20. This Jezebel, though also a seductress, does not have quite the wicked reputation as the Old Testament queen.

When Jehu conspires to kill Joram after being annointed king of Israel, Joram asks if he’s coming in peace. Jehu answers, “What peace, as long as the harlotries and witchcraft of your mother are so many?” (II Kings 9)

Unlike Cain, to whom the Lord gave leniency, Jezebel was sentenced to death by her own servants and eaten by dogs. 

I love these Old Testament stories, with all their twists, turns, and gore. But to write a Jezebel–how can she possibly have any redeeming qualities?

At first, I considered the possibility that perhaps she didn’t WANT to marry Ahab, and she might have been at least somewhat obedient there. Yet I Kings 21:25 says:

But there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do wickedness in the sight of the Lord, because Jezebel his wife stirred him up.

It’s hard to picture her not enjoying being a powerful queen, manipulative and murderous. This verse has the same feel to it as Adam’s blame in Genesis–the woman made me do it! 

So, admittedly, these might be a stretch, but here goes–

  1. She was zealous in her idolatry. In how many other instances would a woman marry a king and not be expected to adopt his faith? Especially in Bible times where women wouldn’t have had the freedoms we relish in today. 
  2. She was effective in her evangelism. In I Kings 16:31-32, we see that Ahab not only fell into worshipping Baal, but he also built altars to worship in Samaria, which he surely knew was an atrocity to God. In this, I picture her as perhaps a smooth talker–the seductress side of her winning him over. And perhaps, that alone would be a redeeming enough quality for a Jezebel-type character, charismatic enough that readers are swept into the seduction.
  3. She accepted her death with dignity. Although there was no dignity in being eaten by the dogs, Jezebel did face her fate head on. Unlike the warden in The Shawshank Redemption, who ended his life in the final moment before the authorities came for him, Jezebel put on makeup and adorned her head, and waited for Jehu. She even asked him, as Ahab had, if he came in peace, knowing full well the answer. 

There you have it.  Redeeming qualities of Jezebel. On to the next villain!

 

 

Redeeming Bible Villains–Cain

You’d think in a Christian fiction story, writing a good villain would be simple. After all, the Bible spells out all the character traits in plain and simple terms in many places. Perhaps, none as clearly as Proverbs 6:12-19:

A worthless person, a wicked man, walks with a perverse mouth; He winks with his eyes, he shuffles his feet, he points with his fingers;
Perversity is in his heart, he devises evil continually, he sows discord.
Therefore his calamity shall come suddenly; suddenly he shall be broken without remedy.

These six things the Lord hates, yes, seven are an abomination to Him: A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren.

It’s a challenge to write a character with all of these traits who doesn’t come across as unidimensional, as I discovered a couple of years ago in a NaNoWriMo debacle. But just because it’s Christian fiction, that doesn’t mean we have to stick to black and white, pure evil versus sinless good.

There are articles all over the Internet advising writers to give their villains redeeming qualities. Which got me thinking–what are the redeeming qualities of Bible villains? Can Christian fiction writers not draw inspiration from them?

Genesis 4 opens with Eve giving birth to Cain and sayiing, “I have acquired a man from the Lord.”

If he came from God, he had to be good, right? The Bible tells us “in the process of time” it came to pass that Cain and Abel brought their offerings to God. I’ve wondered so many things about this story–how old were Cain and Abel when this animosity first arose between them? Teenagers? Young adults? Middle grade? Did they argue all the time like my kids do, and need continual redirection to make wise choices in how they relate to each other? What kind of parents were Adam and Eve? After all, they didn’t have access to billions of parenting self-help blogs. Did they neglect discipline to a point that Cain’s anger and jealousy thrived?

Even sin was new to them–no one before them had ever learned from such mistakes. Did Adam and Eve have explosive arguments and struggle with their own tempers? Sometimes I think we like to throw them in the garden all happy-go-lucky after the apple incident, but I suspect they were humans like the rest of us, struggling with daily sin.

Yes, Cain was a murderer. Yes, he was prideful. A heart full of malice, intent to rebel against the will of God–all the makings of a good villain.

But God also showed him mercy, lessening his punishment by placing the mark on him so that he couldn’t be killed. And though Cain separated himself from God, he went on to build a city and raise a family.

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather comes to mind. How could those men could murder in cold blood and then embrace and hug their children in practically the next breath? Did Cain, like Michael Corleone, destroy others through evil acts, or did the guilt from his brother’s murder change him? Did he raise his children with a heavy hand? Execute wrath on his wife? The hints of vanity and lustfulness in Genesis 4:16-24 show us that sin ran rampant within his family, yet surely there were tender moments of humanity.

And I think that’s the key–a lot of novels only loosely develop the antagonist because it’s hard to reveal such details without having to work around POV. Good writers will find some way to pepper that backstory in without making it seem contrived.

Now, off to analyze my WIP to see where I might throw some of that backstory in.

Can You Be Great and Humble?

I think somewhere deep within all of us is a quest for greatness. We want to be recognized, honored, and patted on the back for our accomplishments. Part of wanting to be published surely relates to that. After all, I’ve worked SO hard on this masterpiece. So many hours that could have been sleep, so many rewrites and revisions. Someone should really give me some appreciation, right? It’s so hard to keep that attitude in check.

And yet I read verses like Proverbs 3:34, and feel an immediate twinge of guilt for ever entertaining such thoughts.

Surely he scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble.

Now I wouldn’t call myself scornful. And I definitely want His grace. But as I approach the moment where I start sending my work out for scrutiny, I’m sure the temptation for scornfulness will come with the rejection that’s sure to follow.

After all, haven’t all the “greats” suffered rejection?

This led me to ponder what I truly want from publishing. I can’t deny the surge of excitement that would come from seeing my name in print, from walking into Barnes and Noble and finding my name on the shelf.

But then, I consider the what if–suppose rejection doesn’t follow. How can I keep myself humble?

Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, said this:

We come nearest to the great when we are great in humility.

And to be great in humility comes from purposing to be like Christ.

Maybe I just worry about silly things. The answer always comes back to living a Christ-centered life.

So, with that in mind, of course we can be both great and humble, in Him.

Let it Go (the emotion, that is…)

Confession. I have not yet read The Fault in Our Stars. I’m sure it’s a lovely book. Everyone I know is talking about it. And I haven’t read it for the same reason that I’ve never made it all the way through A Walk to Remember, and The Notebook. My chest constricts just thinking about it. Tears well up in my eyes and I start wandering the room for chocolate. I’m not a fan of sappy.

I know, I know. So many good books I’ve missed out on because I don’t like to face that raw emotion.

Then there’s my temper. I teach teenagers. I’m paid not to lose my temper. And with that, I’ve learned to let things roll off my shoulders. It takes a lot to make me mad these days, which makes it really hard to write a dramatic scene in a novel.

Yet, I’m working on a scene where I need to vamp it up. And I’m stuck. I guess I’m going to have to grab some tissues and force myself to read a few of those sappy books.

Joe Bunting, founder of The Write Practice, wrote this article on writing about raw emotion. His first thought was to draw inspiration from music. That, I can do. I can actually listen to songs that evoke that sort of emotion as I write. I’ve never been a playlist writer, but I know that writers are. Bunting suggests using repetition and restraint to convey the emotion. I like the thoughts, but I felt like the article could have given a few more examples. So I Googled on.

Nevermind that when I searched (when should a character let emotion go) and found Elsa, or (when should a character break down) and found Twilight

But finally, I came across this little gem: Character Rants and Breakdowns–Let ’em Rip by Beth Hill. I realized how much of the problem is me–holding back my own emotions, so I hold back the emotions of my characters. Writing and reading is an escape. Catharsis is acceptable on the written page, and it will lead readers to compassion for my characters.

This reminds me of Romans 12:15, one of my favorite verses on compassion.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

It’s exactly what readers want to do. Now, to push my sleeves up and make them feel that scene.

The Truth Comes Out in the Details

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First, a quick shout out to my readers. I appreciate each and every one of you and thank you for playing a small role in my quest to be published. Cavernous is still going strong. 

I wish I could remember who told me this. It might have been my good friend Kimberly Grenfell, a.k.a. Devon Winterson

It’s the small details that make the story.

Lately, I’m finding that more and more to be true. But a lot of times, we miss out on the small details because the big picture in a story is so exciting/overwhelming/larger than life. 

The above picture is a favorite from years ago, one of my first documentations of my daughter’s uncanny ability to destroy a room within a matter of minutes. If you examine closely, you can see that her destruction follows a specific path from my kitchen through my living room to the front hall. It might be easy to retrace that path and come up with the story of all the things she’d done along the way.

If memory serves me right, I was folding the laundry right beside her and came out to this mess. It took about ten minutes, tops. I walked out, gaped, snapped the picture, and shook my head at the chaos.

My in-laws joke with us sometimes. They say, “Y’all blame everything on little Dana.” And it’s true–if there’s a mess in my house, she’s the first one I’m going to turn to. But just for kicks, I zoomed into the picture to see if I could figure out what she was thinking when she made the mess. 

I saw: My son Matt’s shoes, his little cardboard/aluminum foil “creation,” paper plates, the foam letters he loved to play with–maybe, just maybe she wasn’t the only culprit. The details tell a completely different story than first glance. And I think that’s true in novel writing, too. I always start a chapter with brainstorming and freewriting, which generally leads me to a skeleton scene that consists mostly of dialogue. What I’ve learned is that the fill-in details I choose to add can completely change the tone or intensity of a scene. They can make a likeable character suddenly heinous or a villain seem tolerable.

I’ve been focusing on ways I can make my writing more believable and character emotions more compelling. In my quest, I stumbled on this blog post from Author Magazine from the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association: Believable Fiction.

I love this quote:

Our lives are not led in the physical—that is, we are not pinballs bouncing from event to event. We are not a collection of limbs and organs generating a series of thoughts, but rather a series of thoughts compelling a collection of limbs and organs. What readers always seek in fiction is what it feels like to be alive, not what it looks like to be alive, because the feeling is in the end the only reality we ever know, because the feeling reality, which exists within the invisible self, is all we have that is ours and ours alone.

I wonder if my brainstorming might be more effective as a series of thoughts compelling our characters rather than characters generating thoughts. In other words, the thoughts come first, including a decision about the emotions I want to convey. Then, the actions to show that emotion–slamming things for anger, dropping things for shock. Next, the objects from the setting–the papers that are shoved off a desk, the priceless artifact that’s dropped. Finally, the character attached, who is the kind of character that would behave in such a way. Hmm… Guess I’ll experiment and let you know.