The Paradox of Free Will

Happy summer, everyone! Today I have something a bit out of the ordinary… This has very little to do with writing, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, so I might as well share it with you all.

Free will. It’s the source of many debates, scholarly books, and carefully-formed opinions and worldviews. As Christians we know that God is sovereign, that He controls everything… but we also are free to make choices. If everything is predestined, if God has known since before the beginning of time precisely what will take place in the universe, right down to our most mundane choices… then do we really have free will?

Disclaimer: I’m not a theologian. I’m not saying I’m right. I’m merely offering you a simple metaphor.

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Let’s start with this. Sometimes I like to break the fourth wall. Actually, what’s more fun is not even breaking it, just touching it a little, acknowledging that it’s there. Like this little dialogue between two characters from my first novel:

“What if I’m just stalling?”

“Why would you stall?”

“Because it’s always what happens in all the books.”

“Is this a book?”

“What if it is? If this were a book, the author would be controlling our every action and everything we say. Do you have free will of what you say and do?”

“Yes.”

“Then it’s not a book.”

See the irony? Heheheh. My characters have no idea what they’re talking about. But, just for a moment, let’s actually consider it. Consider an author. This author is writing a book, yes? But the question is, do the characters in the book have free will?

Well… yes, they do, obviously. That should be a “duh” question. The characters make their own choices, whether good or bad, and one way or another, they endure the consequences of those choices.

But then again, doesn’t the author already know what they’re going to do? That’s kind of what an author does, you know? The author has complete control over what happens in the story, and yes, that includes characters’ actions and thoughts. That doesn’t really give the characters much freedom if the author is controlling them, does it? Hence, the paradox: Yes, the characters have free will, but the author still has sovereign control.

“looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Hebrews 12:2 (ESV)

God is the founder of our faith. Some versions use the word author instead of founder. God is not only the founder and perfecter of our faith; He is also the Author of Life, and we are all characters in His story. This story has been going since the beginning of time, since that moment God said, “Let there be,” and there was.

Unlike the stories I like to write, and every other story in existence, God’s story doesn’t end. It doesn’t have “The End” stenciled in fancy lettering on the last page. It will go on for eternity.

It’s not the answer to this puzzling mystery, but it’s a way to look at it. It’s a way to wrap our minds around a tiny piece of it. The mystery of God’s sovereignty and our free will may never be explained fully, maybe not even for all of eternity.

Maybe paradoxes don’t bother you. But if you’re anything like me, you can’t let them rest. But I can rest in this: God is sovereign, and His knowledge encompasses this mystery and countless others. God, my Creator, has written – is still writing – His story.

What do you think? Is author/story context a good way to look at God’s sovereignty and our free will?

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“What Should I Write?”

It’s the age-old question, isn’t it? Even the most seasoned authors ask it. You know you’re itching to write something, anything, but you just don’t know what. Maybe your mind is completely blank. Maybe you have so many ideas, you don’t know how to choose. Whatever the reason, I can guarantee that at some point in your life, you will ask the question:

What should I write?

I found the answer in the most unexpected place.

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For school, I recently finished reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. (If you’ve never read it, it is SUCH a good book.) One of the protagonists, Skeeter, is an aspiring author, and she’s wondering the same thing we all are. What should I write? An editor from Harper and Row advises her this way:

“Don’t waste your time on obvious things. Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else.”

-Elaine Stein, The Help

I won’t spoil the story, so if you want to know what Skeeter decided to write about, you’ll just have to read it. But today, I have a list of tips to help you figure out what to write. If you’re already in the middle of a writing project, that’s awesome. Go you! But if you’re truly stuck, try some of these tips:

1. Make a list. Make a list of all the things that bother you. Don’t put every little thing on there, though, like “I hate the way my little brother pesters me all the time.” (Although, that would probably make an excellent children’s book!)

2. Cross off the obvious ones. In other words, don’t waste your time. If you’re going to write something, and write it well, you have to be passionate about it. No one could write a 500-page book about the behavior of particles on the subatomic level, unless they were in love with quantum mechanics.

3. Get specific. If “world hunger” is on your list, write about the child who has to work long hours to help his family eat. Write about the single mom with five kids who goes to the soup kitchen every night. Write about the man who gets a nineteen-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to help his starving relatives. (Actually, don’t do that one. Victor Hugo already did.) A statistical report on world hunger is great if it’s a school assignment, but if you want to capture the attention of humanity, write in the details.

4. I know, I know, not everyone writes about deep issues like that. But you don’t have to write about something sobering. I once wrote a book that was honestly very fun (and easy) to write. It was part comedy, part adventure, and part fantasy. I had a hilarious time, and yet I was still writing about something that bothered me. Nothing very sobering, just something I’d noticed that impacted me enough to write about.

4 ½. It might happen by accident. In my previously-mentioned book, deep questions of morality arose toward the end, even though I never planned it that way. Stuff like that usually happens to me when I write, though, so it wasn’t really a surprise.

5. Draw from your own emotions. What makes you deeply sad, anxious, or upset? What makes you cry? What makes you cringe in fear? What makes your heart break? What makes you twitch with agitation? Whatever the thing is, write about it.

6. What are the things that no one ever says? I can’t really define this one. But sometimes, it is painfully obvious that people aren’t saying what needs to be said. Other times, it’s no so obvious. Maybe it’s a certain facet of the Gospel that’s often overlooked in fiction. Maybe there are certain rules of writing that drive you crazy because you know they need to be broken. The point is, don’t always write about something obvious; that’s why Elaine Stein added that part about “particularly if it bothers no one else.”

That’s all I have for now. And that’s just one way to look at it. There are so many other ways to figure out what to write!

What’s your best way to decide what to write about?

Have you ever written about something that bothered you?

Lessons from Lemony

Why are you doing an entire post about Lemony Snicket? Isn’t this a writing blog, not a fangirl blog? Why Lemony Snicket, and not one of your top favorite authors?

If that sounds like you, let me tell you now: you’re asking all the wrong questions.

If you’ve read his books at all, you know there’s no one else quite like Lemony. He’s a very good writer, and yet he broke almost every writing rule I know of. His books are, in all honesty, pretty ridiculous, and yet I couldn’t put them down. How does he do that??

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Probably the most important thing I learned from reading Snicket’s books is that you shouldn’t be afraid to break the rules. I don’t mean this in a bad way, as in, actually doing something illegal. I mean rules about writing. Have you ever heard that you should never, ever, ever stop the story to explain something to the reader? That’s one of the biggest no-no’s of the writing world.

And yet, Snicket is notorious for stopping in the middle of an action sequence to extensively define a word. Or starting a new chapter with a completely unrelated story about his own life. Or breaking off to engage the reader in a Very Fascinating Discussion about the water cycle, which has nothing to do with the story at present.

But here’s the thing. Lemony Snicket actually increased my vocabulary with all of his digressions. If not for him, I still wouldn’t know what the words austere or ersatz meant. And if you just skim over the parts about his past life, you’ll actually start missing important clues. Even the water cycle ended up being important.

So, takeaway #1: Don’t be afraid to experiment with the rules. There are times when they shouldn’t be broken, but if you follow them too strictly, you may end up missing something.

The characters are next on the list. Now, the characters could be better, and by that I mean most of them are static characters (meaning they don’t change much over the course of the story. I like to see characters’ struggles as they change.) Toward the end, Snicket went a little deeper, but overall, his characters are just memorable. You can’t help but love every single one of them, and if you can’t love them, you love being annoyed by them.

Each of the characters has their own talents, whether it’s inventing, reading, cooking, poetry, mycology, or even villainy. Side characters tend to have quirks rather than talents, such as being a horrible violin player, or having a bad taste in fashion, or being in love with the most boring job in the world.

Takeaway #2: Make each character memorable. Give them a tag, something that separates them from all other characters. Give the reader a reason to love them. I could write an entire series of posts just about how to accomplish that, but we must move on to the next thing I love about Lemony:

20180426_211727His secret codes and messages. Everyone loves the challenge of finding and decoding hidden messages. Like the letters “VFD” hidden in the eye symbol. Like when the first letter of every sentence spells a word. Oftentimes these messages are hidden in plain sight.

I actually have suspicions that he hid a message throughout A Series of Unfortunate Events. I haven’t found anything yet, but the illustrator, Brett Helquist, once hid a secret, encoded message in the illustrations for a different series, so it’s not completely unreasonable. (The series is Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, if you want to know.)

I also love the importance Snicket placed on books and libraries. Every single one of his books features a library of some sort, even if it’s just a tiny collection of books. Usually, one of these books contains the answer to a puzzling question of a mystery. Books contain knowledge, and Snicket reiterated that message over and over. It’s kinda refreshing, seeing as we live in a world overrun by technology. It’s like that feeling you get whenever you walk into a library. You know, it feels almost shut off from the rest of the world, because decades if not centuries of knowledge rest on the long rows of bookshelves, and it’s one of the few places where you can truly say, “The world is quiet here.”

Have you read anything by Lemony Snicket?

What do you think of his unique style? His ridiculous characters?

10 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing

Hello, everyone! Today, I will share ten super-secret, insiders-edition-only, banned-by-federal-government tips about starting out as a writer. Because, let’s face it: You can go to any author’s website and get awesome advice, because published authors clearly know what they’re doing. Or, you can approach any writer who’s had more experience than you, and they can give you advice. Right?

Right. But not all the time. See, there’s this misconception going around that aspiring authors start out clueless, but as they gain more experience, they become more confident and learn how to make the right writing choices.

*cricket noises*

10things1Maybe I’m just different than everyone else, but I was the opposite. When I decided I wanted to be an author, I knew EXACTLY what I was doing. And now, three and a half books later, I have absolutely no idea what the heck I’m doing. Sure, I’ve definitely LEARNED  lot… but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m saying that there are things that aspiring authors need to hear. And sometimes, people are so eager to dole out their prestigious advice, they forget to say some of the most important things.

Looking back, there are several things I wish I’d known when I started writing. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The experts know what they’re talking about. Most of the time. They’ve traveled this road ahead of you; they themselves learned the same things. When they give you advice, their goal is to save you the pain of learning the hard way. I remember getting annoyed at experts, because I already knew how to write, so how dare they try to tell me any differently? It turns out that they were right all along. Go figure.

2. You will cry. You will have bad days when nothing works, and you will cry because of how miserable you are. You will have good days when everything is glorious, and you will cry because of how beautiful it all is. You will cry for your poor characters whom you torment so relentlessly. You will become emotionally attached to your story. And this is a good and necessary thing, because you want your readers to become emotionally involved too, don’t you?

3. Every writer is different. Best method for writing a book? There isn’t one. And this is one example of when you should take professional advice with a grain of salt. Lots of people will tell you that you need to outline your book before you even start writing it. If that sounds lovely, go for it. But if, in middle school, being forced to write an outline for an essay was worse than being dragged off to Mordor and tortured, then for heaven’s sake, DON’T OUTLINE!!! Many people will tell you that you need to do some planning before you start writing, that you need to figure out your characters, the plot structure, and the theme. Try it if you like, but if it makes your creativity dry up (as it does for me), then don’t do it.

4. Just be yourself. You know that author you look up to? The one whose books you devour? That author you want to be just like? I wrote a post about this a while back, which you can read here. My advice to you is this: be yourself. The best authors weren’t concerned with trying to be someone else.

the end5. “The End” is not the finish line. Oh my, this is a big one. I used to think that if I could just finish writing the book, I will have accomplished something big. This is true, but in reality, hitting “The End” is just like climbing the first 100 feet of Mount Everest. After that, you’ve got editing and publishing and marketing (oh my!). I actually don’t know if there’s a finish line at all.

6. It’s not all fun and games. Sure, it might start out that way, but I can guarantee it will get harder. Your characters won’t listen to you. The muses won’t show up. Your carefully-planned-out plot will spontaneously decide to wear a hole in itself.

7. It shouldn’t become your identity. It shouldn’t overtake your mind to the point that you think about nothing else. You shouldn’t lose sight of the real world because your are living in the one you made up. It’s not healthy, and it doesn’t glorify God.

8. Persistence is key. You will be tempted to give up time and time again. But if you keep going, you will grow. If you don’t give up, amazing things will happen. Writers are known for doing the impossible.

9. Writing is a highly unique learning process. You don’t learn from a textbook; you learn by doing. Every author embarks on a journey – a journey to learn, to create things no one has ever created before. How can anyone teach you how to do that?

10. God will use you for things you never imagined. I wanted to shake the world. I wanted my stories to ignite a spark in the hearts of many. But that’s not what God wants for me right now. Instead, he showed me a much smaller idea: to show the love of God to one person. One. God will use you – and your writing, if that’s what he has called you to do – to accomplish things your wild imagination could never dream up.

That’s all I have for now, but I hope these tips helped you! Feel free to share any of your own tips in the comments!

What’s something you wish you knew before you started writing?

Using Music as a Writing Tool

Ah, finally. A post about music. I’ve been waiting to do this for a long time. I love music, don’t you? One minute you can be sitting at your desk staring at a blank piece of paper, and the next minute you’re in a completely different world, and with each pulse of the music, the story moves along as if it had a heartbeat of its own.

Music is strange, to be sure. It affects us in ways we can’t often explain. If you think about it, all music really is is just a series of random sounds and tones. If you know the science behind sound waves, you’ll know that music is just a bunch of air molecules bumping into each other, with varied frequencies and amplitudes, interpreted by your brain as sound. And how did we ever figure out how to get these sound waves so precise so as to tell a unique story with every song?

Using Music as a Writing Tool

It blows my mind every time I think about it. Music can speak to us in ways words could never do. Somehow, simple melodies can make us smile or cry uncontrollably, feel nostalgic or uneasy, or even leave us with a sense of mystery. We get chills by listening to that epic masterpiece and compulsively dance along to the rhythmic beat that we can feel in our chest.

The more you think about it, the more you realize how odd music really is. People dance or do gymnastics routines set to music. And the music isn’t there to amplify the beauty of what the person is doing; it’s the other way around. We dance because we feel deeply how beautiful the music is, and we want to express it somehow. There’s a reason movies have soundtrack, and there’s a reason that some stories are completely set to music (ahem, musicals. They’re the best.) It’s because music is a deeper level of storytelling; it captures something that words could never capture.

people-2585962_640There’s a reason we sing songs when we worship God. It’s because something inside of us is captivated by the beauty of God. He is incomprehensible, his beauty beyond human explanation or expression. I think, in a much smaller way, music is similar. We know how beautiful it is because we feel it deep inside, but we can’t explain it.  Besides, God specifically designed music as a form of worship. The Bible says that the angels in heaven sing songs to God.

There’s a reason people like to listen to music when they work out, or when they study. All sorts of scientific and psychological experiments have been done on that, but you don’t have to be a scholar to know that it works. I personally love listening to music when I study, and contrary to popular belief, you can listen to genres besides classical (although, I do love classical music–Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Scarlatti, and Shostakovich, just to name a few!) Most days though, power metal is my favorite, and if you know me, that might come as a surprise. You can thank my dad for that. (Theocracy is my favorite band. You should look them up.)

Music is also a valuable writing tool. Because it is a deeper form of storytelling, I like to listen to it when I write. It usually inspires a phrase or a paragraph, and sometimes entire scenes that I never would have thought of on my own. It makes the writing process seem like magic (most of the time. The writing process is fickle, as you probably know.) Whenever I go back and read stuff I’ve written previously, there’s always a little bit of music there too. Between the lines. I associate certain characters with specific songs, and sometimes listening to a song will bring back emotional memories of entire books.

If listening to music while writing is more distracting than helpful, it can still be a valuable writing tool. You can listen to it before you start writing, to get your brain into writing mode. If you write historical fiction, you can find songs written in that time period. You can even find song artists’ voices that sound like your characters. Unless you just really hate music (which would be sad), I highly encourage you to try using it for writing.

Music gives us something we couldn’t express or understand otherwise. All music tells a story, because every composer, every songwriter, has something to say. Much like authors write books because they have a message for the world, songwriters write music because they want to convey something to their listeners. I’m going to close with a quote by an author whom I love and look up to:

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”

-Victor Hugo

How have you used music as a writing tool?

What’s your favorite music to listen to?

Seeing the World through His Eyes

Some people call it stepping into their shoes. I call it seeing through their eyes. Either way, it means basically the same thing: taking on another’s viewpoint, thinking the way they think, seeing the way they see, experiencing things the way they experience them. It’s crucial when writing, because every character interprets the story differently. Everyone’s the hero in their own eyes. And as authors, we must learn to adapt a viewpoint other than our own.

Empathy is a big part of that. Usually, empathy grows with writing. I have found that the more I write, the more I am able to empathize not only with my characters but also with real-life, flesh-and-blood people I know. I am able to take on their point of view, see situations the way they do, and thus understand their reactions to them. It’s a gift… and it’s also a curse I sometimes wish I didn’t have.

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Since seeing the story through the main character’s eyes is such a big part of writing, you can imagine the lengths authors go to. As you probably know, writers are a bit crazy. We are known to do all sorts of weird stuff in an attempt to see through our characters’ eyes. Like listening to classical Russian music for twelve hours straight (I haven’t done this yet, but I need to), or running through the woods at midnight screaming bloody murder because you think a serial killer is chasing you (also on my to-do list). Or joining the Mafia, getting kidnapped by the local Dark Lord, or stealing nuclear weapons from the government. Let’s keep it legal, people. And did I mention safety?

The point is, you should strive to see things the way your characters do. Simply knowing who they are is not enough. Empathizing is not enough. In order to write well, you have to actually be able to look at things and interpret things the way they would. I PROMISE that it gets better and easier the more your write. But it never hurts to step into your character’s shoes for the day and see how they would react to your everyday circumstances. Unless your character is a psychopath. Please don’t ever try that.

That’s not all there is to it, however. If you have mastered the art of viewing the story through the character’s eyes and not your own, you have mastered one of the most difficult aspects of writing. But as a Christian, I don’t want to limit myself merely to my characters.

I have often asked God to let me look at the world the way He would–not through my own sinful eyes. Not through the filter of my own selfishness or anger, not in light of my own problems, but with love. And not my own incompetent love. God’s perfect, unconditional love.

It’s amazing what a simple prayer like that can do. Sometimes God does it without me even thinking to ask. He has shown me issues in this world that I am passionate about. He has honed and deepened the calling He placed on my life. And when God helps me look at the world through His eyes, I am overwhelmed by a fierce love not often felt. Instead of being afraid of all the evil in this world, I see people who are lost in the dark. People who have never heard God’s name. It’s terrifying and saddening at the same time. The little things that used to matter fall away, and instead I see a bigger picture.

It’s like that song by Brandon Heath called “Give Me Your Eyes.” Technically, I shouldn’t put the lyrics on here because they’re copyrighted, so you should look them up yourself. I use the chorus as a prayer sometimes. And really, we all should be praying it all the time. It’s not just for crazy writers. According to Philippians, God wants all Christians have the same mindset that Christ did.

So, seeing the world through you character’s eyes is crucial if you want to write a good story. But seeing the world through God’s eyes will help you write a great story. One that will help you, the author, grow. One that glorifies Him.

 

Have you ever sought to see the world through another’s eyes?

If you’re a writer, what was the hardest character you’ve ever written?

 

The Stories of Our Hearts

Once upon a time, there lived an author, who, more than anything, lived his life in dedication to the noble art of storytelling. One day, he began a new project. He was quite used to the routine, for he had begun many stories in his lifetime. But this time it was different. This time, he wanted to write something very special. And not just special – he wanted this story to be the pinnacle of his existence. But try as he might, the words wouldn’t come. He wrote chapter after chapter after chapter, and he threw them all away, because none of them told the story he was trying to tell. Now desperate, the author set out on a journey across the world, thinking that surely somewhere he’d find his story. Surely something in his travels would strike him. But no matter where he looked, his story was nowhere to be found. Giving up, he returned home and decided to try one last time to write. And to his great surprise, he found that his story had been inside him all along, in the one place he hadn’t searched: his heart.

Cheesy story? Maybe. Don’t judge; I wrote it in the car, cramped in the backseat with my earbuds not quite blocking out the radio, the sun glaring in my eyes, and the rest of my family trying to carry on a conversation over the noise of the unusually loud freeway. Such is the life of a writer. I love it.

The little story above is very much based on my own experiences. I have learned that usually, stories are already inside you, just waiting to come out. If I ever find myself trying too hard to write, I know I’m not listening to my heart. Not that writers don’t struggle – they do; it’s part of the job description, and it sometimes takes a lot of tries to get the story just right. But sometimes, I find that I’ve embarked on a metaphorical journey to try to “find” my story. I always return tired and ready to give up, but all along, I had the whole story within me already.

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But this isn’t the case all of the time. Sometimes, the story isn’t already in your heart. Sometimes, you do have to search for it. Last month, my family and I went on vacation, and usually I like to use vacations to try to get inspiration for writing. Usually I don’t find any. At the time, the story I was trying to write wasn’t exactly working out. So I set out on my vacation with a goal in mind: to find my story. I honestly didn’t think it would work, but I knew if I got that “searching” out of my system, I’d be all set to continue working on the story when I got back. Right?

Nope. Honestly, does writing ever work the way you want it to?

But something happened to me that week. I set out to find my story, and I found it. It wasn’t in my heart, like it usually is, and that’s why it wasn’t working in the first place. I was trying to write something that I wasn’t really passionate about. (This has happened to me more times than not, actually.) But something happened. I found my story in something outside of myself. That hasn’t happened to me in a long time, or ever, really.

I think God sometimes lets writers experience that for a reason. Maybe it’s not just writers; maybe it’s everyone. But in my case, I’ve always been able to tell – and quickly – if a story is going to work out or not. If you’re a writer, you’re probably very familiar with the promise of a new story idea, and the slight disappointment you face when you sit down to write and it doesn’t turn into anything. But you get over it quickly, because you have a thousand other ideas to turn to. Usually, if I can get several chapters into a story, I know there’s a 99.99% chance I’ll finish it.

But God has been doing something lately. (Isn’t He always?) For some reason, He really wanted me to write this story, because He kept bringing me back to it. I couldn’t get it out of my head, even when nothing was working. And, slowly but surely, He has been showing me something that’s bigger than myself. Usually my stories just come from my brain, and it’s all a bunch of fantasy-science-fiction-adventure type stuff. But this? For the first time in my life, I am writing something that doesn’t come entirely from my own heart.

I don’t know how to end this, because I honestly don’t know how it ends. I am still working on this story, this story that God put on my heart. I don’t know how it will turn out. But I can say this: Write stories from your heart. Don’t waste your time writing empty, meaningless stories. If you ask Him, God will show you the story He wants you to write.

If you’re a writer, is there a certain story you feel like you just HAVE to tell?

If you’re comfortable with it, tell me about a time God put something on your heart – it doesn’t have to be a story!

 

How (not) to Be the Next C.S. Lewis

Hi everyone! Today, you get the privilege of listening to some of my totally random thoughts. My brain is fried, and this is the only blog topic that came to mind: other authors as role models.

When I first started taking writing seriously, I wanted to be the next Ted Dekker. That was probably because I was completely obsessed with his books back then, and he was the only author I read for an entire year and a half. I wanted to write those edge-of-your-seat-the-entire-way-through books. Books that were a picture of the Gospel.

And then I read Harry Potter. My vision changed. Now I was determined to be the next J.K. Rowling. What writer doesn’t want that? What writer doesn’t want to rock the world with a single book that ends up being pretty much the #1 bestselling series on the planet? And here we are, twenty years later, and she still has a huge following. That sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

And then I decided I could do better than that. I adjusted my vision a bit, and decided that I wanted to be the next Tolkien instead. I wanted to be the founder of a completely new genre (Tolkien is often considered the father of modern fantasy). I wanted to write books so memorable, that people would still be reading them eighty years from now. (Yes, The Hobbit was published eighty years ago.)

Then I changed my mind again. After reading The Screwtape Letters, I decided that I would be the next C.S. Lewis. I would write fiction so real that it’s almost inseparable from reality. I would write about the Christian faith within a fictional work.

the next cs lewis

Most professionals will tell you not to try to “be the next [insert your favorite author here].” I have come to agree with them, for two main reasons. First, favorite authors change (as you can see from my list). And second, the best authors were themselves. The best authors weren’t trying to live up to the standards set by other authors. The best authors were defying the norms, sometimes going directly against current trends.

But if you asked me who my four absolute favorite authors were, I’d tell you the four listed above. Trying to imitate them has given me a deep liking for their books. Theirs are the books I will always go back to, no matter how old I get. And even though I no longer want to be any of them, my writing is still very much influenced by them. For example:

All of those authors taught me to love fantasy, and now it’s the main thing I write. Beyond that, there is one thing all these authors have in common, and that is their stories are pictures of the Gospel. I will always write stories like that. I can’t not weave the Gospel into my fiction. It’s like an instinct; I couldn’t get away from it even if I tried.

Ted Dekker taught me that *SPOILER ALERT* the author is actually allowed to kill the main character. *END OF SPOILER* My overall writing style is also a bit like Ted Dekker’s (at least I think so. If you think differently, let me know. 🙂 )

Like J.K. Rowling, my books feature super evil villains, complex plots, and shocking endings. I’ve also started sorting all my characters into Hogwarts houses. It really helps early character development!

And like Tolkien, I write epic fantasy with quests that span the entire world and WAAAAAAY too many characters.

And finally, like C.S. Lewis, I have recently started writing stories that leak into reality a bit too much for my comfort – intentionally. (If you haven’t, you should read The Screwtape Letters. It scared me.)

As you can see, the authors we love do shape our writing. And why wouldn’t it? If you like to read a certain type of book, you’d probably write similar books, right? If you’re a writer, I highly encourage you to study your favorite authors. Study their books. Stalk them on Facebook. Find other people who love their books as much as you do, and talk about them. (Unless the author in question is Ted Dekker. He has no fandom, which makes me sad, but if you’re looking for a fellow fan, you can talk to me. It gets lonely over here with a big empty green lake all to myself and no one to dive in with me. And you’ll only understand that last sentence if you’ve read his books.)

So yes, learn from your favorite authors. But don’t try to BE them. It won’t get you anywhere, because you will never be able to. You will only get discouraged, because every writer has their own unique set of gifts. You can learn new skills and implement them into your own writing, but you will never actually be that author. And that’s the important thing to remember.

Who is your favorite author?

Which authors do you look up to as role models?

Worth It

You sit down at your desk every day, diving deep into your mind, scavenging for a few rusty words to pen down. It wears your brain down, and you sigh in frustration as you look at the few measly pages that took you all of two months to compile. You look again at the story in your mind and realize that it isn’t much more than that. Is it even worth it? Aren’t there a billion other people who could do the exact same thing as you are trying to do?

No. No, there are not. Because no one else views the world through the same set of eyes.

Let me tell you right now, that if you have ever asked yourself those questions, you are not alone. I think I ask them myself every day. Some days, writing is awesome. Some days, I clock in around 6,000 words and am completely ecstatic with the way the story’s going. And some days, it feels like I’m writing with my own blood and I’m deleting every fifth word. I want to scream at my computer and throw my notebook out the window so the wind can carry the pages to someone more capable than I.

But there is no one else that can write the story for you. This world has 7.6 billion people, and only one of them is capable of writing that particular story. Only one. And that person is you.

worth it

Let me phrase it this way. You know the Harry Potter theme? Yeah, that song that, when it starts playing, instantly makes you stop whatever you’re doing and get choked up with emotion? No? Maybe that’s just me. But there is something quite magical about the music in Harry Potter. Whenever the theme song plays, it makes you think of the story and the characters and the magic.

Now let me ask you something. What if the director had gotten Hans Zimmer to write the soundtrack? It’d be amazing, no doubt, because Hans Zimmer is insanely talented (think Pirates of the Caribbean). But it would be much, much different, because only John Williams could have written that magical tune that we all know.

Now what if Tolkien decided to give all his notes about The Lord of the Rings to a trusted friend? What if he taught him all the lore of Middle-earth and told him the detailed histories of the hundreds of characters? What if he gave his friend all the maps, alphabets, even rough drafts of chapters? I think we still would have ended up with a very different book, don’t you, precious?

God gave you the gift of writing for a reason. He’s going to use it someday. Even if just one person in the entire world needs to hear your story, it will be worth it. And you’re the only person who can write it. Don’t give up. Try again, yes, restart, rewrite, scream and throw your notebook at the wall if you have to, but don’t give up.

I used to give up after a couple of tries at the same story. Right now, I am starting–for the third time this month–a new story. Seventh time if you count what I tried to do two years ago. It’s getting old. I’m tired of this endless cycle of not being able to find that sweet spot where the story resides. But God gave me a talent and a desire to write, and if only one person in the world reads this story, that will be fine by me. If I am able to express God’s beauty and love through this story, then it will be worth it.

So go on, dear writer. It’s worth it.

Do you often find yourself discouraged and wanting to give up?

What’s your motivation for when writing gets tough?

The Power of Empathy: How to Keep Readers in Thrall

Funky 6Hi everyone!! Today, I have a very special post… I am absolutely THRILLED to have Angela Ackerman on my blog! She’s here to talk about character empathy. So, without further ado, I’ll hand things over to her. 🙂

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Gluing readers to the page. This is a writer’s goal each step of the way, from gaining the attention of an agent, to compelling an editor to make an offer, and finally, to enthralling an audience. We strive to make people experience something powerful when they read our words. To genuinely FEEL. To care.

Sounds…um, not easy? I know! Building empathy requires skill, knowledge and practice. Writers must become deeply in tune with a reader’s emotions and learn how to use these feelings to bind them to the story.

 

Girl with booksMake Outsiders Become Insiders

When a reader opens a book, they have certain expectations. They know the book’s genre and the jacket copy offers a peek into what the storyline is about. However, at this point, they are still Outsiders. They have not yet invested in the protagonist or their journey. The author has a narrow window of time to draw readers in and convert them into close confidants. Insiders.

Encouraging empathy is the way to make this happen. When readers are brought into the hero’s or heroine’s point-of-view, they not only begin to understand the character’s world, they actually can share their experiences, something done by keying into real human experiences.

Each of us knows how it feels to make a mistake, to screw up in a way that disappoints others and ourselves. Likewise, we also know what it is like to face a difficult challenge and triumph, proving to ourselves and others that we are capable and worthy. These are two situations out of infinite possibilities that readers will read and recognize because they too have had these experience and felt the emotions that go with them. When a writer shows emotion-bound experiences like these through the character’s eyes the reader connects to them and the character. They remember their own past experiences and it created a sense of shared understanding—brotherhood. And this allows empathy to form.

Empathy is a powerful bond where a reader invests in and cares for the hero or heroine. The character is more than a name on a page; they take on bones and shape, and become someone worth caring for. This emotional investment means a reader will feel discomfort and anguish at the losses and excitement and satisfaction at the wins. Whenever readers find themselves caring about what is at stake, the author has succeeded at making them Insiders who root for the protagonist all the way to the finish line.

 

5 Ways To Encourage Reader Empathy

Humanize your character. Real people have strengths, flaws, and weaknesses. Characters must also have a blend of these. They should be imperfect and make mistakes, but also be likable. Give your hero at least one commendable trait that makes him worthy to cheer for.

Get inside their bones. Make your protagonist believable by giving him realistic desires, emotions, thoughts, and fears that an audience can relate to. These commonalities will resonate with the reader’s own beliefs and feelings, reinforcing that bond. Allow the character’s self-doubt to bleed through to some degree, showing the reader his vulnerable side.

Clearly define the needs, goals, and stakes. Scene to scene, readers must always know what the character is fighting for. Leave no doubt as to what he is trying to achieve, why, and the cost of failure.

Hobble characters through challenges that readers will sympathize with.  Readers bring their own life experience to the book, so use it. Story conflict and personal stakes will remind readers of their own past where they faced similar roadblocks. Pile on challenges, make the hero sometimes fail, but also show growth and successes on the journey.

Never betray the reader’s trust. Writers must know their characters inside and out, and make sure their actions, thoughts, and beliefs align with who they are. If a character acts in a way that does not fit his nature, the reader will feel betrayed. Dig deep. Get to know the character, including what past wounds haunt him. And always plot with intent. Manipulating a character’s choices or actions just to bring about a plot twist or complication will always ring false.

Remember, well-drawn characters are worth the work of developing because they are the ones readers can’t forget…not a week after reading the story, or a month, or a year.

 

What are some of the stand-out characters you love? What drew them to you and caused that empathy bond to form? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

Angela Ackerman

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as five others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.