Monday, July 31, 2006

Tomorrow is ...

August 1. And that means a bunch of bloggers (including me) will be posting the first chapter of a new novel by Creston Mapes: Full Tilt. It's the second in his Dark Star chronicles. I suspect after you read it, you're going to want to read the rest of the book. It certainly piqued my interest. More tomorrow.

And, I've posted my Notes from the Windowsill column for August: Single-minded Pursuit.

Coming up later this month: Chris Well is turning 40 and I think he must be a hobbit because he wants to give presents to all and sundry (or something like that). But instead of having a party in a large field, he wants everyone to go to Amazon and buy a copy of Deliver Us from Evelyn. OK, he'll get a present, too -- he's hoping that enough sales in a short period of time will push his book up to the No. 1 spot on Amazon. But in return, you'll get some cool stuff that isn't available to just anybody, including stories, his famous lists, and a sneak preview of Kingdom Come (the next in the Kansas City series). He's got more details here.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Friday news and views

It's odd (or maybe not) how I'll find several somewhat related things all on the same day. I don't go looking for them, I just come across them in the normal course of reading blogs. So today, for your reading pleasure, I'll direct you to some items related to Christians and their messed up relationship with art.

Mark Bertrand has got a discussion going at The Master's Artist about Questions that keep coming up.

Along a similar vein is Dick Staub's musings on Jeff Foxworthy and Larry, the Cable Guy and … go read it.

Have a nice weekend.

I need a new Bible (Warning: blatant birthday hint)

I definitely want a new Bible. I write in my Bible a lot and my gigantic NIV study Bible is falling apart. It has fairly wide margins, which I've filled up on many pages, so I've been reluctant to replace it. But I think I've found what I want. The new ESV Journaling Bible, from Crossway. Another blogger has reviewed it here. (Link found on Mark's blog.) After reading the review and seeing pictures, I'm even more impressed. It's got wide, wide margins -- with lines! Yep, this is what I need to bring some order to my chaotic note-taking that sprawls all down the page. So family members, consider this a very earnest and sincere birthday hint.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Hallelujah, brother

Two things:

My youngest brother is online! He's a worship minister in Wisconsin and a pretty neat guy, if I do say so myself. Go, Jim.

As is often the case, I'm several years behind in discovering great music. I checked Jeff Buckley's cd Grace out of the library a few days ago because I'd always heard he was a great musician. And yet I was never quite sure if he sounded like someone I would like. Well now I know -- I do. And I wish he hadn't died young, because this is pretty amazing music. And Hallelujah is an incredible song (it's actually by Leonard Cohen), and I like the way Buckley sings it. It's mesmerizing. There's a lot of truth in that song, and it's not just in the words -- it's in the way he sings it. I'm trying to find words to describe it. It's a complete performance -- the perfect meld of lyrics, voice, instrument, mood. If I could write a story that does that -- well, then I could call myself a writer. If you've never listened to this cd, go find it and give it a listen. It's hard to categorize and some of it is pretty strange, but it's worth it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Reading list

Here's what I've been reading the last couple of days:

Red and Blue God, Black and Blue America, by Becky Garrison.
Body Piercing Saved My Life, by Andrew Beaujon.

Garrison is the senior contributing editor of The Wittenburg Door, and she brings her sharp wit to bear on the politicization of the church on both left and right. She's an equal-opportunity satirist. And she makes some good points about the message of the Gospel getting lost in political powerplays. But the book has a tone that started to wear on me -- kind of a sarcastic, smart-alecky turn of phrase that works well in the short form of a magazine, but maybe is less well-suited to a book. But it's still worth reading and since the chapters function well as stand-alone essays, it's easy to skip ahead.

Last night I started reading Body Piercing Saved My Life and stayed up way too late because I really enjoyed it. Beaujon is looking at Christian music as an outsider -- he's a music journalist and describes himself as non-religious and not ever likely to be. But he comes at his subject with an open mind and a willingness to accept the people he interviews as they are. (A lesson most Christians would do well to learn.) He picks up quickly on some common traits of the evangelical subculture -- individualism and an emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus, in particular -- and offers some sharp observations. He doesn't gloss over the dreck that has been Christian music over the years, but he also finds some gems to highlight. And I really enjoyed his capsule history of Christian music, as well as his interviews with industry "lifers."
While the story he tells is engaging and he's certainly part of the story, it's also well-researched and objective. This is a fascinating look at Christian music from a fresh viewpoint.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Monday music

I've been listening to the CD I won in the contest at Infuze: Uncommon Days by Circleslide. This is good stuff -- kind of modern rock, I guess. The band's name is a tribute to their favorite group -- The Choir. And Steve Hindalong, Derri Daugherty and Mark Byrd help out on some of the songs. Very cool, indeed. My favorite track? The hidden one, called Light of the Morning Star -- good solid blues rock. I'm impressed with the things Gabe Martinez (lead singer and chief songwriter) can do with his voice. If you want to check out some new music, find this CD.

Maybe I'm in a blues mood or something, but I checked a CD out of the library the other day: New Shade of Blue by Kelley Hunt. She's from Kansas City! I heard her a while back on Prairie Home Companion and liked her style so when I saw the CD at the library, I checked it out. I like it. Hunt has a full, rich voice and she uses it well. This is another one worth checking out, folks.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Amazon review

So I actually have finally written my first Amazon review: for Deliver Us from Evelyn. That was so easy. And if you haven't checked Chris Well's latest novel, why not? It's a fun read.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Characters and plots

I've been thinking about what I want to write next. It's not for a lack of ideas, though. It's because I have several ideas and I just don't know which to work on.

All tied up with this dilemma is the feeling that I should pick a type of story, or genre, and stick with it. Except I'm not sure what I'm really best at, or where it would be most worthwhile spending my time. Much of the writing advice I've read recommends that new authors need to write within one genre or literary type. Well, if you look just at the stories I've had published in the last year, I've obviously broken that rule. Some are crime stories, but there's a fantasy story and one that is probably some sort of mom lit. And there's one that doesn't seem to fit in any genre at all -- it's in the class of stories I've written that I think of as parables. (The parables are, by and far, the most rejected of my stories, too. It probably has to do as much with the writing quality, though, as the fact they don't fit comfortably into one category. But they're some of my favorites, too. Go figure.)

My current story ideas seem to be all over the place, too. I have ideas for stories or a novel about Adam Caldwell (the main character of In Transit, which has been published, and April Showers, which hasn't). But I also have ideas for a novel about Troy and his dragon, Cedric. Maybe this seems a silly thing to stress over, but I think I need to figure out what kind of writer I am.

One thing is becoming clear, though. I'm a character writer more than a plot writer. What I mean by that is I have the characters first, then I have to come up with a reason to tell a story about them. Sometimes it takes me a while to come up with a plot structure. I don't think one approach is inherently better than the other -- a good writer of either type will play close attention to both character development and plot structure. But I know the stories that resonate the most with me are character driven and that's how I think.

Two examples come to mind: 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Left Hand of Darkness. Both are classics of science fiction, and were written around the same time. But 2001 is very much a plot-centered story. I first read it in high school and enjoyed it, but it wasn't because of Arthur C. Clarke's skill in writing characters. I could say the same about The Andromeda Strain. But those books have very strong plots that keep the reader engaged. While I was in college I read The Left Hand of Darkness, though, and it has been near the top of my favorite-books-of-all-time list ever since. Ursula LeGuin did such a masterful job of world-building -- and character-building -- that I became completely immersed in the story. I cared deeply about what happened to Genly Ai and Estraven. It's for similar reasons that To Kill a Mockingbird is another of my all-time favorites. Harper Lee even brought Boo Radley to life, even though he doesn't appear in the flesh until the end of the book.

If you're more visually oriented, think about the difference between George Lucas and Joss Whedon. As much as I loved Star Wars (the original movie, especially), I have to admit George Lucas didn't do as good a job with characters as he could have. The characters came to life because of the actors. Joss Whedon is a great storyteller, but he's especially good at coming up with original, engaging characters. Whereas I suspect that George Lucas had a plot idea for Star Wars (what if there was this band of rebels fighting an evil galactic empire ...), I'll bet Joss Whedon had an idea more like this: What if this suburban California girl discovers she's actually a vampire slayer? And what if she falls in love with an actual vampire, who has a soul!? See what I mean? Star Wars does some things brilliantly, and don't misunderstand me, it has great characters. But they're stereotypes who were fleshed out by the actors who played them. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer starts out with great characters and lets them interact and grow up in an environment that is bizarre and recognizable at the same time. Sunnydale, Calif., is Everytown, with the exception that it's also the mouth of Hell. I don't even like vampire stories, but Buffy is, at times, brilliant.

I received feedback this week from a critique partner who read April Showers. It was very encouraging and confirms for me that whatever type of story I write, it will be character-driven. I just need to decide which characters.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Monday news and views

The Man Who Kept a Dragon in the Basement is up at DKA. Yay!

Novel Journey has an excellent interview with Chip MacGregor, Associate Publisher with the Hachette Book Group USA. Here's a man who minces no words and suffers no fools -- an excellent interview and worth going back for part 2 tomorrow!

It's 105 degrees today. Ah, Kansas in July. I know that when January comes, I'll look back on this week -- predicted to be over 100 all week -- with wistfulness. But for now, maybe I should go read a story set in winter.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Two amigos, circa 1968

Rebecca sent me a picture of the two of us taken in September 1968. That means we were 11. Rebecca is the cute one on the right. I, on the other hand ... well, gotta love those pink peddle-pushers.

Friday news and views

Yesterday I got fun news -- I won a cd from Infuze. This week they've been giving away copies of a CD by a group called Circleslide and it sounds neat. So I'm looking forward to receiving my own copy. (Tim is usually the lucky winner in our family -- he has won two TVs in drawings!)

And tomorrow be sure and visit Dragons, Knights and Angels. There should be a new story posted: The Man Who Kept a Dragon in the Basement. Even though it wasn't a contest winner, they bought the story -- the first story I've ever actually been paid for. Very fun.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Impressions: Waking Lazarus

One of the things I did while on vacation was finish Waking Lazarus, by T.L. Hines (Tony from here on out). In a word -- very good. (OK, that's two words.) I enjoyed the book very much. I had expected it to be creepier, but it's really more psychological suspense than horror. (Good for my low heebie-jeebie threshold.)

But what's it about? Here's what the press release says about the book:
Waking Lazarus revolves around Jude Allman—a man
who has died (and come back to life) three times.
Frustrated and frightened by a life in the public eye and
a past he doesn’t understand, he retreats into hiding,
escaping into the vastness of Montana. But like Jude, the
past won’t stay buried.

At the same time, prowling evil circles his adopted
hometown of Red Lodge, Montana, as children are
mysteriously disappearing. And the key to solving these
missing-children crimes may lie within the mysteries of
Jude’s deaths. Now he has to face his past to save his own
life—and the lives of those he loves.

Tony describes his work as 'slipstream' fiction, a phrase I like very much. It seems apt to describe Waking Lazarus. Because there are a lot of things about Jude Allman's life that set him apart, things that may not be what they seem, not to mention the whole died-three-times issue. Tony does a good job of raising questions, but not answering them too soon.

One of the aspects of the story I found intriguing was Jude's struggle with paranoia and his desire to connect with his young son. It would have been so easy for Jude to become a stereotype, but he's not. He's unique and surprisingly likeable.

The suspenseful elements of the story work well. I think the story lost a little momentum for me in the middle because I read it spread out over a week or so. If I'd been able to read it in a shorter time span, that probably wouldn't have happened. And the last few chapters pulled it all together, and built momentum. When I got to the end, I said to myself, "I liked this story."

It has a satisfying ending. A lot of questions are answered at the end, but it's not tied up too neatly. There's room for more than one possible future for Jude and the other characters.

While most of us haven't had near-death experiences, there's a lot about Jude that the average person can relate to. We've all wondered why we're here, what's our purpose in life, where's God when bad things happen. Waking Lazarus talks to all of these -- not in a preachy, hit-you-over-the-head-with-the-brick-of-truth way, but through Jude's questions and struggles and unexpected glimpses of grace. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Wednesday news and views

Here's a bit of Web serendipity. I was googling for post-it glue, because I was pretty sure I'd seen it but I didn't remember where and then I wondered if I'd just imagined it. Because it's a neat concept and maybe it was just something I was wishing for. But it is real, because I found the safety data sheet for it. But also in the results I happened upon this interesting discussion at a blog called Crooked Timber. I never knew that sticky notes could be bad for books, but I suppose it makes sense. And a link in the comments led me to a nifty how-to for foldable paper corner bookmarks (I've seen stuff like this before, but I never remember how to make them). The Internet is a wonderful thing. But I still want some post-it glue.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Two amigos

I'm back from vacation -- it's always good to go away, but then it's good to come home. It was a good 10 days and I enjoyed visiting with my parents, my brother and his family, Megan, and my friend Rebecca and her family.

One of the great things about knowing someone since you were both 6 years old is how easy it is to pick up with each other again. That's how it was for me and Rebecca. We stayed up too late talking and spent a glorious afternoon at Hyde Bros. Booksellers in Ft. Wayne (the most amazing used book store -- if you're ever in Ft. Wayne, you have to go there). I wish I could have stayed with Rebecca longer -- I definitely have to go back, and it won't be another 20 years before I do!

True to form, we had a bit of adventure (involving lost keys, a pot of chili and our parents rolling their eyes) -- it's good know some things never change. It was surprising, though it shouldn't have been, how much alike we still are.

I wish I had a picture of us as kids, but this is the two of us last week in Ft. Wayne. (Rebecca's on the left.) We're a little older and, hopefully, somewhat wiser (and I'm a lot grayer). And we're still friends for life.