Christmas Traditions (Part 3)

For years now, my Decembers have involved  Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter movies. This year was no different. My three writing students/dear friends treated me to Fantastic Beasts. We had a wonderful time. We met first for coffee where we loudly discussed Harry Potter and writing. Then we made snide remarks during the pre-show, and ooohed and awwwed at previews. then Silencio for the movie other than popcorn crunching. Good times! The movie was beautiful and fantastic. I had some issues with it, but still loved it. 

MERRY CHRISTMAS !

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Favorite Books

A friend of mine, Bethany Jennings, posed the question of favorite books on Facebook the other day. While I have a running list in my head of favorite movies, I was stumped to think of my favorite books. This bothered me since I consider myself a reader. After much thought I came up with this list:

  • Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
  • Harry Potter by JK Rowling
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell
  • Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
  • Mindhunter by John Douglas
  • The Count of Monte Christo by Alexander Dumas
  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
  • Fiddler’s Green by A.S. Peterson
  • Sunshine by Robin McKinley
  • Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz
  • All Band of Brothers Books but especially: Easy Company Soldier: The Legendary Battles of a Sergeant from World War II’s “Band of Brothers” by Don Malarkey, Biggest Brother: The life of Major Dick Winters, the Man Who led the Band of Brothers by Larry Alexander, Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends: Two WWII Paratroopers from the Original Band of Bothers Tell Their Story by William Guarnere
  • The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelssohn
  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  • 3000 Degrees: The True Story of a Deadly Fire and the Men who Fought it by Sean Flynn
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • Les Miserable by Victor Hugo
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • With the Old Breed by Eugene B. Sledge
  • The Killing Zone: My life in the Vietnam War by Frederick Downs
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Most books by Diana Wynne Jones
  • The Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
  • The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques
  • The Railway Children and Five Children and It by E. Nesbit
  • Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
  • The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • The Hardy Boys by Franklin W. Dixon

These are books I have either read several times, quoted from, was strongly influenced by, stuck with me, or I learned from. The longer I think about it the more books I want to add. This list is not static, but growing all the time.

And, due to popular demand, some of my favorite books are also:

  • When Skies are Gray by Abby Jones
  • Never Know, Dear by Abby Jones
  • Don’t take my Sun by Abby Jones (Unfinished)
  • Happy Thought by Abby Jones
  • Hero’s Story by Abby Jones
  • Hope’s Journey by Abby Jones (Unfinished)
  • The Cost of Two Hands by Abby Jones
  • The Sparrow and the Star by Abby Jones (Unfinished)
  • The Seventh Son of the Seventh Son by Abby Jones (Unfinished)
  • The Playground Children by Abby Jones (Unfinished)
  • The Texas Cousins Adventure Stories by Abby Jones

 

December Books and Movies

Here are some of the books and movies I’ve enjoyed over the last month. I’m leaving out Platoon and Good Morning Vietnam because I want to do an article sometime early next year covering all the classic Vietnam movies. I also watched Band of Brothers for the fourth time and won’t write a new review for it.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1451638590/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1451638590&linkCode=as2&tag=genandquispi-20&linkId=3BBVO3XUMK7NQ5OF

Spellbound (Grimnoir Chronicles #2) by Larry Correia

The second book in this series is just as good as the first. Rewriting history to include magical Actives and using them to explain events like WWI, the dustbowl of the Midwest, and the growth of government power under FDR is so much fun. Due to his first hand knowledge of guns, Correia is exact with his weapons. If you’re a gun nut, you’ll enjoy these books. Correia is also very conservative. It’s nice to read a book you don’t argue with the entire time. He never gets preachy—his books are, after all, action flicks—but he does make a jab here and there at FDR. They are fairly clean with limited language and over the top violence. These books aren’t without heart. I did tear up a few times as the Grimnoir struggled to keep their friends and family safe while battling enemies on every front. Correia’s good like that. This is a book I have on Audible and I highly recommend it because Corriea got the perfect reader for his book. If you’re looking for a good weekend read, check out the Grimnoirs.

Rated: PG-13 (Language and Violence)

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Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

King offers up four unique, creepy, and down to earth stories in this book. They feature normal people in bad situations usually making them worse, though two of them aren’t without a semi-happy ending. The last one was my favorite. Based on the BTK killer, King explores what it would be like to find out after 30 years of marriage that you’re husband’s a serial killer. (Queue extra creepy music.) Thankfully, this was one of the stories with a happy ending, or at least as happy as King can get. Because he capture the simple habits of a long marriage so perfectly, the little things you know so well about each other, the special quirks, the chilling horror level ratcheted up quickly. If you like King you will enjoy this collection.

Rated: R (Language, Violence, Adult Situations, Rape, Serial Killers)

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The City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments #1) by Cassandra Clare (Book and Movie)

Since I have switched to writing YA fantasy some of my YA friends have given me a few books to read in that genre. This might be a bad thing because neither the book, The City of Bones, nor the movie impressed me. When my husband and I finished the movie neither of us understood the overall plot. What was really going on? What world events swept this girl up? (I had this problem with Divergent for the first 2/3 of the movie, too.) At first, I enjoyed the book more than the movie because I felt like I had a better sense of what was going on. Then, I got bored and realized the movie was mashing things together because they were cutting out the long and pointless teen drama moments. The movie tried to fix the book. Sigh.

The writing style of the book was sub-par. Clare threw in large and odd words here and there like she closed her eyes and pointed at that section of the thesaurus with no sense of what worked in the voice of the story. Every time she did this, I got pulled out of the book. A reader should be able to tell by the context what the word means. In Clare’s case, I could not.

Ultimately, I only cared about one character in the whole book and found the story to be mostly uninteresting.

My main problems with this style of writing—normal human female drawn into supernatural world of hot men where she realizes she is beautiful and must beat said men away with a stick, oh and some plot going on over there, and of course the jerk is the guy who gets the girl—are I always feel on the outside of the world, and appealed to on my most basest level.

It wasn’t until the very end of the book, like the last chapter that I even felt connected to the world. Through this big thick volume, I felt like I had my nose pressed to a window and only got a truncated view of Clare’s fantasy world. When I read Harry Potter, Harry’s world was more real than mine. When you read Lord of the Rings, you are in Middle Earth. E. Nesbit, Neil Gaiman, Robin McKinley, Suzanne Collins, Larry Correia, Scott Lynch and so many other good fantasy writers want you in their world. That’s why you’re reading it. You’re not reading it to stand on the outside observing.

Driving the reader based solely on who is going to end up with who does not a good page turner make. I hate it when I realize the only reason I’m interested in a story is to see if these two people hook up. And even that wasn’t done well. I never really felt a strong connection between Clary and Jase. Their romance wasn’t memorable. Plus, it’s not that important to have a boyfriend when you’re 15. Clary had a tiny bit more personality than Belle in Twilight, but I never cared about her. I never cared about anyone other than Luke. (Side note, including a homosexual character made all the relationships questionable. Whenever two male characters were good friends, I never knew if they were friends or lovers. I enjoy some blurring of moral lines because life can have some very gray moments, but not smudging like this.)

Rated: PG-13 (Mostly because the worldview is one that needs lots of guiding. There are some YA sexual jokes, violence, and language. The love relationship is unrealistic and unhealthy. The lead male is a jerk through the entire story, yet she still falls for him. If you want to see magic, read Harry Potter. If you want confused brother/sister relationships watch the original Star Wars.)

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/147671746X/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=147671746X&linkCode=as2&tag=genandquispi-20&linkId=GSJ5VNRKFZASEWHQ

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

One would believe that this is a unique romantic comedy about a zombie who falls in love with a human girl based upon the preview for the movie. It’s not. I don’t even know if this is Young Adult. This book is beautifully written and filled with interesting tidbits to digest. It is a thinking book. Is it a commentary on a mid-life crises? Is it a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet? Is it a commentary on the pointless void the next generation faces due to their entitlement status? On this basis, I would say that this could be a great book to read with your Junior or Senior kids. It would need to be read and savored for its beauty and then picked apart for its philosophy. The joy of a well-written book is that you can do both. There were some moments I lost interest in the story and felt it dragged a bit. But since I read it at the same time I read City of Bones, it’s beauty was provided a stark contrast, so I never just gave up on it. Again, I was drawn right into the world, not forced to stand on the outside. While there was an important romantic relationship, the story was more than that. Their romance was the catalyst for the story not the only point.

Rated PG-13 (Violence, Language, Sexual Content: this book makes the common error of assuming Hate and Greed are sins but lust is not.)

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0425224368/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0425224368&linkCode=as2&tag=genandquispi-20&linkId=7GT7HYFQIMT4WCZ2

Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends by William Guarnere, Edward Heffron, Robyn Post

I stumbled on this little treasure at Half-Price Bookstore and read it on Black Friday instead of going shopping. Anytime I watch Band of Brothers I tend to get a little obsessed. This is the third book I’ve read about Easy Company. There are also some interviews on YouTube that I’m working through. This book focuses on only two members of Easy Company: Wild Bill and Babe. They grew up only blocks from each other without ever meeting and served together in Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge where Wild Bill lost his leg. After the war was over Babe looked Wild Bill up and they’ve been best pals ever since, dying only months apart.

Because you get to see their lives from the beginning, you get a sense of why their generation was able to do what they did. They grew up hard and fast, but with strong families and close friends. Then they joined the unique training experiment of the 101st Airborne and . . . the rest is history.

Rated PG-13 (Young men at war, war)

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Holding Communion Together by Tom Chantry and David Dykstra

After all the controversy, I was eager to read this book and see what all the hoopla was about. I came away from this book sad because sin tears us apart. As Chantry and Dykstra take us through the growth of Reformed Baptists in America in the last century, they also take us through the problems plaguing us even to this day. It is always helpful to get a historical perspective. It’s just not often that when I’m getting that perspective I know the people being talked about. That was just a bit surreal. So, my first reaction was sadness, sadness over the friendships destroyed, the churches torn apart, and the splits that fractured so many people. Continuing in the story, I was made aware of the need to pray for our leaders, pray they will be kept from the lies of the evil one, that they will stand under the pressures of other churches to bend and compromise, and pray that they will stand for truth. On a very personal level, I enjoyed reading about David Straub. He was very dear to me and I miss him even to today, though I was only a little girl when I knew him. God is good and I’m thankful for the work these men did. May it encourage us all in prayer and steadfastness.

Rated PG (Sinful men in a sinful world and church fracturing)

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Alice in Wonderland

This movie is odd. In true Alice fashion, it’s odd. It would have helped if I had picked up earlier on that Alice was returning to Wonderland. For some reason I didn’t get that this was the continuing of the story not a remake of the story. There were several points where I just couldn’t follow what everyone was saying. But, the fight against the Queen of Hearts, the costuming, and setting were well done. Then the end just jumped on the feminist bandwagon and that was that. Of course, a woman who saves a kingdom would never settle for being a mother. What a waste of her life. She must go adventuring. Sigh. So overall, I’m glad that I watched it. The hatter was fun and so were the White Queen and all the little animals. It felt less frustrating than the original story, but I didn’t love it.

Rated: PG (Dragon fights, intense themes)

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00K7IPFSM/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B00K7IPFSM&linkCode=as2&tag=genandquispi-20&linkId=FM2RQA76N5RJLL7I

X-men: Days of Future Past

I’m not a big comic book fan. I enjoyed Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy a lot, but most of the rest of them seem to lack heart. I just never really connect with the characters. Their struggles never seem real. I did love the first X-men movie where I did connect with Rouge and Wolverine as the outcasts in this world welcomed into Xavier’s school. But, I haven’t kept up with the franchise. Recently, I watched Days of Future Past. Surprise! I was on the edge of my seat! I think most of this is due to the acting chops of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, and Jennifer Lawrence. They bring the heart and soul to the story. I was also pleasantly surprised by the plot twist brought by Magneto. I kept thinking everything was going just too smoothly for Wolverine. Well played. I don’t think I’ll buy this movie, but I’ll borrow it again from my sister. Also, for any of you comic book geeks, based on how this movie ends does Wolverine not have titanium on his skeleton now?

Rated PG-13 (Mystique has blue skin, not clothes. Brief Nudity, action, violence, some Mutants get torn apart, adult themes.)

Merry Christmas!

I’ll let everyone know what movies and books grace my stocking this year!

Writing Lesson: Food

“You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.”

– Psalm 104: 14-15

Writing Lesson: Food

Food is one of my favorite elements in fantasy writing. I love long-winded descriptions of feasts and holidays. I love celebrations around the table, snacks, the stopping of the story to eat. I love the names of food used to set the stage for betrayal or friendship. I love that food eaten for enjoyment is a Biblical concept. Food isn’t there just to fuel our bodies and keep us healthy, though it does do that, but for our souls. Look at the richness of God! It makes our hearts glad, our faces shine, and gives us strength. Bring on the comfort foods!

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“Where there is cake, there is hope. And there is always cake.”
― Dean Koontz, Life Expectancy

There are a few books that stand out in my mind as having excellent food moments. Life Expectancy is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It focuses on a cook/baker in love with a girl and hunted by a clown. Not a Steven King clown like It, but a real life circus clown. Many of the intense scenes are broken up by great culinary descriptions of the family gathered around a meal. You will salivate while you read. Since the book is all about family, these delicious dinners bind you in with them as if you sat at their table and shared their supper.

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“Don’t be ashamed to weep; ’tis right to grieve. Tears are only water, and flowers, trees, and fruit cannot grow without water. But there must be sunlight also. A wounded heart will heal in time, and when it does, the memory and love of our lost ones is sealed inside to comfort us.”
―Brian Jacques, Taggerung

(You would not believe how hard it is to find one of his food quotes! But trust me, they’re amazing.)

Discovering Brian Jacques when I was in my early teens was like an oasis in the desert of teen drama passed off as literature. His stories of brave forest creatures, heroes, battles, and feast triggered my imagination and brought hours of joy to my heart. And yes, his feasts. They are amazing. He focuses in on things forest animals would eat and fills the menu with fantastical dishes that pull you into his world. I even got together with a friend and tried to cook some of them. They never turned out quiet like we hoped, but proved that a good story invades your life.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/059035342X/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=059035342X&linkCode=as2&tag=genandquispi-20&linkId=5KNMEWT67BK43Z2E

“Ah! Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans! I was unfortunate enough in my youth to come across a vomit-flavored one, and since then I’m afraid I’ve rather lost my liking for them — but I think I’ll be safe with a nice toffee, don’t you?”
He smiled and popped the golden-brown bean into his mouth.
“Alas! Ear wax!”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Food should play an important role in your story. It can be used to unite characters, heal characters, snag readers, and flesh out the setting. Especially in fantasy, where so much of the world is unique and different, food can function as an ambassador. Food in Harry Potter has a distinctly British feel to it, mixed with just a hint of magic. I love how you can imagine what a Butterbeer taste like, along with Bertie Botts Every Flavored Beans and all the other magical food. Do you see how a completely made up candy keeps the world consistent? Harry Potter would lose much of its child-like glee if Harry bought regular Jelly Belly’s instead of ear-wax flavored beans. Rowling used the food to flesh out the setting of her stories. She also used it to tie us to Harry early on by describing the difference between how Dudley eats and the leftovers tossed to Harry. We instantly pity him. When he’s able to eat as much as he wants, we rejoice with him.

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“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Tolkien, on the other hand, used familiar foods to root his story in the nostalgic and familiar. Beer, bread, sausages, and potatoes are all comfort foods reminding us of home as we travel far into the unknown with the fellowship. Dinner with Farmer Maggot and his family is a place of rest after the fear of black riders. This use of food ties the everyday reader to the Hobbits giving us a warm spot to cling to. We can all sympathize with being the small person caught up in events much large than us. Tolkien uses food to further instill this feeling creating a race of quiet people that make us all want to go back home. No matter the danger, Hobbits always think about food first. For this reason, we all love them.

serenity262

To switch from books, the TV show Firefly helps explain its Space Western setting when it has Shepherd Book pay for passage on Serenity with food. This helps the viewer understand that fresh fruits and vegetables are so rare on the outer planets that they can be used as currency. We now have a subconscious grasp on the situation. We can see that life is hard, dangerous, and dirty by looking at the setting, but Kaylee’s face when she eats the strawberry drives these points home in a far more personal way. The times that the crew gather together to eat are used by Whedon to deepen the sense of family: the true magic of Firefly.

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Should your characters eat? Should you worry about food in your story? I hope you’ve seen the important roll food and eating can play. It can confirm a familiar setting or round out an unfamiliar one. It can bring unrelated people together as a family. It can serve as a moments rest, a time to heal, or a celebration. However you use it, food should play a role in your work. Settings can take on the roles of secondary characters. Think about Hogwarts, Hobbiton, the Enterprise, Serenity, and Red Wall. These places aren’t just where things happen, but characters in their own right. They are familiar and beloved. Food can do the same thing a ship can. It can give you a nest to put your characters in and push them, challenge them, create conflict, or beauty. Food can be another tool in your tool-kit just like a building, car, road, or city. Don’t discount it. We all love food. We all need to eat. Food is meant to be enjoyed. Use it in your story!


Life Expectancy: R

Red Wall: PG

Harry Potter: PG

Fellowship of the Ring: PG

Firefly: PG-13

The Journey

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We’ve all heard the quote that it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination, right? I think there is a ring of truth to this idea. I’ve read Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Jane Eyre several times each. They’re my comfort reads. They’re books I go back to in the winter when I need to be reminded that spring will come again. I know how they end. I know about the Gray Havens. I know about Harry’s children, and I know about Jane and Mr. Rochester’s children. I know how the story ends. I’m not reading the book for the ending. I’m reading it for the beloved journey to the end. I’m reading it to let Théoden ride again. I’m reading it to play Quidditch in my mind. I’m reading it to watch a girl do the right thing when it’s the hardest thing. Over and over I read these books because the journey is more significant than the destination.

As a Christian, the destination is of primary importance to us. The destination is where we finally see hope fulfilled. We see. We see Christ, not by faith, but with our eyes. We will hear his voice with our ears. We will touch him with our fingers. We will finally see our great elder brother, our husband, our captain, our mighty King. Our destination is truly a mighty one.

But, at the moment of salvation we are not suddenly made perfect. We aren’t whisked away to paradise. We aren’t taken from this world. We aren’t even taken out of our sinful flesh. We are left to toil, suffer, and ultimately to die. For we are humans are we not? We are mankind even as Christians. We are left in the world God made for us until we die.

The Holy Spirit puts this time, this journey, to good use. He uses it to sanctify us and make us more like Christ. That is the point. The good in Romans is not good as in happiness and comfort, but good as in “conforming us to the image of Christ”. We are constantly being melted down. We are being weaned off this world, trained—like soldiers in basic training—to live by faith, lay up our treasure in heaven, love the brethren, and grow in grace and understanding. We are not magically righteous. We are made righteous.

For us the Journey is important.

My husband put it this way when he was preaching on theology the other night: The theological logic is as filled with blessing as the theological truth.

The journey is filled with blessing just as much as the Destination.

We may not understand why God decided not to just rapture us out at the moment of regeneration. We may not understand why God decided not to make us perfect at our first breath of faith, but we can rest in His Word. The journey is important.

Romans 8: 18-30: (ESV)

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because[the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

There is a journey here, a path to follow from predestined to glorified, from suffering to being conformed to the image of Christ. And just like the stories I love, I know the destination. I know where the journey ends. That gives me hope in the journey, but it also gives me the ability to focus on the journey.

The first time you read Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Jane Eyre every fiber in your being is focused on the destination. But when you know the destination, your focus is on the journey. I know how the story ends. Knowing the end frees you to focus on the growth of the characters. You can see Frodo fail. You can soak in Neville’s courage. You can analyze the conversations between Jane and Mr. Rochester. You can focus on the journey because you know the end.

Life is the same for a Christian. (Oh the wonderful beauty of God’s wisdom, and the lesser yet still amazing beauty of stories.) You know the end, if you have faith in Christ, which frees you to focus on the journey here on earth. You can focus on the war against sin, your fellow saints, the means of grace, truth, love, and the beauty of the bride of Christ—His Church. You know where you’re going and you know how you’re going to get there. Focus on the journey.

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Writing Lesson: Suffering

I’m a storyteller. You put me in a group of people and I’ll tell stories to avoid awkward silences. You leave me alone and I’ll write, read, watch, or make up my own stories. About the only time I can get the story part of my brain to shut off is if I’m listening to music, and even that is no guarantee.

My husband is analytical. He’s the researcher, the studier, the teacher in the family. He taught himself how to program computers and now he’s teaching himself to be a preacher. He loves to analyze everything. We’ve had lively discussions about Star Trek, Chuck, Rambo, Godzilla, the Apprentice, Metallica, Downton Abbey, and of course theology.

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Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes

Both of us are Metal Gear Solid fans. That’s a video game, fyi. As far as I’m aware, this story started in the 90’s with Solid Snake as the main character. He appeared in five games. His father, Big Boss, was the villain in several of those games. Big Boss is the main character in 2 games, a demo, and the up and coming Phantom Pain. The story is complex, riveting, unique, and moving. As you play, you start to put the pieces together of how Big Boss became the bad guy you face as Solid Snake. You realize he wasn’t always evil. In fact, he was an honorable and good man for many years until one too many betrayals by the US government and people he trusted drove him to the dark antagonist we encounter as Solid Snake.

Being the fan boy and girl we are, we have spent hours playing this game and hours discussing the plot, characters, and unraveling the complex threads of the story. I stand in awe at Hideo Kojima’s ability to move me from anti-Big Boss to feeling very sympathetic towards him and what he becomes. As his story unfolds and you see everything he goes through, all the men he loses, and the betrayals he faces, you begin to understand how and why a man could become such an antagonists.

Discussing our favorite video game, my husband said this: To tell a good story you need great characters, and to have great characters you need great suffering, and to have great suffering you need context.

Big Boss context is war. From WWII, to Vietnam, to the Cold War, including children soldiers, his context is the battlefield. He suffers betrayal by his government which leads him to kill his mentor. He’s betrayed by everyone he counts a friend. He loses soldiers in useless battles. He has been trained to be a weapon and then is shunned because he is that weapon. This betrayal is his suffering. This context and this suffering creates a great character. Big Boss has three sons. The least of his three sons goes through similar sufferings at the hand of his government, but he is able to overcome them in the end. This creates a juxtaposition between Solid Snake and his father Big Boss. This allows you, the viewer, to see a mirror image of one man going bad and one man going deeper and stronger.

200_sTheir story reminds me of Lore and Data in Star Trek:NG. Two brothers created in the exact image of their father, one is evil and one is good. Big Boss and his sons are that way. Solid Snake is forced to destroy both his brothers who take on the evil of their father.

As a storyteller, I found my husband’s analysis of what makes a good story to ring true. A good story has to have good characters. But what makes a good character? Suffering. It is what they go through and how they react that we are interested in. We want to see them suffer because that’s something we can all relate to. From a child who loses a parent, is bullied, bullies, to soldiers, mothers, and growing old, we have all suffered. That suffering and how we react to it is what makes us who we are. Whether good or evil, it’s suffering that paves the path we are walking.

That suffering needs a believable place to happen. That’s our context. It’s not so much about being in space, or on the battlefield, or traveling through time, as it is creating the suffering which makes sense. A princess forced to live a life of ease is not suffering, but a princess trapped in a betrothal to a man she’s never met is suffering. A boy adopted into a wealthy home after living on the streets isn’t suffering. But that same boy now in a new home who discovers his friends aren’t all they seem, and then finds himself in a battle for his soul is suffering. Context enriches the suffering of your characters. It gives you a structure to guide suffering the rest of us can get.

Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor

Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor

Think about the stories that stick with you. Think about the characters that stick with you. Harry Potter sticks with us because every year of his life the suffering ratchets up a notch. The Hunger Games don’t just deal with suffering at the hands of oppressive governments, but the psychological suffering of Katniss as she becomes a darker and darker character. To this day, I’m haunted by Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife. He suffered his whole life and even suffered in his death. In real life, we think about the Holocaust. Those stories of great suffering continue to reverberate through history. Think about the haunted look on a soldiers face in Vietnam when his country couldn’t back him. Look in the eyes of Marcus Luttrell knowing he was the only one of his buddies to survive. Suffering is what connects us.

Do you use suffering to help us bond with your characters? Are you afraid to put your characters through the fire? Remember the Bible teaches that we are refined in a fire to clear away the dross. God uses suffering to make us more like Christ. Suffering burns away pride, self-reliance, and hardness leaving soft gold shimmering behind. In antagonists, suffering brings bitterness, blame, self-protection, and self-love creating a monster.

Suffering is one of the best ways to create believable characters, both your protagonist and antagonists. I’m pretty good at making my heroes suffer, but I think I need to start working on my villains a bit more.

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Just an FYI:

Metal Gear Solid is rated M for mature.

Harry Potter is PG – PG13.

Hunger Games is PG 13.

Time Traveler’s Wife is rated R.

Star Trek: NG is PG.

Chuck is PG-13.

Rambo is R.

Godzilla is PG-13.

The Apprentice is PG-13.

Metallica is PG-13.

Downton Abbey is PG-13.

Writing Journal: Writing a Fairy Tale

I don’t have any great writing let-me-splain-01lesson to share at the moment, so what I’m going to talk about is the joy I have suddenly found in writing a fairy tale.  Some of you followed my Worlds before the Door blog and so you know what I used to write.  You have my permission to skip the next paragraph.  For those of you new to me, let me explain…that would take too long…let me sum up.  🙂  (Now you know exactly what kind of geek I am, and that I grew up happily in the 80’s.)

My writing is dark and detailed.  Now it’s hasn’t been detailed for the readers, but under the hood, it’s complicated.  I told all of my dark stories in a magical, fantastical setting.  This fantastical magic had very intricate rules.  It had to.  If you’re going to give your supernatural heroes supernatural enemies and have consistent battles, or any type of battles, you have to know who can do what.  Who can have visions and who can’t?  What type of visions?  When?  That’s the details.  I wrote about serial killers, mass murderers, insane asylums, and other such things.  The darkness came pouring out of me because light shines brighter in the darkness.  Hope is sweeter after emptiness.  Healing only matters if you’re broken.  Forgiveness is for the damned.  This is why my stories are dark.  I had to do a lot of emptying, breaking, and damning before I could bring hope, healing, and forgiveness.

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The problem was very few people could stomach them.  Those who actually made it through my 70-page prologue, where everyone died, did so with lots of shudders.  A few readers told me they couldn’t read what I wrote.  They loved the message but they couldn’t bear the depth of the darkness to get to the light.  The people not interested in my stories far outweighed the people who loved them.  (Thank you to everyone who loved them!!!)

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I wanted to share my stories and I wanted to encourage the body of believers.  I wanted to remind them through my stories that there is hope in the darkness when you’re broken and bleeding.  I wanted to remind them of the power of forgiveness.  I want to show a true love that is a choice of the mind instead of a whim of the heart.  I didn’t want to be one of those people who stubbornly and rebelliously refused to change at the request of others or the dictates of the Lord out of some misguided desire to be true to self.  What did I do?  I started writing fairy tales for children.

1024For the past few months, I’ve pounded my head against a brick wall with my Fairy Tale: Icicle Rain.  It was such a struggle.  I had so much to learn about this world.  Nothing felt comfortable, familiar, or smooth.  I had to edit every scene already written as I wrote new scenes and discovered more about the story.  Then it happened:  I had a moment.  The whole story came together.  The darkness became so very dark and the light became ever brighter, if smaller for a time.  I found a piece of the heart of the story:

(Just to make it clear, Gus is a mouse and Presto is a mushroom with many eyes.  Oak is a dryad.  I told you it’s a fairy tale, right?)

“And your heart?” Presto asked raising several eyebrows at Gus.

“My heart?” Oak patted his coat and trouser pockets.  “Where’s my heart?  Oh, yeah, I gave that away.”

“Do you know who has it?”

“No, but they needed it.  Their own heart had been broken, so I gave them a new one.  I gave them mine.”

“Can you tell us even one little thing about who has your heart?” Presto asked getting irritated.

Gus grunted at him.

“You know, sir,” the mouse turned to Oak.  “It might be a good idea to know a little bit about this person.  Your heart belongs to them now and that brings responsibilities and obligations.”

“I know that they are kind,” Oak said.  He leaned forward, listening not with the ears he no longer had, or seeing with eyes no longer his own, but listening to what he had given away.  “I know they needed hope.  I know great sorrow and loss mark them.  She lost everything she cared about, and that loss broke her free.”

“Did you say she?” Presto said, leaning forward.

“Yes.  I gave my heart to a woman.  She loved eight men and when the last one was safe or dead, or both, she left.”

“Sounds like a bit of a floozy if you ask me,” Presto muttered getting another pointed glare from Gus.

“No.  No.  Not grown men.  There was only one grown man.  The rest were growing men, her growing men.”

Gus gasped.  “She had seven sons?  You gave your heart to the mother of seven sons?”

“No.  I gave my heart to a woman with a glint in her eye and a heart for trees.”

The mouse and the mushroom gasped.

“That’s impossible,” Presto said, never truly at a loss for words.  “Impossible, I tell you.”

These few lines won’t mean a whole lot to you, but to me they were the moment I found a huge part of why I was writing this story.  They represented all the darkness still coming, but it wasn’t an empty darkness.  It was a darkness with lots of hope.

I fought against writing children’s literature for years.  Poor writing plagues it.  Everyone is doing it to try to capture some of the monetary magic of Twilight.  I often find most YA, and Tween books filled with angst instead of adventure, worship of romance instead of the truth about real love, and lacking adults as if adults can’t be in YA fiction.  (Obviously, there are exceptions.)  I didn’t want to throw myself in with that mix, and yet…I love good children’s stories.  Many of my favorite books are books I read in high school or were written for that age group:  Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Sunshine, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Chronicles of Narnia.  I love a well-written story for children.

So, I shook off the self-imposed stigma I had attached to writing for young people.  Who cares if most of it out there is tripe or poorly written?

I embrace my new stories.  I love writing a Fairy Tale because it can have all of the darkness, and not all the magic has to be explained like it was in my other stories.  I love writing a Fairy Tale because I can pull from all the myths and truths that I love and hold dear.  I love writing a Fairy Tale because I found a piece of the heart.

Shiny

Shiny!

I’m not one of those people who believe that the best way to battle darkness is to pretend it doesn’t exist.  I think it’s best battled by facing it head on.  Heavy thoughts from someone with a blog covered in bright colors and paisley patterns who writes kids stories about her nieces and nephews, right?  Nope.  I consider myself the Kaylee of the battle against darkness.  I can face the darkness with tears and a smile because my soul is safe.  A Hand mightier than my own holds it.  The darkness doesn’t like hope, laughter, and smiles.

Brothers, a Tale of Two Sons

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SPOILERS!!!!

I’m part of the video game generation….but I don’t personally play video games.  I’m not really that good at them.  I tend to die a lot, or get all jumpy, and forget which controls do what leading to mass frustration.  What I do is watch video games.  They’re my husband’s favorite form of recreation even though he really doesn’t have time to play them anymore, so he watches them.  It’s like sports.  When you’re a kid, you play football, baseball, soccer, and basketball.  When you get older, you watch others play.

Many of the video games that have come out in the last twenty years have had amazing stories, compelling characters, and beautiful artwork.  Yes.  Artwork.  I’m one of those people who believe video games are artistic and a form of art just like movies, photography, painting, writing, music, sculpting, etc.  Early on, the means to showcase the artistic side of gaming was less visible unless you knew the craft, but the stories were there.  (If you did know, it’s quiet impressive what could be done with 8bits.)  Games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, and the first Starcraft had gripping, moving stories that left you asking for more.  As technology advanced, the artistic side of video games became more obvious to the everyday layperson playing a game here and there.  I remember the first time I picked up a Warcraft 3 art book.  It blew me away.  It was beautiful, detailed, rich, and haunting.  Skyrim, a fully interactive world, has sweeping scenes of majesty, epic music, wooly mammoths, customizable characters, and an entire land you can walk collecting plants, animal hides, and meeting strange and interesting characters.

But what about the stories?  I’m here to tell you that not only are the stories filled with myth, twists, turns, and character development, some of them have even made me cry.  Yes.  Video games have brought tears to my eyes.  The top of the cry chart is Red Dead Redemption.  I pretty much bawled.  After that comes StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm, the beginning of The Last of Us, and now Brothers, a Tale of Two Sons. (Honorable mentions are Mass Effect 2 and Metal Gear anything.)

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Brothers, a Tale of Two Sons, is an epic, short, moving, fun video game designed by Starbreeze Studio with the help of 505 Games.  The story takes place in an agricultural setting against a fantasy backdrop with amazing visuals.  The mountains, valleys, rivers, trees, sky, giants, trolls, ogres, fish, birds, and everything else are impressive.  They’re beautiful, awe inspiring, and detailed.  There are benches placed here and there throughout the game so that your characters can sit and take in the view.  Every scene is sweeping.  Meaning, no matter where in the game you’re at, the view spreads out as far and wide as you can see.  But, all that’s just the backdrop for a game that tells a story through unique game mechanics.

This is a story about two brothers.  You play both of the boys at the same time.  Your left hand controls the older brother while your right hand controls the younger brother.  They start you off slow, giving you time to get used to the controls so you don’t have one brother standing still while the other runs off in a crazy direction.  Pretty soon, you have them working in unison on ever more complicated climbing puzzles and traps.  (None of it gets too complicated because that’s not the point of the game.)

The game opens with the younger brother visiting the grave of their mother.  The older brother interrupts him with horrible news.  Their father is dying.  The two boys rush their father to town where they’re told that the only way to heal him is with a drink from a magical tree.  Off they go on an adventure.  The designers perfectly capture everything a brother adventure should be.  The boys defeat bullies, big dogs, help friendly trolls, scale mountains, ride rushing rivers, free trapped birds, discover giants, fly, slip down tunnels, ride goats, explore an old battle field, and sail the sea.  All the while, you control one brother with your left hand and the other with your right.  None of your adventures are possible without the effort of both brothers together.  And here comes the tears.  (You probably already guessed it.)  One of the brothers dies.  He dies at the base of the tree they were searching for to heal their father after all their adventures.  Suddenly, your left hand is doing nothing.  Your right hand climbs the tree, gets the drink, and then buries your brother.  Your left hand does nothing.  Never before have I seen a game mechanic used to create so much emotion.

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But, it gets worse/better.  Now, you must make it home alone.  One of the creatures you aided on your adventure takes you almost all the way back.  He leaves you, the only brother, standing on a beach facing your biggest fear, and you’re alone.  (It’s a fear, until now, that your brother always helped you through.)  A ghost of your mother appears and encourages you, but even when you move your character forward, the game stops you….until you control him  with the controls of his brother.  (Bawling yet?)  Only when you use the left hand side of the controller is the remaining brother given the courage to face his fear, move past it, and save his father.

Even the guy we watched play the video game choked up.  It was just so perfectly done.

This is the kind of game where you lose yourself.  The beauty of the world sucks you in right away.  The story, filled with exactly the kind of adventure you’d want to have with your brother, encourages you to invest in it emotionally from the beginning.  To have to play one-handed, until courage is needed, is the perfect end to this game.

As a writer, I found the landscapes inspiring, the story moving, and the adventure a good refresher on what should be included in a Tweens or YA story.

Parental warning:  This game is fairly mild with no language or sex.  It is emotionally moving, slightly violent, but not in any sort of heavy-handed way.  It does get darker as they move along in the story, but if your kids have seen or read Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, or Harry Potter they should be fine.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

unbroken-m_1802886f“When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him.” – Laura Hillenbrand

Some books stick with you.  They are taskmasters while you read them, constantly interrupting your thoughts, your day, demanding you set aside everything you must and want to do to read them.  They are dangerous books, not because of their content, but because they become part of your makeup.  They weave their story, borne up on words, into your psyche.  They become a part of you.  If someone wants to know the real you, they must at some point understand these books.

Every story haunts us one way or the other.  Some are gentle hauntings – a general sense of warmth, a remembered character, a soft smile when they’re mentioned – like Christopher Robin, or Bilbo.  Other books rip us apart with their hauntings – a cold sense of horror, characters we wish to forget, a shudder when they’re mentioned – like Manhunter by John Douglas, or Whispers by Dean Koontz.  Some bind us to those around us with their hauntings – a laugh knowing we all know, fans who name their kids after characters, an easy subject to discuss with strangers when they’re mentioned – like Harry Potter.

Taskmaster books go deeper.  They whisper to you when you pass them on the shelf.  They line your mind with both joy and sorrow.  With them comes enlightenment, horror, peace, the world seen through a new light.  These books have lines that become your lines.  These stories become your stories, the ones you take out and share in a hurried whisper with a close friend.  They’re above fan-bases.  Sometimes, often, they’re above becoming movies, though it’s attempted, but something’s lost in the translation between word and film.  These books haunt their readers in all the ways other books attempt to.  They are gentle, ripping, and binding.  These are the kind of books every author wants to pen.

Over the last few years, I’ve come across a small handful of these books out of the hundreds I’ve read:

  • Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
  • L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
  • With the Old Breed by EB Sledge
  • The Killing Zone by Frederick Downs Jr.

They demanded to be read over everything else going on in my life.  They stuck with me, stuck in the back of my heart and mind weaving their stories into mine.  Lord of the Rings and Watership Down did the same thing when I first read them.

I came across a new one the other day.  It might prove to be only the gentle haunting, not the ripping and binding ones as well.  I’m not sure yet.  Right now, it feels like one of these great books.  It’s Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  This is the story of a mischievous troublemaker, Louis Zamperini, whose older brother encouraged him to take up running to keep him in school and to channel his energy.  He became an Olympic Athlete.  Then WW2 started.  Zamperini’s story takes him literally out of the frying pan and into the fire.  After his plane goes down over the Pacific, he spends over 40 days at sea in a life raft, only to be ‘rescued’ by the Japanese.  Now his real trials began.  He spends several years in POW camps facing starvation and torture.  His family and friends don’t know if he’s alive or dead.  Zamperini remains unbroken through all these trials until he comes home.  Nightmares haunt him.  He drinks.  He destroys his family.  Life seems without hope.  But God.  And that’s all I’m gonna say.  You’re just going to have to read the book!

Unbroken is not a happy story, but it is a joyful story.  It reminded me of The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom (another haunting, stick-in-your-head story).  Not a happy story, but a rich story full of joy.

I think this story will stick with me because it is a wonderful picture of God’s grace in man’s darkest hour.  I think it will haunt me because I now know how many soldiers died just trying to learn to fly planes, and how harsh life was as a Japanese POW, but even there Christ had his children.  It will inspire me because even in the darkest of these moments, our soldiers and the allied soldiers still fought the war in their own small ways.  It will remain a part of me because so many of these men came home broken, but so many of them came home strong.  It will become part of me because it was such a vivid picture of God pursuing a sinner to the very bitterest end, through shark-infested waters, sadistic prison wardens, and broken souls.  God never let Louis be, not once.

Historically, this book is wonderful just because of the breadth of its scope.  The details are rich, well researched, and vivid.  Laura Hillenbrand is a masterful writer.  I have struggled with how to rate it.  It is fairly clean, but the subject matter is very rough just by its nature.  It would be a great book to have your children read when they study WW2, but I would probably regulate it to High School.  It has a few moments of “adult content” which are minor but still there, and graphic descriptions of the horrors faced by our soldiers.

Unbroken.  When I started this book I had no idea the journey it would take me on.  I had no idea how much I would come to love this man, Louis Zamperini.  I had no idea how vivid the grace of God would be.  Someday, I believe I will meet Mr. Zamperini.  Not here….but in heaven at the feet of Christ.  Maybe I’ll get to tell him how much he encouraged me, at which point I’m sure he’ll say it wasn’t him, but Christ and Christ alone.