CSFF Tour – Outcasts Day 3

Hey-o boys and femmes.

I’ve talked about Jill Williamson and her cool series The Safe Lands, and our feature book Outcasts, book 2 in the series. My recap of the first book Captives is here, and my review of Outcasts is here.

The series is geared for Young Adult audiences. It also falls under the category of dystopian fiction, which is all the rage right now. Think The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Steelheart as recent stories that fit the genre.

So what is dystopian fiction?

If utopia is the term for a perfect place, then dystopia is the opposite. Dystopian stories take place in a setting where something has gone wrong. Either society has broken down and there is chaos, or there is a controlling factor which rules society in a dysfunctional way.

Even though it has become popular lately, it has been around for a while. Classic books like 1984 or Brave New World are dystopian. It’s the opposite of the idea behind Star Trek, where humanity progresses to higher standards and behavior. Instead, things get worse. It relates to fears that humanity is going to mess things up. Maybe we ruin the planet, or a yet undiscovered virus will wipe out a majority of the population, or we turn to dictatorships for control. Somehow, things are going to go bad.

Some may ask, “Why is this a genre for Christians to write about? Don’t we have a future hope? Aren’t things going to get better?”

Valid questions, but I would argue that it is precisely the Christian who needs to be speaking into this genre. A lot of writers in this have a pessimistic view of the future. Christians can provide the hope and light needed to balance things out. With the caveat that it can’t be preachy.

Consider the Garden of Eden. This could be considered the first dystopian story. Adam and Eve lose fellowship with their Creator over their sin, and now they live in a harsh world. Noah is very much in this vein as well.

How about some of the stories in Judges?

Would the Israelites raised on stories of King David think that exile and being ruled by Persia, Greece, and Rome would qualify as dystopian?

Christians have survived the fall of the Roman Empire. Our faith has survived centuries of conflict in Europe and around the world.

Finally, what about the Apocalypse? No matter your interpretation of the Book of Revelation, it is clear that the story reflects a dystopian time that is overcome by the Prince of Peace at the last.

Christians can truthfully write about a future where things have broken down in some way because we recognize that we live in that now. The world is not as it should be, and a ragamuffin group of rebels against the status quo is running around claiming a man rose from the dead and can bring living water.

A series like the Safe Lands just amplifies it for dramatic effect. The cool thing is that Jill does it without the preachy aspect. It will make teens think, seeing examples of good and bad, without pointing to a character and saying, “See that? That is what is bad for you. So stay away from the bad.”

It’s what I love about speculative fiction. The “what if” questions that you can ask when you suspend reality, whether through fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, cyberpunk, time travel, or plain old dystopian. So for Jill and other writers venturing into such places, go for it. It’s awesome.

If you want to see some more feedback about Outcasts, then Becky Miller has a list of all of the participants and their posts.

What do you think? Is there something about the dystopian genre that we should be wary of as Christians, or are there ways to work redemptively through it? Share below.

CSFF Tour – Outcasts Day 1

Hey-o boys and femmes. Welcome back to the Christian Sci-fi and Fantasy blog tour, where the best in Christian speculative fiction is highlighted.

This month we’re featuring the book Outcasts by Jill Williamson. It is the second book in the Safe Lands series. 

In the first book, Captives, we learn about a post-pandemic America. The Safe Lands is a walled city that has survived and has developed its own culture and lives by the philosophy of “find pleasure in life.” The problem is that they can only control the thin plague – they can’t cure it. And it is making their women sterile.

Glenrock is a village that exists outside the Safe Lands and lives in a much more rural existence. The villagers have a patriarchal society, continue to fellowship with God, and do things on a natural level.

When leaders from the Safe Lands decide to ask Glenrock to join them to help with their fertility issue, they assumed the villagers would want to join for the benefits of technology. But the plan goes awry and many villagers are killed.

Three brothers, sons of Papa Eli, must make their way in the Safe Lands. Eldest Levi has the mantle of village elder and wants to rescue his people from their clutches.

Mason was trained as a healer in the village, and now is placed in the medical system of the Safe Lands and looks for a way to not only save his people, but stop the thin plague as well.

Omar, the youngest, delivered his people to the Safe Lands in exchange for power and prestige, things he couldn’t accomplish on his own in the village. However, his acceptance of Safe Land life will come with a cost.

Captives starts an intriguing young adult trilogy with adventure and thought-provoking commentary on our modern life. I’ll talk about Outcasts in a later post.

For more information, you can check out my prior posts on Captives. The folks below will be discussing Outcasts during the tour as well, and Becky Miller is our tour master and will update with all the latest. 

Red Bissell
Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Pauline Creeden
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Ryan Heart
Timothy Hicks
 Julie Bihn
Carol Keen
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Melanie @ Christian Bookshelf Reviews
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Jalynn Patterson
Writer Rani
Chawna Schroeder
Jacque Stengl
Jojo Sutis
Steve Trower
Phyllis Wheeler
Deborah Wilson

Legal mumbo-jumbo:  In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher. 

Why I Now Believe In NaNo

Lookit what I won.

In 2011 I wrote a post entitled, “Why I Don’t Do NaNo.”

NaNoWriMo, to the uninitiated, is the National Novel Writing Month. Each November writers are encouraged to plant the butt firmly in chair and crank out a 50,000 word novel. It’s been going on for several years now, and it always brings out a lot of excitement in writer circles.

In 2011 I talked about how it didn’t work for me when I tried it a couple of times. It was good for some people, but didn’t work for everyone, and I was one of those writers.

Fast forward to 2013.

Facebook was buzzing with my writer friends saying how they were going to disappear for the month because of NaNo. The excitement was palpable. Just because I said I wasn’t going to do it, I felt a pang of missing out.

Man, they were going to have all this fun.

Then on October 30, I thought, why not? I can try it again. If I get a few thousand words out, it’s more than I would have had if I weren’t writing. My main project was under going another round of revisions, so it was out of consideration.

But there was this new idea I’d been composting for a while. I even got to do some brainstorming on it with Jill Williamson on our flight back from the ACFW writer’s conference in September. Would the new idea hold water? NaNo seemed like an opportunity to play with it and see what could happen.

I jumped in.

For the first week, I kept up pace. A writer has to average 1667 words a day to finish the 50,000 on time. Then life started interfering and I fell off. Well, at least I had some words down.

Except I had a taste of success. Circumstances worked out. I kept plugging away.

By November 28 I had three days left and 10,000 words to go. Could I do it? Facebook friends were now cheering me on. My wife succumbed agreed to let me have time over the holiday weekend to hit the keys.

And on November 30 I clocked in at 50,077 words.

So, this is partially a self-indulgent, congratulatory post. Whoo-hoo, I did it!

But I also learned some things about writing.

I learned how to push for a deadline. My first novel was written over seven years. No sense of urgency there. Now I knew I could be dedicated and churn out some significant production if challenged.

I was able to explore a new idea. Obviously the first draft of everything is mostly crap, but it forced me to work through some plot points, and there are a few keepers in there. Of course, the chapter where I was stuck and decided to interview one of my characters for “word count” won’t make the final cut. But I learned things about Demarcus that I can use later on. It’s all good!

Having a minimal outline helps. I was drowning for a bit until I brainstormed a few plot points to get me out of a bunch of conversations over food. Even when one of the points was, “something bad happens now,” it helped me have enough structure to push forward.

I went from doing 1000 words on my best day to 5200 words. Again, they came fast and furious, and I hope they at least make complete sentences, but I got them out. Now the revision scalpel can come out.

So to me in 2011 – you were wrong. You can do NaNo, and with the right circumstances it does help you out. But enough of the blog post – you’ve got revision to do. Get cracking!

Have you done NaNo? What was your experience? Please share in the comments below.

Conference Decompression

That was fast.

The 2013 ACFW Conference in Indianapolis has come and gone like a blur. It seems only a few days ago I was talking about the 2012 conference in Dallas. Sheesh.

The Northwest writers. 

You might wonder what happens when 580+ writer types gather in one place like that. Being a guy who likes speculative fiction, I could say that it tears into the space/time continuum, but that might be a little exaggeration.

If you are serious about writing, going to a conference is a great thing to do. You are around other creative types that understand the process, the joys and battles of it all. There are great opportunities to learn the craft and meet people to encourage and help you along the way.

For those who have gone to ACFW and couldn’t make it this year, you were missed. The conference filled up due to a lower capacity at this hotel. It was nicer than Dallas in that we were downtown, so it was possible to get out and about.

I’m proud to belong to a group like ACFW because of the fellowship in Christ we also share. It isn’t every conference where you find a couple of writers huddled in a corner discussing plots or future plans and then bowing heads to pray about the things shared. That is a special part of ACFW that is a real benefit to Christian writers.

I have some friends that want more details. Here’s a running list, and feel free to contact me if you have questions about anything here.

*I didn’t know much about Robin Jones Gunn, the keynote speaker, but she was a joy and such an encouragement. She spoke like a true storyteller and helped put things in perspective for all of us. I think she was exactly the person needed there.

*If you can go to a James Scott Bell lecture or workshop, do it. There’s a reason he is spoken of so highly in writer circles for the craft. He presents so well and lays out the tricks and tips he’s learned in such an entertaining and helpful way. I’ve read his book Plot & Structure, but this brought it home even more. The only downside is that it was a full-day workshop, so I had to miss out on some other interesting possibilities.

*I need therapy now thanks to Tosca Lee. She presented a class on making unsympathetic characters sympathetic. She had us write about betrayals, loss, fears. I thought I had dealt with those issues, but she dredged them all up. Actually, this was quite helpful in making my bad guy better.

*Storytelling games with speculative fiction writers beats all. Just sayin’.

*Leave it to Peter Leavell to get one hooked up with the cool crowd.

*The costume night was a big hit and a very smart, diplomatic move by the conference organizers. No one got kicked out this year! Good job Robin and company.

*Pitching to agents and editors was much easier the second time around. Though I still wish I would have brought chocolate as a bribe. Just in case.

*I would like to see some way to gather and encourage the men at ACFW. We are outnumbered by far and I think it would be a boost to have some fellowship in some way.

*There is still a lot of talk about traditional publishing vs. small press vs. self-publishing electronically. The issue is big and is still in a lot of flux. Check out Rachelle Gardner’s ebook for the same content she shared in a class there.

*There are a lot of creative people out there who love the Lord. I pray we all look to see how best we can serve Him and others with our gifts. Perhaps some of us should be broader in scope – finding ways to reach out to the general market or provide quality stories with heart that prepares the way for their readers to be more open to the spiritual.

*The elevators were a great place to meet and greet. Sometimes we got really close on the elevators. Seeing as there were only four and the stairs weren’t handy.

“Are you my mummy?”

It was a great time, and despite some last minute doubts, this conference turned out better than last year for me at least.

And yes, I’m wearing a fez. Fezzes are cool. (Bonus points for the reference there).

Writing Rules…I Mean Guidelines

As an aspiring writer, there are rules of fiction that I must live by. Show, don’t tell. Stick with one point of view a chapter. Don’t use passive voice. Kill all your adverbs.

All of these rules are very helpful for writers. They become rules because they do help books sound better. They help a writer.

However, there’s a backlash going on in the writing world. People are starting to ask question about the rules.

Ava Jae has a popular writing site, and he concedes writing advice is just that, advice. 
Jeff Gerke is a writing teacher, author, and publisher. On Facebook, he started a discussion about the writing rules out there because he wants to write a book about the rules. In his bookWrite Your Novel in a Month he argues that the only rule that can’t be broken is to be sure to engage the reader.

Finally, Rachelle Gardner, a respected agent with one of the top writing blogs, just talked about the rules being tools overall. They can help when a book isn’t working, but if it works to break a rule for the situation, then it’s okay.

This has helped me a lot. I know that I need to listen to advice from those who have experience. But I’ve also gotten conflicting advice. I got knocked off my groove for a couple of months after some bad feedback from a writing contest. Now I’m getting back into it and I’m realizing that I need to serve the story overall and use the rules as those tools, not as a bludgeoning hammer to force something into place.

I’m thankful for these people speaking up about the rules being more, well, guidelines to steal from a certain pirate captain. Hopefully my writing friends can be encouraged in the same way.

SO: any writing rules you’ve run across that have been used against your writing that really needed to be broken? Share them here and I’ll pass them on to Jeff Gerke for his book.

P.S. Did anyone notice the writing rule I broke in the first sentence?
P.S.S. Can you believe I’ve finally gotten a Writing Wednesday post out?

Write Now

Ah, the best laid plans.

I’ve been trying to do Monday and Wednesday posts on the blog. They haven’t worked out that well lately.

I’m looking at how to work that out. Today I wanted to give a little blurb about how my fiction project is progressing.

I am almost done with my second revision. I have to write a new chapter and revise two more and then I’ll have finished. My plan at this point is to find a freelance editor to go over it and help me refine it more. Hopefully there will be enough time to do a third revision before I go to the ACFW Conference in Indianapolis in September.

If you don’t see me around here, I’m working on writing. Like, right now. Write now? I’m getting a little confused…

Plotting By The Seat Of Your Pants

Plugging away.

That’s how writing goes often. Keep chopping wood. Put more words on the page.

Writers know that there are two general methods for getting a story on paper. The plotters love to outline, charting each scene and building up a framework that their words can fill in. The pantsers, so named for writing by the seat of their pants, make it up as they go.

Not quite the idea…
The plotters like knowing where they are going, having a map or blueprint to follow. The pantsers will tell you how their story can be more organic, being surprised by the twists and turns that pop up along the way.
How about a middle way?

Of course people do this all the time. You don’t have to be tried and true to one method to get to “The End.”

I was surprised when this started happening with me though.

I’ve always been an outline guy when writing papers. In college I would do my research, label it all out with Roman numerals and A. B. C., and when I was all done, write my final draft as my first draft. All done. Ready to go!
Yeah, it’s not that easy when writing a novel.

Closer? I dunno…
I have a general outline in my head. I know where my protagonists need to be…eventually. I have the ending all worked out. There was just a little problem with the middle, and getting them to where they needed to be. A small issue.

I kept dealing with writer’s block whenever I finished a point on my outline. Where to go next? How do I get there?

I’ve started doing it by the seat of my pants.

A technique that I’ve found effective for me is to set my phone’s timer, meaning I can’t browse the internet for some obscure fact that I HAVE to have for my next scene, and start writing. It might not be the best prose in the galaxy, but I have made progress.

It has been propelling me past these sticking points. I’m forced to make a decision and go with it.

And there’s been some good stuff come out of it. Who would’ve guessed?

I still have my general outline and I still know where I want to end up. But the process of getting there has become more interesting. Hopefully it all turns out when I get there!

So if you’re writing and wondering how best to do get moving – do whatever it takes. There’s no need to just plot or pants it. The point is words on the page.

Time to go set my timer…

Christian Fiction Discussions Around The Web

OK, I’m only one day late ;).

Sometimes the discussion going on other places is too good to pass up.

Mike Duran, as usual, has some great, thought-provoking posts this week. He posted at Novel Rocket about Christian fiction marketing toward men. That started some chatter, so he continued his thoughts on his own blog Decompose. He wonders if the CBA is doing a good enough job reaching men with Christian fiction, both male authors and the readers. Is it a responsibility of religious publishers to reach out to men more effectively? Those are the questions asked at the two posts, and as a male reader and writer, they are very interesting to me. Check them out if you can.

Another post was by Jeffrey Overstreet, author of the Auralia’s Colors series. He brings up the idea of artistry versus message in fiction. I’ve agreed and disagreed with Overstreet on various aspects of this debate in the past. He is eloquent in his post and the comments below are worth the time to read. My friend Becky Miller makes some good counter-points there.

Both are good fodder for some deep thinking.

Gleanings From A Potato Head

Bronco Nation

Idahoans are used to being fodder when someone needs to reference a place in the U.S. that’s way out there. “They even know about this in Boise, Idaho!”

The Boise State Broncos and their blue football turf has helped change some of that (Go Broncos!) and given us more recognition. For writers, I have another reason why we’re not the remote, end-of-the-world place we may seem.

I just returned from the Idahope Writers Conference in Boise – the Idaho chapter of the ACFW. It was a great one day conference, and we didn’t lack for being potato heads.

So I’d like to share some gleanings I got from our author panel, which included:

These fine wordsmiths were asked several questions. One that interests all writers is, “How do you overcome writer’s block?”
Ellis: Finish your writing day with a scene hanging. When you come back, you have something to return to.
Hatcher: You need to know your characters better, or you’re trying to force them to do things that goes against their nature.
Collins: Kicking cabinets always helps!
Leavell: Read authors you hate. Then you’ll say, “I’m better than them!” Voila, instant motivation.
Williamson: Sometimes you have to make yourself. If you’re really stuck, skip to a fun scene or something you know is needed to keep you going.
Hatcher: Sometimes the blech, the garbage just has to come out, in order to let the good stuff start flowing. 
There’s a sampling of what our day was like. Thanks to all who made the Idahope Conference such a success. And here’s to writers and blue Smurf turf!

Critique Muscles

Work that cerebral cortex!

You’ve heard of muscle memory, right?

Athletes will do an activity over and over again until their body automatically does something. They don’t have to think about it, so they are able to focus on the bigger picture. They’re not the only ones that use muscle memory though. We writers have it in our fingers if we type. My boys are amazed at how fast my fingers can fly over the keyboard. Even though it isn’t always the highest accuracy, I still have good speed because I do it so much.

Do you exercise your critiquing muscles?

I’ve done some critiques with people along this writing journey, but it hasn’t been regular. Lately I’ve had more opportunity to offer suggestions to people. I’ve found an online critique partner, and I’m participating in the ACFW critique email loop.

Even though having my work reviewed is a bonus to find those words and phrases I’m blind to, I think the greater benefit is getting to critique people.

I’ve been reading books on craft, quality novels, and blog posts for years now. I’ve assimilated a lot of knowledge. But nothing beats the application of knowledge to truly get it.

Now that I’m looking at other people’s work and offering suggestions, I understand the reason for minimizing speaker tags. I see the flow of logic and the motivation/reaction unit so much better. By using it in other people’s writing, I’m developing muscle memory in looking for these things.

The end result is that I’m then able to take it back to my own work and see weaknesses better.

Of course we’re still going to have blind spots, but I’m amazed how things pop out at me more. It shouldn’t be surprising. Practice makes perfect, right?

If you get a chance to participate in a critique group, remember that it benefits you in more ways than one. It’s always good to help others and be a blessing when you are able, but you’ll get more than other people’s perspectives on your writing. Your perspective on your own writing will grow.