Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Girl Who Read My Book

Today I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge a person that made a tremendous influence on my life, despite the fact that I don't really know her that well. When I was first writing my epic fantasy novel, tentatively titled at that point "Incipient", I was just learning the ropes. I really had no idea what I was doing--I had based the book on the D&D campaign I ran for my friends, mostly because of how fun that story was and how much we all loved the characters. I had it in my mind that I would make the best book ever off of these characters' adventures, and then go on to write two more in an epic trilogy with dozens of viewpoint characters spread out across the world all involved in this amazing plot I had dreamed up.

It failed, for obvious reasons. I had too many rookie mistakes--too many viewpoints too quickly, too little really happening to catch interest, and way too many flashbacks interspersed among scenes Lost-style. But the characters, for the most part, were solid, and I do intend to go back and finish that book someday, albeit with a major overhaul.

Despite the book's faults, I attracted a reader on one of the forums I post my work on for critique. Her name was Emily, and one of the first things she commented when she read the prologue to my novel was "*shivers* Wow."

That was the beginning of an amazing journey.

Emily went on to avidly devour every chapter I posted, becoming immersed in my story and my characters and genuinely loving the entire experience. It was the coolest thing. She even made me a stick figure sketch of some of my characters--my first fan art. And best of all, she encouraged me to keep writing. Without her constant encouragement, feedback, and nagging when I didn't have a chapter up, I might not be pursuing a career in writing genre fiction.

She was the first person to see what I was trying to do. To really get it. She took my characters and she made them her own, like any reader of a good book will do. Looking back, there were some things I did right with that book, but for the most part, it was sort of hodge-podge and convoluted. But Emily saw the diamond in the rough. She saw the story that I was trying to tell, and she gave me her honest reaction to each scene, which helped so much to see what I was doing wrong and how I could fix it.

We don't keep in touch anymore, sadly, because of both of our lives being crazy, but someday I hope to get back in contact with her, or maybe even meet her in person and give her a big hug and tell her how much her simple enjoyment of my story meant to me. And you can get bet that when (not if, but when) I start publishing novels, one of them will be dedicated to her.

Here's to you, Emily, wherever you are. Thanks for everything. Thanks for believing in me. And thank you for showing me so much kindness.

EDIT: Oh, and if you want to see the fan art she drew for me... Here you go!

Explanation for what's going on here: I had written a good villain (Vangen), apparently, because Emily hated him (for the right reasons) and all she wanted was for my character Striker (who was working for the bad guys at the time) to save the poor slave girl that was being abused by Vangen. He didn't do so, so she took it into her own hands and created this.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

And The Tears, They Finally Came

I'm sitting in the car, waiting for my brother to be finished with his dance lesson. He's part of a hip-hop class, and he's really good at it. He loves dancing. And I'm proud of him. But that's not what I'm thinking about.

I grab the novel sitting on the center console between the two front seats of the Suburban--I'm almost finished. I read for almost two hours today in the car on the way back from Dubuque. That might be why my stomach is churning and I have a headache. Or maybe it's because of something else.

I start reading. This book is good. The fourth book of one of my favorite series--I'm doing my annual reread of all of David Eddings' books. But I still don't feel well, and my eyes are strained from motion sickness, and so I put it down after only a few pages. I start feeling tired. Maybe I should just shut the lights off and try to take a nap or something. Not like that ever goes well for me. But I'm literally about to fall asleep, so...

I grab my headphones and start to put them in, searching through my music for some soft instrumental pieces to fall asleep to. I don't always do that, but sometimes it helps. I pick a Lowercase Noises track and close my eyes.

I can't fall asleep. The track is "Persistence", and it's one of those wonderfully nostalgic pieces that reminds me of the past and has me looking towards the future. I sigh and realize that I'm wide awake now, my thoughts racing at a hundred miles an hour. Four hours ago was the last time I saw them. The last time I'd see them for a long time. Again.

I haven't been sad about it, really. They're going to a fantastic college with fantastic people and learning fantastic things. I miss them, and they miss me, but we're all okay with the way things are. And that's pretty awesome. They have a home in Missouri now. I'm so excited for them.

We'll keep in touch. I know we will. And life is different, but life is still great, and God is still good. And I'll see them again along the road. But the music is still playing in my ears, and I feel nostalgic. So I take out the letter that she wrote to me.

I read it for the second time today. I smiled the first time I read it, after we all left Dubuque--I headed back to Janesville, and they headed back to Moberly. I smile again as I read it to nostalgic music. But this time I cry. I knew it was going to happen eventually, I'm a pretty emotional person. But it's not a sad, bitter cry, as so many have been before it. It's a happy little sob that wrenches at my heart and turns my brain to jelly as I thank God for everything that is amazing in my life.

It feels like a dam breaking loose, setting my emotions free and taking with it any remaining sense of loss I was holding on to. I finish the letter as I continue to sob. I grab my phone as a short verse comes to my mind. I start composing a tweet.

And the tears, they finally came
In between these bouts of rain
Time will tell, time will show
When this rain will make the flowers grow

I hit send.

2015 is just beginning. Life will be different. But life will be good. I know this.

My friends are still my friends, no matter where life takes us. I love them, they love me. Even if we disagree at times, even if things may drive us apart... We share something that ordinary people just don't understand. You see, we all met at this church in Janesville, and we all grew and learned and leaned on each other as we all held God's hand. And I don't think any of us will ever forget that. I still have them. I still have her.

That's enough.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Girl

You try to work up the courage
To face your father again
But you ask “is it worth it?”
You already know how it’ll end

He wants you to grow up
To put aside those childish things
He’s had enough with who you are
Now he’s tryin’ to make you into someone you don’t want to be

Reach out, don’t hide
There’s a life waiting for you on the other side
You shout, and cry
Your tears can stain my shoulder, yeah, I don’t mind

Another night spent screaming
Shattered glass covers the floor
He raises his fist, you stop breathing
And you pray, God please no more

A rose blossoms on your cheek
As you crash to the ground
Your father tells you, “you’re so weak.”
But he doesn’t hear the whispered prayer, no, he doesn’t hear the sound
Of your voice over his, you’re crying

“Please, I can’t take one more step
God, won’t you save me from this death?
If I could hear Your battle cry
Your hand reaching out and grasping mine…”

Reach out, don’t hide
There’s a life waiting for you on the other side
You shout, and cry
Your tears can stain my shoulder, yeah, I don’t mind

If there’s one thing I could say
It’s “please God, take her pain away
Remind her that she’s not alone
Hold her hand and bring her home
To us, bring her home to us”

We’ll reach out, we won’t hide
Yeah, there’s a life waiting for us on the other side
We’ll shout and we’ll cry
But our tears can stain His shoulder, He won’t mind

This song was written first in inspiration of one of the main characters of my novel, To Look Skyward: a girl named Ilendia. But the more I got into the song, the more I started being inspired by some of the people from my own life, friends of mine who have gone through horrible family situations, and then this song became theirs. It's a plea to those who struggle to reach out and ask for help. You do not have to fight the darkness with a single candle.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

My Writing Process

I want to be a writer. That is what I'm jumping for. And I don't want to be a journalist, I don't want to be a corporate writer, I don't even want to be a blogger, despite what I've written on here or my other blog. I want to be a storyteller. And I don't care if that's unrealistic--that's what I want to do, and that's what God has placed in my heart to do.

I've written and rewritten many stories, and yet never actually finished anything major. As of now, I have written many short stories, and one novella, which I am very proud of, but I have never finished a novel. I've written the first part of a novel--60,000 words of three parallel storylines that come to satisfying conclusions, but only if you have another 60k or 100k words to back it up--and the first few chapters of dozens of novels, but I've had a problem with finishing things. With the book I'm on right now, To Look Skyward, I plan to change that. It's going to be a massive undertaking. I'm already 50,000 words in, having finished NaNoWriMo with it, and I have barely even scratched the surface of the story. But I'll do it, and I'll revise it until it's a great story, and then I'll submit it. And then I'll start a new book. Because that's the life I've chosen for myself.

But enough about that. Let's talk about my writing process. It's changed considerably over the years I've been writing, and I continue to learn new things about how my brain works, and how I can best equip my mind to make quality stories. NaNoWriMo, especially, taught me many things about how I write.

I’ve been told there is a sliding scale to being a writer—on one end you have the discovery writer, who makes it up as they go, does what the story demands, what the characters want, rather than sticking to an outline. They do multiple drafts of one book, and some say their first draft is really just an incredibly extensive outline. On the other end you have the outliner—the guy who details what’s going to happen in every chapter, step by step, before he even puts his hand to the keys. The story doesn’t get away from him, he knows where he’s going from start to finish. And though something major may change during the course of the book, he usually has a very firm ending already in mind when he starts writing.

I’m somewhere in the middle between those two extremes, as most people are. I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about a book, envisioning key scenes and characters, listening to a specific film score I pick out for the story, helping me see certain events and set them to music in my head. I have a basic idea of what the story is going to be about, who is going to be major players, and what the ending is going to look like.

Then I write—I start with the first chapter and go. Beginnings are usually easy—since I’ve been thinking about this story for a while now, the beginning and the ending are usually firm in my mind, as well as a few key scenes that I want to happen in the middle. After that first chapter, though, I take another step back.

And then I outline the second chapter all the way through, figuring out what will be the goal, conflict, and outcome of each scene, trying to end with a satisfying resolution for that mini-arc of story. Then I write that out all the way to the end of the chapter.

But, I really don’t end up sticking to the outline very much. I’m probably more of a discovery writer than an outliner in a scene by scene basis. I let things fall where they may, writing myself into the story and the characters and letting them take it where they want it to. I make up characters on the fly when I need a specific person to be there, I change key events to make a better flow. And I usually end up changing the climax I had in mind considerably. Though I may plan out when a chapter ends, it almost always turns out to end sooner than I thought. I tend to end chapters when I feel the climax has come, a satisfying resolution has been accomplished. And I love to end a chapter (and a scene) on a great line that sets the tone and leaves you with a sense of completion, yet looking towards the future.

With To Look Skyward, my standard process has stayed mostly the same, though I did outline much more heavily than I ever have before. During the actual writing, I've realized dozens of things that have changed the outline and made it better, and I'll realize dozen more things as I continue to churn out the story. And though I have a basic idea of what my ending will be, and where I want to end up, the second half of TLS is much less defined than the first half. If I reach the halfway point and still don't quite know where I want the last half to go, I'll sit down with a few friends and brainstorm some ideas based on what I already have. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I still have a long way to go.

One of the things that I learned during NaNoWriMo that I'll add--I have to edit. Some writers talk about turning off their internal editor and just writing without any restraints, but I just cannot work that way. I am constantly checking and rechecking my writing as I go, making sure that the scene is cohesive and it's headed in the right direction, the continuity is consistent, and the wording is how I'd like it to be. Not to the point that it takes me forever to write something (I write fairly quickly anyway), but enough to make the completed first draft of a scene of mine pretty workable by the time I'm through.

One of the main things that went wrong during NaNoWriMo for me was when I got behind. I knew I couldn't do my normal checking and rechecking of the scene, and so I was forced to barrel onward when I knew the writing I was leaving behind wasn't good. It frustrated me so much. I ended up finishing a chapter just to finish it, and sent my character in a completely random direction simply because I had no idea what to do next. Once NaNoWriMo was over, I took a step back, deleted all of the text after the point I had gotten stuck, and tried again. I was so much more satisfied with the new version of the chapter than the old, because I got to take some time to truly think about the scene and what it needed, rather than writing it simply to be writing.

For some people, that works, and they could write a bunch of scenes that they know they're going to throw away completely or rewrite the heck out of, and they can do a dozen drafts, but I just don't work like that. I like to be neater than that, and have my first drafts make as much cohesive sense as possible.

To close this slightly rambly entry, I'd like to talk about one of my favorite podcasts, Writing Excuses, with some of my favorite authors--Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, and Mary Robinette-Kowal. They are on their tenth season, and are the main reason I know how to write a story. Their tips and tricks have been so unbelievably helpful to me, and have helped me shape my writing process, and now, for their tenth season, they are structuring the entire year of podcasts as a master class! And that has me super excited, because it means I get to learn more about the art of writing in a way that'll be super informative (not that it hasn't already been informative...)! So, if you're at all interested in writing science fiction, fantasy, horror, or any other kind of genre fiction, check out Writing Excuses, and get in on this awesome master class thing they're doing. You won't regret it.

That's all from the guy who likes to fancy himself a storyteller.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Brother (I've Been There Before)

The title of this post is also the title of one of my favorite songs, written and performed by a band called the New Ancestors. It tells the story of a brother who has made mistakes, so many mistakes, and is now pleading with his sibling to keep fighting, keep going on the straight and narrow.

That song defines my life more than I'd ever care to admit.

I am the older brother who always screwed everything up. I would always be the one fighting with our parents. I was the one who would say something stupid and really hurt one of my brothers. I was the one who would make the bad decisions, and reap the consequences. My brothers didn't have to--I was making enough mistakes for all three of us.

I still feel like that, even at nineteen. I'm not saying I am a horribly sinful person who is secretly not following after God and will walk away from my faith the first chance I get. I am saying that I'm a broken human being who has made more mistakes than I would ever care to share.

But the point of this journal entry is not to talk about my mistakes, or wallow in self-pity. The reason I'm writing this is to tell you how much I love my brothers, and how proud I am of them. They are better people now than I ever was, and maybe ever will be. They consistently follow after God with all of their hearts and minds, and have not compromised. Not like I have.

I was having a conversation with one of my friends the other day about how great of a guy my brother Connor was. We eventually just said "he's just awesome. I'll never be as a great as he is." And we both knew it was true. My brother Connor is an amazing young man that is following after God with everything he has. I'm not saying he's perfect, or that he has it all together, and I'm not idolizing him. I'm simply stating fact. He has consistently followed after and sought after God in a way that I can't claim to.

Connor sees everything in black and white. He does not compromise--and yet, when he's confronted with the truth, when he's confronted with a mistake he's made, he will own up to it. He won't make excuses. He'll check his behavior with what the Word of God says, and if he's found wanting, he will change. He's pretty great like that. I've had so many good conversations with him about everything--from God to stories to science to politics--and talking with him may be one of my favorite things to do. Ever.

And even though we think in completely different ways, we get along unbelievably well. We agree on pretty much everything, and when one of us disagrees, we talk it out and check with the Bible and end up figuring out the answer that proves both of us wrong and points us in the right direction.

And my little brother, Chase. He is the greatest kid. He's always nice to everyone around him, and so ready to serve. His friends love him, and he is loyal, kind, and amazingly tender-hearted. And he's observant, perceptive. He can usually tell you what's going on with a person just by listening to them talk and analyzing their behavior. And I am so unbelievably proud of how earnestly he seeks after God. He's also very adventurous and loves using his imagination--in a way that poignantly reminds me of my own childhood.

All this to say, I love them both. They've learned from their mistakes, and I've learned from mine (and they've learned from mine), and we're all better for it. One of the things I most look forward to is seeing what God has in store for each of us. All I know is that I couldn't ask for better siblings, better friends, better brothers to stand side by side with as we face life together.

So, here's to you, Connor and Chase. And here's to never growing up.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Only Thing I'm Sure Of Is Things Will Change

Take a look at this city
What do you see?
63,000 people
And counting

Yeah, it’s not much to look at
But that doesn't bother me
Because it’s this city
That gave me so much clarity

Zoom in on a church at the end of this street
See a dozen young men and women
Trying to figure out who they’re supposed to be
Cause we don’t know yet, but we’re learning

I remember, those warm summer nights
When we were all together,everything was alright
It’s been too long

It’s been forever, so how have you been?
Do you still remember, our promise way back then
I wrote it in a song

Zoom out and we’re all in different places
A dozen points on this map
Don’t understand who they’re supposed to be
Yeah, we don’t know yet, but we’re learning

Everything we've said is burned into my mind
I wrote it all down in case we had the time
To go back to those days when everything was fine
Everything was fine

So, I’ll take all these words and I’ll write a million songs
Maybe someday we’ll all find where we belong
Please forgive me for all those times when I was wrong
Those times when I was wrong

So, I’ll use words like ink and my voice just like a pen
Trying to define my emotions once again
The only thing to say is bear with me my friends
Cause this is not the end

Oh my friends, the only thing I’m sure of is that things will change
No, I won’t pretend--the only thing I hope for is that things won’t change
At least not enough to matter in the end, oh...
This world will try to break us but we won’t bend, no…
Cause we have something they don’t understand, whoa!
Cause we have something they don’t understand

Take a look at this city
What do you see?
63,000 people and a dozen more leaving
As you go take a look back
I pray that you see
That is was this city and these people
That gave you so much clarity

Zoom out and we’re all in different places
Zoom back in and I’m still here
Don’t understand who I’m supposed to be
Oh, I don’t know yet, but I’m learning

We don’t know yet, but we’re learning

Sunday, January 4, 2015

God Is Love, But Love Is Not Always Nice

Over the past few months, I've really dug into an interesting concept: what it means to love people as a Christian. There are all sorts of views about this, and most of them can be categorized in one of two categories: "Love" and "Justice". People on one extreme say that we should never judge anyone and just "love" everyone, in which they mean give them grace in such a way that ignores their actions and the consequences for their actions. On the other extreme, you have people who are going around telling everyone how wrong they are, and that they're going to hell, and God is going to judge them for the horrible things they're doing. Neither extreme has it right, and as in most things I've found related to God, there is a balance between the two that we as Christians need to walk. But the more I thought and studied the topic, the more I've come to believe that "love" and "justice" are misleading terms, since the two are actually mutually inclusive. But let me back up.

God is love. One can know this simply by reading any part of the Bible with an open mind--the thread of God's love for humanity lies throughout the entire narrative, in every poem and song, in every historical account, in every prophecy, you can see the overwhelming desire of God's to be in an intimate relationship with His creation.

But we need to define the term love, as Christians. After some considerable thought, I believe that this simple definition might be the most accurate: loving someone is giving them what they need emotionally. Most of the time, that is acceptance, companionship, grace, servitude--being there for someone. Everyone has a deeply rooted desire to feel like they belong, and loving someone truly is to show them that they do belong, and that they are accepted. But if love can be defined as giving people what they need, then there comes a point when what someone needs is not going to be what they want.

My parents can tell you this, from hundreds of experiences throughout their illustrious careers as youth leaders, that loving people with the truth is hard, but necessary. They've told me time and time again that you have to be okay with people not liking you for a while, maybe even hating you. But hopefully, as God works on their heart, the person you spoke truth to will be able to look back and thank you for it.

Obviously, different situations call for different approaches. For the most part, if you're in a situation with a non-Christian, and they are involved in sin, calling them out on it will neither be productive or loving. But there also come times when the truth does need to be spoken, and at that point the most loving thing to do is often not what modern Christians would call "loving".

We, as Christians, need to keep each other accountable with our actions and our words, and dancing around subjects because you don't want to hurt people's feelings is a horrible way to do that. There needs to come a point when one follower of Jesus Christ looks at another follower of Jesus Christ and is able to say "what you're doing is wrong, and you need to stop", and the recipient of that criticism will be able to, with an open mind, evaluate their actions and line it up against what the Bible says. If they are in error, they should change. If they are not, well, God's Word takes prevalence over man's.

In that sort of a situation, one obviously needs to make sure that one's own actions and words are being held to the same standard, so as to not be hypocritical, but using your own faults as an excuse not to lovingly correct someone else's (in the context of brothers and sisters in Christ) is not only unloving, but it's really sort of a cop-out. We have a responsibility to people on this earth. We're all headed in a downward spiral further away from God, and only by keeping each other accountable to God's moral standards and guidelines for our lives will we be able to have credibility when speaking on His behalf.

This is not to say that we are not broken people. Of course we are. And we will undoubtedly make mistakes. But there is a difference between stumbling and falling, and that difference is what defines those that have surrendered to their sin and those that have surrendered to God. Iron sharpens iron, and sometimes that process will hurt, and it will create sparks. But in the end, we will be better for it.

So, really, the love versus justice argument is faulty. Love is justice, and it is grace, mercy, acceptance, truth, and a host of other things. God is love, and so every aspect of God's character is an aspect of the definition of love. The same God who died on the cross for the sins of every man also told the adulteress to go and sin no more. And that was exactly what that woman needed in that situation--Jesus did not condemn her, He did not throw stones, but he did not pull any punches. He spoke the truth in love, and that was probably the turning point in her life.

As a closing thought, the thing we need to be most careful with when trying to be more like Jesus is letting our pride get in the way. This can take many different forms--thinking that we are so good that our sole duty is to tell people how they are wrong without challenging our own brokenness, being so caught up in the theology of what love is or isn't that we lose sight of the people we're supposed to be loving...even using our own weaknesses as an excuse to not try to live up to God's standards for our lives, no matter the cost, can be a form of pride--focusing so much on how screwed up we are that we forget that God redeemed us, and that means we have a responsibility to everyone around us.

In the end, God is who the Bible reveals him to be, and trying to put him into the "mercy" camp or the "justice" camp is neither correct theology nor anything but an unproductive waste of time. God is love, and love is anything that God would do. Follow His example, and don't let your own feelings get mixed up in it, and you'll be fine.