Archive for the ‘The Writing Process’ Category

xnscifiOver 4 years ago, I wrote an essay that caused me to seriously think about writing something like Johnny Came Home.

At the time, I was writing Øtherworld, a sci-fi tale with fantasy overtones. I was having a hard time finishing it, so I wrote this essay to sharpen my focus a bit. The idea was to define my over-all aim as what fellow author JC Lamont terms a “literary apologist.” I managed to do that, but the essay is more noteworthy for the brainstorming session it contains. This updated version of Faith-Based Sci-Fi As Exploratory Apologetic continues in that tradition.

Enjoy!

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Now by all accounts science fiction is a bit of a hard sell for the Christian book market. The reason for this is bound up in our eschatology, our beliefs about the End of All Things. End Times views within Christendom come a few clearly defined and argued categories. Most folks are familiar with the Darbyist view [pretribulational dispensationalist Rapturists] on which Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series was based. If Christendom has an established sci-fi market, it is predominantly for this specific flavor of End Times fiction. And who can blame us? It’s exciting stuff. A small, desperate, but resolute band of believers beleaguered by the all-powerful AntiChrist, a megalomaniacal dictator in control of a fascist New World Order. The story has a powerful opening hook: the sudden disappearance of every Bible-believing Christian on the planet and climaxes in the bona fide War to End All Wars, the Armageddon, and the Triumphant Return of Christ. The setting and the Bible’s mention of martyrs and divine judgments make any half-decent effort a gripping read.

I digress.

If the selective mass market offerings of Christian book chains are any indication, this is the only sort of exploratory apologetic we have. I remember browsing the local Christian bookstores, just bored out of my mind. With few exceptions, I was looking an endless sea of romance novels, marketed at women. I’m a guy, so I’m into science fiction, fantasy and action thrillers. I remember thinking, “Why should I be forced to get the stuff I actually enjoy reading from secular bookstores in novels written from a non- or even anti-Christian worldview?”

What about the stuff of traditional sci-fi? What about alien worlds? Aliens? Space travel? Artificial Intelligence? Where was the Christian exploration of these subjects? In essence, why couldn’t I read “Do Android Prayers Reach the Ears of God?” [in the tradition of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner]?

Let me tell you some specific things I’d like to see addressed: (more…)

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Though I’ve been working hard on writing the sequel to Johnny Came Home and on making a few revisions to the first novel [which will include an excerpt from John Lazarus: Mann from Midwich], I managed to carve out some time last night to work on the book cover for the newest John Lazarus Adventure. We’re still beta testing the cover titles, but the artwork is pretty much identical to what the final cover will look like.

And just for kicks, here’s the teaser from the back cover:

“One year after John Lazarus returns to Midwich, questions still linger. Is he human? Something more? The events of last year taught him that someone is trying to start a war between super-powered humans and the rest of humanity, but he has no idea how vast the conspiracy stretches. Or who he can trust.

As the world discovers the presence of super-powered humans, battle lines are drawn and sides are chosen. Johnny will need the help of a team of heroes to avert the coming world war. But will it be enough?

Find out more in John Lazarus: Mann from Midwich, the thrilling sequel to Johnny Came Home.

Legends arise. Dark forces gather. Heroes unite.”

While doing some market research for Johnny Came Home, I came across a post by John W. Otte, author of Failstate, a novel about superheroes who enter a TV show in hopes of winning their vigilante license. Anyway, there’s a good video on his site on what video games can teach us about backstory.

If you write speculative fiction, you’re gonna have to deal with backstory. After all, no one dumps their characters into a vaccuum. Instead, we create entire worlds with their own histories, cultures, buzzwords and politics. These things shape our characters actions and worldviews, so at some point we have to find a way to convey the backstory so our story will make sense.

In the video, Otte notes that video games use cutscenes to convey backstory. The problem with cutscenes, as Otte aptly notes, is that they change the role of the gamer from participant to audience. In other words, it brings us out of the story, out of the action and interrupts the flow of the game [or in our case, the novel]. He invites us to convey our backstory in such a way that our readers aren’t tempted to hit the ESC key [as it were].

He goes on to show us how videogames convey backstory in three particular ways: the info dump, through dialogue and progressively.

From the reader’s perspective, the information dump is basically a wall of text that hurts the eyes. It’s almost always a bad idea.

A better way is to reveal the backstory via character dialogue. Otte warns against the perils of the “as you know” trap (where characters relate or ask about information that they ought to already know), and the pitfalls of the dumb puppet trick (where you introduce a character ignorant of the backstory and basically use him/her to get your readers up to speed).

The backstory in Johnny Came Home is mostly revealed in a progressive manner. You get snippets of backstory from the character’s dialogue and thoughts, but mostly you just piece it together as you go along. I agree with Otte that it’s usually the best way to go about it. Browne & King give the same advice in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

The video contains some clips of cutscenes from video games to illustrate his points nicely. You can check out the full video post at http://www.leastread.blogspot.com/2012/08/what-can-videogames-teach-us-about.html

For reasons unfathomable [OK, I was reading one of Tim Chaffey’s Truth Chronicles novels], I found myself thinking about time travel the other day. Whether it has occurred to you or not, time travel is a bit tricky to deal with in a Christian novel. Why? Because whether we’re dealing with the past or future, we [as writers] must take into account God’s sovereignty.

When dealing with the future, we must make sure we are taking into account as-yet-unfulfilled Bible prophecy even if our story does not deal with those events. For example, you cannot write  a novel in which the future Earth is destroyed and mankind moves to the stars because Bible prophecy tells us that Israel and the Middle East play important roles in the End of Days. To give another example, if you travel to a future where mankind has colonized other planets, you might want to ask yourself what Christ’s Return would look like across space and time! I mean, what does Jesus splitting the Easter sky look like on another planet, on the Moon or even on an orbital space station?

We can also ask ourselves how far God would allow us to travel into the future. It stands to reason that the period in which there is no more sorrow, nor tears, nor dying would be off-limits to sinful humanity simply because the time traveller’s intrusion would change that state of affairs instantly!

Of course, we have much more leeway with future time travel than we do forays into the past; that is, we can account for future prophecy events in our storytelling with a bit of creativity because these events have not actually happened yet, whereas history is set in stone.

As a creationist, it occurs to me that certain types of time travel into the past are pretty much off-limits where the Christian novelist is concerned. For starters, one could never go back millions of years because time itself only began about 6,000 years ago [give or take a century or two]. One cannot time travel beyond time. Time is the highway a time traveller journeys upon. He is bound by its limitations. So the furthest we could conceivably go back would be the beginning of time itself.

I’ve wondered if we could go back and see the days of Creation. This seems like a tantalizing possibility at first, but then we realize that God declares each day “good” at its terminus and “very good” at the end of the seventh day. The presence of sinful time travellers [even if they were noncorporeal and could not interact with the environment physically] would forbid such a declaration. We also have to note that sinful man is prevented from entering Eden by seraphim. It would not be unwarranted to suggest that this also prevents time travellers from entering Eden. Man fall then would act as a space-time barrier for the time traveller. If you wanted to use time travel to see the days of creation, you would be limited to some sort of technology that allows you to see into the past without being there.

What about the post-Edenic pre-Flood world? Nothing revealed in Scripture really prevents a person from going back to that time, so now we move on to whether we can affect the course of history. Three related issues  naturally concern us: the butterfly effect, paradox and alternate histories. The butterfly effect is the idea that the wind off a butterfly’s wing in New York can lead to a tsunami in Tokyo. When applied to time, it is often connected to evolutionary ideas. For example, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called “A Sound of Thunder” in which a time-travelling big game hunter named Eckels steps on a butterfly in an evolutionist’s fictional “age of the dinosaurs,” resulting in changes in an election, everyday behavior and even the way words are spelled. Even when unconnected to evolutionary ideas, the butterfly effect suggests that minor actions in the past can have significant effects on the future. For example, imagine our time machine lands on some poor soul in the tradition of Frank Baum’s Dorothy Gale and this leads to Hitler’s Germany winning WWII instead of the Allies. We have just created an alternate history, a mainstay of sci-fi popularized in the TV series, Sliders. Unfortunately, this sort of butterfly effect infringes upon God’s sovereignty. The Bible paints a picture of God orchestrating the major events of history for His purposes. If major world events change as a result of a time traveller’s interaction with the past, as entertaining or instructive as such a story may be, we nonetheless have left a Biblical basis for our writing. The concept of alternate histories or multiverses is an evolutionary concept that suggests that our timeline is but one of an infinite number of timelines of an infinite number of universes. Stephen Hawking has presented the multiverse hypothesis as a way of having our fine-tuned universe without having to bow the knee and admit to a Creator as a necessary Being. It’s his way of having a beginning to the universe without having to admit to a supernatural uncaused First Cause.

As I said, multiverses and alternate histories infringe upon God’s sovereignty for it suggests that things did not have to pan out according to God’s will. In fact, it should be noted that the time traveller will find himself prevented from changing the immutable past. At the worst extreme, he may find his dog or donkey warning him that the path he’s chosen ends with an angel killing him before he reaches his destination! We suggest he won’t even come close to disrupting history in even  minor details. If God allows time travel, He will in His sovereignty account for the time traveller’s actions in the unveiling of history as we know it. Which discovery could be a story unto itself!

Now we should say that interacting with the fallen pre-Flood world wouldn’t have much effect on the modern world anyway, as every living creature died upon the face of the earth in whose nostrils was the breath of life when the Flood came, except Noah and his family. Humanity of the pre-Flood world are more or less “dead men walking” from a practical sci-fi standpoint. It should be said that extracting a fallen person from the pre-Flood world should be impossible from the standpoint of God’s sovereignty. If they chose to ignore God’s warning and find safety in the Ark, there’s no reason to presume they merely prefered a time machine instead.

We should also be careful to avoid paradox. For example, imagine what would happen if God allowed a time traveller to kill Noah before his first child was born. This would create a paradox in which the time traveller [a descendant of Noah, as we all are] prevented the building of the Ark which allowed humanity to continue on to produce the time traveller. As stated, I do not think God in His sovereignty would allow such a thing to happen. But this brings up an important point. If God allows time travel and accounts for the time traveller’s actions in His sovereign plan, we can also assume that God will not allow the time traveller to go back and prevent his own birth or the invention of the time machine or a particular time travel episode, etc. In other words, what’s done is done.

Writing a time travel novel with God’s revealed sovereignty in mind would be challenging to say the least, especially if the time traveller makes more than one foray into a particular time frame, but the reward is well worth the effort of the extra consideration required.

If you have any thoughts on time travel in Christian sci-fi, I’d like to here them.

-Tony, DefGen.org

Author of the up-coming superhero sci-fi novel, Johnny Came Home.

For the benefit of any prospective Christian authors out there, and for the sake of my narcisism, I thought I’d give you a look inside my editing process.

Back at the end of May, Johnny Came Home went through what I thought was its last round of edits, yet because the Bible says that wisdom is found in the counself of many, I asked a few friends and family to read that draft. I’d already meticulously spell-checked and grammar-checked that draft because I did not want to waste their time.

One friend graciously directed me to Browne & King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Once I picked up a copy, I definitely saw the need for further edits. Most of the Browne & King edits were a matter of formatting. I’m guilty of using words repetitively, but the majority of these edits had to do with dialogue.

In my original draft, I had lines like:

Says you,” Weasel snickered.

“You don’t understand,” Emily protested.

0r, “Not to my knowledge,” Johnny shrugged.

Unfortunately, while very descriptive, these dialogue tags draw attention to themselves – and away from the dialogue. They also force physical impossibilities. For example, did Johnny really shrug his line? Did Emily protest hers? It turns out that the old standards “said” and “asked” are a lot less distracting. In some cases, where it’s clear whose speaking, dialogue tags weren’t necessary at all. I ended up turning a lot of my dialogue tags into action beats.

For example, the line “Not to my knowledge,” Johnny shrugged becomes Johnny shrugged. “Not to my knowledge.”

Internal dialogue [a character’s thoughts] usually don’t require dialogue tags. In fact, I got rid of a lot of words, two words at a time, by simply deleting the words “he realized” or “he thought.”

Unfortunately, I’d also discovered that one’s first novels should be 100,000 words or less. That original draft was well over 132,000 words. Three-quarters of the way through the book, the Browne & King edits had trimmed off over 14,000 words, but it was obvious that I wasn’t going to come up anywhere near my goal. More drastic edits were called for.

First, I tried the chapter synopsis method. Basically, you write a short synopsis of each chapter and then trim the fat when a chapter meanders too far off course. If you have a chapter synopsis that reads something like Johnny and Ed keep talking and you were trying to build up an action scene, you can be pretty certain your dialogue has gotten away from you. I got rid of three chapters that way. The point is to make sure your storyline flows.

Second, I committed to a more heartbreaking edit. I eliminated a character entirely, including all of her scenes. Dr. Michelle Phineas was very interesting. She lived in Point Pleasant, WV during the Mothman scare and the Silver Bridge disaster. She developed a fear of bridges and a distrust of superstition as a result. She worked for Titan, but was selling out to the competition. But I was basically using her and another character’s dialogue/argument as a foil to present some apologetics. The problem was that she represented a bulkload of meanders that distracted from the plot.

Eliminating Dr. Phineas left me with some orphan plot holes. Specifically, Ed no longer had anyone to argue with and Gage… well, Gage was originally a minor character who was simply Dr. Phineas’ assistant. Later, I developed him further, deciding he was another character’s great-nephew and giving him a role in the battle royale at the book’s end. In other words, he went from disposable to I-really-reeeeally-want-to-keep-him-please-please-please. So I re-wrote him a bit, chunking him out of scenes where his presence only made sense in light of Dr. Phineas’ actions and him new scenes. Even with the new scenes, it still resulted in a substantial reduction.

As for Ed, I had him fade from the story after his last crucial scene. As a minor character with no super powers and, more importantly, no reason to be in the book’s final battle royale, I pretty much cut him out of the rest of the book and gave him “something to do” that made more sense, given his character. This “something to do” took all of a paragraph to relate and a sentence at the end of the book to confirm, wrapping up his character satisfactorily.

I realize that I’m being more narcisistic than helpful at this point, but let me say the most helpful thing I can at this point. Killing Murdering Eliminating Dr. Phineas was really hard, really painful and really worth it. The story is much tighter and better for her exclusion. Sometimes, you have to make the really difficult decision to let go of dialogue tags, chapters, plot points and even characters in order to get more bang out of your story.

Because our goal is to craft the best story we possibly can for the glory of God. If our story stinks, that’s all they’ll remember. The last thing we want is for our audience to associate Christian fiction with preachy, ill-crafted schlock. If our story is well-crafted, they’ll remmeber the story and then remember the lessons it taught and the questions it explored. And that is the entire aim of apologetic fiction.

Tony, DefGen.org

Don’t forget to Like Johnny Came Home on Facebook at http://facebook.com/johnlazarusbook!

Recently, author Keith A Robinson was featured in Answers magazine. In The Rise of Apologetics Fiction, he is quoted as saying the following:

“Non-Christians don’t want to read a book that they know is going to preach to them. Therefore we are trying to re-package the information from the nonfiction [apologetics] books into exciting stories that entertain while they educate… making the books effective witnessing tools.

“I believe that it is imperative that the apologetics arguments not get in the way of the flow of the storytelling… The goal is not to present a thesis on a topic in the middle of a novel, but rather to whet the appetitie of the reader.”

Now, Robinson’s quote contains ellipses, telling me I’m only getting a partial quote here, but I want to make a few comments anyway.

First, I basically agree with the premise. At Robinson’s site, http://apologeticsfiction.com, he cites the Scripture most often quoted by writers of Christian fiction:

“Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables.” Matthew 13:34

Stories have the power to influence and to shape our thinking. No one used stories more effectively than the Master. The lessons are made all-the-more memorable by their association with the story. We remember stories more often than sermons; when we recall the story we remember the lesson.

When I began Johnny Came Home [actually long before that when I began an unfinished work called Otherworld], I purposed to write apologetic fiction. As noted in an earlier post, once I saw how the Left Behind series began shaping the eschatalogical beliefs of the evangelical mind, I immediately saw its potential to shape beliefs concerning our origins.

What got me thinking was Robinson’s claim, as I understand it, that we shouldn’t resort to presenting a thesis or to preaching in the middle of a novel. I agree that we shouldn’t let anything interrupt the flow of storytelling, be it a sermon or a pointless piece of plot or conversation. But I’m not entirely sure we should make it a rule not to insert a sermon or thesis into our stories.

For example, I freely admit that Johnny Came Home has a bit of a thesis tucked into the middle. Granted, it takes the form of a conversation with a bit of give and take between the protagonist and a character who is, well… a preacher, but it is a thesis nonetheless. This thesis/conversation takes place in bites [two small chapters tucked between action/suspense chapters] ending with the second major conflict of the book. Since Johnny Came Home explores the issues of creation versus evolution with some of the characters taking the position that superpowers are an indication of human evolution, what we read between Johnny and Ed Blyth is actually important to the protagonist’s later motives and character development.

In this regard, my thesis is rather obligatory, something like the background history that is occasionally essential to science fiction tales set in the far future.

A more essential question Robinson’s comments raise is whether we ought to preach in apologetics fiction. As a preacher, I often encounter this odd attitude that preaching is somehow an obstacle to folks receiving the Gospel. The accepted evangelical wisdom is that the Gospel is to be delivered in a conversational manner. There are many Biblical examples of Jesus and the apostles giving the Gospel through conversation [what we call witnessing], but we tend to want to keep the preaching confined to church… and kept short at that.

I recognize that a  story is not a sermon [with the possible exception of Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps], but I think of our storytelling less as appetizer* and more as meal. As storytellers in the tradition of Jesus, we are here to communicate certain truth. Our stories need to preach. Our stories shouldn’t have a thesis stuffed into the middles of our story; our entire story should communicate a thesis or explore a question, unless we simply intend to write diversions.

When Jesus used stories, they were breathtakingly simple. They weren’t muddled with theological wranglings. Their simplicity and lack of distraction [what we may call elegance] allowed the Master Teacher to purposely communicate truth [a thesis] in a manner that people would remember. When they remembered the story, they began pondering the lessons it contained. There was a meal there, not merely an appetizer, and it had to be taken a bite at a time and digested over time.

I’ve no doubt that Jesus’ stories caused folks to seek out more truth and explore the issues Jesus raised more fully, so in this way we can agree with Robinson that the appetite is whetted, but only because one has encountered something substantial to begin with.

Tony Breeden, DefGen.org

 

*I am here taking Robinson’s quote at face value. Robinson’s quote is given in part, so he and I may actually be in total agreement, but I wanted to explore this point for its own sake.

Recently, I was entering a store and a overheard the following exchange between a young girl and her little sister.

“Do you know what a redneck is?” the older sister asked.

The younger girl didn’t even hesitate. “That’s a racist, right?”

I wrote Johnny Came Home to explore a possible world where super powers were explained within a Biblical creationist worldview rather than by an evolutionary POV as is common in most comic books these days. I chose Appalachia as the setting for my novel because you write what you know… and I’m an Appalachian American!

I knew I’d have to tackle some issues concerning the origins debate within the novel. As I wrote it, the issue of evolution’s relationship to racism kept coming up – and not just because the story is set in Appalachia.

You see, evolution is by its very nature a racist theory. I’m not saying that everyone who beleives in microbes-to-man evolution is a racist, but rather that the theory itself is inherently racist. Even the late Stephen Jay Gould, an ardent evolutionist Marxist, admitted that:

“Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1850, but they increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.” Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Belknap-Harvard Press, pp. 127–128, 1977.

Gould himself was vehemently against racism, but he admitted that evolutionary theory could readily be used as a justification for racism. This is because evolution teaches that some people groups are simply less evolved than others, that some are closer to animals than others. While the Bible has been used as a justification for racism, people have to twist Scripture and take verses out-of-context in order to make the Bible fit their prejudices; evolutionary theory on the other hand is pretty much consistent with racist ideals, especially if one views evolution as progress.

In Johnny Came Home, some of the super-powered characters have decided that they are the next stage of human evolution. The following, an exchange between the book’s villain and our protagonist, illustrates how such beliefs play out in our actions:

“You’re denying your destiny.”

Johnny was pretty sure he’d just been handed a veiled ultimatum, but he simply couldn’t buy her argument. “What destiny? Do you think you’ll actually win? Better yet, do you think you’re actually better than people without these powers? I mean, look at what you do with them,” he pointed out. “These powers certainly don’t make you morally superior or wiser; they just make you stronger than the next guy, so it’s really just might makes right.”

“Or survival of the fittest.”

“Yeah, I recall that Hitler had ideas like yours, and your racism is just as wrong as his was.” The conclusion that evolution was an inherently racist theory had never occurred to him until he spoke those words. No, he didn’t think that everyone who affirmed evolution was a racist, but the theory itself implied that some people groups were just more evolved than others. Johnny recalled that his father used to mention a man named Ota Benga, a pygmy who was once on displayed in the Bronx Zoo’s monkey house because men believed that people with darker skin were more ape than human. It was no longer politically or socially acceptable to voice such racist opinions, but no matter how you sliced it evolution still implied that some men were less evolved than others.

Pandora’s voice dripped with condescension. “Oh, that’s right. Pull the race card.”

He ignored her attempt to sideline his point. “Hitler used ideas like master races and survival of the fittest to justify the Holocaust and Germany’s bid for world domination. I don’t see how you’re any different. If anyone’s pulling the race card, it’s you.”

God willing, Johnny Came Home will see publication this Summer 2012! In the meantime, stay up-to-date on our progress on Facebook at http://facebook.com/johnlazarusbook